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My baby turns Thirteen tomorrow. He was almost two weeks late and beat the East Coast/Midwest Blackout by two hours. He was born purple, his umbilical cord tied in a knot and wrapped around his neck twice, but recovering immediately. He wanted his mama from the first moment and stays close to this day, but not too close. That would be completely uncool. I’m really not ready for this next stage, but it’s not my rodeo. Well, it kind of is. He is my son, after all, but the experience of becoming a teenager is his and his alone.

Thirteen has been seen as a rite of passage for a long time in many cultures, marked with parties, bar and bay mitzvahs, a step toward young adulthood, but also a time of confusion. Body changes, pressure to do well, and the desire to prove oneself can make turning thirteen more difficult than it needs to be.

I remember Thirteen and it wasn’t that great of a year, but then it was also a year where some exciting things happened. I remember being really jazzed to become a teenager. I have a late birthday and was always one of the youngest ones in my class, so turning thirteen and catching up with my friends was something that couldn’t come soon enough for me. I wish that I had had the gift of hindsight back then, to see that Thirteen was not all it’s cracked up to be. I still wasn’t an adult, much to my dismay, and I still had a LOT to learn.

It was during that year that I made the colossal mistake of calling one of my friends a bitch, and not even to her face, but in a note to a mutual friend. I wasn’t quite that brave and it was my first stab at speaking my mind. I didn’t even write out the whole word. If I remember correctly, I wrote, “B_T_H.”. In fairness, as I look back, she kind of deserved it, but that was not the best decision I ever made. Of course, I was ratted out by the mutual friend and popular opinion rained down on me for the rest of 8th grade, only letting up when we went to different high schools the next year. I learned a hard, valuable, lesson on social niceties and never wrote anything like that ever again.

Thirteen was also the year when I fell in love with the discipline and opportunities in marching band. I am a proud band geek, through and through. Thirteen was my first year of Band Camp, and it will be for Youngest Child, too, next summer. Band Camp was definitely a rite of passage. I had always loved music, I still do, but the late nights, early mornings, sweat, aches, heat, and sky-high diving platforms into the lake made me confident in my abilities. I met new, life-long friends (“Hi, I’m George.” “I’m Ringo.” “I’m Paul.” “I’m John. I’m dead.”) who knew nothing about the “bitch” incident and when they did find out, didn’t care. I found people who didn’t think I was weird, people who I fit in with. I was lucky that way. I loved everything about Band Camp and marching band and still do, even all these years later. I’m so glad that my boys have been through band and it makes me smile to see those friendships continue to grow.

Thirteen saw my first “real” boyfriend, whom I took to my first Homecoming Dance, and I am still friends with him to this day. I won’t elaborate too much, but it was an exciting time for me and that experience began teaching me how to gauge and handle future relationships in a good way. I always expected the respect that I was given with that first dating experience. I don’t like to think of Youngest Child dating at the moment, but the Italian mama in me does want him to find a nice girl someday.

Thirteen allows you to start forming the person that you will eventually be. That wonderful new ability to think abstractly makes you question ideas and beliefs that you’ve always had, in both good and bad ways. Boundaries are pushed, limits are tested, and while it drives parents crazy, it’s actually a good thing. It’s good practice for making adult decisions one day. As for parents, Thirteen means we can’t be with them every second, we shouldn’t be, and that we have to trust that they will make the good choices. Sometimes they won’t, and that part really sucks because we think we failed, but it helps to breathe deeply and to keep going. (A nice glass of wine at the end of the day doesn’t hurt, either.) Every day is a new day, a fresh day, and they need to know that. They need to know that they are loved, mistakes and all, and that we are the people they can count on, even if we overreact at first. We’re both going to screw up, parents and Thirteen, and if we understand that from the get-go, it’ll be easier to forgive ourselves and each other when it happens.

I hope that Thirteen is kind to my boy. He’s been through some storms this past year and I think we’re on the right track, but Thirteen can be tricky. I want him to be happy, but I want him to choose wisely. There’s  a reason why Thirteen was celebrated as a rite of passage; you’re not a little kid anymore and people really start to hold you responsible for your actions. People can eye teenagers with distaste and suspicion, myself included, and sometimes with good reason. Teenagers can be horribly obnoxious and even threatening. There’s something about the infusion of hormones, I think, that entices you to do stupid things sometimes. (Getting kicked out of JC Penney in Southland for jumping on the elevator rings a bell. Group mentality.) It isn’t fair, to be sure, especially to the kids who are amazing, like Oldest and Middle Children’s friends, but it remains and that’s something that Youngest Child will encounter as he turns Thirteen.

