If I Have to Celebrate Thanksgiving…

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2015, our last Thanksgiving with Kenneth

In the spectrum of holidays, Thanksgiving ranks as a “meh” for me. I’m not thrilled about the inaccurate, white-washed sugar-coating of history. At my age, I just want to be told the truth in life, even if it hurts. No more George Washington and cherry tree stories. I’m tired of being lied to.

The reality is that I live in a country full of people who will flip each other off over road rage, will most likely pass somebody being bullied and not say a word, and a large percentage of our population believes immigrants are horrible people and voted for a President whose platform was to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

But once a year, we celebrate Thanksgiving, a day to commemorate when IMMIGRANTS nicely and politely and perfectly dined with the Native Americans, once upon a time (of course it has to be sugar-coated, as are all great fairy tales). We decorate our homes with cornucopias and fall leaves, even in California, where there is no such thing as autumn. But illusions are the best part of being American. To celebrate our magnificent history, we gorge ourselves silly with food and add to our already-too-high BMI.

Yeah, I think the entire thing is weird.

Also, I’m a vegetarian. A traditional Thanksgiving menu makes me want to gag, so the holiday can’t even entice me with food.

With that said, I can’t really say no to a day with family. A day of sharing food and time. I wish there were more days like that. So, regardless of my opinion about it being the worst holiday of the year, I’ll be joining the masses and eating with my family–that is, the non-disgruntled family members who actually show up (*cough* life-has-been-cruel-to-them-middle-children-won’t-be-present *cough*). I’ll make a vegetarian pot pie for me and the kids while everyone else eats turkey, and we’ll eat pumpkin pie with whipped cream. My kids will run around like animals at the grandparents’ house and Grandpa will be ready for them to go home before it’s even time for the main dish.

The gratitude part of Thanksgiving is what kills me. All of a sudden everyone starts acting grateful. Some people stretch it out into a month of gratitude, especially with the rise of the internet memes and social media. But for most individuals it’s this one day.

One day.

They get real dramatic about it too as if we’re all suddenly trapped inside of a Lifetime movie. Cue the corny music.

I’m not sure how you can stuff a year’s worth of gratitude into one day.

I can’t complain about it though. Gratitude has been found to have positive effects on your brain. It’s actually a very healthy thing to practice.

For me, as a Buddhist, I try to practice gratitude all year. I keep a journal and write what I am grateful for each day. I attend weekly services so I can practice Buddhism with a sangha, to remind myself that there is something more to this life than my pain, and by practicing with others, I know that I am not alone in this journey. It’s not a one-and-done. It’s year-round, and it’s pretty darn hard. But it’s important. If you’re only focusing on the miserable parts of life, you will easily overlook everything that is going right.

And because I’m a weirdo, I try to stay afloat of all the horrific things that happens in life. You know, things like death, hunger, cancer, violence, natural disasters, financial woes, freak accidents, etc. If there’s a sad story to be read or heard, you better believe I’m on it. I find that other people’s pain brings me perspective, and as a result, gratitude for what I have. Life could always be better. But it could also be a heck of a lot worse. I try to never forget that. (Of course I have many days when I do forget my gratitude. Lots of days. But I try!)

I have a lot of things I’m NOT grateful for. Namely: single parenthood, widowhood, a short torso, not being born in Paris, ineptitude in learning languages, my lack of patience, and not being a soap opera writer.

Thankfully, I have a lot more that I am grateful for, so I wanted to write an ode to the highlights (not necessarily in order of priority). I apologize in advance if I forgot someone or something and come across as an ungrateful wench.

Ethan

His name means “strong,” and my firstborn is definitely a pillar of strength in the family. He almost always has a joyful disposition. He is eager to learn and try new things. He is full of new ideas. A few days ago I walked into his room and he was wearing a white lab coat and stringing together objects, doing one of his “experiments.” He helps me. He cares about my feelings. He loves his siblings. Ever since he came into my life as a 2 lb. 15 oz preemie hooked up to tubes, he carved a special place into my heart and has shown me by example what perseverance means. The nurses in the NICU would have 3 babies to take care of, and it was well-known that they would feed Ethan last, because he never complained. Never cried. He’s like that. He’s always willing to take one for the team. I am grateful for the best first son I could have ever asked for.

Eloise

My only daughter. Last night she held my hand as she fell asleep in the new glittery high heels that I bought her. She clicked them together a la The Wizard of Oz and closed her eyes with a smile. She is always watching me, waiting for me to lead by example.  She has the cutest, softest little dainty voice. Last week we were in Petco picking up Otto from the groomer’s. She went to look at the rodents, stopping at each glass tank, one-by-one.

“Hi, I’m Eloise. Nice to meet you, Cupcake!”

Then she moved on to the next.

“Nice to meet you, Glitter. I’m Eloise.”

Next one.

“I’m Eloise. Nice to meet you Sprinkles.”

And that’s how her universe works: sparkles, unicorns, and rainbows.

We’re currently competing over whose hair will grow the longest first. She thinks she will win, but I’ve got news for her.

I love this little girl and her big heart. She is so sweet and loving, and even though she screams like a banshee sometimes and is a little bit on the lazy side, she would give the shirt off her back for the family. I am grateful for my little best friend.

Peter Jack

Silly, headstrong, trouble, funny, loving–Peter is a multi-dimensional 2-year-old and the baby of the family who melts my heart and simultaneously gives me an increased heart rate on an hourly basis. He recently has become a Spider-Man fan, and he will only wear Spider-Man socks. It’s ridiculously cute. He walks around the house with foam swords stuffed in the back of his shirt, or down his pants, and swaggers around like John Wayne. He wrestles with the dog. He walks around with Ellie’s high heels. He sneaks into his siblings’ rooms and snatches toys without them looking. He loves to eat. He is ALWAYS the first to come running when I announce dinner time. He has the best manners in the house, never forgetting to say please and thank you. He tells me “I love you forever” at least 50 times a day, which is really just his way to smooth things over after all the crap he’s gotten into. Sometimes I wonder what our lives would have looked like without 3 kids. But Peter has purpose in this world. He takes the world by the horns and is unstoppable. Best of all, he has PERFECTED the eye roll and charming people. I am grateful for this squishy ball of trouble, even if he probably has shaved 10 years off of my life from the stress he regularly causes me.

