Betty Duffy


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Notes from exile

Too much time has passed. It keeps passing. More things keep happening. Each day more life occurs, and I'll never get it all written down if I try to go back and hit the high notes. 

I've been up since five AM driving my high schooler (!) to morning Cross Country practice. This fact, of his being in high school, keeps hitting me like a revelation--on the first night after the first day of school, for instance, when I tried to make him go to bed with the other kids at 8PM, and he said, "Mom, I'm in high school. Can I stay up a little later?" 

It usually happens anyway, by the time everyone showers and does homework and piddles around for as long as possible. But I had to concede that a later bed time was reasonable, even though he's still kind of small. Hasn't hit his growth spurt and whatnot. I was so anxious for him to grow up when he was little, just thirteen months old when his brother was born, and I had him counting backwards in Spanish and saying all his prayers, walking on his own while we were at the grocery, and going to bed, come hell or high water, by himself without a whole lot of comfort. I know it's a cliche to look back on these things in this later light, but would it have killed me to rock him to sleep for a bit longer? 

I have many regrets. But I suppose, as my mother recommends, it's time for me to give up hope for a better past. 

My eighth grader made the announcement shortly after the start of school that this would be the year that he starts treating females like human beings. As opposed to ignoring them completely. His older brother reported on him that girls would talk to him, and he acted like he didn't hear them, which I told him was very rude. 

I tried to encourage him, just to be polite, that talking to a girl wasn't a sign that you're in love with her. It's just about treating her with dignity, to listen, to respond. So I ask him each day, "Did you talk to any female human beings today?" So far, no dice.

I've been enjoying long languid mornings home with the baby--even more so that I've been awake for so long. I'm dressed, I've been out of the house, I'm home by seven, and ready to do things around my house, like clean it, and then sit in clean rooms and read books or play my cello (which I've discovered I'm really terrible at. It turns out that not playing for twenty years does actually take a toll on your performance.). I also stew tomatoes and freeze dinner. I'm trying to live a productive life without the internet. I wonder how long it will last.

Of course, I'm still on the internet. I keep going in for my daily scolding from the rhetoricians of the blogs. It's a spiritual mortification.

Also, I'm here, writing about the horrible recognition that while I am mentally about fifteen years old, my body is about to turn forty (that's not really what it's about, but it was in the back of my mind while I was writing it). They must increase. I must decrease. :

My children attend public middle and high school; hence the school year always begins with the ritual of the sports physical. There’s a clinic at the orthopedic surgeon’s office: five doctors, three hundred students, all in a line waiting to have their nuts grabbed and their eyes checked.

At the end of the summer, the teenagers are well tanned, their skin darkened, hair bleached out so they resemble palominos, particularly the long-legged girls in small shorts. Their straight blond manes ruffle when people walk past. And the boys talk with a confidence and cadence I recognize from when I was in school, twenty years ago now.

Small-town boys have an easy banter. They insult each other, hug each other, yell threats across the room, and for some reason, the girls link arms and answer. They walk over to the group in pairs and say, “What are you yelling about?” scolding and flirting at the same time.

We mothers sit around the edge of the room, mostly silent, though occasionally I want to say to someone, “It stinks to wilt while they bloom, doesn’t it?”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The making of a notoriously bad mother

Summer. I'm doing ok with it. The kids slept in for the first two weeks, until nine usually, and that was very nice. We stayed home for the most part, working on the house as usual, planting sort of a garden with which, unfortunately, I'm already bored. 

There's always something wrong with my gardens. The dirt is not well. It dries out too quickly. The grass grows in it, but nothing else does, and there's only one good day in the summer of satisfied weeding. After that, there is only resentful, guilty, sporadic weeding. And then I give up and drive around town thinking everyone else knows some magic that I don't because their gardens are much better off, and I bludgeon myself with this information until I decide that next year, things will be different. They will be smaller, and closer to the house, and in a pot, actually, on the windowsill.

Mostly, I've been reading, which is a possible problem for my garden. There has been a scandalous amount of reading going on here, actually, and I feel like the neighbors might be judging me when I lie on the hammock in the afternoon with a book, as if I have nothing else constructive or meaningful to do. No job for the lady with six kids. No dinner to cook. No house to clean. No garden to weed. Lucky lady who gets so much rest in her life.

