Senior Moment

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One of the more stressful times in the parenting of a high school senior is the college application process. This year Halloween promises to be frightening, not because of ghouls and goblins, but because early applications are due Nov. 1.

Last night I had a shouting match with my daughter over homework and college application issues. It ended with me swearing that I didn’t care what she did, I’d already gone to college, and then storming upstairs to my room to enjoy a pleasant trip into dystopian America with Margaret Atwood.

While senior year is proceeding in all its mixture of hope and dread, pride and fear, I myself am old enough to enjoy the senior citizen discount at my local movie theater. Is it cliche to say I’m too old for this sh*!?

Being an older parent is not all bad. Having had a fulfilling career as a high school English teacher, I was ready to take on full-time parenting when my oldest child was born. I’d like to think I had a smidgen more patience to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of raising young children.

At my age, I don’t have a dashing social life that includes lots of late nights out or trips to the Caribbean. So I’m there for my daughter and her needs: food, clean laundry, and the definitions of difficult words in her reading material. The problem is: familiarity breeds contempt – hers, not mine. For the last three and a half years, she has been like an only child, and she feels her parents breathing down her neck like a creepy stalker. She is 18, an age at which in earlier times people were marrying, raising kids, and generally being adults. So she has the urge to be independent without the wherewithal. It’s a bad combination.

I keep repeating a mantra that has gotten me through other stressful times in my life as a parent: “This too shall pass.” Take deep breaths and repeat.

I have no doubt that my lovely, talented, and intelligent daughter will find a great college to attend next year. While it may come down to the wire with application deadlines, she will cross that finish line with or without the worry lines sprouting on my face. So I will try to rein in the exasperation, the urge to control, the fretting about what ifs. I will attempt to enjoy these “senior moments” with more grace and wisdom.

At least I’ll give it the old college try!

Not Falling for Halloween Decor

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My minimalist Halloween decor

I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I’m not a big fan of Halloween. When my kids were little, it always caused too much anxiety and excitement, sugar highs followed by colossal meltdowns.

Still, I always felt obligated to participate in the annual ritual of choosing costumes, returning costumes, choosing new costumes, buying hordes of candy, and sprucing up the house come October 1. Dutifully I’d haul up the large orange plastic boxes to the eager impatience of my children.

In our house, the sine qua non of holiday decor was the vinyl window cling. My kids had no end of fun situating these reusable stickers on our sliding glass doors and the front windows of the house. By the end of the season, the glass was covered by sticky fingerprints. I was incredibly cheap about holiday decorations, so our Halloween pumpkins, ghosts etc. didn’t exactly scream, classy. This was fortunate, though, because my children never met a decorative item that they couldn’t find a way to chip or break. We even had a headless Joseph as part of our Christmas manger scene for a while.

Nowadays, with my children grown, I’m much more understated about my Halloween decorations. It takes all of 15 minutes to put them up, and there are no complaints that my little faux trick-or-treaters standing sentinel at the front door are not scary enough. I am, however, in the minority around my neighborhood. People in my town really do it up big for Halloween: lights, inflatables, ghouls hanging from trees, you name it. One house in town is full on decorated for Dia de los Muertos, complete with two female mannequins standing in their front yard wearing festive dresses and Day of the Dead skeleton masks.

Some of the decorations my neighbors put up for Halloween are downright terrifying, and the homeowners even create their own sort of haunted house thrills on Halloween night as trick-or-treaters come by. For instance, my mild-mannered neighbor around the corner comes out from behind his house brandishing a fake chainsaw and chasing hapless candy seekers. this guy is so scary he almost caused my husband to call 911 one year when said hubby approached the house with our kids.

I love fall: the colorful leaves, the scent of woodsmoke, the taste of pumpkin treats, the crisp, cool days. But I can take or leave the Halloween hoopla. Soon it be will time to think about my favorite holiday: Christmas!

Sweater Weather

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The other day I bought a scented lotion called “Sweater Weather.” The description on the bottle promised notes of “Sun Crisp Apples, Autumn Leaves, Orchard Woods.” The weather has turned appropriately autumn-like, and I’m sitting in my warm kitchen, my feet encased in cozy socks.

Yesterday I was a shade underdressed as I went about my errands in temps that never broke above 60. I thought about the sweaters in my closet that have lain dormant, waiting for the turn of the seasons. At this time of year, my laundry basket is a hodgepodge of shorts, tank tops, leggings, jeans and long-sleeved tops. It’s the transitional period when the weather never knows what it wants to do.

