That Time I Thought I Was Shy.

larry the lobster

Like many little sisters, I have often been inclined to believe that anything my older sister liked or possessed was probably something I should like or possess, too. When I was little, this went not only for clothing and toys, but personality traits.

One day, I heard my mother talking on the phone about my sister. I was about four at the time; my sister was six. “Rachel’s pretty shy,” Mom was saying. “We’re trying to help her feel comfortable speaking up for herself.”

When she hung up the phone, I said, “I’m shy, too, Mama.”

At that age, I loved when restaurants didn’t have immediate seating available, because while we waited, my parents would let me stand at the door singing to strangers as they entered. No one would have called me “shy.”

Mom looked puzzled. “No, Jennie, you’re not shy.”

“I am shy,” I insisted.  “Rachel’s shy and I’m shy!”

“Jennie, I really just don’t think you’re shy,” she said.

I was dismayed. “Well then what am I, Mama?”

“You’re outgoing!” she said. She explained what that meant, and I decided I liked it. For the next few weeks, I often introduced myself by saying, “I’m Jennie Katherine and I’m outgoing!”

Frankly, I have remained “outgoing Jennie Katherine” most of my life. Still, there was a time when I thought four-year-old Jennie wasn’t entirely wrong.

_____

After college, I spent a full year interning in DC, which meant that I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country and earning a paycheck of approximately no dollars per month.

God bless the restaurant industry.

They’ll take anyone, from professional servers to “kids” like me who spent their days working for free. I figured I’d be able to pay my rent at least, and I might even enjoy the amity that always develops among restaurant employees. I do love banter, even when half of it’s in Spanish and all of it’s laced with sexual innuendo.  (That banter is the real specialty of every American restaurant.)

So I got a night job waiting tables, and I was darn-near looking forward to that good ol’ restaurant camaraderie. You know, like on Cheers, or whatever that TV show is that my generation was never actually seen but likes to reference to old people.

But here’s the thing about that “camaraderie”:

First, no one else called it that. Second, I sucked at it—even when it was in English.

All the other employees knew each other from outside of the restaurant. They had gone to high school together. They dated each other. They even lived with each other. The server assigned to train me went over all the employee connections and cross-connections as she showed me how the ketchup dispenser worked. Sensing my confusion, she said, “Things get a little messy around here.”

Drinking was apparently a critical part of employees bonding culture. But I didn’t have much money to spend on  booze. Besides, I usually had to go home early so that I could get up early for my “real job”—you know, the one that paid no real money.

So—who woulda thunk it: I became shy. Very, very shy. Miraculously though, this wasn’t true with my tables, only my coworkers. It was like this:

A table of three 80-year-old men? I was golden. I may have forgotten whether they said “decaf” or “regular,” but they tipped me well anyway because I enjoyed talking to them about their grandkids, their service in the War, or the cover story on the newspaper under their coffee. And barring one scare when a fellow happened to have a bit of a heart condition, the coffee confusion never hurt anyone.

Back in the servers’ station, though, a switch would flip and Jennie the Mute would return. I spoke only when absolutely necessary, and even then, those exchanges tended to be brief, like “Hey…so where do we keep the to-go boxes?”

One day, I was preparing a tray full of iced teas when one of the chefs appeared next to me.  “When are you going to come out of your shell?” he asked.

I knew what he meant. I had been wondering the same thing. Not wanting to admit that though, I said, “I don’t have a shell.”  He chuckled. “Yeah, okay, then you’re a hardboiled egg dipped in titanium.”

I called my mom after that shift. I was disconcerted. “I don’t remember how to talk to people,” I said. “Mom, I’m shy now.”

“No, Jennie,” Mom said. “You’re not shy. You’re outgoing.”

She said it in the singsong voice she always uses when telling stories about my siblings and me as kids, but even without “the voice,” I would have recognized the line; my family is big on telling stories.

Mom was doing what my parents have done on so many occasions: directing my attention to something true but forgotten about myself. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me when I said my self-assurance was shaken; it’s that she knew I was capable of being confident, because she had seen me do so many times before. She wanted me to remember that I could be that way again.

That’s how this kind of exchange has always worked:

  • In third grade, when I wasn’t asked to join the “Talented and Gifted” class because of my hearing impairment was resulting in horrific spelling skills, Mom and Dad told me how smart I was, and that maybe it was time for hearing aids (though I refused them for another three years…).
  • In fifth grade, when I got so angry with my little brother that I finally just smacked him across the face, my parents disciplined me because they knew I was a “kind and loving sister,” and hitting my brother wasn’t “consistent with that.”
  • In middle school, when I came home feeling unsettled by the constant reshuffling of friend groups, and disheartened by the transformation of one of my closest childhood friends into a mean-spirited bully, my Mom told me that she knew I’d be fine, because I was “knew how to build strong friendships when it was smart to do so.”

Mom was reminding me that I was “outgoing” because she knew that I needed to hear that one of the best parts of myself hadn’t disappeared.