Family & Friends

I am lucky that I have both parents who are alive and married. This means a lot, especially since my own children do not have a father. I do not take this fact lightly. My parents live 7 minutes away (I timed it), and the kids adore them, even if they call Grandpa “Grumpy” and Teta gives them too much junk food.

I have a sister and her husband, and in February I will have a nephew. Somewhere in the country, I imagine in some podunk town between corn fields, I have a brother and his wife.

I have several caring friends, some of whom I see often, and others not so often, but communicate with regularly. It’s nice to have people who have seen you over the years, from girlhood to adulthood to widowhood–people who have decades invested. And when I do see these people, it’s like we’ve never been separated, and it’s those special relationships that I know I probably need to cultivate more of, and invest more in. I am thankful for friends.

The beautiful thing is that sometimes we are missing family members, whether by choice or by circumstance, and somehow our hearts learn to mend themselves and move on, and we learn the truth–that family doesn’t have to be blood relations. We manage to fill in the voids with other people, and our lives become a smorgasbord of loved ones. I am thankful for blood relatives who choose to be in our lives and for friends who choose to be like family.

Maddy

My right-hand woman. The kids love her like she is family. She is ridiculously reliable, intelligent, and caring. She’s interesting. Basically, she walks around pretending to be an 18-year-old, but I’m convinced there was a misprint on her birth certificate. The world is a better place with creative and deep souls like Maddy, and she makes me optimistic that there are more souls similar to hers out in the world. I am thankful for Kenneth’s former student who we accidentally met, and who is now never allowed to escape from our crazy family.

My Housecleaners

These people come every week, same time, same reliability. They keep me sane. I can feel when Thursday approaches; I know that it is almost time. When I come home from work my house is sparkling clean. They work magic with the tidal wave of toys in my kids’ rooms. And best of all, they are a nice, upstanding family that works super hard. They deserve happy lives, and I am grateful for them. The only thing that would make me more grateful is if they came everyday.

My kids’ teachers

These teachers take care of my children day in and day out. I appreciate that they care for my children’s well-beings and learning. There are times when I don’t agree with something that the teacher does or says, but in the grand scheme of things I see how hard they work and how dedicated they are, and it’s a little difficult to argue with that. I am thankful they care for my children and that they make my kids feel safe and loved.

Orange County Buddhist Church

Kenneth introduced me to Buddhism when we used to go to service in a tiny temple in rural Sebastopol whenever we were visiting his son in Northern California. It was all foreign to me, and I didn’t bow or put my hands together or even touch the incense offering, not really knowing what to do with myself in a foreign place. But everyone was nice, and the words made sense, and afterward there was always a meal, which was pretty cool.

When we had our own family, I would often stay home with a baby while Kenneth took the other kids to service. By then Ethan was in dharma school, and I had committed to raising the kids Buddhist, but I still didn’t put my hands together or bow or participate in any of the actual traditions. I did start to read books, like Buddhism for Mothers.

When Kenneth died, I started taking the kids myself to dharma school, and also to the family service. At first it was just to keep up our family routine, but I quickly realized there was something more for me at the temple. I found myself drawn into the practice even more. During the adult study sessions, I would read essays with the sangha that dealt with death and some of the heavier parts of being human and it resonated. It just made sense in a way that Catholicism didn’t work for me. I’ve been to many masses in my lifetime. I was baptized Melkite Catholic and often went to church where services were in Arabic and about the only thing I liked was the bread dipped in wine. Sometimes we’d go to the Roman Catholic church and after all the repetitive, monotonous, up and down traditions of the service, the priest, who was an old Irish guy, would start talking about something real-life. That 10-15 minutes was the only thing I liked about mass. I remember asking my aunt/godmother: why don’t they make church more relevant to our lives?

At the Buddhist temple, it all feels relevant. And flexible. It’s almost like Kenneth knew that Buddhism was just what I needed to not only survive, but continue seeking a happy life. I am eternally grateful for Buddhism for helping me to cope with impermanence.

My House

The kids and I have a comfortable place that we own, 5 minutes from my work. Right now it is decorated for Christmas, and it makes me happy to pull into my driveway and admire my candy cane solar lights, and the cute little gingerbread men tree that I’ve put up already. We all have our own rooms and more than enough bathrooms. When we leave in the mornings, the kids often press their noses against the windows and say “good bye beautiful house!” It is the only house they want to live in, the house where their father grew up.

My Career and Workplace

I don’t ever really feel like I have a “job.” It never feels like a job. Going to work is part of my life, and I like knowing that the work that I do helps human beings–young students. Today, it is the middle of my Thanksgiving week off, and a student emailed me her college admissions essay. I don’t get paid to give students essay feedback during holiday weeks, but it’s not the money I’m after. I know that I have the potential to help a student to find their potential, and to seek opportunities that will open many doors for them in their lifetime. This is not something you can classify as a “job.” This is a calling.

I have colleagues who are easy to work with and hardworking. I like talking to them. I’m almost always surrounded by intelligent people.

I work in a small community where everyone seems to know everyone. I like it. No matter where I go–picking up dry cleaning, grocery shopping, getting a paper notarized–there they are. Students. Former students. Parents. And when our family suffered the loss of Kenneth, this little community was quick to help out.

My Writing

An eternal escape. Writing keeps me level. It keeps me reflective, creative, and focused. I don’t think my 1st grade teacher, who introduced writing to our class, would have any clue that he inspired a lifetime addiction for me.

Yesterday I was writing in Starbucks. A guy motioned for my attention. I reluctantly removed my ear buds. He then nervously said, “this is awkward, but you’re kind of cute.” I smiled, without missing a beat, thanked him, and then proceeded to put my headphones back on. I thought in my head “this young man has no idea how old I am.” I chose not to enlighten him, because that would have led to conversation, and I just wanted to continue writing.

Yes, finishing 2 articles was more important than talking to a guy. That’s how obsessed I am. I might need to shift the priorities in the future, but for right now, it is all I want. In a way I feel like marriage competed with my writing. I’d get questioned about why I needed to write AGAIN. I got asked why I wasn’t writing this much when we first met. There was a little bit of competition, when I was being more productive with my writing than he was, and sometimes competition can lead to resentment. Now, I don’t answer to anyone. I do what I want. I write when I want. I am grateful that amidst all of my other circumstances, I have this.

