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In Praise of September

I love this time of year—the wedge of weeks during which the succulent remnants of summer collide almost seamlessly with a taste of autumn. Aside from the perfect marriage of warm days and cool nights, I suppose it’s the patented swirl of excitement surrounding the start of school that I find so completely intoxicating. Call me crazy.

I blame the mechanical pencils, mostly, in all their steely glory, and the pink erasers that beckon to me unremittingly from the shelves of office supply stores and beyond. The three-ring binders sometimes get to me, too, shouting above the tumult with their palette of delicious hues and fancy-schmancy features. Never mind the throngs of rugged backpacks, endowed with a profusion of zippered compartments and pouches, fueling my quiet obsession with organization, or at least some semblance thereof. And now that my progenies have joined the ranks of middle-schoolers, there are cavernous lockers to adorn as well—with chandeliers, plush carpeting and wallpaper, apparently.

Oh. My. Hell.

Granted, the inherent madness of the back-to-school rush, with its deluge of frenzied purchases, fiscal misery and impossibly giddified children, threatens to consume me each and every August. But it adds a much-needed dose of structure to my life as well and a certain rhythm to mothering—one that I suspect I’ll lament when I no longer have school-aged children in my charge.

There is something quietly reassuring about restoring our routine come September—even if it involves unpleasantries like bedtimes, alarm clocks and the evils of homework. In a sense, I think it’s the predictable nature of things that grounds me, and hopefully my children. Knowing what’s expected and what’s to come, at least in theory, encourages preparedness and some measure of assurance. Like calendars with the tiny squares filled in, a table of contents with more than a mere fragment of clarity and sock drawers with the suggestion of order.

Okay, maybe not sock drawers, so much.

At any rate, swarms of yellow school buses now inhabit the land as if commanded by the tides—a cadence and pattern by which a great many lives are governed. Mine is no exception. Mornings are now filled with the hustle and bustle of shepherding my brood out into the world of books and pencils—with shoes tied (mostly), lunches in hand (occasionally) and backpacks clattering and jouncing as they dash across the dew-laden lawn to the bus stop they’ve frequented since the early days of kindergarten. Of course, it was only yesterday that we sat side by side on the curb together, reading Stuart Little while we waited for the bus to round the bend and groan to a halt. But I digress.

Mornings are slightly more hectic now, and by the same token, afternoons with my sixth-grade daughters are the embodiment of chaos—the latest news of the day spilling from their mouths in a flurry of words from the moment they make landfall until they pour themselves into bed each night—a collective heap of exhaustion. Which is not to say that is a bad thing necessarily. Part of me truly enjoys the debriefing process I have come to know and expect as a parent at the close of each school day, and as I ferry them (ad nauseam) here and there throughout the entire year. And no matter how many stories I hear (ranging from angsty to the bounds of absurdity), I’d daresay the gemlike commentary I’ve gathered and the genuine connections I’ve made with my daughters will never grow old.

But somehow, the harvest of September is special—perhaps because it smacks of newness, in sharp contrast to August’s comparatively uninspired crop of parent-child conversations. Perhaps because of the sense of possibility the celebrated season of new beginnings engenders within each of us. Or perhaps, very simply, it is the omnipresence of tall pencils and full erasers that makes the month so special, suggesting the notion of a clean slate and starting over, anew.

Or maybe that’s why I hold September so dear.Planet Mom: It’s where I live (in praise of September).

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Dear Departed Summer

I am a poster child for parenting ineptitude. And at no time does it become more painfully apparent than during the first few weeks of school—when I look back over the vast expanse of the summer and realize that I’ve mismanaged a good deal of it. In spite of having the best of intentions in mid-June—with a host of events cleverly sandwiched between swim lessons, haircuts and camps galore—by the tail end of July I found myself desperately trying to cram every ounce of family fun and spontaneity into what was left of summer. The fun I promised we’d have before sliding headlong into September.

Inexcusably, it is the epitome of who I am and what I do when it comes down to the wire—when a finite number of squares remain on the calendar during which anything and everything deemed truly memorable and drool-worthy to a nine-year-old can, ostensibly, be orchestrated. In a perfect world, that is. So like a madwoman I schedule sleepovers and movie nights, plan picnics and pencil in parades, visit ball parks and theme parks and, of course, stumble over myself to accept gracious invitations to friends’ homes and pools and lakeside cottages oozing with wonderfulness.

