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Grit

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what we can “give” to our kids versus what they develop on their own.

In some cases you lay out all the tools you possess right in front of them and wait for them to pick them up. (Manners, I am looking at you.)

[It’s kind of fascinating, if you have the distance to look at it like a documentary filmmaker. My internal narrator is nothing like David Attenborough, though – rather someone who is light on research and heavy on sarcasm.]

Anyway, this is a post about AM. He’s 11 now, more than halfway to 12, and has more than his share of self-possession. He’s passionate about math, games, and…tennis.

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AM has been playing tennis for 2 1/2 years. His universe begins and ends with Roger Federer. He was kind of alarmed a few weeks ago when Taxman and I listed all the tennis stars we could think of, stretching back to the early ’80s. You mean, there was professional tennis before Roger Federer? (Not sure he believed us when we told him that racquets were made out of wood not that long ago.)

I used to play extremely casually from maybe age 10-14, meaning I would accompany my mom and stepdad to the tennis court as they played (also casually), or play on brick walls. I played at summer camp. I had an average forehand, a terrible backhand, and could volley decently. Somewhere along the line I learned how to serve, but could never put a lot of power behind it.

This casual approach to tennis is not something my son can understand. He’s in a group class twice a week with several friends. But class is only 45 minutes, so he shows up 45 minutes early and plays on an empty court with a buddy. Most Sunday afternoons, when he has nothing happening after school, he calls a friend and goes to play for an hour or more. After he burns through his screen time on his phone (which is restricted, BADLY), he plants himself in front of the computer to watch videos of…Roger Federer. Oh, and also Hawk-Eye shots. (The first time he mentioned these, I made a joke about M*A*S*H, but like I said, this kid is suspicious of anything that happened before 2005, so he refused to engage.)

A month ago he fell on his left hand as he was chasing a loose ball and sprained two fingers. He called me, crying, as his fourth and fifth fingers turned indigo, and we bundled him off to urgent care. Two weeks in splints. But no matter, he was back on the court the next week.

This weekend, he won his division (of 23 kids) in his tennis school’s fall tournament. He passed through the first round with no trouble, then had closer matches in the semi-final and finals. (Not real games, but scoring individual points on a narrow half-court – which actually requires a lot of control to stop from going wide.)

But here’s the thing: He’s not a natural athlete. He’s in good shape because he bikes everywhere and runs around like a lunatic at recess, but he is not gifted in this way. He’s not tall, nor exceptionally strong. Yet he’s managed to claw his way to the top tier of some athletic things. He captured the last spot on his school’s tiny track team – six 5th and 6th grade boys – and competed in our city’s road race in November.

Same for tennis: He’s put in hours and hours and drawn himself by sheer will to the next level of play. He’s not a graceful player – just fierce. He has a great forehand, but his backhand fails him sometimes.  He’s had to learn to contain himself in order to put the ball between those restrictive lines. He sometimes gets furious with himself or his opponent (though this is improving). He’s less Federer and more McEnroe, sometimes. (Ema, Ema, he would sigh, McEnroe is left-handed. I am not left-handed. My literal heart.)

He has grit. This isn’t something we taught him; he just has it. (It’s not going to turn him into a professional tennis player, though, so eventually I hope he will direct it elsewhere.)

It makes me a little jealous, as I don’t think I recall ever being on fire for something as much as he is for tennis. Does reading novels on the couch count? Does that take grit? I once plowed through Anna Karenina in four days.

So I just sit and marvel. And overlook the trail of racquets and balls and shoes that line my living room. It seems like the least I can do.

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Under construction

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My city, building, as always

I have been inhabiting a difficult space, between my past and my future. The questions of “What do you want to be?” and “What do you want to do?” have never been in such high relief.

Being unsure that my skills, relied upon in various iterations of employment for 20 years, match any answers to the above questions.

I wish I could skip ahead, through the hard part, to a place where I feel confident and worthy of whatever comes my way. I don’t even know what that experience would entail, honestly.

In the meantime, I might be writing here more. I should make a “to be determined” category, because “uncategorized” doesn’t seem aspirational enough.

Being amorphous is pretty terrifying.

Pray like nobody’s watching

Two days ago, in Machne Yehuda (one of Jerusalem’s markets), I stumbled upon a simple scene that really brought home what I’m doing here.