My Health

I regularly exercise. I eat well. I have no ailments.  I lug 40 lb Peter Jack on my back ALL OF THE TIME and it never bothers me. I make my health a priority, and I live a more energized life because of it. I am thankful that I am healthy and strong.

Also, thanks to Carrie for taking a year off and becoming the Tennis Queen, which is how I stumbled upon tennis. I had no idea that there might be a sport in the world that I would like. I just assumed that I hated all sports. My dad tried to teach me tennis as a kid, and it basically ended with him banishing me to the side of Savanna High School’s gym to hit balls by myself, and eventually I stopped going because I hated it. I never thought that at 35 I would start taking lessons, and that it would be so FUN and addictive. I am thankful that Carrie inspired me to try tennis and that she has enabled this addiction.

Traveling

I’ve got incredible wanderlust and have been fortunate enough to go many places. This past summer I went to Italy and Denmark for 3 weeks. The previous December and January we were in Japan for 2 weeks. I consider that a successful traveling year. I am grateful that I have been able to travel the world, and that I’ve been able to share that love (and addiction) with my children.

Where I was born

My cosmic roll of the dice hasn’t always been terrible. I did get to be born here, in the United States, and in California at that. I think about how I could have been born in slums of Calcutta, or in a Brazilian favela, or in–I shudder to think about it–a place like Alabama. I’m lucky. So, so, so incredibly lucky. Yeah, it is what it is in regards to our President and the dysfunction we have in politics, the poverty in our country, problems with special interests, and a lot of other serious things, but somehow I’ve managed to live a middle class existence. I’m not a rich Kardashian and I could always have more, but the odds were much more in favor of me having way less, and I escaped that fate, by no merit of my own. It just happened. I am grateful that not all of my luck is terrible.

And with that, I am done commemorating gratitude for Thanksgiving 2017, but I’ll be back at it with my gratitude journal tomorrow with the usual boring dose of daily thankfulness.

Dear Millennials, Please Save Our Schools

A post that is 25% about why we need to care about politics, and 75% about why millennials should be the ones to step up and save our public schools.

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(Me, age 9)

Dear Millennials,

I am one of the “older millennials,” born in 1982, which means that part of me relates to the Gen X generation, but a large portion of me is very much Millennial. There are a lot of negative things said about our generation. Quite frankly, I find it comical that the generations who couldn’t figure out that inhaling cigarette smoke led to cancer would have the nerve to make fun of our organic food. Those generations elected politicians who outsourced our jobs, gave us a Wall Street economy, and oh yeah, Donald Trump. But okay. Go ahead and tell us how much we suck.

I don’t want to pick a fight with the other generations today. Actually, this essay is for the millennials.

Millennials are usually aware of the danger of privatization and special interests. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appealed so much to us because they challenged the 1%, and most of us are fed up with the corruption and greed. We’ve seen the growth of banks that have become “too big to fail,” tax breaks for the wealthy, charter schools and school vouchers being pushed as a “better” alternative to our public schools, the privatization of prisons, the military-industrial complex feeding endless war–all of this seemed to have been spinning out of control under the noses of our previous generations, and continue to grow larger than life.

In Southern California, my generation has felt the squeeze of getting priced out of buying homes, even with good jobs. People have had to take on enormous debt just to get through college, only to find limited job prospects once they graduate. We’re talking about limited good jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. It’s no wonder that millennials are jaded about politics and many feel disconnected from our political parties. Candidates who promote an active and empowered citizenry make us millennials feel hopeful about democracy amidst a system that seems otherwise rigged.

Unfortunately, knowing about a problem and doing something about it are two different things in life.

There are many passionate and energetic millennials out there trying to make a difference. But there are also a lot of them waiting on the sidelines, maybe waiting for “their turn,” just sort of letting the other generations do their thing. I am so tired of going to events and being one of the youngest people there…at the age of 35!

Millennials, listen up. We’re the ones inheriting the world. That’s not a cliche line that I’m trying to use on you. We’re in the middle of our careers or going to school or working. We’re thinking about starting families or already have young families and our kids in school. Many of us have become homeowners. We’re paying taxes. We’re in the thick of the busiest years of our lives, and I know we’re busy changing diapers or working our 9-5 or busting our butts in college and trying not to drown in student loans.

But guys, I’m pleading with you, we CAN NOT stick our heads into the sand. I don’t want to hear my fellow millennials utter the lamest words people are so quick to throw out in a conversation:

I’m too busy.

Come on. If you have time to go to your kids’ soccer game, or to that concert in L.A., or watch Monday night football, or whatever the hell you do, you have time to do something as a citizen in a “democracy.” You have time to invest in your future.

People defriend others on Facebook over politics, as if someone just insulted their mama, and yet the thought of doing something political, like maybe attending a meeting, going to a rally, precinct walking, joining an interest group, or whatever– that doesn’t typically cross the average person’s mind. Because they’re TOO BUSY. Why get offended about politics if it’s not important enough to participate in? The world already has enough armchair intellectuals and armchair activists. We don’t need more keyboard jockeys. We need people to start doing stuff.

Voting is a good step. But it’s a baby step. There are so many things to do beyond voting. As we’ve seen in many elections (even for us millennials), voting isn’t enough. We need other people to vote too. And we need our elected officials to know that we are paying attention, and we need to hold them accountable.

Many people assume that “other” people will magically make things happen. Somebody else will volunteer. Or maybe if we just don’t think about it, maybe it will go away.

We see what’s happening, but too often we feel as tiny as ants and believe that perceived lack of efficacy absolves us from taking responsibility.

We have to do something. Anything. Even small things.

Or maybe it just feels too painful. The baby keeps you up all night and you’re stressed out at work and having marital problems and a laundry list of other stressors, and bothering with “politics” just seems like it would exacerbate the pain. It’s easier to stay away.

But staying away from politics, much in the same way that staying away from your dishes and laundry and bills and health, never ends well. The pain catches up with you tenfold. Staying away is guaranteed to create more problems in your life.

This is our world. We are constantly affected by the decisions made by other people, every single moment of our existence–how can we not care? How can we not want to have a say? We have to invest in our communities. Our homes. Our schools. We have to use our voices. We have to show our children how to use their voices–model it for them. Why would we want other people making all of the decisions for us, especially since many of these decisions are being driven by special interests.

Let me just tell you why I started writing this letter. I was recently looking at somebody’s Facebook page (a millennial) and it said that they worked at a “public charter school.”