What do I wish for Youngest Child this year? I wish him wisdom. I wish him grace. I wish him some of the best memories he’ll ever make, and the friends to make them with. I wish him the fortitude to withstand peer pressure and to remember what we’ve taught him. I wish him love and acceptance. I wish him love. I wish him love. I wish him love.

In the meantime, I now have three teenagers and will appreciate all prayers and good thoughts.

Happy Birthday, Youngest Child. It’s gonna be great.

 

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I am blessed. Unequivocally, undoubtedly, blessed. It’s easy to forget, sometimes. It’s easy to let the problems of the universe sink in, to let the daily annoyances pile up and inspire resentment, but that’s when we have to take a few steps back and get a new perspective. We need to let those unimportant things go and either make a new plan or let it be. Here are some of my blessings:

  1. My husband. I am married to a man (for almost twenty years!) who has seen me at my best and most definitely at my worst. He has loved me through four pregnancies, three kids, job loss, financial crises, a depression/anxiety diagnosis, and my frustration with keeping up an older house and no money to do it. Oh, and did I mention that he has to put up with me trying to convince him to move to London?
  2. My kids. My boyos: Oldest Child, Middle Child, and Youngest Child. All different, all amazingly wonderful. I never imagined being the mother of all boys, but God works in wonderful ways and even with all of the ways they are different from me, they are my heart.
  3. My family. My family is huge, mixed-up, made up of many components, a wee bit dysfunctional, but most important, loving. I wouldn’t trade my family for anything in the world.
  4. My friends. Like everyone, I have different groups of friends in different places and from different times in my life. I am deeply thankful for each one of them.
  5. I live in a country where I’m free, not only as a person, but as a woman. In many places in the world, even today, I would have no rights to anything. The U.S. isn’t perfect by any means, but I can wear what I want, marry who I want, drive, go anywhere I like without a chaperone, and criticize the government without worrying about being thrown in prison, or worse. There’s much work to do, but things are moving in the right direction.
  6. My hedgie. She’s amazing, cranky and cuddly at the same time and I love her.
  7. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to several countries. I have the wanderlust. Bad. I believe that seeing how other people live in other parts of the world is essential. How can we work together if we live in ignorance and all we know of others is what fear mongers tell us? Granted, I haven’t visited any war-torn nations, but the places that I have been have given me a greater appreciation for the world as a whole. Now, I just have to figure out how to travel more frequently. (Rick Steves, have you looked at my résumé yet?)
  8. I’m a published author. Not a New York Times bestselling author, but I was able to get published by a company. Let’s see if it can happen again. (Slightly greedy, I know.)
  9. Facebook. This was a toughie, because Facebook is most definitely a colossal time-waster. But it has also allowed me to keep in touch with people who I may have otherwise lost contact with. In most cases, that is a blessing.
  10. Creature comforts. There’s an old hymn that says, “There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep. There’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for you blessings on me.” It’s one of the truest songs I know. I don’t need, or want, a huge house, expensive cars, or designer clothes. Most of the world doesn’t have what I have: Enough.

Reminding myself of how much I actually have when I want something may not stop the desire, but it does make me appreciate my blessings. I wish the same for you.

A presto.

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Oldest Child leaves for college tomorrow. It’s sort of surreal at this point. We’ve been preparing for this well over a year now: college campus visits, approximately 10,000 pounds of college mail, discussions, decisions, scholarship applications, letters of recommendation, buying room supplies, money discussions, rule discussions (no burning couches!), the list goes on. The boy himself is just about ready. He’s been packing up his room all week long and will vacate today to allow Middle Child to move in so that tomorrow, we’ll only have to load the second car in the morning, the first car being loaded up tonight. It just doesn’t quite seem real, yet.

When a child is born, most parents, us included, immediately decide that the tiny little newborn will be going to college one day in the distant future. It won’t even be a discussion, since in this world, a college degree will soon be required to work at McDonald’s. (Not really. I made that up. But, it does seem like it.) And not even just a bachelor’s degree, for more and more jobs these days, it seems like a master’s degree is “preferred” and since I’ll be paying off my student loans until I retire (at 83), scholarships are not only a good idea, they’re necessary. Oldest Child has acquired a few of those, enough to make his debt load significantly lighter than mine with some really cool research opportunities to boot. Did I mention he gets to go to London for five weeks next summer for school? My favorite city in the whole entire world? Where there is amazing architecture and history and the TUBE… but I digress… The point is that college is expensive and I am so proud of him for taking the initiative so that he could follow his dream without sinking into deep debt.