An Orthodox minyan, a prayer quorum, was meeting for the afternoon prayer in the back of a shop selling nuts, dried fruit, spices, and candy. Despite a synagogue deeper inside the market, a whole 90-second walk away, this ad hoc group just took a quick break from work or shopping and got it done.

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It still sometimes startles – and thrills me – to realize that Israel is full of religious people doing their thing. A lot of them are Jews. (Not exclusively; I’ve seen Moslem prayer rugs in use on roadsides and sidewalks as well. Jerusalem is also home to monks and nuns in their religious dress, who regularly take public transport and shop in the markets.) This isn’t to say that the atmosphere is suffused with it; in Tel Aviv, a much more secular-seeming place, afternoon prayers are usually decently tucked away in office meeting rooms, and non-kosher food options outnumber the kosher ones.

Anyway, after spending so many years in America trying to make my outward religious expression muted in order to shield myself from confrontation or awkwardness or, god, all the explaining, it is odd that I generally don’t have to anymore. (This is partially luck, as I haven’t had to be the only religious co-worker in a firm, which has definitely happened to people I know.) At work in America, I prayed in stairwells; said the grace after meals swiftly at my desk with my head nearly tucked under my desk. I pretended to like hats as a fashion statement.

The other day I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my son, and sunset was imminent. “Did you say mincha at school?” I asked.
“Not today,” he said.
“So do it right now; you’re about to run out of time.”
“Which way do I face [towards Jerusalem]?”
I pointed him the right way, approximately, and he just did it, in a room full of a dozen people.

It is a small thing, hard to describe, without seeming like a fanatic. But I was one of five Jews in my high school graduating class of a couple of hundred.

Watching my children blending in, seamlessly, puts air in my lungs.

 

The T-Shirt Paradox

Do you ever feel trapped? Not TRAPPED like “I’m going to chew off my leg now,” but more, “Hey, this hamster wheel keeps spinning, and I’m not sure what will happen if it stops, but it’s probably not a good idea to stop, so I’ll just keep going.”

(I do enjoy a good run-on sentence from time to time.)

Tangent

I used to hate even the idea of being trendy or following some sort of herd.

I never owned a piece of clothing from Benetton (when it was all the rage) or bought Doc Marten boots (my college roommate had umpteen pairs, but unfortunately we didn’t wear the same size) or got a second ear piercing.

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I could have been so cute! On someone else’s dime! WTF is wrong with you, past me?

(I made an exception for those Banana Republic shirts with the animals on the back, for reasons I don’t remember. Who doesn’t like paying twice as much as normal for a dumb t-shirt?)

This rejection of trendy did not make me cool. It made me a dork. Sometimes people invest themselves in trends that are not worth it, but sometimes brands or styles really hold up. Sometimes you really can dress something up or down; celebrity endorsements aside, some items are just worth the money.

Now I am all about the intersection of “comfort and style and branding and fiscal responsibility and I don’t really care what everyone else thinks.” So I live in Naot sandals, buy a lot of SkirtSports gear, and am pretty devoted to my few-generations behind iPhone. So I am not on-trend, exactly, but more like chugging along on a parallel track that misses a few stations.

(PS I tried to buy a pair of Chucks, which I have never owned, in America a few months ago, but the store I was at did not carry them in half sizes. WHAT? I am definitely not shelling out money for shoes that don’t fit correctly.)

/tangent
(sorta)

Into the Hamster Wheel

So imagine my dismay when I discovered that my current fragile mental state is shared by so many GenX women. Blame it on perimenopause. Blame it on money worries. Blame it on career dissatisfaction. (Not mentioned in the article, but an astute IRL/Twitter friend pointed out that the last election has engendered mental pacing on an unprecedented level. “Oh HAI misogyny and bigotry and warmongering; we thought you were pretty unacceptable, but we see you’re back in a big way. Sad panda. I am not going to be needing this pillow, as I am never sleeping again.”)

Good thing I am fine with being in the herd now.

Say Goodbye to Your Shirts

I have a problem with my shirts. Almost all of them get tiny holes in them, about six inches from the bottom, right in front. Eventually, some holes “bleed” together and make much bigger holes. I try to reserve my new shirts, or shirts that I especially like, because I know that eventually they will be sacrificed to the “t-shirts I can only wear to bed” pile.

