5 Things I Want My Son To Know About Dating

mother's day tea. (2)Dear Beagle,

When you were in preschool we had a special date called “Mother’s Day Tea.  You and your classmates worked for a week to create invitations, place settings, and snacks.  On the day of the event, dressed up in your Sunday best and wearing a necktie for the first time, you sat patiently waiting at a pint-sized table for two.  I was outside the classroom waiting anxiously for my name to be called.  “Mrs. Dunham,” the teacher announced, which prompted you to stand up, push your chair in gracefully, and walk to the door to take my arm.  You led me to my place as if on official business, and asked me to join you for a bite.  I graciously accepted the tiny chair you pulled out as I fought back tears of joy.

My heart gushed with emotion that day.  Watching you learn the timeless lessons of hospitality thrust my mind toward the day you would be taller than me, dressing in man clothes and shaving in preparation for your date – which wouldn’t include me.

You had perfect manners that day, Beagle.  Any girl would have been proud to be sitting across from you.  My hope, now that you’re dating, is that you retain the sense of importance in this ritual.  You’ve got the basics, but there is so much more about relationships that I want you to know.  Here are the top five:

  1. Don’t be careless with another person’s heart and don’t let them be careless with yours.  You are playing with two hearts.  Protect them both with gratitude, for the risk of incurring hurt is high when you take each other for granted.  Be kind, be gentle, be aware.  Honor the validity of your partner’s feelings even when they differ from your own.  Love is a two-way street.  It’s not about taking and using, it’s about giving and receiving.  Listen to what your own heart is telling you and act on it with a mix of caution and abandon.  And most of all, be brave.  Because at some point your heart will be broken.  But it will heal and find the capacity to love again.  That’s what the heart does so well.  And if it’s you that departs first, let her down with dignity and you will preserve your own.
  2.  Love the one you’re with.  We all want to feel special to someone.  We want to know that the person we’re with has hand-picked us from the pack of possibilities.  At first we are fixated on the other, blinded by love.  But as time wears on, eyes may wander and observations may surface.  If you find yourself distracted by the ‘greener grass,’ it’s time to re-evaluate.  Take stock of your feelings and sort them out so you can make clear decisions.  Perhaps it’s time to move on, perhaps not.  But if you decide to stay, put your whole self into it.  Intimate relationships require and deserve focus.
  3. Don’t kiss and tell.  This is a no-brainer.  If you want your relationships to succeed, you must honor sacred ground.  No matter how much your ‘Boyz’ pressure you for information, keep it to yourself, even after the relationship has ended.  Back away from the desire to brag about your progress with a girl.  Respect the secrets you discover about each other and, dare I say, with each other.  You will never regret the practice of becoming trustworthy.
  4. Be yourself.  Partners in relationship have a way of highlighting each other’s warts, especially when the shine of newness has worn off.  When one chews too loudly or the other does that thing she always does, it’s easy to be critical.  We start to snip away at each other like tailors trimming and binding to make a perfect fit.  Sometimes we agree to give up parts of ourselves and we become altered versions of the whole person we were born to be.  True, we all have some ‘fat’ to trim; we could give up some bad habits that serve no one.  But each of us is perfect and valuable and worthy as is.   Better to find a person that fits the clothes than alter the clothes to fit a person.
  5. Take responsibility.  Relationships possess a level of risk, both physical and emotional.  Don’t let those risks run away with you.  Think before you speak.  Think even harder before you act.  Know what I’m sayin’?  Let me spell it out…If you don’t want to become a teen parent, protect yourself.  Don’t assume your partner is taking care of business.  Or better yet, abstain.  Enough said.                                                                                                                               The most important piece of wisdom to remember about relationships is this: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN HAPPINESS.  Don’t try to blame your witchy girlfriend, or her angry mother, or her crazy friends.  No one makes you unhappy.  Happiness is a matter of choice and perspective.  If you love, respect, and care for yourself, happiness will not outrun you.