Kind of true really. The days are increasing where something like a bedtime arrives, and I realize no one has had dinner. Alright then, smoothies real quick, or cereal, or ham and cheese roll up. And everyone gathers around the fridge and then the counter, and then the table, and we obliterate the kitchen and go to bed.

But enough with all the slovenliness. It was necessary for awhile, to impress on the children that we've had a summer vacation, but it's gotten out of hand. If you enter my kitchen in your underpants, from now on there will be consequences, as long as I remember to enforce them.

I'm sending my oldest on a mission camp next week. And the intermediates have started media camp two afternoons a week, where they write skits and film them, and they LOVE it. The youngers are doing Vacation Bible School. These are half-steps towards becoming responsible citizens again, people who get dressed and brush their teeth, and have relationships with people outside of the home. I really do have built in limits on how much reclusiveness and laziness I can bear and if I don't obey my limits, I start making unwise decisions.

Decisions like taking six kids to a Muzzleloading Competition / Period Reenactment/ Flea Market on a very hot day. Such an event does exist. It even has a website. And the website isn't kidding when it says, "Dress how you feel comfortable" and also that some patrons will interpret this invitation to mean "wear a loincloth." Most patrons choose period dress, buckskins, calico skirts and billowy blouses, and I was sad that I gave away my pioneer dress. I had such a nice one that fit so well and was my favorite color, and I really thought I'd wear it around the house sometimes when I bought it, but never did. I donated it to the fourth grade class for their pioneer days, and my daughter attests it's been worn many times since. But I looked through the sale booths of hand-sewn pioneer pretties with such longing. Where is my world? Why don't I live in it?

I talked to a couple re-enactors for awhile, because maybe that's my window into the time in which I belong. As they put it, once you get all your stuff made (and it does need to be hand-made), it's just like camping. You go for the week, pitch a canvas tent with dozens of old friends, dress in clothes that make you sweat more than usual, and shoot guns. "We're a drinking club with a shooting problem," the man said. He and his wife used to go scuba diving for vacation, but then they had to pay for their kids to go to college. Now, they re-enact.

We only saw one family re-enacting. And I have to say, the children looked miserable. By that, I mean that they were sitting at their distressed trestle table in the hottest part of the afternoon sweating and scowling. We looked at them with curiosity, and they looked at us angrily as we passed, as if they'd been forced to pose there like zoo animals. I never know if you're supposed to talk to the re-enactors.

Down the way, a beautiful teenage girl with sweaty curls on the back of her neck and her dress pulled over her knees, read a book in front of her tent with a half-smile of satisfaction. She was purposefully oblivious to everyone but a cute, long-haired teenage boy camping across the way. He had left the door open to his tent as he removed his shirt to lie down on the cot. The two of them were destroying each other with proximity. Fires burned. Their foreheads were dripping.

Less appealing characters also left their tent doors open. There were hirsute round bellies to observe, and protrusions of dirty bare feet.

But my children missed all the fun. They were so anxious to get back on the grid and over to the flea market side of things. A couple of them had dollars to spend on widgets and whirligigs. Maybe there would also be candy.

There were tie-died shirts, records, sunglasses, yard art, army surplus, tattoos, antiques, mildewed books, and novelties from China. The kids were thrilled at the possibilities. Some of them fell behind me while others got ahead. I ran up with two of them just as they nearly wandered into a booth titled "Adult Movies and Toys." I yelled, grabbed and yanked them out as quickly as I could. "But I didn't get to see the toys!" they said.

Shortly after that incident, I lost my daughter, who has a tendency to hoist her purse up over her shoulder and browse very intently, particularly when jewelry is involved. I went back to the booth where I'd last seen her. I had been trying to encourage everyone to follow me to the car by walking with purpose, and letting the stragglers feel threatened. But the tactic never works on her, and I should have known better. She wasn't there. I asked the attendant if he saw which way she went, because he'd asked if there was anything she'd like to see more closely. But he acted like he didn't know who I was talking about. I thought it was over, and all the flea-marketers were in cahoots, loading children into cargo holders when their parents weren't looking.