Because I spend a lot of time in my house, tiny holes in my shirts didn’t matter that much, but they made me crazy. Nobody else in the house was getting these holes. Was it my seatbelt in the car? Skirt buttons? Was it the washing machine nibbling only my clothes? None of these ideas made sense.

A friend tipped me off – it is our Caesarstone countertops hitting me in the gut every time I prep food or stand at the sink.

Oh.

Too bad I can’t take a pass on everything in my kitchen forevermore to save my shirts.

The Call is Coming from Inside the House

Yep.

But do I not wear shirts? Do I wear the same one over and over again until it disintegrates? Do I never wear the shirts I like the most in order to save them? Do I buy 3 of the same shirt?

I can already hear well-intentioned people thinking, “Oh, she should wear an apron!” That is so sweet. It will never work. I autopilot so many *kitchen things that adding a “step zero” will never take.

*Also life things. There is a relatively new law in Israel about re-usable bags. I have had to fling them around my house and car, literally by the dozen, so I am not caught without them.

So that’s my hamster wheel.

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This smushy face would never chew holes in my clothes. She’s too tired and has her own perimenopausal stuff to take care of, presumably.

It has tiny holes and kitchen chores. It does not have enough disposable income for a cleaning person. It does not have a full-time job.

If you’re too traumatized to click through to the piece linked above, this goes right to the heart of the matter, for me:

“The message Gen X women got was ‘You can have it all.’ … That came with better blueprints and also bigger expectations,” says Deborah Luepnitz, PhD, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia, a boomer and author of Schopenhauer’s Porcupines. “In midlife, what I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion. That’s what brings them to treatment. They feel guilty for complaining because it’s wonderful to have had choices that our mothers didn’t have, but choices don’t make life easier. Possibilities create pressure.”

(IT’S ME AND MY MOM, YOU GUYS!)

Possibilities. We still have them in midlife, but they can start to seem so abstract. Yes, I could go get a doctorate, but where would I find the graduate school tuition? I could switch careers—therapist? Zamboni driver?—but at this stage of life, do I really want to start from the bottom, surrounded by 20-year-olds? If I went on an Eat, Pray, Love walkabout, who would pick up the kid from school?

(IT’S ME AND MY LIFE, YOU GUYS!)

Midlife is when we need to take care of everyone else while we are our most tired, to trust ourselves when we’re most filled with doubt.

(Don’t show this sentence to someone with a new baby; she won’t be able to get out of bed ever again.)

If someone would like to meet in the virtual all-night cafe of insomnia, simmering with rage and worry, I am pretty sure they have pie.

Another American massacre due to guns is in the books, and the politicians at all levels, local to national, are telling people that thoughts and prayers is the appropriate response, not shredding the current gun policies and starting over with a 21st century perspective, outside the confines of what the NRA wants.

This sticks in my craw, but not just because I am bleeding-heart liberal who believes in strict gun control, but because I am a religious Jew and this idea of lying limp and letting God’s will wash over you (thoughts) and mentally/verbally responding (prayers) is not how we roll.

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Prayer has its place. But it is not a universally appropriate response.

(Note: I am not trained in Jewish thought; this is just a reflection of my experiences.)

So there is a concept that I’ve come to know in my almost 25 years of being religious. It’s called hishtadlus (or hishtadlut). It comes from the Hebrew verb that means, basically, “to make an effort.” The word is fancier that “to try,” in that you know you’re going to have to work for something.

I ran into this idea a lot while spending time on Orthodox Jewish infertility message boards. “We are doing our hishtadlus,” people would write. Meaning that while thoughts and prayers did not fall by the wayside in the quest to make a baby, there would also be blood tests and hormone injections; sperm counts and HSGs; egg retrievals and ICSI; phone calls and insurance fights; phlebotomists, nurses, doctors, and rabbis on call.

Thoughts and prayers, in fact, were something that you could delegate to people who were not in the thick of the fight.

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I know lots of babies that have been made this way. Thoughts and prayers alone were not enough.

The people on these message boards felt lucky that there were ways to attack infertility, medically speaking, and that it was approved in the eyes of religious authorities – sometimes with a few tweaks – and fully acknowledged that in a generation before ours thoughts and prayers, the only tools readily available then, most likely would have resulted in never becoming parents.