Beagle, you know how much I adore you.  You’ve long outgrown my cuddles, but I hope you’ll never outgrow my love.  I want the best for you and for all the people who are lucky enough to meet you in this lifetime.  So listen to your wise mother.  And bend down and kiss her once in a while.  She will always be your first love.

“So there’s this boy who stole my heart.  He calls me Mom.”  -anonymous

Driving Me Crazy

driverLong ago, husband and I determined that, whenever possible, the job of teaching our children would be delegated to professionals.  It’s not that we lack skills, but rather patience.  After several episodes of family meltdown on ski slopes, ice rinks, and swimming pools, we raised the white flag.  Better to preserve an amicable family dynamic than risk damage to our relationships over the breast stroke.  Our plan cost us thousands of dollars but saved us the possibility of nervous breakdowns or homicide.

Fast forward sixteen years to the opening chapter of Driver’s Ed.  I was shocked, but delighted, to pay close to $1000 for Principessa to learn all things car from the local school.  In a convenient memory lapse, I convinced myself that her twelve hours with the instructor would magically spare me many more hours of grief.  I know, naivete has no limits.

It turns out that the driving instructor was a handsome 20-something who apparently thought that my daughter’s driving was so perfect, he could catch up on texting whilst she experimented with her own rules of the road.  I could have complained, but truth be told, I knew it would take more than twelve hours behind the wheel no matter who sat beside her.

I was duly panicked to take the passenger seat but husband jumped in with his signature, ‘It’ll be fine’ attitude.  It wasn’t fine.

Six months after receiving her permit Principessa was still unclear about right-of-way and traffic lanes.  She blamed her confusion on the conflicting instruction she had received from husband and me.  Not to mention the way it was delivered – with a healthy dose of yelling.

Poor Principessa – first in line.   All along the way, she has suffered the brunt of our parental inexperience, helping us to carve out rules that would be solidly established by the time her siblings came of age.   They can thank her for the following rules of the road:  no driving with both parents in the car at once, no radio, no eating, no friends, no flip-flops…. Take note, parents.  I give you lessons learned the hard way.

The most helpful tip I can share was created by a desperate and teary-eyed Principessa, “Mom, maybe it would help if you pretended to be someone else.”  What?  You want me not to be your crazed, anxious, white-knuckled mother in the passenger seat?   Genius!  From thence forward, I became ‘Bernard’ (pronounced Bah-naaahd) and Principessa became ‘Barbie’ (prounounced Bahhh-bie).

From the moment we adopted our alter egos with thick Boston accents, the mood in the car transformed.  It’s wondrous that we didn’t crash, so steeped were we in humorous banter.  Barbie and Bernard had a grand time on the road – for the most part.  To say that I became a flawless driving instructor would suggest a level of aplomb beyond my abilities as a quick-tempered Italian.  But I was a vast improvement incognito.

As the License Exam day approached, I found myself afraid that Principessa would fail, thereby extending my tenure as driving instructor.  So we crammed in late night sessions of parallel parking and three-point turns.  She would pass this test, damn it.  My sanity depended on it.

Alas, she did.  I waved goodbye to her on her maiden solo voyage, and recalled a radio advertisement that claims “the first year of a teen’s driving is the most dangerous year of her life.”  What the what?!  I needed that terrifying tidbit like I needed an inflated auto insurance premium.

When Principessa offered to take her siblings on an outing to the beach, I nearly vomited from the thought of losing all three at once in a car crash.   It’s going to take me a while to get used to this and to appreciate the positive aspects of having one less child to shuttle around.  In the meantime, I’m losing sleep and gaining gray hair.  And, despite that, loving it all.

Dog Mirrors

I’ve always wanted a mutt, solely because of the common endorsement that ‘My mutt was the best dog I ever had.’  Of course there are more philanthropic reasons for choosing a rescue dog, but ultimately our decision was made by the fact that our family of five could not agree on a breed.

Husband wanted to enjoy longer than two months of dog-freedom after the passing of Rex.  But the rest of us were impatient, and very convincing with our reasons for jumping back into dog ownership.  Husband accused us of engaging in ‘puppy porn’ which is a fairly accurate description of our addiction to browsing PetFinder.com.