My first reaction was: are you kidding me?

Orwellian doublespeak.

Do not be fooled by this. A public school is not the same as a “public charter school.” Shame on this person for feeding into the corporate game. For selling our communities down the river just to live a deluded life of self-importance and success at the expense of our children.

You might be scratching your head, because unless you’re in the thick of these issues we tend to ignore them or not look too closely, and that’s how we get fooled. But we have to think critically about everything if we want to avoid a life of manipulation.

A public charter school means it’s basically like a private school that uses public money, but they cloak themselves as “public.” They are most definitely not the same.

Charter schools use slick marketing techniques that make parents feel empowered. They throw out cliche lines like “school choice” and “parent choice” and they pretend to care about opinions, but in reality the vast majority of them only care about their bottom lines. They may try to bribe you with a free laptop. They use the rhetoric of “failing public schools” to try to justify their predatory ways. This is all smoke in mirrors.

They don’t want your empowerment. They want your kid so they can make money. Charter schools are big business. According to Chris Hedges, in 2012 he reported that the federal government spends $600 billion a year on education. There is money to be made by the corporations–if they can take over.

By cloaking themselves as “public,” they attempt to remove themselves from the controversy that vouchers present (since vouchers use public money for a private school of the parent’s choice). Charter schools are a clever way to “privatize” our schools. It’s a workaround in places where vouchers aren’t legal. But make no mistake. Charter schools have much more in common with vouchers than they do with public schools, including the fact that both charter schools and voucher programs do not provide results nation-wide that prove that they are better.  In fact in most cases, they are worse.

In the process, charter schools break unions and they heavily push standardized testing. People get fooled into thinking that test scores are an indicator of success, rather than knowing what they really are–English proficiency exams and a measure of affluence. People buy houses based on tests scores, but really, you should just admit to yourself that it’s not actually about the test score. The underlying truth is that people are looking for a higher score so their kids don’t have to go to school with the poor kids. By saying it is “test scores,” it makes the truth more palatable in your head, and you get to avoid looking like a jerk.

The most troubling part of charter schools is not having elected school boards. School boards consist of individuals elected to govern the school district, and they make all of the important decisions. We vote for them. We the people. The origins of school boards trace back to Massachusetts in the 1600s. They are a very important, democratic aspect of public education. It is how we can keep our schools accountable and close to the communities they serve.

Allowing public schools to be replaced with charter schools means no elected school boards, and consequently no transparency. If the public doesn’t like what the school district is doing, well, too bad. You don’t get to vote anybody out or recall them. You’re not going to have access to salaries, budgets, or any of the other information that are available in a public school district. Charter schools can do whatever they want and you, the taxpayer, will have no right to that information, even though they are lining their pockets with taxpayer money.

It’s scandalous.

Most charter schools aren’t homegrown and innovative as was their intent  when they first sprang up in the 90s. Today, most charter schools are run by corporations, and many of them are headquartered out-of-state. It makes one wonder how an out-of-state corporation would know local needs, and how they would be held accountable.

You may not be in the habit of thinking about education as being profitable. We went to school. We send our kids to school. We’re not writing checks for tuition to the public schools, so we tend to not think about it. The national average of per pupil spending is a little over $12,000. Times that by the number of school-age kids in our country.

There is money to be made. Lots of money.

Charter schools make a profit off the backs of children, and you have no right to know how they spend their money. They operate like a business–hire less qualified teachers and pay them less, spend less on supplies, keep costs down–all at the expense of the children–and then reap robust profits. That’s how it works. It’s a racket.

Charter schools prey on poor areas. They infiltrated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now they’re prowling around Puerto Rico. They are known for exploiting poor parents and parents who don’t speak English, fooling them into believing that their schools are better.

In reality, charter schools do not outperform public schools. Studies have shown that charter schools vary significantly in quality. There is a “far-reaching” subset of poorly performing charter schools, and it is difficult to close them down (no oversight! No taxpayer accountability!).

You may know of an anomaly charter school that embodies the spirit of the original intent of charter schools–innovative and offers something more than the local public school–but these are not the norm in the charter school world. Why would we allow our community schools to be basically privatized by corporate charters that do not typically perform better than the public schools? This makes no rational sense.

Furthermore, even the “good” charter schools lack elected school boards. We are literally allowing private interests to take away our right to vote so they can profit off of our children.

Charters often do not serve the same proportion of English learners and students with disabilities. In fact, many charters have been known to get rid of their less desirable students who don’t help their test scores. Public schools have to educate all students. They can’t cherry-pick like charter schools.

There is even a self-exiled Turkish religious leader who has been linked to inciting a coup in Turkey, and he happens to run 128 Gulen charter schools in 28 states, siphoning over $2.1 billion in taxpayer dollars since 2010. Locally we have the Magnolia Science Academy in Santa Ana, California, and their Chief Executive Officer and Superintendent is Caprice Young, the same woman who founded the California Charter Schools Association. She cloaks herself as being an advocate for education reform, but she is basically just a charter school lobbyist. THESE PEOPLE HAVE AN AGENDA. A money-making, public school squashing agenda.

Did you know that there are charter school lobbying organizations that are being funded by the likes of Eli Broad, the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, and other filthy rich people who have no interest in actually investing in our schools. They have no education experience, but they want to tell us what is wrong with our schools. One has to wonder why they have taken such an interest in attacking public schools (with elected board members) instead of maybe, gee, I don’t know, helping them? Millennials are smart enough to follow the money trail. Follow the money, guys. Why do they care so much that they spent $9.2 million dollars to elect 2 pro-charter candidates to the Los Angeles school board?

Think, think.

Guys, this really pisses me off. If you still don’t believe me about the slippery slope of charter schools, and how it’s a dangerou idea to let them take over, you can read more.

Yikes. I have a headache just looking at all of this.

And if you’re still unclear about the financial incentive that big business has to take over our public schools, look no further than Donald Trump’s appointment of billionaire Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, a woman who has been on record boasting about how much money her family gives to the Republican Party, who has pushed vouchers for private schools, and was also on record knowing very little about public education. Our current Education Secretary didn’t know what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was, which is like Education 101 for any educator. The President appointed a woman who is against public education to advise him on public education policies. Follow the trail.