Failing to do hishtadlus doesn’t mean that you’ll never get what you’re seeking. (Also: Doing it doesn’t mean that you will.) But it seems to be an integral part of how you are meant to approach your life. Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are called to implement specific changes. Prayer is one of them, but the others are giving charity and doing teshuva. Teshuva is repentance, but it has a more active component than you might think – righting of wrongs between people can require serious introspection but also verbal or written apologies, discussions, or compensation.

Whether or not the trio of prayer, repentance, and charity change our fate for the year is clearly unknowable, but you have to wonder — what if this combination of cerebral/emotional/physical modifications to our behavior were permanent, rather than being a feature associated with the “days of awe”? Would we be on our way to being better people, living in a better society?

Living at this level of consciousness is hard.

Saying “I’m sorry” immediately is hard, especially if you’re angry or sad.

Giving a lot of charity on a regular basis is going to have an impact on your bottom line.

Connecting in prayer on a deep level every day? Good luck.

But here’s the thing: 
Elected representatives are elected to do hard things. They are faced with difficult choices every day. They will never be able to please everyone, but there are people relying on them. When they take those steps back, pulling the curtain around them that says “thoughts and prayers,” they are hiding from the hard things, the hurt, the disappointments and grief. They are not making the effort. They are backing away from the fight.

I hope that the representatives who fail to make the effort will be replaced by those who are willing to try.

 

Elliptically speaking

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I saw this post in my Facebook feed and thought, I AM THE ELLIPSIS.

But not just in conversation. In LIFE. My entire life is a mishmash of speech, thoughts, desires, tasks, and journeys that become hopelessly tangled like a skein of yarn. And let me tell you, I rarely have the time to sort these things out.

In my own writing – please feel free to peruse my archives, when I was clearly smarter than I feel right now – I tend towards overuse of parenthesis. So I can explain myself in the middle of my thoughts. One might think (hope?) that I would just be more clear in the first place, but that tends to lead to shorter sentences, and I really like commas, so here we are, you know? (Note: For work assignments I behave myself and write crisply and concisely, but I never monetized this baby, so I am going to be myself. Just please love me! Also send candy. I like cinnamon things now that I have drastically cut back on dairy, which is a sad story for another time.)

Unfortunately, living the elliptical life is causing me to feel like I am losing my mind quite often. We live in a duplex, and I am constantly arriving at the top of the stairs and thinking, “Why am I up here?” Usually, it’s because my iPhone cord is still plugged in to where I charged overnight, but sometimes it’s because I need to change my shoes or get an envelope or brush poppy seeds out of my teeth. But I can’t just blame the elevation of the top floor, because this also sometimes happens when I go to the laundry room-slash-overflow pantry that is tucked behind the kitchen.

This total mess in my head is exacerbated when my kids are home. Because I will go upstairs – again, probably for my phone cord – and on the way, I spot that AM’s clothing drawers are open and a total mess. I mean, total mess is expected, but nobody needs to SEE it. Just close the drawers! Instantly neater! (This is an important life skill that I am one hundred percent committed to teaching.) I also see that Miss M has been using her floor as a hamper and, um, encourage her to cut that shit out. And the kids’ bathroom basically looks like a tornado came through. Open drawers and dirty clothes! Trash that missed the garbage can! Books that I have repeatedly said cannot be in the bathroom! It’s house disaster bingo! So by the time I pass these three open doors and am in my own not-neat room, I have completely lost the plot and have to stand there mumbling, “I am here for a reason.” If I am lucky, I will remember why. If am super-lucky, I will also stumble upon my glasses, which I am absolutely going to need the next time I go to drive the car. (I do not need glasses to read, use the computer, or watch TV, so they spend a lot of time off my face — and hiding from me, in case that wasn’t obvious.)

So what is my problem, exactly?

  • Sleep deprivation (always a winner!)
  • Undercaffeination (likely, but I can’t experiment with this too much)
  • Age (being over 40 is a garden full of delights)
  • Some sort of attention deficit (I blame social media)
  • Low blood sugar/dehydration (I am not always the best at self-care)
  • Terrible housekeeping (a disordered environment is how we roll)
  • No idea (but I hear bullet points are the bomb)

So, in conversation, I tend to be incredibly annoying and full of tangents. I think I have always been this way, but now it is worse than ever. On social media I can be pithy and wise, because of the magical delete button. There is no delete when I talk. Sadly.