Principessa and I would fall in love anew every day and casually leave photos of glossy-eyed puppies on the family computer for husband to stumble over.  Gradually we wore him down with four-legged cuteness and took his reduction in resistance as a green light to move forward with adoption.  When this irresistible ball of fur jumped out of its crate, husband was sold.

oakley 10.13

It was I who had second thoughts.  We had a two week return policy in case things didn’t work out.  As if.

The following weeks included two trips to the vet, three prescriptions, hypo-allergenic food, and a subscription to pet insurance for a dog who was, well, sick as a dog.  Instead of returning our damaged goods, we became even more attached and protective and committed to dog rehabilitation.  We now have a healthy, energetic, puppy and a few less shoes, rugs, and electrical cords – all lost to the chewing nuisance.

Now, instead of worrying about ill health, we focus on ill behavior.  This, thanks to my passion for discipline.  Husband teases that by the time I’m done with dog training, Oakley will have more diplomas than the rest of the family combined.  Probably true.

On a regular basis, I haul the kids to puppy class and insist on their participation in training for good manners at home.  Principessa approached me with sincere concern that Oakley might be deaf.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because he doesn’t listen to me when I tell him to sit.” she replied.  Oh, my dear daughter.  Oakley is not deaf.  He’s a teenager.

Principessa has also complained that Oakley won’t cuddle with her.  “He’s so ungrateful.  I feed him and play with him and still, he ignores me.”  She could be me, reflecting on her.  The parallels are uncanny.

At a recent dog-training class, Peach and I discussed the common observation that dogs resemble their owners.  We giggled about the shaggy dog with the shaggy-haired woman and the aggressive dog with the angry-faced handler.  Turning the mirror on ourselves, we observed that   10-year old Peach, distracted by so many puppies in one room, had difficulty controlling Oakley’s similarly curious demeanor.

I’d like to say that Oakley is a perfect specimen at my command, thereby reflecting my own composed nature.  But in truth, when I find myself worrying that he is hyper and barky and unfocused, I have to admit that I, too, am off the rails.

Friend asked why, with a typically chaotic family life, I would want to add a dog to the mix?  Despite the ample research on the benefits of pet ownership, it resembles a crazy decision.  True, this.  But at the end of the day, five out of five Dunhams agree that dogs make us better humans.  We are more compassionate, less self-centered beings when caring for a canine.  And more importantly, when our worlds are ablaze with problems we can’t solve, there is always this…

sleeping dog 2

waiting for us at the end of the day.

Letter For New School Year

kindergartenDear Beagle,

It’s the start of another school year and your first year of High School.  Wow!  Remember that first day of kindergarten?  The teachers put you on the bus by mistake when I was planning to pick you up.  We were both so scared. We’ve come a long way since then.

I bet you’re glad to be in the home stretch.  You haven’t always been the biggest fan of school.  But this is IT – the period of time when you’ll gather stories that you’ll share in reminiscent conversations for the rest of your life.  ‘When I was in High School….’

You may love this school year or hate it.  You may have a teacher who doesn’t ‘get’ you, or a friend who breaks your trust.  But you will also cross paths with kind people and brave people and people who appreciate your sense of humor.  Love them all.  Be inspired by every experience – even the ones that make you want to scream.  Because this is real life – a bunch of experiences that make you want to cringe or to celebrate.  All of them are a pile of gifts just waiting to be opened by you.  Life is waiting to see what you’ll do with these gifts.

School might seem like a place that you have to go to.  I get that.  You can’t wait to be done, to be free in the world to make your own choices.  But the truth is, you’re already free.  Each day that you show up for life, you have choices.  You get to choose whether you’re miserable or happy.  You choose to be kind or to be mean.  You choose to do the work that is asked of you or not.  Every choice that you make tells the world who you intend to be.

Dad and I don’t send you to school hoping you’ll be the smartest or funniest or coolest.  We don’t care if you’re picked for a team or invited to parties.  We don’t hope you’ll be the best at anything because we already love you completely.  You can’t earn more of our love or lose any of it.  That’s the way it is.