What about nonprofit charter schools, you might be wondering. Thanks for asking. There’s money to be made there, too. Administrators and companies hired to manage the schools take a huge cut out of the budget. For example, a charter school administrator who was tasked with overseeing school programs for 6,700 students in New York was making $485,000/year, and this was at a non-profit. It’s basically the same criticism of a lot of charities today–if so much is going toward the overhead and administration, how much is actually going to the cause?

Are public schools perfect? No.

Can we do something about it? Yes.

I like knowing that I can do something about it. I can go to a school board meeting. I have access to public minutes. I can work to help get candidates elected. I can vote. I can hold my elected officials accountable. We can work as a community to tackle problems. There is transparency. I want to keep it that way. I want my neighborhood schools to stay in the hands of the voters–not get outsourced to charter schools pretending to be public schools just to make a profit. There is a difference.

Students and parents come and go. The community stays. Public schools belong to our communities, and it should be the community who determines the needs of our local schools through elected school boards.

Our public schools are important. More educated countries consistently rank higher for having better governments. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations to figure out why. There is a correlation between increased voter participation and higher education levels amongst voters. You’re more likely to have better jobs. You can navigate bureaucracy and have better self-advocacy skills. You have skills and resources to be more likely to participate in interest groups and/or political parties. Voters need to be able to hold schools accountable. We need public schools and we need our school boards.

Listen, I don’t like everything about schools. But you aren’t going to like everything about anything. Heck, I don’t even like half the people who I’m related to. That’s life. You know what you do if you don’t like something?

You get out there and do something about. You find consensus. You don’t vote to sabotage your own self-interests as a person living in a community, or vote to sell your neighbor’s kids down the river. Likewise, you don’t allow others to make decisions behind closed doors and fool you into going along with their money-making schemes.

Here’s another thing. The folks trying to malign public schools neglect to address the serious issues facing our society. Namely, poverty.  51% of our kids today are living in poverty. Our children are not suffering from public schools. Our children are suffering from poverty.

Come on, Millennials. We can connect the dots. Their clever and expensive marketing doesn’t have to fool us. A school doesn’t “suck” because the school sucks. Public schools serve everyone. They serve society’s impoverished communities, including the children who come to school hungry, the kids who sleep on the floors of an overcrowded apartment, the kids who don’t have access to adequate health care, children in homes with a variety of social problems. Children battling issues. English learners. Everyone.

We need to ensure that our public schools continue to be places that serve all children. Charter schools do not guarantee this. In fact, it’s likely they won’t want your kid if he/she doesn’t help their test scores.

I have a 2nd grader who attends a public school. My 2 other children are still in preschool, but they will also attend the public school.

I attended public schools my entire life, and even attended public universities.

I teach at a public school.

My late husband attended public schools and taught at a public school.

We think public schools are pretty damn important. Public education has allowed us to create the life that I have. Public school helped me have a career. It helped me find my love of writing. As a widow and a single mother, I am eternally grateful that the public schools helped me get a solid education that has allowed me to live an independent life.

I can say “I’m too busy” to care about the heavy political issues coming from every direction. I’ve got a lot of really great and valid excuses, but instead I go precinct walking with my toddler strapped onto my back. I take the kids to protests. I’m not saying I’m a saint. I can probably do more. But what I am saying is that I’m doing something despite my pretty difficult circumstances.

I simply will not allow my children to become revenue for a business. I will not sit back and watch the public schools in my community get gobbled up by greed. I’m not going to watch our democratic rights be taken away from us without a fight. Not on my watch.

I will not sit back and watch my future and the futures of my children and grandchildren sold to the highest bidder.

I’m not going to be the kind of person who stands for nothing.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. But it’s time, Millennials. It’s time for us to step up to the plate. It’s time to do the work. We’re up for the challenge.

It’s time to reclaim our government.

It’s time to demand that our elected officials stay accountable to the people who elected them.

It’s time that we pay attention to local decision-making with as much diligence as we pay attention to our TV programs and sports teams.

Stay vigilant.

Care about each other.

Fight for each other.

Stand up to injustice.

Fight oppression.

Build bridges.

It sounds idealistic, but how about this. Why don’t we commit to at least doing something? This isn’t a partisan issue. This is protecting our local government.

Let’s do this. Post something you can and will do in your local community. We can get ideas from each other. No experience necessary. You just have to have a heart to want to leave future generations with healthy public schools who will educate all children, the same kind of heart that wants clean water, affordable housing, accessible and affordable health care, and the basic things we should have in a democracy. I wrote this for you, Millennials, because I know you have the hearts to care. That’s what makes our generation special. We care. We’re smart and curious, and I think the missing piece is that we’re used to letting older generations do the adulting. We’re used to being treated as if it’s not our turn. We haven’t been invited to the table.

It’s time to adult.

Millennials, you have a place at that table. A very important place. It’s time for us to take over this dinner party. I humbly ask you to join me. It’s that important.

Signed,

Your Millennial Sister

 

Christmas This Year

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Guys, I realized that I had a huge problem in my house. It got really out of hand when Kenneth was around. Only recently have I slammed on the brakes and realized that I need to do something about it.

Christmas is coming up. I usually do my shopping in, like, August, but this year I didn’t. (Super out of character, but don’t worry–I’m mostly finished already!) But this isn’t about my shopping.

And it kind of is everything about my shopping.

You see, my kids have too much crap. I’ve been spoiling them rotten since they were born, and a lot of this was their father’s fault, because he adored them and never wanted to say no. Then, when he died, I felt the need to spoil them even more. You know, to compensate for the lack of father.

But I’m worried that this is going to cause irreparable damage and somehow all of their future life problems will be traced back to me in therapy, and it will all be linked to the excessive amount of crap I’ve paid for.

I’m talking so much crap that they don’t know what they have. Crap that spills out of boxes and closets and drawers and oozes like lava and sometimes it feels like their crap somehow magically multiplies while we are asleep at night.

Crap I battle every single freaking day. I’m kind of crazy about clutter, and I do not allow toys strewn all over my house. At all. You can imagine how a pile of toys left in the middle of the hallway would be enough to send me into a tailspin.

We have cleaning people that come every week. I swear, they must spend hours just organizing my kids’ crap. I could be getting other things in my house deep-cleaned instead of having toys organized, but nope. And there’s absolutely no method to the kids’ clutter. You’ll find underwear and dolls and books and my hairbrush and whatever else the 3 little tornadoes suck up as they comb through my house and spit back out wherever they happen to pause for a split second before moving on to more destruction. Basically, Peter Jack is responsible for the majority of the chaos. But the other two do their fair share of crap-piling on their bedroom floors.

