Sunday, November 23, 2014

Before church this morning

Monday, November 17, 2014

Years passed allow time for reflection

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been almost 29 years since I last walked the halls of Perry Middle School, a campus that even back then was considered ancient.

Of course, when you’re 13, most everything seems ancient.

On Saturday, I’m driving my own middle-school child to Perry for All-Region Band tryouts, and as I’m apt to do, I’m certain to tell him a few stories.

Like about my first week at the school. I transferred in the middle of eighth grade, in the middle of a family crisis. I was slightly traumatized and terribly shy.

My U.S. history teacher didn’t go out of her way to help me fit in. She sat me in the front of the room, far apart from every other desk. I couldn’t bear to look up and around the room, into the eyes of people who I was certain would all be staring back at me, so I stared at my shoes with fierce intensity.

Karen Jackson befriended me in that class. Years later, we would reminisce about how we first met — friendly Karen and me, “the girl who stared at her shoes.”

Karen and I have been friends ever since. She rescued me many times. We’re separated by a few states, but our connection is strong.

I might tell my son about the spring dance. Not long after I arrived, a calendar came home with a note about a semi- formal. I wanted to fit in. My stepmother began creating a tea-length emerald green dress with an off-the-shoulder ruffle.

It was gorgeous.

The night of the dance, my naturally curly hair was even poufier with the help of hot rollers and a curling iron and some Aqua Net.

It was, perhaps, gorgeous for the era.

I walked into the dance. Lights were dim. Wham was blasting through the speakers. Clusters of young teens danced and talked and ran around.

They were all — every single one of them — wearing Hawaiian shirts or Jams shorts or, at the very least, leis. Except me, the new girl, in the homemade dress and white pumps from Kinney Shoes.

There’s a world of difference between semiformal and luau. We had either misread the calendar or missed a theme change somewhere along the way.

I escaped quickly to the bathroom, which provided no refuge at all. I was now trapped in a tiny room with only girls, all of whom had a front-row seat to my misery.

One girl said aloud, to no one in particular and therefore the entire congregation, “How sad.”

I escaped that scene to my small circle of friends on the dance floor.

Among them was Melissa Tarun, dressed appropriately for the occasion and, more important, armed with compassion and loyalty. She didn’t shrink away from her overdressed friend.

For three decades, she’s been clothed in best-friend- worthy qualities. My children call her “Aunt Melissa.” Whether I’ve got horrible news or big celebrations, she’s at the top of my list to call.

What I really want to tell Cooper as we drive to my old middle school this morning is that the choices we make when we’re young can have long-reaching effects. That there is incredible power in saying hello first, in standing in solidarity with a friend who feels alienated.

I want him to know that three decades later, what I remember most about some tough years are the people who made life smoother. I want him to know that the best gifts, the most memorable gifts, are moments of kindness and compassion, of love and acceptance.

I’ll likely keep silent on how fast his next 29 years will flash by. Some lessons must be lived to be learned.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, November 01, 2014

When faced with a challenge, just take the next step

From today's Briefing:

I stand just inside a temporary fence. My head turns constantly, gaze moving between the time clock on the right and the runners on the left.
At last I see him, my 6-foot son, sprinting around the corner.
I holler, “Go, Cooper,” unsure if he’ll hear me above the din of other fans and the amplified announcer. I aim my camera in his direction, unsure if I can capture him as he speeds by.
His lanky legs lead him past the finish line, and I hustle to catch up, to find him in the crowd of runners and supporters.
He’s too winded to talk much. “I need to sit down,” he says between gulps of water.
So we rest, and I wait for Cooper’s breathing to regulate before I ask about details from the 5K course.
He ran faster than he’s ever run a race before. He doesn’t yet know his time, but he’s guessing it’s less than 22 minutes.
A few minutes later, we return to the fences, this time to search for Katie. This is her second 5K, and she’s set a goal to finish in less than 40 minutes.
Now there are two of us anxiously oscillating between the clock and the corner. Mom and brother in search of sister.
At last we spy her, flapping ponytail, red cheeks, determined stare.
Before I can shout, “Go, Katie,” she shouts at us. “I lost a shoe!”
She zooms past, one shoe on and one shoe off. The finish line beckons. She is seconds from 40. Seconds from her goal.
We are reunited — even trickier now than when Cooper crossed — and begin to search for the lost shoe. She thought it flew off somewhere around the corner, but there are no orphaned shoes on the course.
We walk again toward the finish line. A teenager approaches, running, shoe in hand.
“I think this is yours.” Foot and shoe are reunited.
Katie traditionally allows little to get in the way of talking. Running three miles certainly won’t stop her from spilling details.
“How did you lose your shoe?” I ask.
She explains that when she turned the corner and saw the finish line, she started running faster and ran right out of her shoe.
We find water for Katie. We all sample some free mini muffins.
Cooper walks to a tent to check his official time. He comes back with the news: 21:20. Weeks of practice have paid off. He shaved three minutes off his previous best. His time was low enough to earn him a medal in his age group.
We wait for the awards ceremony, take lots of photos, then walk to the minivan — one child with a medal around his neck, the other with a giant smile on her face.
“Do you know how I reached my goal?” Katie asks. “I set little goals for myself. I’d tell myself to run to the next sign or run to the next lamppost. Then I would do it, and then I’d make a new little goal.”
Wise words that I stored away. Just in time.
The days following the race were tough. My little world was thrown slightly akimbo by a few extra helpings of stress. There were moments when I felt a little lost.
And then my daughter’s words found me.
Set small goals. Focus less on the big picture and more on what’s right in front of you. Don’t worry about how you’re going to get from today to tomorrow.
Instead, place your energy on getting through the next 10 minutes. And then another 10.
Keep moving forward, even if you lose a little something on the way. Chances are, you’ll recover at the end, and that end represents a new beginning.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper and Katie at the 2014 Gary Burns Fun Run

