Suburban Splendor

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When I drive around the Chicago suburbs near my home, I often chuckle at the names of housing developments and streets. Many of them try to give off an aura of opulence or class with names such as Wessex, Stratford, or Chambord. Some neighborhoods are gated and have guards at the entrance. Yet these towns are usually safe, serene, and despite their names, devoid of much pretension.

City slickers may sneer, but there are so many things that make the suburbs the ideal place to live.

  1. Parking – Wherever I go, there is generally a huge lot in which to leave my car, usually by pulling into a diagonal spot or my favorite, the “pull through.” This makes shopping for groceries, medicine, clothes, and whatever else my family needs so much simpler. My children’s dentist is in the city, and believe me, the experience is much more fraught as I try to squeeze into a parallel parking spot or jockey for one of the tandem spots behind the building. And if it snows? Well, the nightmare intensifies.
  2. Quiet – When I visit my daughter in New York City, it’s hard to fall asleep what with all the sirens and the incessant honking of taxicabs. Here in the ‘burbs, the night sounds consist of a few crickets chirping or the distant rumble of a freight train.
  3. Safety – The suburbs are not completely free of crime, of course, particularly of the property type. But I feel pretty safe going about my business and allowing my kids to walk or bike to the park, town, or a friend’s house. In a small suburb such as mine, you tend to recognize most everybody, so it’s easy to be on the alert in you notice a stranger.
  4. Shopping – We have these glorious places called “malls” where all your shopping is in one convenient place. And, of course, you’ve got those diagonal parking spots everywhere.
  5. Dining – It may be true that cities have a greater concentration of gourmet restaurants, but securing a reservation, finding a parking spot, and sometimes dealing with the snootiness all make going out to eat a bit of a hassle. Not so in the suburbs, where there are plenty of serviceable and even excellent dining spots with friendly, unpretentious services and no need for valet parking charges.
  6. Atmosphere – I do love the hum and buzz of a big city, and when I need my fix, I take the train downtown and walk the busy streets. But most of the time, I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere in suburbia. While there are times of frenzy and traffic (primarily at school drop off and pickup times), mostly I can take my time, enjoy a quiet stroll, browse in the library, or catch a quiet breeze in my own backyard.

Suburbia often gets slammed for being small-minded and provincial. It can sometimes feel dull and commonplace. But living and raising my kids here has made me appreciate the suburban lifestyle. And it’s a beautiful one.

Going Off the Wagon

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This morning in the car my daughter asked if I would buy her clothes from lululemon.

“No,” I answered. “They’re too expensive.”
Her reply was, “But everyone wears them.”

(I’m sure I’m the only parent who has ever heard those words.)

Arriving at school, we saw signs all over the grass announcing a school fundraiser at Chipotle, Mexican food for the millennial generation. Believe me, the last thing you will find me doing this evening is wedging myself into a massive line at the tiny storefront where they are apparently serving tacos with a side of heroin.

Why do people insist on climbing on every bandwagon that comes along? Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the restaurants we frequent, or the must-see TV show everyone is talking about, we have a sheeplike need to follow the crowd.

I am not immune to this tendency. When everyone was pouring buckets of ice water on themselves last summer to raise money for ALS research, I was right there with them. And the words pumpkin spice latte make me salivate like a Pavlovian dog.

But why do we feel such an intense need to do what everyone else is doing? The term bandwagon was coined in the late 1800s to refer to the mass appeal of a candidate in a political campaign. The implication was that said candidate appealed to people more as entertainment than for substantive political ideas. Sound familiar?

Humans are social animals. We want to be accepted by other humans, so we subsume some of our individuality to be part of the group. There are commonly accepted social norms, such as not running around town naked, for instance, that help society function in a more or less harmonious way.

But bandwagons don’t always make sense and are not always for the greater good. It makes absolutely no difference to a person’s intelligence or personal worth what the label on her athletic wear says. But try telling that to a middle schooler, whose main purpose in life is blending in with the flock.

I’m always curious as to where fashions and crazes originate. Is it from advertisers or an influential public figure? Are some people just “cooler” and thus able to foist their opinions off on everyone else?

I remember a kids’ movie in the ’90s called Josie and the Pussycats. The plot revolved around a popular teen band fighting an evil conglomerate that was hiring cool kids to hawk their products to the sheeplike masses. Far fetched, you say? I wonder.

I’ll admit that most bandwagons are harmless or sometimes beneficial. The Ice Bucket Challenge raked in millions of dollars for ALS research, and researchers are now saying the money has helped them make strides in understanding and eventually treating and preventing the disease.

Sometimes, though, a bandwagon can be detrimental to society. One need look no further than the current presidential race and the rise of Donald Trump, who is essentially a celebrity whose popularity rests on how entertainingly terrible he can be.

Furthermore, it’s important to teach our children that being or feeling different about something does not make us uncool or weird. Regardless of the fact that I never got those Gloria Vanderbilt jeans I coveted as a teen (Yes, I’m showing my age here), I turned out to be a normal, successful adult. Helping our kids withstand the pressures to fit in can help our own resolve when the next bandwagon rolls into town.