I found a meme on Facebook that I love: “The weather just went from 90 to 55 like it saw a state trooper.” That perfectly expresses life in the Midwest. One moment in flip flops, the next in snow boots.

At home, I’ve embraced the change of season by making pumpkin bread and my first pot of chili for the season. I’ve stocked the fridge with apples and apple cider. I’ve started snacking on mellow creme pumpkins, those cloyingly sweet candies that no one I know besides myself loves.

Around town, the Halloween decorations are coming out. The tips of leaves are starting to match them in their oranges and deep reds. There are days when thick gray clouds loom overhead, yet never does a drop of rain fall. That is so typical of autumn here. In contrast, there are sparkling, sunny days that belie the chill in the air.

I love this time of year. Love wrapping myself in warm clothes and shuffling through the fallen leaves, smelling their burnt scent. Love resting a blanket on my legs while plowing through the stack of books I’ve gotten from the library. Love an extra cup of coffee to ward off the chill in the air.

Sweater weather.

Bailing on the Bucket List

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Every year in late summer, the fall color sighting guides come out in my local paper. Each year I save these articles, fully intending that this will be the year I go on an expedition to see the glorious changing of leaves in a nature preserve near my home. Better yet, I’ll take that fall color trip to New England that has been on my bucket list for the last 30 years.

I’d never heard of the term “bucket list” until a movie of the same name came out. It was a comedy about a couple of older gentlemen who meet in the hospital and decide there’s no time like the present to do all those things they’d wanted to do over the years. Soon people were talking about their own bucket lists and announcing that they’d checked one off after a certain trip or experience.

Most of us have ideas of things we’d like to do and places we’d like to visit someday. The problem is the generalized nature of that “someday.” We never get around to these dream activities. For me, fall color treks, bird watching, maple syrup tapping exhibitions, museum visits, and the glass pumpkin event at a local arboretum sit forlornly on my bucket list, waiting to be accomplished.

One of the reasons I’ve had for never getting around to these activities is time, or the lack thereof. As my children grew, I had the best of intentions to make time for these ambitions, but I always seemed to be busy with the kids. Invariably, the weekend of an event I’d always wanted to attend coincided with an important athletic event or recital for one of my kids. Even taking piano lessons had to wait until I could find an hour of time within my day free from childcare responsibilities.

Another thing that has happened as I’ve gotten older is that I no longer have the energy or physical stamina to accomplish some of the items on my bucket list. For instance, I’ve always thought it would be fun to take an extended biking trip in Europe. I used to think a Windjammer Barefoot sailing cruise sounded like an exciting idea. But who am I kidding? I’m lucky if I get myself to take an hour-long walk around the neighborhood these days. Some bucket list items are for the young, or at least the young at heart.

I also can’t handle crowds anymore. My favorite thing to do when I was young was to go to the free festivals on the lakefront in Chicago: Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, Printers Row Litfest. I always intended to take my kids downtown for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Michigan Ave. and the Fourth of July fireworks on Navy Pier. But the thought of traffic, parking hassles, and especially the hordes of people at these events discouraged me from my best intentions.

Some of my bucket list items have simply faded in importance over time. I’m no longer enamored of the idea of spending a week at a boozy all-inclusive resort in Jamaica or the Bahamas. (Plus, I’m married and don’t look good in a bikini anymore.) I’m not really interested in getting a Masters degree, becoming a gourmet cook, or opening a cafe/bookstore at this stage of my life.

As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that if something is really important to me, I’ll find a way to fit it into my life. A good example of this is an annual event in Chicago called the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, which features local authors as well as some renowned nationally-known writers such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and the late great Toni Morrison. The event is a fundraiser for the Chicago Public Library system, and friends of ours, knowing my love of literature, invite us to attend it every year. No matter what else is going on in my life, I make a point to be available that evening for the dinner. I’ve even attended without my husband when he was unable to make it.

Another example is taking my children downtown to see the light show at Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham Fountain is a majestic creation that sits overlooking mighty Lake Michigan. In the summer, the fountain is turned on, and there are nightly light shows with music that enhance the majesty of the beaux arts sculpture. Visiting Buckingham Fountain is a fond memory from my childhood, and I was determined that my children experience its magic.

Whatever the items on our bucket list, it’s okay if we don’t accomplish all of them. Respecting our ever-evolving priorities and making the effort to do what is truly important to us can be a fulfilling way to live a life.