I just don’t understand people who leave things on the floors. Whhhhhhhyyyy? I’m telling you, clutter hurts me. You’re probably wondering how I lived with Kenneth for 9 years. I don’t have a good answer to that question, other than telling you not very easily. I’m definitely my father’s daughter.

The real kicker came when I bought Ethan a costume in August (trying to be a super efficient mom who checks things off the to-do list early), but by October HE COULDN’T FIND IT. I was so pissed. After Halloween passed, we found it. Of course. That’s how those things work. It had been stuffed in an obscure box with a bunch of stuff on top. The cleaners did it, and Ethan was quick to blame them.

“No,” I said, irritated. “You can’t blame them for trying to put away your crap that wouldn’t have been an issue if you put it away to begin with.”

He lowered his head. Nodded.

Yeah, they always do that. Act like they know what I’m talking about. Acting remorseful. Like they’ll never do it again.

And 5 minutes later, they’re throwing their crap on the floor again.

I started to think about Christmas on the horizon. I need more crap in my house like I need a hole in my head.

It’s more than just my clutter-phobia. There’s a more important issue that I have been mulling over in my head.

I had the realization that I was ruining my children.

Part of this is my parents’ fault. My parents never bought a toy for me, just because. There wasn’t a single time that we were strolling through Target and I said “Oh I reallllllly want that doll!” and they bought it for me. Never, ever happened. And at Christmas, I can’t think of a single time when I got something from them that was actually off of my wishlist. It was usually my single aunts and uncles who bought me the toys I wanted, like the Secret Sender that all aspiring Nancy Drews wanted (thanks, Uncle Ramon, you were good for something in life) or the designer Cabbage Patch Doll (thanks, Aunt Lulu!).

Anyway, if I hadn’t have been so deprived, I wouldn’t be overcompensating right now, lavishing my children with everything they want, spoiling them with the things I didn’t have. Kenneth had a similar background, and had similar urges to want to overcompensate. Our combined childhoods were the perfect recipe for over-indulging our children.

Except my kids aren’t going to blame Grandpa and Teta when they’re in therapy for the problems that will surely be linked back to me. I know they’re going to miss that part of the story. Grandparents always get a free card when it comes to blame. It’s going to be all my fault, so I better just own up to the fact that I spoil my kids too much.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Marshmallow Test. Basically, children were given a marshmallow and then given two options: 1) they could eat it immediately, or 2) they could wait, and then get another marshmallow to eat.

Here is a cute video of the test recreated. I could totally see Peter Jack popping a marshmallow into his mouth before you even told him the rules.

The study looked at delayed gratification and found that the children who opted to wait to eat their marshmallow, who were able to wait longer for a reward, had better life outcomes.

Here I am, giving my kids whatever they want, like I’m almost poisoning them with toys and sabotaging their ability to develop delayed gratification. What’s wrong with me???!!

Intuitively, I knew that it wasn’t going to help them in life. It had to stop. I’ve got a marshmallow test here that tells me that my children need delayed gratification. I also have 3 demanding children that want, want, want. They seem to have insatiable appetites for new things. But I want them to have healthy, successful, financially secure lives.

I knew I needed to fix the damage.

The other day we were at Target buying a present for Ethan’s friend. Eloise saw a toy ice cream truck that had a bunch of little cones and candy and stuff to pretend to operate her own ice cream truck business. She desperately wanted it. I tried to talk rationally with her.

“I don’t know, Eloise,” I said, scratching my head. “That’s a lot of Tiny Crap.”

“It’s so cool. I can have an ice cream store. I really love it, Mama,” she told me in her soft, dainty little voice.

“Yeah, but Ellie, babe. That Tiny Crap is gonna be all over the house, won’t it?”

She shakes her head.

I’ve seen that head shake before.

“I really, reallllllly want it,” she said, pushing herself up on her tiptoes to examine the toy better.

I felt that ridiculous urge to buy it right then and there, just to make her happy. Part of me could envision her sitting on the zebra print rug in her room, setting up a store, and selling pretend cones to us. The other part of me saw Peter charging in there like Toddlerzilla.

I know these things. I couldn’t allow myself to make a rookie mistake.

She still wanted it. Pleaded with me. Gave me the sad, puppy dog eyes.

I said no. I had resolved to save my kids from intensive therapy by teaching them delayed gratification. I had to stick to my guns.

Then I said maybe. Oh crap.

I wanted to slap myself, but in lieu of that I heard myself say “let’s check on Amazon,” which is basically my way of delaying taking action on it.

Then I went back to a firm no. I mean, come on. What does a pretend ice cream truck really do for my kid in the grand scheme of life?

I went back to a maybe.

Gosh, I think the only thing worse than an overly indulgent parent is a waffling parent. Once kids sniff out your Jello boundaries, you’re history. You stand no chance. I had to get my act together.

I caught myself trying to justify to myself why I should buy the ice cream truck for Eloise.

I had to stop myself. Again. It hurt. A lot. I’m still getting used to telling the kids no. But ohhhhhh. It hurts. I want to make them happy. I want them to smile and throw their arms around me and tell me I’m the best mama ever so I won’t feel so bad about being their only parent.

But in my gut I knew exactly what would happen. I’d buy the ice cream truck. She’d love it for 10 minutes, and then the Tiny Crap would get scattered all over the place, and within a few days I’d find it in Peter’s room, Ethan’s room, between couch cushions, on the floor, in the van, partially chewed up by the dog in the backyard, and basically everywhere.

I would buy the ice cream truck if I knew she’d cherish it and take care of it.

But she won’t. And I know she won’t because I’ve seen her do the exact same thing with her Shopkins, with the Doc McStuffins veterinarian cart, with the 2 playhouses she owns, and I could go on and on and on.

I had that annoying Mom Guilt as I walked out of the store, sans ice cream truck. Our instinct is to want to give our children everything. I know logically that I am giving them more in life by teaching them the value of money, how to work for the things that we want, how to be patient, avoid attachment to consumption, to have gratitude, avoid wastefulness, delayed gratification, and all of these important lessons and values. But I also love to see their happy faces aglow with the excitement of getting something that they want, which is what I desperately wanted as a kid. (Thanks again, Mom and Dad. I’m forwarding you the therapy bills.)