Playing Favorites

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Years ago on a family vacation, my husband and I and our four children were walking back to our hotel room, and the two youngest began to fight over who would get to use the electronic key to open the hotel room door (something only little kids would care enough to fight about). As the squabble ensued, my older son turned to my older daughter and quipped, “The battle of the favorites: who will win?”

If you ask my older kids, they will insist that my younger son is my favorite while the baby of the family has her dad wrapped around her little finger. I have to admit there is some basis in reality for their opinions. For instance, I find many of my younger son’s comments hilarious even when they are insults directed at me! And we all get tired of my husband’s constant bragging about our youngest’s academic and athletic feats.

Yet I don’t think about these relationships as favoritism. The fact is, we have different relationships with each of our children because they have different personalities and needs. As an example, when my older son was little, he was extremely sensitive to loud noises and afraid of even slightly scary images on TV. So I sheltered him from all but the most innocuous books, movies, and television shows until he was well into his teens. On the other hand, my younger son is largely unaffected by fictional violence and horror, so we have been much more lax in what we allowed him to see at a younger age.

Birth order also plays a part in how we relate to our children. Our oldest has borne the brunt of our inexperience and wariness by having the most restrictive childhood of the four. For instance, she received her first cell phone in high school while the youngest went off to middle school with a new phone. And let’s face it. By the time you get to your fourth child, you are just exhausted. By her senior year in high school, no doubt, my youngest daughter will be tucking us into bed and going out to clubs with her friends.

Still, our children will always seek fairness in our treatment of each of them and cry foul when they perceive of things as unequal. Obviously, it’s not okay to lavish one child with gifts and attention while ignoring the others. But outside of glaring favoritism like that, kids will always find instances of how unfair we are. I remember as a child my siblings lining up our glasses of pop to make sure we had exactly the same amount, as well as counting the number of Oreo cookies we each received. To this day, no one knows which of the 9 girls ate the last Royal Graham!

The important thing is to let each of your children know he or she is loved completely and uniquely and that not one of your children is replaceable. My older kids find the idea of our having favorites amusing. Why? Because they know without question they are deeply loved and wanted for themselves.

Advice for the Soccer Mom (or Dad)

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It’s that time of year. The days get shorter, the nights get cooler, and the weekends find parents loading up the minivan and chauffeuring their progeny to fields far and near. It’s youth soccer season. For years my family has participated in this rite of fall, as children of all ages in neon-colored soccer uniforms swarm the local parks. I’d like to share the wisdom I have gained over these twenty plus years with a little advice for soccer moms and dads.

First of all, stock up on soccer socks and shin guards. One pair never seems to be enough, as they are never in the right place on Saturday morning when you are searching frantically for them without even the benefit of your first cup of coffee. Along those lines, start eyeballing the foot sizes of your friends’ and neighbors’ children to see if you can snag any hand-me-down soccer cleats. Those things get expensive.

Second, hit Sam’s Club or Costco for large cartons of various junky snacks, which you will be required to provide after one or more of junior’s games. Never mind the fact that they had breakfast right before the game and they only played for 45 minutes, barely breaking a sweat. Good snacks and juice boxes are a non-negotiable requirement of soccer.

Third, invest in serious sun, rain, and cold gear for the hours you will spend on the sidelines watching your kids play. No matter how beautiful the previous week’s weather was, invariably on the weekends it will turn hot and muggy or freezing cold with pelting rain. I recently saw a folding camp chair that had a plastic bubble surrounding it. That’s about what you need to protect yourself.

Once at the game, swallow that Valium so that you can tolerate the crazed yelling and sideline coaching of other parents. (Never mind the fact that none of them ever played the sport in their lives.) You would think these pint-sized dynamos were in line for a four-year college scholarship the way parents carry on. Even someone near and dear to me (who shall remain nameless) has been kicked off soccer fields for unsportsmanlike behavior.

After the game, do nothing before you get that uniform and those socks into the presoak cycle of your washing machine. Institute a rule that soccer cleats are not allowed to touch the floors in your house. That’s what the garage is for. Get a cheap knife to scrape the mud and grass off of them.

Above all, remember that youth soccer is intended for exercise, fresh air, and FUN. Sit back and enjoy, whether your child is the next Cristiano Ronaldo or just a gangly kid having a good time with friends.

The Need to Be Right

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Some days I go around in the clutches of my own self-righteousness. Whether it’s the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive or the fool who can’t bag my groceries or the parents who are totally mishandling a situation with their children, I feel certain I know better.

Luckily for others, I usually hold my tongue, having been taught as a child, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Inwardly, though, I stew. Or else I make nasty comments inside the safety of my car so that the object of my ridicule has no idea what I’m saying.

My family members, however, are not so lucky. At home I’m known for having to have the last word in an argument, and I will strategically hurl some invective at my target as he or she is leaving the room. If I’m not going head to head with my husband about child rearing, household tasks, or the logistics for a family outing, I am haranguing my children about their mistakes and foolish choices. Even as I’m in the midst of full-on nagging, I try telling myself to let it go, but I just can’t seem to stop myself.