Conversely, I’ve tolerated a tent in my back yard for twenty-three days running—one that promises to leave a hideous, yellow square where a lovely patch of green grass used to grow. A smallish tent in which I spent an interminable night embracing all that roughing it entails, from mosquito bites and cramped quarters to a lumpy earthen mattress and a less-than-endearing quality of dankness I feared would cling to me forevermore.

Eau de Musty Tent, methinks.

I suppose, however, that it was better than a) dealing with the monstrosity-of-a-teepee that monopolized my lawn last summer b) disappointing my progenies who insisted that I camp out with them and c) the insufferable conditions that my husband (aka: Father of the Year) endured while attempting to sleep on an impossibly narrow and horribly unyielding lounge chair parked squarely in front of the zippered door. As luck would have it, he was uniquely situated and perfectly qualified to shepherd those who felt compelled to visit the loo in the dead of night. Good thing. My only lament: failing to photograph him in all his glory—mouth agape, flashlight in hand, his body entombed within a sleeping bag, his head, poking out the top, completely enshrouded within a camouflage mask I had never before seen, arms entirely enveloped by a giant mesh sack he apparently dragged from the bowels of the garage in a moment of great inspiration (aka: makeshift mosquito netting).

That said, I think it’s safe to say that as parents we at least showed up for our kids this summer. Some of the time anyway. We took them places and did things together. We tolerated their abiding love of toads, their penchant for building forts, their overwhelming desire to climb to the tops of trees and their inexplicable fascination with road kill. Furthermore, we tried not to trouble our silly heads over the health and well-being of our lawn as well as the health and well-being of those who spent much of August snowboarding down our grassy front terrace. Nor did we dwell on the wanton fearlessness with which they careened hither and yon on their scooters. Barefooted, no less. So we can feel slightly good, I guess—having directly or indirectly contributed to the wellspring of memories gathered over the fleeting, albeit delicious, chunk of summer.

Looking back I now see why it was likely a success—not because of the fancy-schmanciness of this or that celebrated event, but because the extraordinary lives deep within the ordinary. It’s not the double play in the bottom of the ninth they’ll remember, it’s the delicious medley of peanuts and popcorn wafting through the air, the distinctive shade of blue on the tongues of all who drank icy-cold, blue raspberry drinks on that sweltering summer night and the tinny clang that echoed throughout the stadium as cheering fans beat upon the aluminum bleachers like drums. Similarly, it’s not the glorified picnic with throngs of people, platters of deviled eggs and eleventeen varieties of potato salad that necessarily makes a lasting impression. It’s the novelty, and perhaps spontaneity, of having cucumber sandwiches and slices of watermelon on a wobbly card table in the midst of summer fun. “Thanks, Mom, now we don’t have to stop playing!”

Moreover, I’d daresay that fiery sunsets and Big Dipper sightings are more mesmerizing than a summertime box office smash. That a symphony of crickets, the pungent aroma of the earth and the endless chatter of children most memorably fill a tent. That a hammock is very nearly medicinal, as is the buttery succulence of sweet corn, the shade of an oak tree and the canopy of fog at sunrise as it hangs in the valley—silent and still.

Dear Departed Summer, it’s likely I’ll miss your fireflies most—and the barefoot children who give chase, drinking in the moment, alive with pleasure, racing across your cool, slick grasses without end.Planet Mom: It’s where I live (lamenting the finite quality of summer and desperately searching for the rewind button).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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If the Sock Fits, Marry It

IMG_0175I’ve been married some 27 years, 19 of which to the same wonderful man. In that span of time I’ve come to the conclusion that a successful marriage doesn’t have as much to do with an abiding love as it does with an ability to tolerate a disordered sock drawer.

That said, my husband’s socks are in a pitiful state of disarray much of the time. Again and again, I’ve tried to bring a sense of order and uniformity to the unruly heaps in his dresser by employing a variety of tactics (i.e. ditching the socks with holes, pairing those without mates and grouping them according to style or color), to no avail. Somehow the huddled masses return in a less-than-tidy fashion, yearning to breathe free. And because I’ve grown to understand the psyche of the disordered male, egregiously flawed as he might be, I’ve become a more compassionate mate.

By the same token, my husband accepts my flaws, and the fact that my sock drawer is a ridiculously organized space—complete with separate compartments for sweat socks, woolen socks and dress socks, nary a rogue in the bunch. The only thing it lacks is a coordinated cataloguing system inspired by Dewey Decimal. Needless to say, I recognize how difficult this must be for him, coming to grips with the sad reality that he lives with a closet neat freak. Of course, no one knows I’m a neat freak because there are no outward signs, unless you happened to be present on the day I purged our linen closet, hurling a disturbing number of blankets, towels and obscenities into the yard during a brief yet memorable fit of rage. Most of the time, however, I suffer in silence, allowing the tide of paraphernalia that comes with marriage and a family to consume me.