My workarounds for this? Ongoing conversations that are comprised almost solely of tangents. I have a Whatsapp group with two friends that’s basically the three of us dropping in and out of conversations. We try to do it once a week in real life. Or conversations that are long enough to circle back to my original point, when I have one, which is sometimes. Just today, I had a spontaneous brunch with a friend. Something else came up, we got distracted, and thankfully were still together an hour later when I remembered where I was going with my train of thought (the in-person reveal was worth it, so I am glad it worked out, instead of my having to email it later).

I am not quite sure where I am going with this, but if you stick around I might get to my point. (If the dog ever stops barking.)

In the meantime: Red Hots, Cinnamon Jelly Bellys, Atomic Fireballs, Hot Tamales. (Stay focused!)

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All cinnamon, all the time

 

 

I am Calvin’s mom

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Bathtime

I don’t ever want to be one of these “KIDS, TODAY!” people, because we were all KIDS, TODAY! once, yes?

But I realized that one thing my kids are really cheated out of are newspapers. We consume our news in all kinds of ways – radio snippets, podcasts, online articles, television. However, I recall sitting down with sections of the Sunday paper from when I was in elementary school. I lived in the DC suburbs, so we got the Washington Post. Possibly also the New York Times because my parents are  East Coast liberal elites, despite moving away from it in 1991. I definitely remember reading Parade Magazine, and the Washington Post magazine — Dave Barry’s column! — a gateway for The New Yorker.

And there were the comics. I felt so sorry for people who only got The New York Times. Because no comics.

I feel like the “funny papers” helped me develop my sense of humor. Before Buzzfeed or Cute Emergency were available 24 hours a day, there were daily strips, which parlayed to full-color and fabulous on Sunday. The late 1980s seemed to have really glorious comics for a kid like me, smart and sardonic and constantly feeling like a fish out of water.

It wasn’t just me. My 7th grade English teacher showed up one day with now-famous Far Side “Midvale School for the Gifted” panel, posted it on the board, and laughed about it for the rest of the year. (It was an accelerated English class. Of course it was.)

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As much as this applied to me, Miss M would probably win the prize for this.

Nothing could hold a candle, though, to Calvin & Hobbes. Calvin seemed to contain an entire universe within him. So wise, but all id. Hobbes the long-suffering companion, smarter than his best friend but trapped by his own physical restrictions. It was a siren song for all the junior high school lovelorn kids who confessed their secrets to their dog or cat, or covertly continued to sleep with a stuffed animal. (Who, me? Yeah, me.)

Over time, several Calvin & Hobbes collections accumulated in my library. They moved with me to college, to New York, to Israel. My kids came to love them as much as I did.

I hadn’t opened one in years; my reading time is really reserved for novels. But the other night I picked up The Revenge of the Baby-Sat from my floor (one of my kids had been reading it in my bed and dropped it next to the bed, instead of putting it back on the shelf or on my bedside table, which really tells you a lot about both me and them).

And goodness me, guess who I am? I am Calvin’s mom.

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What parent among us has not tried to civilize a child?

Yes, and no. My kids have never had the streak of maliciousness that Calvin does; I haven’t had to worry for their personal safety in the same way. But wow, the rest is quite identifiable. Tempting to eat a new food, begging to do chores, coaxing to look normal for a photo FOR ONCE, OH MY GOD. Calvin’s mom looks pissed in the middle of the night when summoned to answer philosophical questions or wash clothes (!). She looks resigned when paying the babysitter. She looks startled when she realizes it’s been quiet and she’s been sitting down for too long. She looks determined when she’s prodding Calvin into the bath.

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How evergreen is this?

All of these things are universal parent experiences, but of course, you may have missed it upon your first read at 9 or 12 or 20.

It is a rare gem of pop culture that can be delivered on more than one level. I have always cited Sesame Street as one example, but now I officially appoint Calvin & Hobbes to this firmament.

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Purim, 2 years ago

And, as I was composing this post in my head too late at night, I realized that, yes, dumbbell, I have been Calvin’s mom…for a long time.