Saturday, April 19, 2014

Photo is a precious reminder

From today's Briefing:

Happy new year! Well, happy new year for me. I’m now 42 and one day.
My middle-age birthdays tend to steer me toward introspection with a healthy dash of gratitude, all wrapped up in joy.
Joy because I’m celebrating another year not promised. Because I get to continue to be mom to Cooper and Katie. Because when I consider all that I’ve learned in the past 12 months and all that’s still out there to experience, I can’t help but feel a little giddy.
Introspection kicked in early this week, when dear friends found and shared a photo of baby Katie and her daddy — my late husband, Steve.
The image was snapped at a bowling alley birthday party. Katie is nestled in an infant carrier, covered in a floral receiving blanket, grasping Steve’s right index finger with her tiny hand and staring at his face.
Steve, in turn, is totally focused on Katie. His profile is turned away from the camera, but you can still glimpse his smile and unadulterated delight in his chubby-cheeked daughter.
I love these little post-Steve discoveries, for me and for Cooper and Katie. The photo offers tangible proof of Steve’s devotion. And yet, the great thing about their dad is that we don’t really need a photo. We carry with us — all the time — all the love Steve poured out. And he didn’t even make it to 41.
The photo is remarkable to me now because it’s a snapshot of our everyday lives before cancer and death. Steve wasn’t posing. He was just caught in the act of doting.
How many of my everyday moments would be so flattering? Am I kind to strangers? Do all — or even most — of my interactions reflect the care and affection I feel toward my colleagues and students? Do the people I love the most know truly how much I love them?
I’m afraid the answer isn’t yes often enough. The good news, though, is I have the gift of today and tomorrow. There aren’t do-overs, but I get fresh chances with each new day of my 43rd year.
What does that look like? I’ve started a list.
Less multitasking when I’m with people. Resisting the urge to check my iPhone every few minutes. Being fully engaged in conversations.
Editing words and tone before I speak. Choosing sincerity over sarcasm more often. Lavishing my children and my students with encouragement.
Expressing thankfulness. Sharing more. Judging less.
It’s an ambitious list. Results may be sketchy.
Yet I can’t wait to get started — because I get to be 42, because I’m thankful for the years I’ve had, and because I might have another 42 years in me. I don’t want to waste a moment.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What's the answer? A little creativity

From Saturday's Briefing:

Children all over Texas have just finished a round of stand- ardized tests that hold them accountable for finding the best answers to math and reading questions.

While there’s currently healthy debate about how many tests are appropriate, how effective they are, how much they cost and how much weight they carry, there’s no question that in real life, there are moments when finding the best answer is necessary.

At the same time, there are plenty of moments when there’s no one best answer, when a person’s value isn’t measured by A, B, C or D. There are plenty of moments when we need to innovate, manipulate, rethink and create.

I’ve tried to encourage a healthy balance with Cooper and Katie, emphasizing the importance of the right answer when necessary (even if it takes dozens of tries to get there) and the importance of seeking questions and situations with multiple answers — none of them wrong.

With that in mind, I quizzed some of my mom friends — creative women who’ve already raised their children as well as those who are still in the middle of the joyful mess. Of course, there is no one “right” answer for nurturing creativity.

Here is a glimpse at some of what works in our homes.

1 Less structure: Kids who have every afternoon booked with tutoring, lessons, practices, games and meetings have less time to explore the world on their own.

Katrina says, “Let kids roam ‘free range’ outside.” Another mom shares, “When you schedule every minute of every day for kids, there isn’t a lot if room for exploring ideas or creating.”

At Angela’s house, her two children “get lots of unstructured time after school and on breaks, where they have to rely on their imagination to play together.”

2 Less mass media: Be willing to take away screens and force your kids to interact with the real world.

“I enforce boredom, meaning I make them take down time,” says Tracey. “No screens. They are allowed to read, or draw, or go outside, but that’s about it. That’s when I see them get creative.”

3 Access to supplies: Keep the house stocked with tools that encourage creativity — blocks, paints, clay, piles of wood, paper, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, empty cardboard tubes, scissors and glue.

“We always had plenty of art supplies around and allowed my kids both the time and place to create when they wanted,” Ami says.

Melissa encourages a range of media to play with — art supplies, open-ended and pretend-play toys, books, blank notebooks and music.

4 Embrace the mess and the mistakes: Creating isn’t neat work. Don’t be afraid of clutter, spills or errors.

“Creativity can be messy,” Renee says. “Nurturing creativity requires that I hold my children with an open hand, encourage them to take risks, and provide support when they fail.”

Jenny adds, “A ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It opens up the door for looking for better or different ways to solve a problem or learn something new. We tend to only celebrate victory, but honestly some of the best or most lasting lessons are learned through difficulty.”

5 Embrace their passions: Allow them to pursue their interests and provide extra support when you can.

“When they want to try something new, I support them,” Angela says.