Admittedly, since the advent of children I’ve drifted from my well-ordered life and neatnik tendencies, much like growing apart from the distant relatives we stumble across at a funeral, decades later, squinting hard to try and remember who they are and how they once fit into our lives.

That said, everything in my world used to be neat and tidy. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. Even my food was logically aligned, tallest to smallest, labels facing out. To this day a tiny part of me dies whenever I peer inside our supersized refrigerator, the contents of which rest on shelves indiscriminately, as if they had been violently launched from a cannon across the room. But I digress.

Getting married and having kids changed everything. After years in the field, I’ve determined that about 90% of parenthood involves finding lone socks in obscure places. Plus there are even more sock drawers to deal with. Indeed, there is more stuff in general—stuff that is piled in our attic and garage, beneath beds and atop closet shelves, in cedar cabinets and the musty basement. Stuff that has no business being stuffed where it gets stuffed. Apparently appliance garages aren’t just for blenders anymore. They’re for lunchboxes and dog vitamins, too, leftover popcorn and tubs of butter that may or may not be encrusted with the remnants of a week’s worth of toast. And let us not forget the crumbs that gather there en masse. The ones that no one wants to clean.

What’s more, it’s been so long since we could park two cars in our garage I’ve forgotten what that even feels like. I suspect it would feel wonderful, much like it would to put china and only china in my china cabinet. Instead it houses prized artwork from my kids’ grade school experience and a decade’s worth of snapshots. Likewise, my refrigerator holds newspaper clippings, report cards and pictures of my favorite people and pets in the world. It holds vacation keepsakes and magnets with phrases I find particularly meaningful, too. Because that’s what families do—they fill their homes with tangible reminders of the love that lives there. And they tolerate the disorder, sock drawers included.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, with way too many socks. Visit me there at  www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Sometimes the Sidelines are Best

www.melindawentzel.comTwo years ago my kids swam like stones. Stones both dense and unwieldy in nature. Stones destined for the bottoms of lakes and ponds and pools. And yet, there was an uncanny barnacle-ness about them as well (i.e. they desperately clung to whatever floatation device or seemingly tallish torso that happened to be handy—namely my husband’s or mine). Said buoyancy-challenged individuals were largely comfortable in swimming pools, so long as we stayed in the shallow end and refrained from making any sort of unreasonable requests—like suggesting they loosen their death grips around our necks. Heaven forbid I tuck my hand beneath their bellies and let them kick and flop around in the water like everyone else on the planet.

That said, I’m not entirely sure that my kids even wanted to learn how to swim. Life was perfectly perfect coiled inextricably around someone’s head, neck and shoulders, their smallish bodies submerged just enough to enjoy a taste of refreshing coolness, while a goodly portion remained above the water’s surface, safe and sound from the abyss below.

For a time (read: an obscenely large chunk of our children’s lives), we allowed such an idiotic practice to continue, doing our level best to enable them and to accept the Island of Dependency we had inadvertently become. Of course, we fully expected a miracle to befall us. A miracle that would effectively save us from ourselves. Out of the blue, our charges would suddenly abandon their fears and start swimming like fish or, more correctly, like porpoises, plunging headlong into the murky depths in search of silvery prizes and whatever else they felt inclined to fetch from the deck of the Titanic. Through osmosis, our aquatic wonders would absorb every speck of knowledge and skill I had acquired as a lifeguard, and then some. They’d even be strangely adept at twirling whistles around their fingers and hauling greased watermelons across vast stretches of open water—talents that smack of impressiveness but have yet to be deemed useful.

But it was not to be. Eventually my husband and I faced the cold, hard truth. Hopes and dreams didn’t make good swimmers. Lessons did. Lessons involving a lot of hard work, a boatload of skilled instructors from whom praise flowed endlessly and a vat of courage—mostly of the parental variety. That said, it takes superhuman strength and nerves of steel to idly sit back and watch one’s beloved progeny flap and flounder as he or she goes about the important business of learning how to swim. It’s true: Kids panic. Kids swallow a disturbing amount of water. Kids stare at you from the deep end with horrified expressions of “How COULD you?!” and “Are you really my mother?!”