When I think about how and when I formed a sense of my own identity, I imagine that at some moment long ago, my parents decided to be on the lookout for any good traits I exhibited from my earliest days, so that they could remind me about them from then on, forever and ever, at least eight times a month, amen. My parents had always been my own walking, talking mirrors, to which I could look when I needed to be reminded of who I was.

Anyway, I guess I’m Jennie and I’m outgoing.

 

 

 

now about that photo: It was during lobster special week. What can I say?

 

 

“These Aren’t Hearing Aids. I’m a Russian Spy” and other ways my parents helped me not hate being hearing impaired.

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As a little girl, I took ballet for five years. One afternoon when I was about six, my father arrived a few minutes early to pick me up from rehearsal. He quickly noticed something strange: I was perpetually one step behind all the other dancers.

Each time the instructor would call out a step, I would freeze a moment, glance at the dancer next to me, and only then do whatever move I was supposed to. They’d twirl—a second would pass—and I’d twirl. They’d leap—a second would pass—and I’d leap. Dad knew that I knew all the steps; I had insisted on practicing them and their fancy French names at home. “So what is she doing?” he wondered.  

Finally, the instructor moved closer to me and suddenly I was in sync. So Dad figured it out: I hadn’t been able to hear the instructions.

I was soon diagnosed with a genetic bilateral sensory neural hearing impairment (i.e. my ears and brain have a communication problem). At the time of diagnosis, the audiologist estimated that I was missing between 40 and 60 percent of spoken conversation. This was a surprise to my family, and to me. Without realizing it, I had apparently learned to read lips and use context clues well, and unlike my little brother’s impairment (diagnosed shortly after my own) my hearing wasn’t bad enough to cause a speech impediment.

The audiologist shrugged off my parents’ concerns about how my hearing might be affecting me in the classroom. “Well, sure,” the doctor said, “Jennie has a moderate hearing impairment but she’s performing above her peers in school. She has obviously learned to compensate. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

My father didn’t appreciate the metaphor. “No, she’s not broken,” he said, “but she is having to work much harder than her peers.” So, the audiologist helped my parents pick out a sound system: speakers for each corner of my classroom, and a headset for the teacher.

I don’t remember being hearing impaired before the diagnosis. I don’t recall, as my father said, that I had to work harder than other kids to learn.  Still, I do remember how different school was for me after the sound system was installed. I remember instinctively leaning forward in my desk when my teacher turned away from me, and I remember realizing that because of the sound system, I didn’t have to, as I no longer had to read her lips to know what she was saying. I remember my surprise, and my relief.

Did my grades go up? Probably not. My audiologist was right: I was doing fine before. Still, school was far less stressful for me, which was good, because I was six years old.

Besides, the sound system made me a bit of a classroom star. A few days before its installation, my mom visited my class to give us some “exciting news.”

“On Friday,” she said, “this class—and only this class—is going to have something really cool happen. A team of technology guys is going to come in and install high-tech speakers in every corner of the room. Mrs. Rhymer is going to have a special headset that she wears every day that sends her voice to all the speakers. This will be the same kind of sound system that famous singers use when they have concerts.”

The class was buzzing. I smiled, waiting for the best part.

Mom continued: “And, Mrs. Rhymer has told me that she thinks the class should celebrate with a pizza party lunch on Friday!”

Mrs. Rhymer nodded her assent. There were cheers! And, we still hadn’t gotten to the moment I was waiting for.

Mom waited for the hullaballoo to die down. Then: “I have to tell you one more thing: The sound system is very expensive and very fragile, so only Mrs. Rhymer and Jennie are allowed to handle it. This special sound system is going to make it easier for Jennie to hear, because—and you may not even know this unless she has told you—she has something called a ‘hearing impairment.’ She can tell you about it sometime if she wants, or you can ask her about it.

Here’s how I measure my Mom’s success that day: By the time she got to the words “hearing impairment,” I was feeling kind of sorry for the rest of the class. They didn’t have a “hearing impairment,” so they didn’t get to have the same kind of speaker system Britney Spears had. But I did! I couldn’t believe my good fortune, so I decided to be charitable.

“Well,” I interrupted my mom, “I mean, if we’re reading out loud during circle time or something, maybe then it would be okay if other kids borrowed the headset for a minute. They know how to be careful.” The class nodded their agreement.

And from there, it was smooth sailing—all the way through fifth grade.

 

 

 

Then came middle school, and with middle school came switching classes. As “high-tech” as my special sound system was, it was not transportable.  I needed hearing aids.

My bald, 80-year-old grandfather had hearing aids.  They were huge and they squeaked when they shifted out of place. Worse, he never heard the squeak. I blushed with embarrassment for him whenever that happened.

My little brother had hearing aids, too. His were fluorescent blue and green and they wrapped around his ears. He called them “his compooters.” But my brother was a little kid. Calling them “compooters” was cute, I thought. But I was going to be in the sixth grade. I didn’t want “compooters” and I didn’t want hearing aids.

Yet, when I first began to write this essay, I had no recollection whatsoever of being anything other than thrilled to get my hearing aids. My parents, however, remember my anxiety about them—anxiety confirmed by my journals from the time, in which I bemoaned that hearing aids were “ugly” and “for old people.”

