Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An orchestra mom

I was never in the marching band. Frankly, I never felt the desire to wear the uniform and the funky hat that seemed to weigh more than some of the wind section members. Plus, I didn't play a marching band instrument. But when I arrived in college, I discovered that marching band was its own special little fraternity, a family unit at a time when your only family units seemed to be within a Greek system my parents couldn't afford. In retrospect, marching band didn't seem like such a bad thing.

OK, obviously I survived college without being in the marching band. But like many parents, I recycled a few dreams when my kids were born. Maybe one of them would be in marching band. Think of the trouble it would save me. If they were in marching band, I wouldn't have to worry about them becoming, say, cheerleaders, or athlete groupies who hung out at games hoping the star quarterback would look their way. Sure, the hats were a consideration - both my kids have my hair, and hats are not our friend. Still, I hoped at least one of them would pick up a flute, or a saxophone or other band-appropriate instrument.

As the oldest child neared middle school, I tested the waters. Middle school afforded the opportunity to learn an instrument. "Honey," I said, "Why don't you take up a marching band instrument? I think marching band would be fun."

The oldest child hesitated and then said, with childlike honesty, "No offense Mom, but marching band is for dorks."

(Hear that shattering noise? That's the sound of yet another parental dream breaking into itty bitty pieces.)

Get this, though. Older child decided to pursue an instrument, even though she still eschewed marching band. She went to the "try out" day and was placed with (marching band appropriate drum roll, please) the violin.

Now, I'm not up on what's a dork and what isn't - it's hard to see the dork picture when you're in the dork frame - but how does the violin escape the 10-year-old "dork" pronouncement while, say, the saxophone continues to be dorky? Don't get me wrong. I love the sound of a violin when it's in the right hands, preferably someone with a pitch perfect ear and a well-resined bow. But how can a violin be fine while a drum set is dorky?

Maybe she's seen the marching band hats.

Anyhow, we're about five months into the violin experiment now. Those who have never had a beginning violinist at home, consider yourselves lucky. A beginner on the violin makes noises that would have small forest animals running for cover. A woman giving birth to a 13-pounder with a big head can't come up with sounds like this, sounds that make cold shivers go down your spine. Thank goodness she started in the summer and we could all go outside while she practiced.

Yet, somewhere between months 2 and 3, we began to notice something. The cold shivers didn't happen when she practiced. Sure, our ears were probably becoming desensitized, maybe in the way you get used to your own body odor and don't smell it while everyone around you is gagging. But you couldn't argue that my little fiddler was getting better and less likely to be sent to the roof for practice.

For the past few weeks, I've listened to more renditions of Offenbach's "Can-Can" than I care to admit, to the point where I've made up my own lyrics that involve getting a cookie for the dog. (Don't ask.) Oldest child is now trying to play Christmas carols by ear, and she's amazingly adept at it.

Tonight is her first concert. (As an aside, she informed me last night that she will need dress shoes for the concert, because her orchestra teacher nixed her Bjorndahl slides as "not dressy enough." We have a two-hour window to find appropriate shoes for a kid who thinks appropriate is a synonym for dumb.) Tonight we officially add "orchestra parent" to our ever growing list of labels. I wonder if orchestra parents are like soccer parents and like to dissect every performance, whispering remarks about how Casey on the viola didn't quite hit the high C or Ellie in the second chair position really deserves first chair. As much as I'm trying to be funny, I imagine that truly competitive parents are always going to play the comparison game, whether their kid is kicking a ball or taking a bow.

As for me, I'm dusting off an old dream and starting a new one. I wonder what it takes to convince the high school's marching band that they really need a string section?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An uncool parent

When I was in junior high, I knew a girl named Debbie. While the rest of us wore old jeans and rock group T-shirts, Debbie wore dresses and anklets. Debbie's house was on the path home from school, and we were often witnesses to her mother as she flung open her door, threw out her arms and proclaimed, "Debbie, darling!"

Poor Debbie.

I always said I'd strive to be the cool parent. How hard could it be? I remember being a kid. I remember my parents pulling the stodgy card and saying "no" when other parents were saying "yes." Well, things were going to change when I was the parent. I'd be the cool parent, the one my kids could call with any request, and I'd make my decisions fairly and logically.