 

Summer Cold

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It started earlier this week when my husband had a runny nose and nonstop sneezing. Sure that it was his allergies, he was disappointed in the failure of Claritin D to stop the onslaught. Then that evening, I started to feel it: the telltale tickle in the back of my throat that signaled an oncoming cold. Allergies indeed.

Having a summer cold is a strange phenomenon. While everyone is out and about on a beautiful sunny day, I am stuck on the couch with a box of tissues. Colds make sense in the depth of winter when the sun hasn’t been seen for days and the air is frigid. Then it seems appealing to have a cup of hot tea with honey or a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup. But since it’s sunny and warm these days, I’ve been using cold food and beverages – mostly water, but also the occasional bowl of ice cream – to assuage my sore throat.

I had all kinds of plans for cooking my son’s favorite dishes before he returns to college in a week. But since I look and sound like a plague victim, it seems unsafe to be handling food. And I had also planned to watch my daughter play soccer on this lovely morning, rare for August in Chicago, when the temps are moderate and the humidity low. But the weight I felt on my chest this morning when I woke up told me it would be best to get some extra rest.

Summer colds are a drag – unexpected, unpleasant, and inconvenient. In the scheme of things, I guess, my little cold is no big deal. With all my downtime, I’ve been reading a novel about a virus that turns people into vampires, creatures that the futuristic characters in the book call “virals.” In comparison, my bout of sneezing and sniffles seems like a summer breeze.

 

Play It Again, Sam

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My family likes to tease me about my penchant for watching certain television series over and over. How many times, they want to know, do I need to see thirtysomething or Gilmore Girls before I’ve had enough? The answer, of course, is: I’ll never tire of these or many other books, movies, and TV shows.

Repetition is a standard feature of life, starting in childhood. Mom and Dad might not enjoy reading Goodnight, Moon every night into infinity, but their sons and daughters can’t get enough of it. When my own kids were young, they wore out the VHS tapes of their favorite animated movies. They insisted on reading the same books time and again even though we had a gigantic library of selections.

Children’s fixation on repetition is actually important for their development. Repetition helps them learn. It not only helps them practice new skills, but it actually strengthens connections in the brain. Remember having to memorize poems or Shakespearean soliloquies? It may have seemed dull and pointless at the time. We saw no future in which we would suddenly launch into, “Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” But our teachers knew something we didn’t. Rote learning is good for our brains.

Beyond practicality, rereading favorite books or rewatching favorite movies and shows is comforting. It connects us with certain feelings and thoughts from times past. I can’t read a Curious George book without picturing myself in the children’s section of my childhood library, unable to read just yet but still eagerly poring over the pictures of George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat. Watching season 7 of Gilmore Girls reminds me of the summer before my oldest daughter went off to college, and I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.

“Play it again, Sam” is actually a slight misquote from the classic movie Casablanca. In the film, Ilsa asks the piano player at Rick’s, “Play it, Sam.” And at the end of the film, Rick simply tells Sam, “Play it.” By sheer repetition, though, the line stands for an iconic moment in an iconic movie.

So have no fear of playing it again, reader. Whatever it is, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, the first time around.

Last First Day

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This morning my daughter rose before dawn to catch the sunrise over the football field at her high school. It’s her last first day of school – and ours. Senior Sunrise is one of the many traditions we will experience to mark this important milestone in my child’s life. Soon she will be starting a new chapter in college. And my husband and I will face a new future together as empty nesters.

For nearly 29 years, my identity has been wrapped up primarily in my role as a mother. From the moment my oldest child took her first breath, I have been holding mine. It’s scary, this parenthood stuff. Late night fevers, scrapes on the playground, friendship drama, homework crises, fears about what our teens are up to on the weekends. “No rest for the weary,” my husband would often quip as we sat up waiting for one of our children, the ticking clock reminding us that in time, all this shall pass.

But there has been infinitely more pleasure than pain in shepherding our four kids through childhood. Those first smiles, warm hugs, late nights cuddling an infant have given way to fun excursions, adult conversations and joy in their achievements. As my daughter leaves for her last first day of school, she is tall, confident, and strong. Like my other children, she has been given a foundation from which to grow and mature.

In less than an hour, my daughter will join her fellow members of the Class of 2020 as they head into their first period classes. It will be a year full of “lasts” for us, but I’m not sad – just looking forward to the vistas opening up before her and all of us as we head into our futures.