Any memory of that anxiety, however, is totally eclipsed by the excitement that somehow replaced it. I remember marking out the days one by one until the “Hearing Aids Ready” day. I remember my mother asking me why I was so quiet during a seven-hour car ride to the beach, and I remember telling her that I was just “having fun imagining what it’s going to be like when I have my hearing aids.” And finally, I remember the day I came home from the audiologist’s office, with a bouquet of daisies (a gift from the doctor) and my two, new hearing aids. I remember listing every new sound—leaves crunching, pencils scraping, rain falling—in my journal. I even remember the words to a song I wrote about those sounds.

So, clearly, the mystery is this: How did I go from absolutely dreading the very idea of hearing aids, to being able to think of little else, and with such glee?

The answer: My parents’ deliberate, methodical manipulation of my young mind, of course.

At the end of fifth grade, mom began with a straight-forward approach. “Do you want to consider hearing aids?” she asked.

“Absolutely not, no way, and please don’t bring it up again,” I said. And that was to be that, because I was 12-years-old and so I knew what I wanted, thank you very much.

And that was that…except, I kept finding brochures on hearing aids all around the house. “Oh Mom thinks she’s clever,” I thought. But I knew what was up. This was one of my mother’s favorite techniques. Around the same time, The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know) mysteriously arrived on my night stand, and Growing Up: It’s a Girl Thing was stealthily left in my bathroom.

“Mom, I know what you’re trying to do,” I said. “I do not want hearing aids.

But oh, she was ready for this. “I know, Jennie. Don’t jump all over me! We’re thinking about getting Noah this cool new kind that go all the way inside the ear canal. They’re the newest thing and you can’t even see them so we think he’ll be pretty excited. Honestly, I’m relieved you’re so adamant about not wanting hearing aids. This new kind costs an arm and a leg and we couldn’t afford them anyway!”

Immediately, I stashed one of the brochures in my backpack. There were so many around the house, I figured she’d never notice.

The next afternoon, I asked my Mom to make me an appointment with the audiologist. “I just want to learn about that new kind too, Mom,” I said.

By this point, my mother had gotten downright cocky in her scheme. “No, I don’t think so, Jen. If you don’t want hearing aids, that’s fine, but we don’t need to waste the doctor’s time.”

I responded how she figured I’d respond, because damn it, I was 12 and she was smarter than me. “Nuh uh, Dr. Stone said she’d be happy to just talk to me and it wouldn’t mean you’d have to buy hearing aids or anything.”

On the afternoon my hearing aids arrived, I insisted on going back to school even though there were only 45 minutes left in the day. I pulled my hair back in a ponytail, daring anyone to ask me about my “high-tech computers.”

Lining up to go home, the kid behind me took the bait. His name was Oleg, and his family had just moved to Tennessee from Bosnia. “What’s in your ears?” he asked.

Oh this was going to be fun. “They’re hearing aids,” I said, “but they’re also tiny computers because—don’t you dare tell anyone—I’m a Russian spy.”

He smiled. I didn’t. I gave him a wink as we walked out the door.

 

 

about the photo: That’s me, around the time of the sound system’s installation.  Photo credit goes to Joshua Williams, of course, because he has documented my whole dang life.

 

 

My Cloud, My Blues and My Parents

jkw blue eyesIt was summertime in East Tennessee, early evening. The driveway had finally cooled off enough for me to sit without burning my skin. The rest of my family was inside, but I was feeling blue again and wandered outside to be alone.

I was eight years old. By then, “my blues,” weren’t new, but I didn’t call them “my blues” yet. And that was the problem: I didn’t call them anything, and I needed to if I was going to be able to explain them to my parents. So I sat in the driveway and brainstormed.

Like many eight-year-olds, the most intense sadness I experienced on a frequent basis was that of being homesick. Perhaps that’s why my first idea was to tell my parents that I “felt homesick even when I’m home.” That would convey that I often felt really, really sad even when I had no reason to, wouldn’t it?

But maybe they wouldn’t understand that “homesick” meant “sad.” Maybe grown-ups didn’t remember what “homesick” was.  I kept thinking.

Earlier that day, my little brother and I had watched an episode of Winnie the Poo in which Eeyore was followed around by a dark raincloud. He would try to dodge it, try to fake it out, and try to spin away, but the raincloud stuck with him, blocking only his portion of the sunshine. That’s sort of how I felt, I thought. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was sunny and that I had plenty of things to be happy about; it was that this stupid cloud wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t feel the sunshine. Sometimes I would tell myself to fake it–answer questions about my day cheerfully, try not to get so annoyed so easily at my brother, just pretend to be happier. But every time I tried that, I felt mortified. Surely everyone could see the cloud. I felt fake and fake felt silly.

Ok, I decided, my parents would be able to understand the cloud. I got up and dusted the tar bits off the back of my legs.

It turned out my parents would have understood no matter how I explained it. They’re clinical psychologists, for goodness’ sake. But I was expecting some confusion. I thought I needed to buck up for a potentially embarrassing conversation. (It was weird, I knew, to compare myself to a melancholic cartoon character.)