There is another issue I’m tackling in my family. I’ve become adamant about us working as a “team.” Before Kenneth died, our children didn’t have to do anything. We lavished them with toys and experiences and did everything around the house while they played or watched Netflix and wanted for nothing in life.

When he died, I quickly realized that I needed them to become self-sufficient. For my survival. Today, on any given day they’re helping with food preparation. Cleaning up after dinner. Ethan sets up toothbrushes. Eloise feeds the dog. It’s a work in progress, but I’m consistent in the message that the more we work together, the more time we’ll have to do the things that we want to do. I refuse to be the family maid. I’ve made it very clear to my kids that I value my time, my interests, and that I have a life too.

How we spend our money is part of the team mentality. It’s a different approach to the traditional family budget. I was never privy to my parents’ budget. That was a big question mark. I want to be generous with my kids within my means, but I also want them to understand that we have family priorities. We like to have parties. We like to travel. The kids also take several classes, which they immensely enjoy, but it adds up.

I’m trying to teach them that if we waste our money on toys that they won’t want to play with tomorrow–disposable enjoyment–we won’t have as much money to do the things that we really love, like travel and learn.

And they seem to sort of get it. Peter is too young to even ask for anything. He’s easy–for now.

Back to Christmas. The kids are getting 2 presents each. This is progress. We’re used to box after box after box after box after box after box of presents to open. I got significant input from the kids about what they wanted. I had them prioritize their wants and take time to think about it. Ironically, there isn’t much that my kids want. That’s how I know overspending and giving in to every passing whim and desire is stupid. At the end of the day, there isn’t anything that they need, and not much that they want.

Eloise has even forgotten about the silly ice cream truck, as I suspected she would.

We’re going to have very simple stockings, and I want to keep the sugar to a minimum in the spirit of healthy living. I don’t want cheap plastic crap from China all over my house. The reasons are environmental, economical, and a touch of OCD-ical. (Take notes, Mom. No piles of junk.)

I have to resist the urge of buying everything cute in sight, which is terribly difficult during the holiday season.There are way too many temptations. I basically need blinders when I go into stores. Today I had to talk myself out of a jar of “gingerbread baby” cookies from Starbucks. They were seriously cute. But no. That would only sabotage my healthy diet and my resolution to stop buying stupid things. Must avoid cute. Stay away from cute. If I keep repeating this, maybe it will stick.

I need deliberate simplification. The excess of the holiday season sort of makes me nauseous.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. Not in a religious sense. It’s just cool to have something to look forward to during the winter, when the days are shorter and colder and it feels like it takes a little extra effort to push through the days. I love Christmas music and decorations, and I have a (slightly embarrassing) penchant for collecting gingerbread men (which I will not indulge in this year!). I enjoy social gatherings. I really love buying gifts and giving them to people.

But I don’t want to feel like I have to overload my kids with more than they need or want. I want deliberateness. Thoughtfulness. Not excessiveness. I want to reclaim the holidays and make my own rules and traditions that are not dependent on overconsumption.

I want more meaningfulness.

One of the things about me that I think has helped me create the fulfilling life that I have, despite unfortunate circumstances, is that I’m not afraid to work hard. I haven’t had everything handed to me. I get offended if somebody wants to give me something, or do something for me. I think I can find middle ground, somewhere between not giving my kids anything, to the opposite end of the spectrum of spoiling them silly. There’s probably a sweet spot. I know this will be the greatest gift that I will bestow upon my kids, so that’s what I need to do.

What Others Have

More playing around with an audio essay. Tonight is about envy. Comparison.

And going to bed feeling melancholy over the news that a family I know has lost their daughter today, a young woman in her early 30s, and that she leaves behind a husband and a 4-year-old. Another reminder that life can be brutally unfair and cruel. Tonight I kiss my children extra hard in remembrance of all the moms and dads who will never get to see their children grow up, my husband included.

I am reminded that everything I have right now is more than enough. I am lucky.

(A “real” essay on its way this week. Stay tuned.)

From the Files of the Pain Curator

I decided that I must be a Pain Curator. I might have been born to have this job. I’ve pretty much spent my entire life intrigued by horrible stories, and now, trying to survive a horrible story. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m super nosy, and a kind of unlucky. Or secretly a sensitive person. I don’t know, but pain manages to find me. Or I find it. Maybe a little of both.

Today’s exhibit: the ugliness of single parenthood after your husband has the nerve to die on you and leave you with 3 kids.

My first venture into the audio world:

Caution: use of profanity, a bad attitude, and very amateur recording skills. I apologize for all three offenses in advance. I’m tired.  

Raising a Daughter

I’ve been a little MIA for the past couple of weeks because I was finishing a project for a contest. Now I’m back to a flurry of essay writing while I sit in the trenches of story outlining for a month or two, after which I plan to complete a new fiction project that is near and dear to my heart. Something I’ve been wanting to complete for a while.

But moving on to today’s essay. A topic I’ve thought a lot about in the past 5 years.

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From the moment she came into this world, Eloise preferred her father. She would scowl at me and then bury her head into his chest as if he were her greatest protector. Sure, I was her meal ticket and the one who carried her inside of me for 39 weeks and gave birth to her without drugs, but her father was the one who she reached for, the one who could calm her down and make her feel special. She reveled in the role of being daddy’s girl.

Kenneth was kind, gentle, and patient with Ellie. He was like that with all of his children, but he was particularly sensitive with her. When she was being potty trained, Kenneth sat next to her for however long she needed. He’d patiently read to her a book and keep her company with words of encouragement, usually while I threw my hands up in the air and went to do some other pressing chore from a long list of things to do. If Ellie made a mistake or spilled her drink for the 20th time that day, he reassured her that it was okay and calmly cleaned it up. Kenneth would lie on the colorful play mat next to her while she played with her toys. He had no problem fetching toys that she threw over the side of her high chair over and over again. He brushed her hair and read to her the 10th book of the evening, brought her a cup of water, and handled whatever other bedtime curveball she threw at him to avoid lights out. He never lost his temper. She had him wrapped around her tiny finger.