But she wandered out of a nearby booth, like a real shopper, looking about her for another place to feast her eyes and walk slowly past. Then of course I wanted to kill her. 

We fought all the way home. Everyone. All the kids fighting all the way. I pulled over to the side of the road nine times to make empty threats. I even reached my hand to the back seat, the way the old parent-legends tell about how their eyes watched the road, while their hand searched for victims. But my son leaned forward just as I reached back and I knocked his glasses, which made me feel guilty and ashamed. He wasn't even a chief offender. I decided not to reprimand anyone ever again. 

I turned on the radio, recalling why I don't like to go places or do things, because activity is hot torture, and interaction always ends in pain. THIS is why I sit in the hammock all day! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

So that I may inflict as much guilt as possible

May 16
I got up very early this morning to clean up dog diarrhea, and Joe was finally home, so I slipped out for a walk to what used to be the brick house. The brick house was a house just like ours, perched on a higher hill with orange poppies lining the driveway. It had a scenic barn and a windmill, until last week sometime, when I walked there, and discovered that the whole place had been bulldozed and pushed into a hole in the ground. 

It made me feel sad, not only because there are so few of these ancient houses left in the county--but because the brick house has been my turning point for so long. I go for a walk, often feeling pent up or a little bruised, and at the brick house, I turn 180 degrees and come home. This exercise makes me feel better.

It rained hard last night. The air was cool and overcast, with a sprinkling mist that couldn't be seen, only felt. All week long, I've been sending Joe pictures of his children, Paul graduating from kindergarten, Jane running her track meet, Andy receiving his honor roll medal. It's the end of the year and awards ceremonies happen every other day. They are very boring--Joe's not missing much-- but one must inflict as much guilt as possible.

At the track meet Thursday, Reba succeeded in falling down on the bleachers the third time she squirmed away from me, trying to scale the heights under the watchful eyes of many concerned grannies in the stands. I had purchased a box of popcorn to distract her, thinking she would then sit placidly on my lap in a haze of carbohydrate and butter-rich hypnosis, but the popcorn only worked on me. It was so good, until I spilled it all reaching out to catch her. And even still I was left holding the box, but not her. Why didn't I let go of the popcorn?

I let Paul sit with Andy at the top of the bleachers and only later found out that he was yelling at all the slowest people running, including his sister and calling them fatties. Nick slipped away from me as quickly as possible and went to bottle neck at another bleacher casualty, a little boy, not mine this time, who slid down the hand rail, bumped his head and got a concussion.

I eventually corralled everyone and made them sit in the car until the meet was over.

Anyway, this morning, I want to steal every free moment and absorb the wind. We're having two birthday parties this afternoon. I need to make some cupcakes. I need to clean. So I got up early and said my prayers, caught up with the Novena to the Holy Spirit that began yesterday because Pentecost is next week. I said my Rosary on my walk, and followed along with my sick dog who shat his way to our destination. Felt like a rube every time a car passed, and I wasn't waiting with my poop bag. I never bring a poop bag.

Jess pointed out the other day that every mystery of the Rosary is not just a touchpoint in the life of Christ, but also a movement of the Holy Spirit, when Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit, when John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, when Mary went with haste to visit her cousin, when Mary presented her child in the temple and was approached by Simeon and Anna. Every major plot point in the life of Mary is a movement of the Holy Spirit.

The other day I was planting some flowers and I came across an old broken Rosary that I'd told the kids to bury several years ago. It was kind of special to unearth it, a treasure buried in the garden. As I was saying my Rosary this morning, it occurred to me to leave it on a fencepost along the road for someone. I've become that kind of person, the lady leaving rosaries around for the unsuspecting. I used to collect sacramentals when I found them, sometimes at Goodwill, sometimes in an abandoned pew. I always thought they needed protection, but God doesn't need my protection. 