My parents were in the living room: Dad playing his guitar, Mom reading. I sat on the floor facing them. “Mom? Dad?” They looked up, though Dad kept strumming.

I took a breath. “I always feel homesick, even when I’m at home!” I blurted.

Dangit! That wasn’t what I meant to say! I was supposed to use the cloud metaphor! Ok, ok, I’ll just start over, I thought. “Wait, wait…actually….it’s like this cloud I saw on Winnie the Poo…”  

When I had finished with the cloud, my parents looked surprisingly nonplussed. This couldn’t be good, I thought. They must not have gotten it. If they knew what I was trying to say—that I felt like a sad donkeysurely they’d look concerned. My metaphor must have failed. I needed a new one.  I had to improvise.

“Okay, or…it’s like if something ever tries to make my heart happy, my  heart can’t float up. I mean, it tries to, but it’s like… giant, ugly gray hands…yeah, gray hands, with lots of warts…they reach up from my stomach and grab my heart and pull it back down! So see, my heart can’t float up and I can’t be happy. That’s the problem.”  

Ok, that was it. That was my best shot. I looked up from my hands in my lap–hands I had been imagining as those gray, warty hands.

Now, my parents did look concerned. They get it now, I thought. In retrospect, perhaps they were mostly alarmed by the graphic quality of my metaphors. But I felt like I had gotten somewhere. I had spoken out loud of my blues, so they were no longer my private weight. Sure, by describing them to my parents I had made them real (doing so had been a worry of mine) but they were real enough to me already, I figured.  And I was sick of them and I was scared of them. I wanted my parents’ help.

It is difficult for me to say (though not difficult for me to imagine) precisely how different and how much more difficult my life would have been if my parents had not been overwhelmingly eager to help. When I say this, please note what I am not saying: I am not saying that my life would have been different if my parents had not been clinical psychologists. That summer did not mark the moment in which my parents became my therapists. (That moment never has and never will arrive.) It marked the moment in which my parents fully realized that I, their daughter, needed them, my parents, to help me cope with a unique challenge.

__________________________________________________

I have tried and given up writing this piece many times. Each time, I finish the section above, read it a few times over trying to squeeze out some momentum, and then I get up from my desk.

This process repeated itself until I finally realized why the two sections–the Day of the Metaphors and everything after it–have posed such uneven challenges for me. The answer, I think, is this: Surely no one, especially people whom I know and love, would blame eight-year-old me. No one would have told eight-year-old me to be ashamed.

Up until the Day of the Metaphors, I was a victim: a little kid who was being bullied by her own brain chemistry. If you don’t agree with my characterization of the “bully,” remember that until the day I tried to name it, the “bully’s” identity wasn’t yet the point anyway. The point was that I felt so sad so much of the time, and could not figure out why. Whether or not one agrees that brain chemistry was the bully, most people feel sympathy for a kid who feels bullied, no matter what the cause.

But, that day, I chose to exchange my victimhood–and its freedom from culpability–for answers, or at least for help seeking answers. I traded in passive innocence for active agency.  Asking my parents for help was the first of many decisions I would make about my mental health. And there it is–why everything after that moment is so much harder for me to write about. Decisions are much easier to judge than feelings. And what medium is more open to silent, scathing criticism than a blog post? (Those silent judgments, the ones to which I will never have the opportunity to respond, are the ones that intimidate me the most, far more than anonymous vitriol from Internet Crazies.)

But I decided to write this post anyway, and here is why: I do not feel required to write more than this post. That is, I do not feel obligated to expose the decisions I have made about my mental health to public debate or discussion. After all, my personal history–the body of decisions I have made–is not the point. The point is this: I believe that parents can be the most helpful allies any child or adolescent has when making decisions about and confronting the many challenges of mental health. Being an ally does not require field-specific knowledge or experience. When a child breaks her arm, a parent does not need to know how to reset the bone in order to be a good parent. A good parent just needs to accept that the bone is broken and be willing to help the child receive appropriate medical care. The same principles apply to mental health.

Perhaps it is a cop-out for me to simply make these assertions about the importance of parental support without providing examples from my own life to prove the point. That has, after all, been the approach I have taken with the rest of these essays. But any guilt I feel for shortchanging the evidentiary backbone of this essay is assuaged by my belief that while our individual stories may be entertaining or even useful to others, they are ours to give; we don’t owe them to anyone. Perhaps you are comfortable relating some but not all aspects of your physical health to others. Maybe you’ll mention a dentist appointment but call a colonoscopy a “check-up.” Mental health works the same way, whether or not it should.

Besides, the length of this essay is already violating every rule of online blogs. Still, perhaps I will return to this subject later. I do feel I’ve opened a bit of a pandora’s box here, but that lid was always bound to blow. This is a website co-authored by a clinical psychologist and her….let’s call it “emotionally complicated”…daughter; mental health was bound to come up.

And for now, I’m going to call that enough.

 

Thoughts on Hula Hooping, Rock Tumbling and Everything Else

IMG_1792About this time 11 years ago, my family was headed for the beach. Everyone was packed and ready to leave…except me. I was looking for more saran wrap.