I really haven’t processed this yet. I don’t know if I will tomorrow when I bring up the second car load or when I get home and it’s all over with or the first time I forget that he’s not home anymore. He has left to go on trips and to Band Camp every year, but this is new territory. I know he’ll be home, but really, it’s just to visit. This marks the beginning of his true independence, the chance for him to put everything he’s learned about life to the test: how to behave, how to make choices, how to get along with new people when he has to. In truth, I wouldn’t care if he got a degree in underwater basket weaving as long as he stays a good person and can support himself. Have you ever watched those What Would You Do? episodes where John Quinones watches to see if anyone will say something when a drink is spiked or a girl is harassed? It’s kind of like that. I hope he’s the kind of man who steps in and does the right thing, even when no one is watching, through college and beyond. I hope he doesn’t make stupid choices. I hope he misses me.

This is an amazing opportunity for him. I didn’t get to go away to college. My college career happened in spurts over several years until I finally got my bachelor’s degree and I feel like I missed out on the whole college experience. It was so difficult to do it that way, but I really didn’t have a lot of choices and although I have the satisfaction of finally accomplishing it, I didn’t want my kids to go through the same thing. So far, we’re 33% successful.

The cars are mostly loaded now. Oldest Child is out with friends, saying goodbye. We already had our family pizza dinner with a trip out for ice cream together. He’s not going very far, I can be there in less than two hours, but it will feel a million miles away. His brothers profess relief that he’s going, but I suspect that’s just bravado talking. They will have their own rooms for the first time since Youngest Child was two and Middle Child was, well, he’s never had his own room, so that part is genuine happiness. Still, Oldest Child has always been there, throughout their whole lives, so this will be new territory for them, too. They’ll only have each other to fight with. Hours-long games of Monopoly will be few and far between because it’s not as much fun with only two.

It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s not a sad goodbye. I’m eager to see him fly, to make his own way in the big world. I will rejoice in his triumphs, cringe at his mistakes, (We all make them, especially when we’re young.), comfort during his heartbreaks. I’ll try not to ask too many questions, try to refrain from giving my opinion unless I’m asked, but let him know that I’m always there for him and his friends. It’s good practice for the rest of his life, with the safety net of Marty Man and me to support him. Even as he leaves the nest, however, I still remember that sweet baby from long ago. They grow up, you know, and it really is a beautiful thing.

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I’ve been on a bit of a holiday from things: work, home, and, yes, writing. (Actually, I have a summer job, but that’s my fun one and I don’t really consider it work. I enjoy it too much!) I did actually plan to try and write a bit when I was in Italy, but there was just no time, so now I’m jumping back in. I do want to try and finish the novel that I’m working on, at least the unrevised bit of it, this summer, if possible, but first, a blog post. I won’t bore you with all of the details of my trip, but just a few highlights.

I was in bella Italia, beautiful Italy. The flight was long, cramped, and boring, so I’ll spare you the details. We were fortunate enough to immediately get our tour group’s bus from the airport to our hotel in Rome, driven by the talented Carlo, our driver for the week. An Italian motorway gave way to increasingly smaller city streets, passing through buildings covered in graffiti. I thought the graffiti would go away once we got into Rome proper, but that was not so. In fact, it seems the only way to not have graffiti on your building in Rome is to build a locked gate around it, but then the gate will have graffiti. I found it extremely surprising that a city with a heavy tourist population would have so much vandalism. A lot of it is political, but still, graffiti is ugly no matter where you go.

If you don’t look at the graffiti, Rome is beautiful, in a chaotic way. There are no traffic rules. Absolutely none. Seriously, if there are rules, no one is following them. I don’t even know why there are lines on the road. Tiny cars veer in and out from between large trucks and busses while scooters rule any in-between spaces and even sidewalks. Crossing the street almost gave my mother heart attacks, but we followed the advice of our local guide, Elena: “Shoulders back, chest out, don’t look at the drivers, close your eyes, and GO!” She was right. Roman drivers can sense even a small inkling of hesitation and will keep going if you pause before crossing. It’s kind of like being a teacher. Still, everyone seems to take it in stride; it’s the way things are done. And in the midst of all of this chaos, beautiful ruins, thousands of years old, are scattered through the entire city. Public water fountains flow with water from the ancient aqueducts and the Coliseum seems impassive to the tourist busses that rumble by.

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View of Rome

Rome is extremely walkable, as were all of the cities, if one holds their purse close, closed, and zipped. Gypsies, or Romani, are everywhere, selling cheap crap or trying to scam naïve tourists into taking pictures for 5 euro or taking a rose, after which they get very close to you and say, “Give me money.” If one avoids the heavy tourist areas, or just flat out ignores them, it’s not a problem, just annoying. In the areas by our hotels, we walked around quite comfortably and safely, even at night.