So I left it there, so that whoever finds it will know that it's not just a coincidence, and receive it with my intention and blessing--even if that person is only the future me who no longer has a turning point at which to go back home.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bits of May


May 1, 2015
I don't know how the pastries at Starbucks manage to appear both totally synthetic and totally desirable, as if they're manufactured of resin, iced in marzipan, sliced, freeze dried and placed on eternal display. But then you ask for say, a lemon poundcake, and they reach right into the display and take one out for you.  I always want to ask how long it's been there. But would it really matter? Would I not eat it? Of course I would eat it, even if it were minted in the paleolithic era. 

I've been in California visiting Joe who's working here. He's currently on a two week stint, and I came out to spend the weekend with him.

I walked along the beach all morning, got a sunburn through the mist, observed the highly processed, yet totally desirable beauty of the Cali suburbs and the jogging women in neon lycra. It's so easy to think the worst of people. When I dropped Joe off, and toured his campus, I said, "Maybe we should move here, get a vasectomy, and start tanning." And I know that's not the whole of California, nor even the southern half of it. Nor even the entirety of the people on the beach. I still walk along thinking the worst of people, because that's what I do.

I was not even the lone plumpster on the ocean walk. I saw so many beautiful pregnant women and mothers with their babies talking while they pushed their strollers. I was jealous, but smiling jealous, because I was partaking of their glorious weather and their ocean and their fully displayed selves.

The days of my external glory were short lived and are now over. I told my daughter the other day I was just going to smile all the time to distract people from the enormous zit that took up residence on my cheek this week and she said, "Then everyone will see your yellow teeth." Can't win.  From here and evermore the party is inside, and entry is exclusive. Just kidding, tickets are free. Because I'll write about it all and post it on the internet.

Joe and I went to the Sufjan Stevens concert a couple weeks ago, and he got all dressed in his new white sneakers, Carhartt pants and plaid shirt. I said, "You realize we're going to be surrounded by hipsters in skinny jeans. Are you sure you want to go as Elder Hillbilly?" I wish I could say that I'm not a vain person and that I dropped the conversation there, but I pushed him at least to doff the sneakers, and then we went to the concert as ourselves, but older. Our seats were in the nosebleed section, but Joe, being a man of business who knows how to get what he needs from people, went and got our tickets upgraded to the fifth row. And then we were down with all the other elders who could afford to buy the best seats. Pays to get older.

The hipsters at the concert were all nice hipsters, Christian hipsters, the kind with celtic cross tattoos and pompadours. Fresh-faced hipsters, not dour ones. Because Sufjan is "secretly" Christian, or "reluctantly, unconventionally" Christian--however it's ok to be Christian these days--that's the kind he is.

I'm also realizing that hipster-ism is almost entirely a male (though not necessarily masculine) fashion trend.

May 4
Joe and I spent all of Sunday on Coronado Island. We rented bicycles and walked the waterfront. Fell asleep on the white sand. I read my delicious book--"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante--and everything was lovely until I had to pee. And there was no bathroom in sight for miles, not counting the ocean because I wasn't in my swimming suit. So I drove into town, miraculously got a parking space and entered the nearest Subway. But they wouldn't let me have the key to the bathroom.

"We don't have a key." 

"They told me at Dominos that you'd have a key."

"The bathroom is only for customers."

"So if I buy a cookie can you produce a key?" 

He looked at me blankly, "Would you like to buy a cookie?"


"There is no key."

"I'm going to pee right here!" I said. And really, I meant it, if only I'd had the balls to do it standing up, and also if it wouldn't dampen my pants. "You just lost a customer. I'm never going to Subway again."

And then I left in a big hurry. Turned out the nearest bathroom was back at the beach from which I'd come. Barely made it in time. Bulldozed a few people to get there.

I'm left believing that there are certain circumstances that remove inhibitions completely. I don't think of myself as the kind of person who goes around threatening to pee on people. But when I said it, I really thought I might not have a choice in the matter.

Passed a group of surfers standing together watching the waves, and in their midst the aroma of urine. Wherever men congregate in the wild, it smells like pee. It was so on the old Elberta pier in Michigan where my Grandpa use to take my brother fishing. "It's a vile place," my Grandma said to me, "You don't want to go out there." 

And the pier in San Diego--same thing--urine in every corner. Men at their poles, peeing without reserve. Even my own children do it, the boys anyway--all over the yard, or right off the patio.