The one roll I had found was now wrapped around and around the four-foot tall set of plastic drawers containing my jewelry-making supplies (wire, a dozen boxes of beads, pliers, etc.). My hope was that the drawers would stay securely closed for the seven-hour drive from Knoxville to the South Carolina shore. But I had run out of wrap and the bottom two drawers were still loose.

My parents knew their options: stop to buy more saran wrap, find loose beads in the car for months, or ask me to leave the supplies behind and thus endure a week with an extremely stir-crazy daughter. They required no convincing. We stopped for more saran wrap.

I was fourteen that summer; jewelry making had been my favorite hobby for about 2 years. But here’s the most important thing to know about my hobbies: I tend to get really, really into them.

I’ve accepted this, but still, sometimes I wonder. Could I learn to live with just one size muffin tin? Must I store clothing under my bed but devote an entire dresser to stationery? Or perhaps most importantly, how did I get this way? And is there a cure?

Sure, some of my extreme hobbying tendencies can be traced simply to me being me. But an equally large share of the credit goes to my parents, who not only refused to stamp out my hobbying extremism but also encouraged it at every turn.

Perhaps this was because they knew they were dealing with an inherited trait. My mother refers to her Bernina Sewing Machine as her fourth child. My father, walking in a new city without his camera, looks familiar but sort of naked, like your grandfather without his glasses. I’m no freak of nature, and my parents know it. So as kids, if my siblings or I showed any interest in something, our parents’ protocol was to encourage and enable. But it is possible that I may have taken advantage of this standard operating procedure, just a bit.

 

A Brief History of the Hobbies of Jennie

(including brief notations of the cost, material or otherwise, required of each)

Horses (actual, literary, and/or mythological) horse camp, books about horses, My Little Ponies ®
The Fine Art of Rock Tumbling rock tumbler, rocks, earplugs
Spying on Friends, Relatives, Neighbors binoculars, journals, Harriet the Spy (movie), Harriet the Spy (book)
Sculptee Animal Sculpting Scuptee, purchased in bulk, tools
Writings Short Stories about Hamsters eleven hamsters (as inspiration/pets/infestation)
Writing Short Stories about the Holocaust child counseling
Jewelry-making beads, wire, pliers, saran wrap
Soccer, cross country, track equipment, transportation, all available discretionary funds, nights and weekends, medical fees for injuries
Lunastix three sets of LunaStix (“Some tricks require extra sticks!”)
Juggling “professional” juggling balls (“plush,” “bounce,” and “traditional” models), The Calculus of Juggling (book)
Knitting yarn, needles, willingness to wear ugly scarves
The Study of History books, audiobooks, transportation to historical sites, four years tuition at out-of-state “but really historical!” university
Baking hobby adopted as an adult; materials self-provided*.
Hula-hooping hobby adopted as an adult;§ materials self-provided**
* self-provided, except for a KitchenAid mixer, taken borrowed from my mother, who pretty much never used it anyway, and didn’t even notice it was gone for six months. But I’m really sorry, Mom.

**Yes, as an adult. So what of it, thank you very much?

Note: This list is limited to those hobbies lasting a minimum of several months (rock tumbling, sculptee). Most (everything except rock tumbling and Sculptee) lasted several years.

I suppose parents might now have two questions:

  1. Good God, The Money. (Not a question, to be fair, but I acknowledge your point.)
  2. But, why? (What is the point?)

Question #1 is really a function of Question #2, so let’s skip to that. It is my contention that there are many “points” to be found in hobbies. And, if your daughter, like me, develops an intense infatuation with juggling one stick using two other sticks, I hope you’ll say, “Full speed ahead!” Or even better: “Ah, yes, but do you prefer rubber-coated or wooden?”

Do not mention or worry that you cannot see any “life skill” development to be found in sticks. She probably knows that. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll figure it out eventually, because you’re right: There is no future in LunaStix.

Still, perhaps she will learn some of what I have learned from a lifetime of devoted hobbying, including the following:

1. The Skill of Playing

As very young children, “play” is one of the few skills we possess. But think back to the second week of summer as a child. The newness of your freedom had worn off, and to your confusion, you discovered that you were bored. Knowing how and what to play wasn’t so easy anymore.

I recently found this list of “22 Things to Do When You’re Bored” in my bedroom at my parent’s house. I was seven years-old when I made it, but the impulse motivating the list’s creation is still familiar: I was desperate to find things I found enjoyable. Then, I needed my hobbies to fill long summer days without school. Later, I would need them to relieve the stress of AP classes and college applications. Now, I need my hobbies for fun and to unwind.

2. Confidence in my ability to learn new things and a methodology for improvement

To learn a new juggling trick, I would practice until my arms were too sore to move. I will readily admit that my life would not be drastically different if I had failed to master “juggler’s tennis.” However, my life would be really different if I had never developed a comfort with and methodology for trying new skills. Hobbies allowed me to cement this as a central component of my identity: I am able to try new things and I work hard to improve. As for my parents, I imagine this was their thought process:

DOES IT MATTER TO THE UNIVERSE?