Suzy finds lessons that match her daughter’s interest in art, music, singing and dance. Most are for a fee, of course, but there are free options (such as studio time at the Dallas Museum of Art, Saturday mornings at Guitar Center and monthly events at the Nasher Sculpture Center).

Liz takes cues from her daughter. “I just give her the space when I can to follow whatever inspires her and march to the beat of her own drummer.”

6 Give creative gifts: For birthdays and holidays, consider gifts that encourage participation, engagement and problem-solving.

Every year for Christmas, Patti would give her daughter, Sarah, a game board and pieces but no rules. Sarah could then create her own games. She’d give her son, Wesley, a cookbook.

Melissa believes in “experience” gifts — a date to paint ceramics or an afternoon of ice skating.

Many moms mentioned books, books and more books. Buy as many as you can. Borrow as many as you can. Read them aloud for story time. Read them aloud while the kids are playing quietly. Give them time to read on their own.

Liz listens to her daughter’s requests. “If she sees an everyday object (paper towel roll, empty box, etc.) and wants it for a project, I almost always indulge it. She often asks for string, and one day when she was home she built an entire spiderweb across the entryway to the dining room.”

7 Don’t give too much: Allow children the opportunity to create their own playthings.

“Tonight I got my reflexes checked with a toothbrush, and that was all Laney’s idea,” Emily says. “I think it’s important to leave play up to their imagination and not give our kids every possible real-life prop, even though all those dramatic play kits sure are cute.”

Kristin agrees: “Can’t find something that is exactly what we are looking for to house Lego or doll accessories, decorate our room or costume our dog? Let’s figure out what materials we might have around the house to make it.”

8 Ask and encourage questions: Ask children open-ended, what-if questions, and invite them to do the same.

Laura says, “When we talk about things — what they learned in school that day, something we see during the day, something we hear — I ask them why they think something is the way it is, how things could be different or problems could be solved or managed.”

9 Get outside: Open up their world by sharing nature and multiple styles of expression.

Sharon, now a grandmother, is a big believer in the great outdoors. “‘No kid left inside’ is the motto.”

Ami remembers, “When we were out in the world, I always pointed out the beautiful clouds, colors in the sky, flowers, structures, things of beauty that I admired.”

10 Let go: Relinquish control of what they’re wearing. Don’t dictate what they’re playing.

“I think the greatest thing I can do to nurture creativity in my children is to be aware of my tendency to desire that they do what I think they should do,” Renee says.

Emily’s stance: “You want to wear a Christmas shirt in March? Go for it.”

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, March 24, 2014

Life is not always picture perfect

From Saturday's Briefing:

The past school year has been a huge, mostly happy adjustment in our home.
In August, I began a new career as a fifth-grade teacher, a move that required sacrifices from all three of us in the house. In the year before, I spent most of my free time preparing — taking online classes, reading, writing essays and studying for the state exam.
It was time that I normally would have spent with Cooper and Katie. On some of my most time-crunched days, I would apologize with the promise that the rewards would be worth it — a week off at Thanksgiving, two at Christmas, another at spring break and almost all of summer. And, I would sometimes add, I planned on absolutely loving my job as a teacher.
So far, the plan has worked out beautifully. Mostly.
We’ve already enjoyed those four promised weeks together. Summer’s not far away. And I absolutely love teaching.
No doubt, though, there have been some hiccups along the way.
Those four weeks off throughout the year come at a price. The weeks that I am working are intense— eight, nine or 10 hours at school plus planning and grading at night and on weekends.
That full-time job often collides with my other full-time job as mom and manager of our home. As much as I had hoped to hold on to my usual standards, there’s been some slippage here and there around the house.
Margie the dog desperately needs a haircut.
There are precariously tall piles of paperwork that need to be filed.
It’s clearly Easter season, but there’s still a giant snowflake decorating the kitchen chandelier, and I noticed this week that Christmas cards are still hanging in a small hallway.
Perhaps most telling: Cooper went to school Tuesday wearing a Muppet T-shirt of his own choosing. It wasn’t until late afternoon, after we both were home from school, that I remembered that Tuesday was picture day.
My seventh-grader has never once in all of his years of preschool, elementary school and middle school — until Tuesday — worn a T-shirt on picture day. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Standard attire has always been a collared shirt — even for the spring photos that usually feature goofy poses and fussy backgrounds, the kind of photos we never buy.
Even though I read the reminder emails, I failed to type “picture day” on my Google calendar, thus allowing the whole idea to fall out of my head.
Cooper and I laughed about the Muppet shirt, and, perhaps in an effort to make me feel better about forgetting, he told me that most boys were wearing T-shirts, “Only the girls were dressed up, wearing makeup and stuff.”
He then re-created the goofy pose, made all the more ridiculous by his mocking smile and rolling eyes.
And with that, I let it go.
I long ago gave up the idea of being a “perfect” mom, trading it for the idea of doing my best — not someone else’s idea of best. In the past year, I’ve been refining that idea even more, working toward my best but forgiving myself more easily when I fall short.
That includes taking care of the biggest priorities first, fitting in the rest when I can and letting go of the stuff that doesn’t really matter.
Margie finally has an appointment with the groomer today.
I’ll whittle away at the piles as needed.
Sometime this weekend, we’ll take down the snowflake and Christmas cards and decorate with Easter eggs and rabbits.
And perhaps this time I’ll actually order the spring photos and keep the image as a souvenir of my first year of teaching, the year that I continued to learn to let go — and to laugh more often.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tournament's reward is the journey