Not surprisingly, parents twist and turn uncomfortably in their seats, wearing nervous smiles and attempting to chat casually. Yet deep inside, awash with guilt and filled with doubt, they harbor pure and unadulterated torment. Or maybe that was just me, squirming in my lawn chair in a futile attempt to silence the voices in my head that relentlessly screamed, “Your child is DROWNING for Crissakes! And all you can do is swat flies and admire your tanned toes?! What kind of parent are you anyway?!” More than anything I felt helpless—completely beside myself with the idea of being on the sidelines.

And yet, that was where I needed to be—the place where I was, in fact, most effective. I needed to have faith in the process, faith in the instructors and faith in my children’s ability to succeed—in spite of the dearth of achievement I had witnessed thus far. And succeed they did. They’ve ditched the semblance of stones and barnacles for good and have since transformed into more guppy-like creatures, completely thrilled with their newfound ability to swim, “…even in the deep end, Mom!”

Aside from seeing actual results in the pool, I know this much is true because we’ve progressed from comments like, “I hope you know this is PURE TORTURE, Mom!” to “Can’t you just LEAVE ME HERE so I could SWIM ALL DAY, EVERYDAY?!”

Yep. Sometimes the sidelines are best.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (on the sidelines).

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Seven Things Parenthood has Taught Me

www.melindawentzel.comI’ve been a parent for some 8,734 days. A stunningly imperfect parent, I hasten to add. During that period of time I learned more about sleep deprivation, sibling rivalry and teen angst than I previously considered humanly possible. However, the past decade has proven to be particularly edifying. Indeed, Thing One and Thing Two (my ten-year-old twin daughters) have provided me with a veritable feast of enlightenment. So, in the spirit of welcoming my next decade as a parent (and the vat of enlightenment sure to come), I thought it might be fitting to recap what the last 10 years have taught me—at least from the perspective of a stunningly imperfect parent.

  • Beauty is likely in the kitchen. Translation: Most of the masterpieces I’ve collected thus far in my parenting journey are proudly displayed upon my refrigerator, where I suspect they will remain for a very long time to come. That is not to say the face of the fridge is the only canvas upon which said prized artwork hangs in all its faded glory. My home is quite literally inundated with the fledgling, Picasso-esque efforts of my brood, serving as a constant reminder of their boundless generosity and artsy flair. As it should be, I suppose.
  • The word “sleepover” is a misnomer. No one actually sleeps at a sleepover—including the pitiable adults charged with the impossible duty of entertaining the gaggle of impressionable youths in attendance. Furthermore, the later slumber partygoers appear to crash, the earlier they will rise, demanding bacon and eggs. Moreover, it is inevitable that someone’s personal effects (i.e. an unclaimed pair of underpants, a lone sweat sock, an irreplaceable stuffed animal) will be tragically lost—only to surface months later in the oddest of places.
  • When taken out of context, that-which-parents-say-and-do is often appalling. Case in point: “Stop licking the dog.” “If you’re going to ride your scooter in the house, wear a damn helmet.” “Fight nice.” In a similar vein, I’ve fed my charges dinner and/or dessert in a bathtub more times than I’d care to admit, I’ve used a shameful quantity of saliva to clean smudges off faces, I’ve suggested a broad range of inappropriate responses to being bullied and I consider the unabashed bribe to be one of my most effective parenting tools.
  • On average, we parents spend an ungodly amount of time reading aloud books that we find unbearably tedious. We say unforgivably vile things about the so-called “new math” and, as a matter of course, we become unhinged by science projects and whatnot—especially those that require mad dashes to the craft store at all hours of the day and night in search of more paint, more modeling clay and perhaps a small team of marriage counselors.
  • Forget wedding day jitters, the parent/teacher conference is among the most stressful experiences in life—not to be confused with the anxiety-infused telephone call from the school nurse and that interminable lapse of time wedged between not knowing what’s wrong with one’s child and finding out.
  • A captive audience is the very best sort of audience. That said, some of the most enlightening conversations between parent and child occur when the likelihood of escape is at a minimum (i.e. at the dinner table, in a church pew, en route to the umpteenth sporting event/practice session/music lesson, within the confines of the ever-popular ER). Similarly, the discovery of a teensy-tiny wad of paper—one that has been painstakingly folded and carefully tucked within a pocket, wedged beneath a pillow or hidden inside dresser drawer—is akin to being granted psychic powers. Everything a parent needs to know about their child will likely be scrawled upon said scrap of paper.
  • Unanswerable questions never die—they simply migrate to more fertile regions of our homes where they mutate into hideous manifestations of their original forms, leaving us wringing our hands and damning our inadequate selves.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (getting schooled as we speak). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom. The content of this article, as it appears here, was previously published in the Khaleej Times.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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