  • No? Oh well.
  • Yes? Discuss at cocktail parties.

DOES IT MATTER TO JENNIE?

  • No? This too shall pass.
  • Yes? At least she’ll learn how to work hard and improve.

3. Multidimensional Vibrancy in the Every Day

In an ideal world, one’s career would be among the most fulfilling components of one’s life. For most of us, however, a true vocation comes only at the end of a long line of jobs. Especially during those times of working and waiting for something “bigger,” hobbies can ensure that the color doesn’t drain out of everyday life.

4. A Million Life Lessons

The list of lessons and skills I learned through my “hobbies” is too long to condense here. From years of competitive soccer, I developed a strong work ethic and the knowledge of how wonderful it is to be an integral part of a team. Through jewelry-making, I discovered that artistic creation can settle an anxious mind. Even juggling taught me something: It’s okay to be silly, and it’s okay to enjoy something other people don’t really understand. (On that note, most people will enjoy that you enjoy something, and hobbies aren’t “about” other people anyway.)

And yes, throughout it all, there was always a chance that one of the hobbies could have become a career. But, by now, I hope you’ll agree: That’s just not the point.

 

Note on photograph: No, I’m not hula hooping. But that pose is now one of my go-to hula hooping poses, so there ya go. 

 

 

B Teams, Self-Esteem, and Swimming in the “Biggest Pond”

Many parents, perhaps mine included, sign their daughters up for sports teams because they hope that “being good at something” will help them develop strong self-esteem.

If those were my parents’ intentions, things might have worked out fine for the first few years. I started playing soccer at age five, and I was decent for a rec. league player. But when I was eight, I joined a “competitive” (i.e. traveling, money-sucking) team, and it was readily apparent that I would not be a star.

On the first day of practice, I watched one of my new teammates casually juggle a ball off her thighs. I could tell that this was no big deal for her because she was simultaneously screaming the lyrics of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”. I was impressed.

A few years later, I was just starting to feel like I could keep up when we got word that our team would be merging with a much better team to form two new teams, an “A team” (for the strongest players) and a “B team” (for everyone else).

Of course I made the B team. I told you—I really wasn’t that good. But I was fine with this, until every other player on the B team decided to quit and join another club. I heard the mother of one of my would-have-been teammates explaining her daughter’s decision: “It’s not good for her self-esteem to be on a B team, and I don’t think it’s fair that they put all the best players on one team.”

Later that week, I sat on top of the washer as Mom folded laundry and helped me think through my options. If I left with the rest of the B team players, I would definitely see more playing time. Besides, most of my old team would be on the B team. On the other hand, that team wouldn’t be as good, the coaching would be of a lower caliber, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to play at high-level tournaments, which require invitations. So my second option, my mom explained, was to talk to the coach of the A team and see if he would let me join.

Stealthily encoded (as is sometimes her way) in my mother’s presentation of my choices was a larger question: On what did I want to build my self-esteem? These were my options:

  • Have a decent shot at being a star on an overall less challenging team. (Result: Self-esteem would be strengthened due to being one of the best players on the team.)
  • Work really hard to be a second-string player on a great team. (Result: Self-esteem would be strengthened through the development of my identity as a hard worker.)

I was 11 years old. I don’t imagine I came up with that logic on my own. However, I do clearly remember using that logic to make my decision. It had to come from somewhere; I have no doubt that it came from my parents.

It’s important to clarify that if I had only been interested in playing soccer for fun, and not necessarily to be the best player I could, leaving with the rest of the B team might have been the right choice. But, I very much wanted to improve as a player, and I wanted to play at the highest level possible.

Predictably, the coach of the A team was at a bit of loss as to what to do with me. I wasn’t good enough to be on the A team, but I was the only remaining player on the B team. He had a generous spirit.

I hope this isn’t a disappointment, but no, I did not become the team’s leading scorer. For the last time, I really wasn’t that good. But, I did spend the vast majority of my free-time (outside of team practices) running and practicing on my own. In fact, my teammates  started to call me “Forrest” because of how much I ran—at least, I hope that’s why they called me that.

So if I rarely made the starting line-up, I also never got cut. I had no illusions about why this was. Through the Soccer Mom Gossip Network, I heard that my coach had explained to our team manager that he kept me on the team because I worked “too damn hard.” So, my self-esteem never crumbled when, despite my best efforts, I stayed on the bench. Instead, my self-esteem grew as I realized that I could earn respect, if not playing time, through my work ethic.

That said, if despite my attempts to explain why you shouldn’t, you’re still feeling sorry for me at this point, I can offer you this: A few years later, I finally caught a break. Our team suddenly found itself without a goalkeeper, having cut one before the other unexpectedly quit. My coach bought me some gloves and sent me to keeper practice. I had never played that position, but he figured I’d work to learn it. So here’s your happy ending: We won the state title at the end of that season, and I became a team captain shortly after.