From Saturday's Briefing:

Every Thursday night since September, Katie has been practicing with a small group of third-graders in preparation for the regional Destination Imagination tournament.
They selected their challenge, created a problem and solution, wrote a 15-minute script and whittled it to eight, crafted costumes and props, and rehearsed dialogue and a song over and over and over again.
Last Saturday, the teammates and their adult handlers arrived at the tournament site, as prepared as they’d ever be. They performed an Instant Challenge (impromptu problem), waited two hours, then performed their skits.
In no time flat, they’d reached the end.
Or, as Katie said as she settled into a lounge chair outside the competition room, “You practice and practice for months, and then you perform for a couple of minutes, and it's over.”
It’s an understandable point of view, especially for a goal-oriented 8-year-old (who is the daughter of a goal-oriented 41-year-old).
Sometimes, we’re so focused on the destination that when we’ve finally reached it, we minimize the journey.
We forget that eight minutes of a performance represents new friendships and refined skills of compromise, mistakes and forgiveness. We forget essential lessons on time management and priorities, on sticking to your guns and letting things go.
Looking back at the path is especially important when you’ve reached the destination — and it turns out to be less than you expected.
Katie’s team didn’t earn a medal.
They worked hard, but their final product wasn’t as clever or polished as their competitors.
Not everyone can win first, second or third. When you compete, you take the risk of not being the best in that category on that particular day. But it’s a risk with a guaranteed reward — you might win first, second or third. And if you don’t, well, that’s when you start reviewing the path that got you there.
A couple of years ago, Cooper was starting to feel overwhelmed by the competition around him — Boy Scouts who were eager to reach rank before anyone else, kids at recess who played cutthroat soccer.
Around the same time, I discovered a quote in the Wm. Paul Young novel Cross Roads: “Life was never meant to be about comparing or competing.”
I copied the words on a small piece of paper and left it at his place at the breakfast table. We talked about the quote and its countercultural message. Then the scrap of paper disappeared. I discovered it later, taped to Cooper’s bedroom mirror.
The words are still there.
Cooper is in the middle of his first track and field season. He’s been running long distances — the 2,400 meters and the 1,600. He’s fast but not the fastest.
So far, he hasn’t cracked the top three.
Yet he leaves each meet — each four-hour meet in a mercurial Texas winter — with a huge grin and energy to spare.
On our long, dark walks to the car, Cooper regales us with tales of shenanigans in the infield. He relives the moment he passed another seventh- grader on the track and the split second when a different runner passed him.
Katie asks, “Did you hear me screaming for you when you ran by?”
His answer is always yes. (How could he miss it?)
I ask, “Did you have fun?”
His answer is always yes.
He doesn’t let his time on a 1-mile run define him. He doesn’t view a single race as the end.
Each race is simply a step in a long path. To where? Who knows. For now he’s content to enjoy the journey.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Kathryn the poet

The Frisco Public Library is sponsoring a poetry contest that we keep forgetting about. The entries are due tomorrow.

The weather is crummy so we're "stuck" inside. (I'm actually pleased to have an afternoon at home.) 

Katie is in extreme I-must-create-something-right-now mode. That forced me to I remember the contest, so I suggested that she write a poem or two.

She wrote five in about 30 minutes. 

"I want to use 'Kathryn' instead of 'Katie' because it sounds more professional."

By Kathryn Damm

In bed I lie
Fire crackles near
Cocoa at my side
Everlasting white


By Kathryn Damm

Black and white
In the night

Green glowing eyes
Nocturnal spies

Swiftly they fly
Then perch on a tree nearby


By Kathryn Damm

Fans chant
Players pant
One to one


By Kathryn Damm

Lights dim
Screen bright
Popcorn small
Lots of light


By Kathryn Damm

Birds sweetly sing
Eggs make a tiny crack
Mother birds proud of chicks
Happy spring!

Before church this morning

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Celebrity status

We don't watch a lot of television around here. Or listen to commercial radio.

We're movie fans, but as a family we're still in G and PG mode for the most part. 

Because of all this, Cooper struggled some with an assignment tonight. His Spanish teacher asked all students to bring in photos of six celebrities.

He couldn't really think of any. I could have suggested some, but tomorrow he has to describe these people, using the Spanish language, and my random assemblage of celebrities would do him no good.

Here are the six he decided on. Truly, one of the geekiest celebrity lists around (said with the most loving tone possible and full agreement from Coop).

The Beatles
Bill Gates

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Rick Riordan

Mr. Bean

Martin Luther King Jr.