I got annoyed at him for pandering to her brattiness. To me, Eloise reminded me a lot of him: the whiny middle child who always thought they were getting short-changed. She cried a lot as a baby and had projectile spit-up that needed a clean-up crew several times a day. She wasn’t cuddly like her older brother, and not as smiley as her younger brother. She was super serious, just like her father. Her mouth even had the same downward curve when her lips were solemnly pressed together and it reminded me of her half-brother, another serious child. It felt like she was pushing me away from the moment she was born.

When Kenneth died, it was Eloise I felt sorry for the most. Peter was clueless. Ethan was very close to his father, but he was definitely a mama’s boy. I knew I could smother him with love and take care of him. But Eloise?

I was seriously worried about her. 

How was I going to be enough for her?

I have to admit, there were several times when I told Kenneth “I don’t know how I’m going to survive the rest of my life with Eloise. She’s a pain in the ass.”

And there I was, alone with Eloise. I didn’t have him to hand her off to. I didn’t have him to go in and calm her down. I didn’t have him to calm me down. No referee. No second opinion or family buffer. Just the two queens under one roof.

I decided that I had to make it a point not to butt heads with my daughter. I didn’t want to live that way. And now I had an extra responsibility. I had to make up for the fact that she had lost her favorite person: her father. I’d have to love her enough for the both of us. She needed me. 

I realized that the things that bugged me about Eloise weren’t necessarily the traits she inherited from her father.

It was a broader issue of a mother raising a daughter. Something I imagine all of us mothers must deal with to some degree.

I saw my weaknesses in her, and I had an overwhelming urge to want to fix her. To not let her repeat any of my mistakes.

I knew it was daughter-specific because I never felt that way with the boys. I couldn’t relate to the way little boys got on their hands and knees and play with Hot Wheels. I couldn’t relate to the way boys want to get dirty, how they swing their swords around and want to shoot at things, or the way that they are constantly wrestling like puppies with boundless energy.

But I can relate to the way that my daughter seeks external validation. The way she wants to be told that she is pretty. The way she wants to be liked, and the way her face crumples when the girls at school don’t want to include her. The way she yearns to be enough, and wants to be told she is enough.

I want to take it all away from her. Stop her from going down that same familiar path that will take her years to recover from.

But it’s not my job to fix her.

I find myself wanting to change the things about her that aren’t me, like the way she loves princesses and pink and won’t believe me when I say black is the best color. She loves cats and names everything “Sparkle Sparkle Unicorn.” She obsesses over lipstick and shoes and purses and sticks her hips out for pictures and spends time brushing her hair and coordinating outfits– none of which are anything like me.

But that’s not my job to tell my daughter what she should or shouldn’t like.

Eloise is 4.5 years old. I’m not naive enough to think that the job of raising a daughter will get any easier, or that I’ve even reached the depths of the trials and tribulations of mothering a daughter.

But I don’t want to wait until she is an adult to think about what I should’ve done for her.

I want to do better for her. We can always do better. I know that it will be a job that will require a lot of recalibration and reflection. A job that will require more listening than reacting. A job that I will probably never get completely right. But I want to at least do this job in a way that when my daughter grows up, she will know that I did my very best to be a better woman for her. A woman that always stood by her side. 

This is what I’ve come up with as my job as Eloise’s mother:

My job is to help her feel safe. To help her get an education and help her understand how an education will lead to her independence. That independence is the most important thing a woman can secure for herself.

My job is to help her be a life-long learner.

To teach her the importance of health.

To speak her love language, even when it is not the same as mine. This will involve lots of hugs when she needs reassurance and verbal praise and reminders that she is smart and capable and important.

My job is to help her have as many opportunities as possible.

To help her see that her worth is not tied to her sex.

To help her see through social barriers and to help her acquire the tools to tear them down.

My job is to be her cheerleader. Her nurse. A person who will listen to her. A mentor. Somebody who she can go to with her fears and questions. A person who will help her troubleshoot the inevitable problems that life presents without judgement.

My job is to take interest in the things that interest her, even when they aren’t what I would choose for myself.

My job is to help her become resilient. To teach her how to rely on herself. To never give up, even when the world feels patently unfair.

To find a new path when one doesn’t work out.

To have an open mind.

To try. And try again. And again. Always keep trying.

My job is to teach her about life through the way that I live, as her role model. Not so she can be just like me, but so she can see what is possible for women. And then let her choose her own path.

My job is to be there for my daughter. I am enough for her. I am exactly what she needs. That in this big and scary world we have each other. That I will always love her, even when my body is no longer in this world.

If I can remember anything from my own journey as a woman, it’s that we all want to know that we are enough. 

Eloise is enough. She was born enough.

My job as her mother is to spend the rest of my life reminding her that she is enough. 

We are enough.

Happy Birthday, Kenneth

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Another birthday has come, without him. Today would have been Kenneth’s birthday.

The kids have decided that they would like to visit him at the cemetery, go to the library, eat Curry House, and then cake. I cancelled yoga and swim classes for everyone and we are just going to hunker down at home. For some reason retreating into our home feels as close to him as we can ever get. Our house was his childhood home. He loved it so much, and it is where we spent the last three years of his life with him. The house is where we remember him trying to build garden beds, trying his hand at gardening (he wasn’t very good at it, but he tried). Our house is where he worked on his magic stand, and where he sat in the kitchen practicing his tricks. It’s where there are pictures of him as a small child on a playset in the backyard. His childhood room still has a closet with his writing inside of it, listing the names of girls he liked and songs he loved. In the garage, it still has his 5 year old scrawl spelling “Kenny” on the wall. (He really, really liked writing on walls, apparently.) The house is where he spent time in the kitchen juicing. It is where we hosted many parties with him, like his 50th Star Trek birthday party.

The house is where he died.

And now, this house is where part of his ashes have been laid to rest in a biodegradable urn beneath a young avocado tree. This house is holy to our family, because it is almost part of him.

The kids watched Frankenweenie this past weekend. I noticed the way their eyes grew large at the scene when the dog comes back to life, all stitched up.

Eloise turned toward me. “I wish Daddy could come back,” she said.

“I wish he could too. But you know he can not.”

She nodded sadly. “I miss him.”

“Me too.”

Ethan nodded. Him too.

“I miss Daddy!” Peter piped up, even though he only knew his father as a picture above the fireplace and the plaque on the cemetery niche.

We all miss him, and there’s nothing we would want more in the world than to be cutting a Marie Callender’s lemon cream cheese pie with him today.

Happy Birthday, Kenneth, wherever you are. You were loved. You are loved. For always.