I’m not sure where that medal is. I do know, however, how often I rely upon knowing how to work hard. I also know that while it would have been a lot of fun to be a star in those early years, in some ways, I feel lucky that I wasn’t. I’ve always been really competitive, and I think I would have had a difficult time not linking my self-esteem with being “the best.” And eventually, whether as a result of injury or age, that would no longer have been possible.

This is why I suspect that parents of remarkably talented (or, especially in our culture, remarkably beautiful) daughters may face a special challenge when it comes to helping their daughters develop self-esteem that is not only strong but based on the right things. Self-esteem that is built on enduring traits of character and personal integrity—traits like being a hard-worker, being brave, and being kind, for instance—may be harder to develop than self-esteem based upon beauty, wealth or success finding the largest pond in which one can stay the biggest fish. But I think that’s the kind of self-esteem we’d all like to have.

 

 

Photo credit, as always, goes to Joshua Williams (Dad). Fifteen years ago, pretty much everyone wore war paint with their soccer uniforms. Not sure if you remember. 

How to Make Sure Your Daughter Doesn’t Hate You for Leaving Her Alone in the Dark for Several Hours

Pouting Jennie In Pink Dress

If I’m honest, it was probably my fault. I probably told her practice was at a different field. And that’s probably why—an hour after practice ended—my mom still wasn’t there to pick me up.

Before heading toward the parking lot, I had disappeared into the woods by the field to look for my ball. By the time I emerged, everyone was gone. So there I was: just an eleven year-old with a soccer ball and an empty water bottle. The other field was an hour and a half away. The sun was going down.

I made a couple dandelion necklaces. I took some shots on goal. I practiced my handstand. When it was finally totally dark, I climbed into a tubular slide next to the field. Yeah, I’d be alright in there. It was what Kevin McAlister would do, definitely.

By the time Mom finally got there—two hours after practice had ended—I understood that I had something special going. My mother, I reasoned, was at least somewhat at fault here. Sure, maybe I told her the wrong field, but aren’t moms supposed to know things anyway? Or couldn’t she have called my babysitter who had dropped me off?

The minivan wound into the parking lot. I could see her look of concern through the windshield. My moment was approaching. I had to make the right moves. Say the right things. Sigh the right sighs.

I opened the front door, tossed my stuff into the back.

“Sweetheart, I am so, so sorry,” she said. “I thought your practice was at Watt Road!”

I slouched down into the seat, wrapping my arms around my knees. “Nope, it was here.”

I had been hiding in a slide. I had to remember that I had been hiding in a slide.

“I was hiding in a slide, Mom, for two hours.

She looked ready to cry.

——

PAUSE

So, reader, you think I was being a bit manipulative, don’t you? You think I sensed that my mother had a committed the weighty mom sin of Leaving Your Daughter in the Dark for an Extended Period of Time, and that I was intentionally pulling on her guilt strings?

Well, okay, so maybe I was. But please understand; I don’t remember many times in which my mother had clearly screwed up. So perhaps you might forgive me for wanting to explore this new relationship dynamic? Besides, my admittedly puckish reaction was preferable (to both her and me) to becoming terror-stricken in the solitude of my slide. And that could have been my reaction, which was, of course, my point. So let’s continue.

——

Mom gripped the steering wheel with both hands. She looked almost physically uncomfortable. Her eyebrows were furrowed too close together and her forehead was too crinkly. Maybe I should cut her a break, I thought.

So, I started to say, “But it’s okay, Mom.” I was going to just let it go, really. I was going to be gracious.

But then she said it. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

Well. Ah.

I didn’t move. Just my eyeballs swung to the left. I thought just a moment. Inspiration didn’t take long.

“I want a donut.”

“A donut?”

“Pink frosting. Rainbow sprinkles.”

We drove to Dunkin Donuts. Mom handed the man in the drive-thru window 32 cents. The man handed her my donut.

And I was so pleased with myself.

——

Whenever I have to apologize to someone, I think about that donut. Okay, I think about the conversation preceding the donut. If you distill the situation to its essence, this is what happened:

  1. I made a mistake, an irritating mistake, but an understandable mistake, especially for an 11-year-old.
  2. I did not acknowledge my mistake, though I should have.
  3. Mom made a mistake.
  4. Mom apologized for her mistake, sincerely and without trying to share the blame, even though she would have had a strong case.
  5. I forgave Mom.
  6. I got a donut.

You’ll note that the donut actually came after the forgiveness, and so for this story, it’s not really that important. What was important was having Mom role model how to apologize to someone.

Because kids are of still-developing intellect and often don’t have all the information, I imagine it’s quite easy for parents to fudge when they should rightfully apologize. Other times, parents might easily insist that much of the blame is owed to their children. Mom could definitely have taken the latter route.

But she didn’t. She knew I had told her the wrong field. She also knew I knew that. But she apologized, and she bought me a donut.

I’m sure I received many lessons on how to apologize to someone, but none were as impactful as the Donut Mea Culpa. Issuing sincere, humble apologies must be one of those skills that is “easier said than done.” Mom demonstrated an important fact about all of those “easier said than done” life skills as they relate to parenting: If it’s easier said than done, it had better be seen to be done. We learn best from example, and someone has to set the example. Also, sprinkles don’t hurt.