Vatican City was amazing. Although Oldest Child had immediately given me his copy of The DaVinci Code as soon as I decided to go to Italy (as an inspiration to sneak into the private collections), the amount of historical treasures that were actually on display was dumbfounding. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and priceless works of art are all on display, no need to go hunting behind the scenes. The Sistine Chapel was overwhelming and brought me to tears with the sheer passion of the work painted not only on the ceiling, but the walls. Silence is enforced there and prayers are said. Michelangelo’s most famous Pieta (he carved several) is on display in St. Peter’s Basillica, more beautiful than I had ever dreamed. I got to be inside of St. Peter’s Square, a place that we watch on Christmas Eve and Easter every year, jammed to the gills with people. It was nowhere near as full as it is for those holidays, but it is an immense area. I’m not Catholic, but I could have spent days in the Vatican.

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St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

We took a day trip from Rome to Pompeii, the town that was buried by ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The amount of work that has been done and how much of the original town has been uncovered is astounding. Private homes, shops, wells, and, yes, brothels, are all still there, some looking as if their owners could come back at any moment. Our guide, Enrico, took us everywhere that he could, throwing in as much humorous information as possible and making sure our group saw all of the important things. There is actually a lot more of Pompeii that remains buried, but Enrico seemed confident that it would stay covered. The expense would be just too great and the important buildings had already been excavated. Still, walking the same streets that were once a real place, not a tourist attraction, was humbling and eerie. There were three casts of victims on display: a baby, a man and a dog. Even though they were only the molds of those unfortunates, the bodies have long since decayed, it was emotional to see the horrified expressions still evident after all this time. If I had to choose one word to describe Pompeii, it would be “haunting”.

After three days, we bid a fond “arrivederci” to Rome and moved on to Florence for a change of pace, but once we got there, our pathway to the leather factory we were to tour was blocked by a medieval football game. Apparently, it’s a really big deal there and gets quite rough. One of the most famous squares, or piazzi, was completely blocked off and there was a huge police presence, which our tour director sweet-talked us through. To make a long story short, we did get past the (fun) craziness and got to our wine-tasting, pizza dinner and leather tour on time.

We had a lot of free time to explore in Florence but also got to take a day trip to see the towns of San Gimignano and Siena, both nestled high in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Both have kept most of their medieval buildings and are, rightfully, very proud of them. We quite happily wound our way through the ancient streets, admiring both buildings and landscapes alike. Both of those towns are places where I would gladly go back and spend a lot more time exploring more of what they have to offer.

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City wall of San Gimignano

Venice was next, after a quick stop in Verona to see “Juliet’s balcony”. (FYI, Juliet was a fictional character. The play, by William Shakespeare, was based on warring political families in Verona at the time, but it remains a work of fiction.) Venice was stunning at first glance and remained so throughout the time we spent there. During the daytime hours, there were throngs of tourists to elbow through, and some particularly despicable Gypsies, but there were no scooters threatening to kill us, no busses to dodge, just water taxis and gondolas gliding up and down the narrow canals between homes and churches. In the evening, after the day-trippers leave, Venice is peaceful and breathtaking. Our hotel was across a large canal from Piazza San Marco, so we had to take a water taxi back and forth, an experience in itself. When it came time to go to the airport, we went by water taxi. It was fabulous!.

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Venice

The best part of Venice, however, was that I got to meet my friend, Sabrina, for the first time. We had started communicating almost a year ago online and she was able to meet my mom and me there. We had a wonderful afternoon, just walking around, talking, and getting to know each other. Hopefully, we’ll get to meet up again in a couple of years, perhaps in London. The sooner, the better!

I was given a great gift in this trip, and I have my mother to thank for that. My world was expanded, my appreciation and respect for another culture increased, and I found that while I’m not even close to being fluent in speaking Italian, I am a fairly functional tourist. My next trip isn’t quite in the works yet, we are sending Oldest Child to college next month, after all, but I’m looking forward to what ever adventure comes my way

Ciao!

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Tonight, I watched my two older boys play in their high school marching band show, as I have for the past few years. I usually only go once or twice a season. Football games, with the crowds and bad behavior, are not my cup of tea. I’m only there for the music, but, boy, am I happy to watch them.

The marching band was wonderful. I had seen them at the end of band camp in August, but watching them perform a medley of Beatles songs in their uniforms in front of an audience was soul-stirring, not just for the fact that the kids did a great job, which they did, but because it stirs up a plethora of memories for me.