It’s exhausting always having to be right. A couple of years ago, I was working with my life coach Melissa on parenting issues, and she shared with me this insight from Scott Noelle on his website EnjoyParenting.com.

I’d Rather Feel Good!

We’ve been conditioned by the agents of our culture –parents, teachers, the media, etc. — to believe that our success and happiness depend on being “right.”

Today, let’s question that …

When you argue with your child, you may be “right,” but do you feel happy?

When you criticize your partner, you may be “right,” but do you feel love?

When you berate yourself for making a mistake, you get to be “right” about your wrongness! Are we having fun yet???

If you feel stress today — even mild tension — ask yourself if you’re trying to be “right” about something, and consider the potential relief of simply letting go.

Just breathe … and tell yourself, “I’d rather feel good than be right!”

I keep this wisdom on a bulletin board in my laundry room so that I can keep reminding myself that being “right” is not all it’s cracked up to be.

More Than Lip Service

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Today we remember with a mixture of sorrow and anger the horrific terrorist attack on 9/11 that brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, as well as the attack on the Pentagon and the downing of an aircraft in Pennsylvania. Around the country, moments of silence will be observed and tributes will be made to those whose lives were lost on that tragic day 14 years ago.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans experienced an upsurge in patriotism and in appreciation for our military and first responders, whose heroic actions were praised far and wide. Flags flew in neighborhoods across the country, and yellow ribbon decals with the exhortation to “Support Our Troops” appeared on car bumpers.

I’m not so sure, though, that we as a nation have put our money where our mouths are, so to speak. Shortly after the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, President Bush and the Congress sent troops into Iraq to engage in a costly and deadly war that most experts now agree was a mistake. Not only that, but our soldiers were put in harm’s way with inadequate armor for either their bodies or their military vehicles, often resulting in injury and death.

Back home, injured and psychologically damaged service men and women have faced backlogs at VA medical centers and in the VA’s processing of their medical claims. It’s cold comfort to a seriously injured warrior to tell him we appreciate his service. Better to show him by helping him heal.

People talk about police officers, firefighters and military personnel as if they are superheroes. Yet they certainly don’t get paid like it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, the average salary for a firefighter was $48,750 and for a police officer $59,530. And that’s the average. Many first responders make much less. And a first year enlisted soldier makes a mere $20,400. In contrast, the average salary of top executives was $122,060. And according to the Wall Street Journal, top CEOs make 373 times as much as the average worker in the U.S. (WSJ, May 13, 2015)

I realize that being a cop or a firefighter or a soldier is not just a job, but a calling. Like teachers (my favorite people, who, by the way, made an average of $58,000 in 2014), these men and women did not go into their chosen field for the money. But wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of waving flags and sporting bumper stickers, we rewarded them tangibly for doing the difficult and dangerous work of keeping us safe?

Maybe we can tap those multi-million dollar CEO salaries and give our men and women in uniform a raise.

Voice of Labor

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Most people think of Labor Day as an excuse for a day off, a family barbecue, and a good white sale at the local Macy’s. But many of us have forgotten that the holiday was created by the labor union movement in the United States and is meant to be a celebration of the so-called blue collar working man (and woman).

Today unions are under attack. Half of the states in the U.S. have passed Right to Work laws, which limit the influence of labor unions. These laws bar unions from requiring employees to pay a “fair share” fee to cover the expenses of negotiating contracts and protecting workers under those contracts. Yet the law requires that non-union workers reap the rewards of union-negotiated working conditions.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute reveals that wages in Right to Work states are 3.1% lower than in non-RTW states. Studies have also found a decrease in employee benefits such as health insurance and pensions. This seems logical to me. By reducing workers’ incentives to pay union dues, unions’ ability to get raises and benefits for their workers is diminished.

Union membership has decreased in the past decade as unions and their members have been demonized as greedy, unprincipled, and lazy. This is particularly true in the public sector, where taxpayers have become convinced that teachers and other public employees have it made in the shade while they, the taxpayers, pay for outlandish perks. Yet in many states, after adjusting for inflation, teacher salaries have actually decreased in recent years.

Have unions and their members sometimes been guilty of abuses? No doubt. But so have many corporations. Need I mention anything more than the name Enron?

Unions came into being because employers took unfair advantage of their workers, seeking to maximize profits and minimize expenses. Grueling work in unsafe conditions, child labor, and low wages were often the norm until workers gained the ability to organize and demand something better for themselves and their families.

It’s interesting to me that so many middle class and lower middle class people are vehemently anti-union. Unions were one of the factors that allowed the middle class to flourish in the first place. Today we see greater and greater income inequality, yet people are all for reducing or abolishing organized labor, the historical champion of the underdog.

Today on Labor Day, it would behoove us to reflect on what the labor movement has meant for ordinary Americans in the past. Let’s not be so eager to discard unions.