A note about the accompanying picture: I was not that young when my mother left me at the soccer field. I do, however, imagine that I had a similar facial expression (“Really, Mom??”) when she finally showed up. 

 

 

 

One fine afternoon, my little brother peed on me from a second-story window.

Noah and JennieI was leaning against the house, worn out from my efforts to “become ambidextrous” by running circles in the driveway while dribbling a basketball with my left hand. Two stories up, Noah (five-years-old) saw his window of opportunity. So he cranked it open and let loose.

As he gleefully pulled up his pants, I ran from door to door, only to discover that he had already locked each. This was a premeditated attack. I was pissed, so to speak—so hot with rage that urine was evaporating from my clothing.

To be fair, Noah almost certainly had a reason for wanting to pee on me, but neither of us can remember what it was. In fact, aside from his impressive aim and foresight, that’s the real kicker of this story: It wasn’t that unusual. It was theatrically special, to be sure, but thematically speaking, it was hardly one-of-a-kind. Noah and I spent much of our respective childhoods engaged in nearly constant combat.

I suspect that many of the factors contributing to our discontent would be familiar to siblings of other families. As adults, we agree (look at that!) that the following played the largest roles:

  1. We were close enough (four years) in age to be competitive with each other—in conflict, not just play—but not close enough in age to be easy friends. As the oldest, our sister Rachel was the natural peacemaker and moral arbiter.
  1. We both frequently assumed the other was out to get us, and we were both frequently right. These facts tended to perpetuate each other so that once bickering became our default mode of interaction, it was difficult to break the cycle.

Our relationship was quite a challenge to our poor, beleaguered parents. My mother would frequently tell me that things would get better as we got older. She and her own brother used to bicker all the time when they were little, she’d say, but now they’re best friends. So, maybe, I thought.

Most of the time, our parents were forced into the role of referees. When two of your offspring are at each other’s throats, there isn’t really another option. Their goal, I’m sure, was to be neutral, but here’s the problem with that: A referee can never make a neutral call. Any intervention will be or will be perceived to be in favor of one child or the other. Even if both children are reprimanded and disciplined, someone will maintain that justice mandated a harsher penalty for someone else.

For this reason, the conversations I had with my parents outside of the moments of immediate conflict mediation were the most helpful in learning how to have a better relationship with my brother. These conversations achieved two objectives:

They helped me view my relationship with Noah less as a battlefield and more as an opportunity to grow.

My natural tendency was to view any interaction I had with Noah, especially those in which he was driving me crazy, as conflict—ergo, as a personal assault. The trick for my parents, I think, was to avoid disputing my claims that he was being annoying and focus on helping me focus on myself. They would say something like, “Yes, we see he’s being obnoxious. We’ll deal with that. You focus on not letting him get to you.” For me, this allowed the high road to actually feel like the high road, and not like retreat.

I should emphasize that hearing my parents say that they would deal with Noah’s problematic behavior, and trusting that they would keep their word, was absolutely critical. Like a lot of kids, I had very strong opinions about what was just and unjust. When I felt wronged, I wanted to know that someone would address the cause.

My parents helped me remember that my little brother was just a kid: a little boy who was, developmentally speaking, not actually my equal.

I needed a lot of reminding that Noah was not my equal in age or maturity, and therefore hardly a worthwhile adversary. Aside from occasional spurts of infuriating but impressive creativity (peeing on me, pretending that he had eaten my hamster, hiding my life savings in a shoe for six years, etc.), most of what he did could be classified as classic little brother impishness.

The problem, of course, was that I too was “just a kid,” so kid-like annoyingness was perfectly capable of getting under my skin—unless I focused really hard on being less of a kid than he was.

So, my parents explained, the secret was to remember to view him as “just a little boy,” four years my junior. The more I thought about that, especially in moments when I wasn’t already mad enough to spit, the more likely I was to remember to focus on monitoring my reactiveness when he ticked me off.

So did it work?

In some areas of life, I’m pretty sure that I was less challenging than most daughters. I’ve always been great about eating my fruits and vegetables, for instance, and I became keen on making my bed at a very young age.

But as for my relationship with my brother, I am 99% certain that I made nothing easy for my parents. But, Noah and I ended up okay. When we’re together (not all that often, as we live in different states now), we enjoy each other, and we spend a minimal amount of time bickering. He knows I love him and am proud of him. He also knows I wish I had been less hard on him growing up.

But I want to be honest here. I joke about our childhood conflicts because it’s my tendency to joke about most things, and because, thanks to Noah, many of these conflicts have quite a bit comedic potential. But I hope that my joking does not disguise that I do sincerely wish things had been different between us.

I say this not to be sentimental, but because I want to convey my belief that while things do often get better once combative siblings have grown up, I hope most siblings don’t give up on the time they spend growing up.

From personal experience, I know that takes a lot of parental effort. It requires parents to not only be the referee, but the coach and cheerleader of both teams. As a once tyrannical older sister, now softened in my old age, I hope I’ve offered some encouragement.