Witness a recent conversation with my firstborn, who called me from her friend's house:

11-year-old: Mom, is it OK if Brittany's mom drops us off at Starbucks for, like, an hour?
Me: Drops who off?
11-year-old: Me, Brittany and Courtney.
Me: What about Brittany's mom?
11-year-old: She'll leave and come get us in, like, an hour.
Me: Eh, you know I'm not crazy about that.
11-year-old: Please Mom. Pleeeease. Please be the cool parent. Pleeeease.
Me: Honey, I'm not ready to send you to Starbucks without an adult. What do you think you're going to do at Starbucks?
11-year-old: I don't know. We'll probably walk around and go over to Petland, too. (Because I'm sure the Petland employees are just dying for three unattended tweens to coo over the puppies and kittens.)
Me: What does Courtney's mother say?
11-year-old: She says it's fine with her if it's fine with you. Please be a good parent. (Now the stakes are higher: I'd be a good parent AND a cool one.) Please.

Courtney's mother was, fortunately, not fine with it. No adult, no Starbucks excursion. This meant I had to have an awkward conversation with Brittany's mom, who seemed to have no problem dropping the kids off at Starbucks. I stressed that this is our hang-up, and our daughter is the one who isn't ready for solo trips yet.

The story has a happy ending, at least for the 11-year-old. Courtney's mother decided she needed to do some shopping over by Starbucks, so she took the girls and supervised them from a respectable distance. Crisis over, for now.

But it will come up again. And the 11-year-old will point out that at least one of them will have a cell phone and can call if there's an emergency. I'm not sure she understands that this isn't a case of worrying about bad guys snatching them out of Starbucks. It's not even a case of having pity on the merchants, although this is certainly a factor in our saying no.

What it comes down to is that this is our time to set boundaries. We might not always be right, and we'll probably err on the side of being overprotective. But we want the 11-year-old to be pretty sure that there are things she can and cannot do right now, and we want her to know that there are limits to every good thing, even the emerging freedom that she can taste but not quite indulge in.

She's growing up. But we're growing, too, growing into parenting and trying to figure out how to keep her safe without becoming Debbie's mom. I've given up on being the cool parent - my wardrobe precluded that, anyhow. I'd rather keep her safe, and smart, and happy. I'd rather be uncool.

And I hope when she's old enough to go to Starbuck's alone, I'll recognize it and let her go. Even when it hurts to let go.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Separate but equal?

When your kids are little, you take great pains to create a fair world. When the second child is born, the first child receives little gifts to reinforce that both are precious and welcome. As they get older, you continue the evening up. When one child gets a new pair of shoes, you go ahead and fit the other child. When only one cookie is left, you cut it precisely so that each child receives 50 percent. (A 50.1 percent cookie and a 49.9 percent cookie will be noticed and subject to a recut.) If an activity cannot accommodate both of them, you take turns and promise to even the score next time.

But one day you realize that life has other plans. One kid kicks a soccer ball like a pro, the other runs like Twinkletoes. One child sits down at the piano and masters each piece, the other struggles to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

Even worse, the world isn't evening the score. One child is a social butterfly, with invitations for playdates and sleepovers clogging the phone lines. The other child gets an occasional invitation to a birthday party. One child draws attention wherever she goes. The other is more likely to be overlooked by her teachers, her classmates, the general public. As much as you try to cover up for the inequities, they notice. They're perceptive little souls.

As a parent, you tell your kids that you love them equally. But as the kids grow, you realize that just as the world can't treat them the same way, neither can you. They go through phases where one of them is more challenging, and they take turns wearing that particular label. And you find that even though you love them equally, you love them differently. You even admit that yeah, sometimes one of them is easier to love.

So you strive to find the common ground with the one who is testing your mother love, because that's what mothers do. You never give up on the love, even when you're hearing that you're the worst mother ever. You strive to keep things equal with them while teaching them that no, life isn't ever going to be as easy as splitting a cookie two ways. You tell them that you love them both, but you show them that there are different ways to love, and you care enough to find the way that works for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Trick or treating gets political

I took the 9-year-olds trick or treating this year. We were on the next street when one of my neighbors said, "Girls, I'm going to teach you some politics. I'm going to give you candy. Now, I'm going to take some of the candy out of your bags so I can give it to people who aren't trick or treating."

I was standing on the sidewalk, so I yelled up to him: "We've been teaching them that since they were babies: You share with others and give to those who are less fortunate."

We both laughed, and neither of us tried to hit the other with a political sign. That's probably a good thing.

Maybe he sees "sharing the wealth" as giving his hard-earned money to some deadbeat, some lowlife scum who's too lazy to get a job. I tend to think of the people who hit tough times, the ones with medical issues or even those not blessed to be born in a family where education is encouraged and supported. The reality is perhaps between those extremes, although most of us tend to think it's closer to our extreme than to the other side's.

Who's ready for Wednesday?