But I have no pot to pee in.

Meanwhile, Joe had been out in the water. Got tossed about a bit, bruised his foot. I was too scared to swim. The elements are not screwing around--water, fire. Theoretically, even the wind can kill you, but then, we can't live without them either. Joe's been on fire. I've nearly drowned twice. At some point I need to admit that I have not been called to the ocean in order to swim in it. I will gaze on its glories. I will smell it, and repose on its shores. But swim, I will not. I'm remembering now that I went on vacation with my professor's family to chaperone the children to the ocean as a lifeguard and nanny many years ago. Granted it was the Atlantic, which in my experience, is not …the Pacific. But still, they trusted me to save their children. Ignorance is bliss.

We listened to a lot of conversations over the weekend, because we ate in restaurants all over town. San Diego's best sushi, best Thai, best Mexican, best dessert…I love the Local Eats App which scouts all these things out for you. The food was very good, but my conclusion is that 99% of what people say in this world is NOT interesting.

I count myself here too. As Joe pointed out, 99% of our own conversations are me mumbling (the most profound thoughts imaginable), and him saying "What??" He's losing his hearing. He doesn't believe it, but he is. 

A group of women at the Thai restaurant was celebrating a 40th birthday and it was all so familiar--the lady group dynamics. One woman had heard of a bottle of wine that might be good. Clearly, she wanted to get shnockered and benevolently put the bottle on her own tab. One woman was a loud nasal talker who gave very long answers to questions, but could not conceive of a singular question to ask anyone else all night. The honorable forty year old was just so happy to be surrounded by these "beautiful supportive women" who, it turned out, didn't know each other well at all. Sulky, slender gal in the corner was curt and suspicious of everyone. 

"And where do you work, Sulky?"

"I work in landscape design…?" she answered with that California up-lift at the end of the sentence, which turns every statement into a question.

At the Mexican restaurant, we sat next to an engaged couple who was having a very silent fight. She "Just didn't want to talk about it anymore," even though clearly she did want to talk about it, and seemed really put off when he took her literally and went about eating his burrito. She kept ordering drinks, smiling at the waiter, then scowling at her fiance.

Joe likes to fast all day and then eat one large meal, which I found challenging. We almost never eat on the same schedule, so being on his was eye-opening to me. I had decided at departure that I wasn't going to spend the weekend fantasizing and grasping for my next meal, and just eat whatever comes to me. 

Without kids, without sleep disturbances, without a crazy schedule and all the things that I've always thought contributed to my crankiness at home, it really is just the food or lack thereof that makes me edgy. I'm cranky early in the morning and late at night, and also in late afternoon. "So all day, then?" Joe says.

But no. Those are brief windows of low blood sugar easily corrected by eating. I'm very nice after a meal, which is why I need to be fed more than once a day. 

Weirdly, I didn't really want the bonzo shot of Starbucks coffee after three days running on it. It does make my head hurt a little when I try to drink as much of it as I normally drink of my coffee at home. Folgers is my preference. I also really like Krust-eeze pancakes. I like to eat at restaurants for ethnic food, but contemporary American food, even "farm to table" is a real snooze-fest for me. What a lovely sprig of herb, you've placed on the asiago pasta. I hope you've remembered the Velveeta as well.


I'm always glad to come home and open my fridge whenever I feel grouchy. Went to pick up the dog at the kennel, which is very remote, and I am struck all over again by how inexpensive and quiet Indiana is. Even living next to an interstate is nothing like living next to an interstate, a commuter train, an airport, and a million people. I drive on some roads around here for miles and never encounter another person. I love Indiana.

I also love visiting California. At Saturday's farmer's market in Little Italy, downtown San Diego, there were blocks and blocks of beautiful whimsically dressed people, who actually do ride cruiser bikes with woven baskets to market just as suggested in Country Living magazine. The market had jewelry and clothes and gluten free wares, wind chimes, succulents, hand knits, even sea anemones.

Our farmer's market has three mainstays: A pick-up full of corn on the cob, Amish bakers, and a woman sitting on a cooler of sausage. Everything is three dollars: A dozen ears of corn, a pound of ground pork, and a cream cheese pumpkin roll. And I always leave our farmer's market thinking, "This is a racket. I would never pay three dollars for this stuff if it weren't at the farmer's market."  California is an even bigger racket. It may be three dollars per gluten free, sugar free bite.