We send you to school to experience life.  To practice being you in a sea full of people.  To learn how to be brave and disciplined.  To make mistakes and learn to forgive yourself.  To discover your hidden talents and maybe some limitations too.

Take care of yourself this year, Beagle.  And your classmates and teachers too.  You’re all together in this thing called school.  Dad and I are here to support you.  We will always be your biggest fans.

Love,

Mom

Man’s Best Friend, and Woman’s and Children’s

dogAn orphaned four year old dog named Rex meets a longing family who is eager to fill their hearts with a new friend.  They are not worried about the dog’s bad habits, his loud bark, or his boundless energy.  They can see that he is smart and eager to learn.  He responds to their attention with the same vigor as he does to his food bowl.

For eight years, the children and Rex grow up together.  They play together, annoy each other, and rejoice in unison when treats are dispersed.

Rex causes grief, as labs can.  He eats Mom’s flowers, steals pizza out of the hands of children, and swipes roast chicken off tables.  But still he is loved.

Slowly, age catches up to Rex, given away by a limp and and a gray muzzle. Peach remarks that even though he’s old, Rex still enjoys a good squirrel chase.

Until the day he let the squirrel pass without so much as the blink of an eye.  He also stopped noticing, or caring, when visitors entered the house.  And he couldn’t be bothered to get up for dinner.

“It’s time.” Mama said, but even she wasn’t sure.  Is he suffering?  What would he want?

The family waited, maybe too long, to make the decision.  Objective eyes assured them that Rex needed to be freed from his cumbersome body.

So the family made THE appointment.  They smothered him with love those last few days, feeding him previously forbidden treats and giving endless belly rubs. A stepping stone was made in his memory while big tears fell.

Mama holds the empty collar and slack leash, missing the tug at the other end.  Peach plays the blues on the piano, then asks to go shopping – her girlish escape.  Beagle reminisces about the time he convinced Mom to let Rex sleep in his bed.  Rex was the brother he never had.  Husband attempts humor and Principessa just sobs.

Life, in its busyness, tricks us sometimes into believing that pets are just another chore.  But when they leave us, the enormity of their contribution to the family crashes into awareness, leaving a gaping hole.  Life is strangely quiet without Rex.  We are a family minus one – one loud, lovable lab.

City Girl In The Country – With Ticks!

deer_tick_1I’ve come a long way since my first experience with a tick.  There’s no more screaming or thrashing or hyperventilating.  But as I discovered today, I still can’t claim dominion over my faculties when the little buggers are stuck on ME.

I thought I was handling myself well when, while showering at the gym, I found three ticks inhabiting a sensitive region of my body.  Devoid of tweezers, and unwilling to wait the several hours until I returned home, I threw myself together and headed for the drugstore.  Friend happened to call in the process and commented that I was handling myself surprisingly well.  She couldn’t see how fast I was driving.  Anxiety was building.  But I patted myself on the back anyway.  Not bad for a city girl, I thought.

Perhaps the cosmetics cashier wondered what kind of diva runs through CVS on an emergency tweezer purchase, ripping through the packaging on her way to the car.  But she could not have been as perplexed as the woman who watched me peel out of one parking spot near the entrance of the store to a different spot at the far end.  You know, the spots where the employees park and LEAVE THEIR CARS for the day.

Frantic to remove the invading ticks, I dropped my pants and began plucking.  When all three were tossed out the window, I performed another thorough scan of the nether regions of my body to make sure I hadn’t missed any.  Breathing a sigh of relief, I glanced up at the car beside me and saw a man, cup of coffee in hand, jaw dropped and eyes wide.  I froze briefly, matching the surprise on his face.

Contemplating my next move while putting myself back together, I smiled sheepishly and considered introducing myself.  He had just seen me half-naked after all.  Instead, I opted for a casual shoulder shrug and a wave.  Whatever.  I had ticks!

Off I drove to meet husband so we could exchange cars.  Still not convinced that I was tick-free, I asked husband to check my backside.  He refused, siting our location as too public.  Newly desensitized to potential onlookers, I insisted and threw myself prostrate into the back seat of the car with my shirt up.