I was a band geek in high school and I was proud of it. I still am. In the marching band, I found a community of quasi-misfits that welcomed me with open arms. I wasn’t a cheerleader, I wasn’t in student government, and while I wasn’t bullied, I certainly wasn’t a popular girl, but I fit right in with the band kids. In the summer of 1988, I went to my first band camp. I was absolutely terrified. Because the music program had been newly reinstalled only a few years earlier in our district, all three high schools shared a band. We were Tri-Union and although there was friendly smack-talk between schools, we were one cohesive unit. The only time I had ever been to any kind of camp before was when I had been in Girl Scouts and we went to weekend camp. It was wet and horrible and band camp didn’t appeal to me at first, but I loved playing the flute and decided to give it a try.

I went through initiation that freshman year. Back then, words like “hazing” didn’t really have the meaning they do today and as freshmen, we were subjected to things such as jumping off of the high dive (did it!), singing the school fight songs or “I’m a Little Teapot” in the dining hall, races of pushing pennies with our noses across the dining hall floor, and standing at attention during our free-time, monitored by upperclassmen. Each night, those who had committed transgressions such as forgetting to wear their class button or messing up during the many rehearsals were sentenced to marching into the lake at the close of evening’s rehearsal. The “Weenies” were made to march, in step, down to the lake and march in while the rest of the band came along to watch. Nothing horrible or serious ever happened and we went through it all with good attitudes.

On Friday night of that long, hot, tiring week, we were seated around the campfire with our “big brothers” and “big sisters” where we were blindfolded and given body parts of our respective mascots to eat (really cold noodles, grapes with syrup, and cashews) in order to truly become full members of the band. When it was done, we were all emotional with the work and sweat of the week as well as feelings of accomplishment. We had done it! We were in! And we really were. The band community is a welcoming one that protects its own and is fiercely loyal. If you weren’t an excellent musician, you may get ragged on in class or in rehearsal, but you were still a part of the group, always.I can still see that today in the band where my sons play. Most of their friends are fellow band (and/or theatre) members, mirroring my own experience more than twenty years ago.

The four years I spent in marching band were some of the happiest of my life. I can’t remember some of my high school teachers (okay, more than half of them), or who many of my other classmates were, but I can remember who the band seniors were when I was a freshman. Wayne Duperon and Renee Thompson were gods in my eyes back then and I knew from Day One that I wanted to be a drum major like them one day. I worked hard, won the “Best Sophomore” and “Best Junior” trophies and finally, my senior year, I made drum major with one of my best friends. I was a “big sister” to three freshmen and came back as a counselor after I graduated for four more years, even quitting a job in order to go to band camp. I had summer loves, best friends, and was challenged to push myself further than I ever thought I could. In my junior year, I auditioned and qualified to travel to Australia and Hawaii with the Michigan Lions All-State Band with my best friend, Jenny. We had a fabulous time, and learned the hard way that Honolulu does, indeed, have a red-light district. (A blog for another time…) For a kid who didn’t ever really think she would make anything of her life, music showed me that I could fly high, that I didn’t have to settle for anything, that I could achieve things through hard work and dedication. I didn’t feel like I had a place at home, but I had a place in the band. Band gave me the confidence I needed to fight through my abusive situation and to set goals in my life. Without it, I shudder to think of where I would be.

These things are what I remember when I watch my boys march across that field with their friends. Although I’ve encouraged them, I haven’t pushed them into this program. They both began in elementary school, followed it through into middle school, and were then swept away in high school, just like I was. Middle Son is in it mainly for the fun with the trumpet, but Oldest Son has amassed quite the collection of instruments, including my old flute and piccolo, which I heard loud, sweet, and clear on the field tonight, happy to be played again. I resisted letting him play it at first, selfish pride of ownership getting in the way, but I realized that it wasn’t meant to be hidden away. While there is a small sense of pride that they’re following in Mama’s footsteps, I’m more happy that they’ve found a place to shine and that they’ve found some amazing kids to be friends with, many of whom they will be friends with for the rest of their lives. Music and discipline do something to the soul that makes it swell with emotion, with possibility, and makes one feel things that they’ve never felt before. Music will help some kids find a place in a topsy-turvy world and will help others learn something new about themselves. Although I don’t feel like I was given a good academic education in my home district, the music program and my directors, Mr. Dale Olmstead and Mr. Dennis Winnie, made my high school years more than bearable.

Music is so important. It is love. May all of the bands keep playing. Thank you, marching band, for giving an old band geek some feels tonight.

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