But it sure is pretty.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The view from inside the bus

I chaperoned a third grade field trip to the Children's Museum, which is one of my least favorite places in the world, with its four stories of careening ramps that traverse you from floor to floor, the underwhelming Chihuly glass tower, the shallow exhibits that make such a righteous stab at deep topics like discrimination, kids making a difference, and women in science! 

All the kids want to do is see the dinosaurs or play in the water works on the fourth floor. And all the parents want to do is sit down, which I almost got to do for ten minutes, before a Museum employee got on her megaphone and performed a "chaperone check" commanding all students to find their assigned adult. 

And my nine year old son who loves rules so very much got to scold me for sending him to the playscape on his own for a bit. But I'm telling you, I was not the only chaperone taking a break. There was a whole row of them, all along the wall, staring blankly ahead or at their phones, or trying, through stiff smiles, to converse with one another.

The highlight of the trip was riding the bus, which as noted, is something I've been wanting to do for awhile. On the way there, parents were still trying to connect with their kids in a meaningful way. By the time we were heading home, there was no such pretense, and I was thinking how parents are like kindergartners who need a mat to lie down on after lunch. 

All the grownups were falling asleep. And the bus! It vibrates! This is what I had forgotten after all these years-- the absolute purring sensation of riding at high speeds over the cracks in the interstate, the bounce and sway, the wagging tail end of the school bus--it all courses through your body. The windows were open. Everyone's hair was in a vortex, whipping at their cheeks. There was no choice but to close your eyes.

Two girls sat in front of me, playing some kind of hand smacking concentration game that required them to name every teacher and administrator in the school system. 

One of the girls was rail thin, with wispy long hair, and blue veins in her temples, eyelids and cheeks. The other was pudgy with gigantic front teeth, glasses, ears that stuck out a bit, and a perpetual giggle. When I opened my eyes after a long stretch of having them shut, she said, "Welcome back! Did you have a nice trip?" as if she were my personal travel concierge. I get a kick out of little girls trying to sound professional.

My friend Amy and I used to make up commercials for things like deodorant and laxatives when we were on the bus in third grade. We thought we were hysterical. 

Speaking of deodorant, my older son could really benefit from the subtle persuasion of one of our old deodorant commercials. I usually keep a stick in the car for occasions when he forgets, but it melted yesterday in the (blessedly) warm sun. I said something about his poor classmates having to endure the BO.

"I don't feel bad for them," he answered. "My armpits smell like all my favorite foods--hotdogs, and just about everything on the menu at McDonalds." 

Bon Appetit!

There was another boy in my group of charges at the museum, who was keen to share interesting facts about his life, like, "My mother is a Buddhist. But I'm not. I'm not a Christian or a Jew or anything like that. I only believe in the Big Bang theory." (Cut to interminal description of Big Bang theory).

Also: "My mother was born in Japan. But my father was born in America. More specifically, he was born in Michigan. In the woods. So he can eat anything, like duck head and frog legs, and grubs. But not beets, because they are evil."

Interesting theology.

Incidentally, the beats in the following song--if you could make them into a tangible physical sensation rather than just an aural one, it would be almost the same rhythm as the school bus on the interstate.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Driving the bus

I've had a recurring thought lately, that I should be a school bus driver, because every day, I follow the school bus all around town, doing exactly what it does at the exact same time. School bus drivers I've known have all been good people, even "Bert" the grouchy bus driver of my youth with her giant mug-a-lug on the dash, and the little black rat-tail hanging from the back of her short haircut. 

She was an introvert's introvert (not that I am an introvert at all), looking up from the road only to say, "Shut up! Sit down! or I'm taking names!" Did she hate her life? I don't know. There was always a weird sadness on the last day of school when she dropped us off and said goodbye with an uncharacteristic smile, and also, "Have a good summer!" It was like one second of Easter after 180 days of Lent--Bert's smile. It seemed as if under her stoic veneer of absolute contempt, she might secretly like us. Then again, she was probably just glad for vacation.