Alarmed at my lack of decorum, husband tried appeasing me with a perfunctory exam lasting all of one second.  “You’re fine.” He declared.  “I’ll do a check when we get home.”

Are you kidding?  A tick could be infusing me with Lyme Disease by then!  Despite my begging, husband stood firm, which left me thinking….Had this happened in young adulthood, husband would not have hesitated when his wife threw herself in the backseat asking for a bodily examination.  Just sayin’.

A few hours after parting ways, husband phoned in a bit of a huff to report that he had picked up a friend of mine – a hitchhiker.  Excuse me?  A little fellow, he explained.  Tiny, black, crawling up my arm.  Husband detailed a rather frantic encounter with a tick as he tried to remove it while driving on the highway.

Oh, I see.  So you, country boy, had to remove a tick immediately, without even stopping the car, for fear of its consequences.  But when your wife has ticks embedded in her, you tell her to calm down.

Husband reverted to an accusatory defense strategy – something about sabotage and planting ticks in the car.  I admitted to dropping one of the ticks on its way out the window, but let’s not lose sight of the real issue.  Country Boy is a fraud.  Chalk one up for City Girl.

Eddy Out

white-water-rafting-rapids_03I wasn’t at the Boston marathon this year.  Nor was I with my parents in my childhood home in Watertown.  But I watched, along with the rest of the world, a week’s worth of terror on my turf.  I wake each morning since April 15th feeling violated, as if my own home has been robbed.

During this week of evolving tragedy, husband and I checked in with our brood to allow for debriefing.  Nine year old Peach responded with a casual dismissiveness, leaving us to wonder if her detachment from fear was self-protective.  When she emerged from her bedroom in full-blown tears, we assumed it was bombing-related.  Instead we got this:  “Blubby (the goldfish) is dead!”

Stifling a smile, I offered my deepest sympathies.  As words of comfort flowed, it struck me that these same condolences are being uttered throughout our city.  Be it animal or human, when a loved one has passed, we are called to support each other.

I tried to disconnect these two incidents, assigning weight where it was due, but the two were entwined like the two sides of the ‘Best Friends’ necklace that Peach asked me to disentangle.  She wondered about her fish’s passing, “Why me?  Why are brother’s fish still alive?  What did I do wrong?”  To which I replied, “Death is not personal.  It happens to all living things.  It’s part of the deal.”

This detached truth is the tiny light that burns eternal.  Death, illness, loss…they are simply part of the risk of being alive.  We are no more immune to them than we are to joy and abundance.  When we engage in life, we are equally at risk of experiencing overwhelming love as we are at experiencing loss.  Life doesn’t play favorites.  When we try to assign reason to life, it makes us suffer and keeps us stuck in confusion.

At times like these, I am reminded of the instructions given at the start of a white water rafting trip.  If one falls out of the boat:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Don’t try to swim – it’s futile to fight the river
  3. Put your feet up and let the river take you.  It may toss you around, but eventually it will spit you out.
  4. Look for the rescue rope.  Someone will throw it to you.

This week felt a lot like falling out of a boat – again.  There was panic and fear.  We scrambled underwater, searching for terrorists and demanding resolution, trying to stop the hurt and climb back to safety.  At last, the river of life spit us out, heads above water, and we could see hope.  All around us, ropes were thrown – expressions of solidarity and generosity coming from near and far.

I used to marvel at Anne Frank’s famous declaration that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.”  But now, witnessing the collective response to the Boston bombings, I too, am certain that there is more good in the world than evil.  There are more people trying to save the world than hurt it.

It is certain that life will toss us into the river again and we will lose precious possessions in the process.  But we can also be certain that we will be rescued.  We just need to stay centered, release our resistance, and reach for the ropes.

Boston is eddying-out after negotiating a wicked rapid. It still has a long stretch of river to travel before finding its footing on dry land.  Knowing Boston, it will take on the rest of this river with a vengence.  Then it will climb back in the boats, ready to show the river who’s boss.

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