Other friends of mine had kindly bus drivers, who gave out suckers on holidays, and told stories while they were driving. I wouldn't be that kind of bus driver, I don't think, because I'm not that kind of mom driver. I am a complete check-out-of-reality mom driver, in an alternate universe behind the wheel, completely oblivious to the voices in the rear. Are they dying back there? It certainly sounds like it. I'll clean it up later.

Following the school bus all over town is my nod to concerned parenthood. If I'm going to put them in public school, I can at least save them from the perils of the school bus--the swear words, the wedgies, the learning how to spit, and the handsy behavior of unchaperoned children. This is an ironic concession, since I am mildly in favor of free-range parenting, but I helicopter the kids to school rather than letting them take advantage of the best free public transportation that America has on offer. The bus is literally, door to door service, for free, and yet the line of parents dropping their children off at school rather than putting them on the bus gets a little longer every year.

This year, our school is totally renovating their parking lot to accommodate "car riders"--a class of students that was virtually non-existent in my youth--with a convenient car-to-school-door pathway that doesn't cross any lanes of bus or vehicle traffic. It's a long overdue renovation, eliminating what has appeared to me to be a far more dangerous dynamic of cars backing into parking spaces and children and parents wandering to the school doors in the manner of a Target parking lot, only with far more children and cars, all descending on the place at once.

We are technically a family within walking distance of the school, but I don't let my children walk either, because of the glaring lack of sidewalks on the roads that abut the school-- yet another reason why I am free-range in theory but not in practice. The world is not amenable to pedestrian traffic, when elementary schools are dropped in the middle of isolated fields on two-lane highways. More and more brick school buildings in the center of town are converted to apartments or civic buildings, while sprawling, windowless prison-scapes on the outskirts collect our children each day, claiming the amenities of playground space, and sporting facilities and parking lots. I get it. I really do. There's a trade-off for every good thing, and I'm game.

Am I allowed to be a little tired of the rosy nostalgia pieces about our sunlit youth, roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes from dawn to sunset, watched over by benevolent aunties who only intervened when someone was in physical danger?  Did this idealized childhood really exist, where kids learned conflict resolution and problem solving with hands-on experience in the totally really real world of the suburban boulevard and the drainage ditch? And if it did, may I posit that the strongest parties were the primary beneficiaries of infant justice? I keep wracking my memory for a golden age of children forming utopian societies in the neighborhood, but what I actually remember is casual cruelty, kissing games, encounters with porn, and no adults that actually gave a crap as opposed to many adult eyes on the street.

Dare I recall sneaking in the back door of the dark and tobacco infused W home to peruse the Spenser's catalog, which featured, among other delights, a virtual smorgasbord of edible underwear? And Mr. and Mrs. W? They were at work.

Two doors down, Mrs. L was usually at home, but she was the not-so-generous homeowner possessed of the neighborhood's only swimming pool. People were always trying to get invited to play with the L kids, but she usually said no, because kids who can't swim are a liability, and she wanted to watch Tootsie. Incidentally, Mrs. L told anyone who would listen that the eight-year-old son of the A family who lived around the block tried to touch her son's privates, and that's why she doesn't allow the A kids to come over anymore.

Speaking of privates, out on the county roads within biking riding distance, there was a bonafide penis flasher, who was reported to have given thanks for receiving directions from a twelve-year-old girl with a glimpse of his glory stick. Turned out he was a school employee.

Oh, of course, there were good times too. The drainage ditch really was the only science lesson of my childhood that stuck--catching tadpoles, wading after a storm, lifting the green scrim of algae with a stick to find a toad, and the awesome time we looked at ditchwater under a microscope and saw all the little squiggly moving things in it. Never drank that water again. But all that happened when my parents were around.

Sure, the vacant lot helped me to develop a taste for the melancholy solitude of nature, even though it was only a half-acre of wilderness. And when I was old enough, like fourteen, I was allowed to ride my bike away from the limited collection of people on my street to visit the friends of my preference and choosing. Nothing was better than being able to transport myself to the home of a BFF, but I did have to call first and arrange a "play-date" of sorts. 

What I think people forget about our free-range childhood is that most of us were latch-key kids. It wasn't that our parents were benevolently neglecting us because we lived in a safer world. They were at work, out of necessity, and after-school care was not yet a widespread offering. The truth is, sometimes bad things really did happen in these limbo hours, even in the midst of the good. But most of the time, we were sitting in our dens watching TV, because our parents were gone and we could get away with it.

I helicopter certain parts of my children's lives now (like the school bus), because of my own somewhat "free-range" experiences. But what I want to say, is that it's OK to be both ways, to be protective and to encourage independence.  I certainly don't micromanage the kids' free time at home, or keep them cooped up indoors. They play outside a lot, independently, and they're quite good at it. I'm also fine with letting my kids be mentored by other adults, like sports coaches and teachers, but only in a structured environment. I'm looking for a balance.

Children today do actually still know how to play, even the ones who also play video games. But on the whole, they're playing in safer, more structured and supervised environments. I think this is a pro, even while it's also a con, that kids get to try out many different activities with less concern of being felt up by the neighbor boy, or crushed by mean girls. Surely we've learned something from the scandals in the church and all the conversations about rape culture and bullies--that abuse thrives where there's silence and lack of supervision, where popularity is currency, where might is right, where blackmail keeps what happens on the playground on the playground. Children really can be quite naughty left to their own devices. Almost as naughty as grownups without oversight.

Someday, I would like to see a nostalgia piece about depression era childhood, where children were turned out of their families once they were old enough to earn a wage. Or what about Regency childhood in the golden cage--nannied and chaperoned to marriage? 

Until then, the world turns, quite literally, with bulldozers and pavers, to accommodate the helicopter parents in the pick-up line. Most communities don't have viable alternatives, if they ever did. And the helicopter parents increase, even if helicoptering is not their preference.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

ABC: Always Be Confessing

Took the kids downtown today for Confession and Mass. I feel like I talk about Confession all the time, but I really do go just about every two or three weeks. I'm not trying to brag on that note. I was thinking today about how my confession problem might just be a Divinely inspired Cross for my children, and maybe even their blessing someday, that their mother was always dragging them to the confessional, not because she was especially pious---but because she was a big sinner. We are developing a habit, a family ritual even, around my need to always be confessing.

And really, the increase in frequency of late is even less about piety and more about just getting on with life, confessing and moving on without harboring feelings of duplicity and doubt and self-contempt. Time is too precious to linger in that dark place.

I am a happy penitent, if that's possible or right. Maybe I should beat my breast a little more. Actually, no. I shouldn't. I've beat my breast for many, many years, and thinking on my wretchedness does not draw me into God's presence with the same efficiency as thinking on His goodness and mercy. It is better to err in presuming on God's mercy, than it is to err in doubting it.

And the more I go, the less anxiety there is about it, the less of a big deal it is to make the effort, even though the grace received from it is always a very big deal.

One such grace is learning to discern what kind of a confessor you're encountering. The best confessors refuse to offer advice, because frankly, it always misses the mark. If you are only confessing your sin, as opposed to telling your life story, they don't have enough information to offer helpful guidance. And if you are telling your life story, I can guarantee you're telling it slant. They still don't have enough information.

Why am I talking about this right now? Because my confessor today told me everything I wanted to hear, and I felt kind of pissed off about it. He was offering me advice that missed the mark, even though it was advice that would make my life easier by alleviating many trips to the confessional. It was a real discipline not to say, "Look, I know you want me to feel better, but just let my sin be a sin because you don't know how this plays out in my life. I barely know myself. All I know is that it fits the rubric, and we'd all do better not to obsess about it. Quit splitting hairs (because I've beat you through that process already), confess it, and move on."

But he wanted to be therapeutic. And I know it's hard to believe, but that's not why I'm there.

And soon, my sister will call and tell me again that if I am going to keep talking about confession, at least don't leave people to theorize about what I confessed. Trust me, it's very wicked and salacious, but speculating on other people's sins is a sin. You should go to confession too.

Anyhoo, I wrote something at patheos earlier in the week, and it's actually not about confession:

Overcoming the Agoraphobic Spiritual Life