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pedaling forward is a lifelong process

From Saturday's Briefing:

I’m forever pushing children out of their comfort zones.
If one of my students prefers to read only graphic novels, I cajole him to try a science fiction novel. If another is buried in realistic fiction, I convince her to try biography.
Just when a fourth-grader thinks his essay is perfect, I challenge him to make five more words even stronger.
If I teach it, I need to live it, no matter how painful. Every now and then, I push myself beyond comfort.
For example, a week ago I slipped a handmade pink tutu over blue jeans and shimmied in front of 500 people while lip-synching Taylor Swift.
This totally out-of-character performance was made possible only because I was one of a menagerie of dancing teachers at our school assembly. I find strength in numbers when pushing my limits.
My brief stage appearance was painless. My next venture, not so much.
Sunday nights at the Damm house are routinely routine. Cooper practices clarinet. Katie practices violin. I cook dinner and prep food for lunches for the rest of the week.
Last Sunday night was out of the ordinary. I shed domesticity for an evening out with some usually mild-mannered mom friends. We climbed into strangers’ cars, headed for Dallas and spent the night pedaling through Uptown.
Because some in the group planned to drink adult beverages and because we are hyper-vigilant mommas, we chose to hire out the driving. We used our smartphones to hail not taxicabs, but rides from everyday drivers willing to share their cars for a fee.
We spilled out of three random sedans and gawked at our next mode of transportation: a giant cart equipped with barstools and bicycle pedals. It’s called the Buzz Bike.
The cart is piloted by an experienced driver who has control of steering and the brakes. The power is provided by the people sitting on the barstools.
We stowed our purses, the pilot described our roles, and in no time we were inching north on McKinney Avenue. Just as quickly, I could feel some leg muscles that hadn’t been stretched in a long while. Pedaling a giant, truck-sized cart takes more strength than I’d imagined.
Discomfort was easily ignored, though, with all the singing, laughing and waving to curious folks on the side of the road.
We took a break on the route, stopping for chips and salsa (cycling works up an appetite) and water (who could handle anything stronger with all that work?). We climbed aboard again, ready to face two challenges: a steep decline that would send us flying and an equally steep incline that would leave us gasping.
Our party perched atop the first hill, unable to see the bottom. The traffic light turned green and we started to pedal, fueled by a well-timed “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” blaring through the speakers.
Cyndi Lauper’s words were eventually drowned by our screams — part exhilaration, part fear of rear-ending the Mustang directly in front of our lumbering contraption.
We stopped just in time.
We enjoyed a couple of flat blocks, then we faced the biggest challenge of the night: the hill of Allen Street. We’d heard stories of previous groups that couldn’t pedal all the way up — that had to dismount and push the oversized bike.
Our competitive spirits kicked in. We would not become a cautionary tale.
One of the fittest friends in the group pedaled like an Ironman triathlete while commanding us to follow suit. We focused. We dug in. We biked up that cursed hill in two minutes flat.
There was nothing comfortable about it.
But I needed that night out with friends, a few hours away from responsibilities and planning. I needed to step out of my routine, to wave at strangers, to sing ’80s pop with wild abandon.
My sore quads are a small souvenir of the night. Longer lasting is the reminder that we all need to stretch a little.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
The whole gang, celebrating Julianne's 40th birthday (after we survived the treacherous hills)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Before church this morning

Not shown: Katie's new braces on the bottom teeth and expander on top, both of which are causing extreme discomfort

Monday, October 06, 2014

Finding ways to celebrate without sweets

From Saturday's Briefing:

I know comfort food because of Gramma.
Having a rough day? A Big Red and Blue Bell float will fix you right up.
Celebrating some good news? We’ll stop at the convenience store for a popsicle or Drumstick.
In the middle of a family reunion? How about a slice of Mrs. Smith’s apple pie?
Gramma has been gone almost a decade now, but I’m a keeper of the flame, a firm believer in the family tradition of soothing and praising with treats.
You didn’t win the election? Frozen yogurt with toppings will cheer you up. You earned a place on the team? We’ll stop for a chocolate shake. You and your friends completed a monstrous project? How about some brownies?
My children have been absolutely agreeable with this candy-coated legacy. We don’t eat fast food. I don’t keep many sweets in the house. Why not fully embrace a system that guarantees treats every few weeks?
I’ll tell you why not. Because your 9-year-old vegetarian daughter gave up most desserts for her New Year’s resolution and, unlike 99 percent of everyone you know, she’s actually kept hers.
For almost a whole year now, she’s passed up celebratory treats and consolation desserts. My family tradition has been challenged. My go-to comfort choices have been shelved.
Not that I’m complaining.
It’s healthy in more ways than one to ditch food as a balm or a reward. Food is supposed to be fuel, and we should consume only as much as we truly need. (I’m pretty terrible at following this advice.)
Drowning our sorrows in rocky road doesn’t really solve anything. And there’s absolutely no relevant connection between, say, making the A honor roll and downing a Slurpee.
Besides all of that, does every piece of encouraging news warrant a reward?
Does every disappointing tidbit deserve a consolation prize?
Katie’s lifestyle change has made the answers obvious.
Not only does she not need a cookie for good news, but she also doesn’t need anything beyond the natural consequences of the good news. Same for the setbacks. The absence of comfort food has forced genuine conversations of heartfelt praise and pep talks. Every time I think, “We should celebrate with [fill in the blank],” I am forced to stop and regard my own motivations, to consider the intrinsic value of winning or losing, of reaching your goals or falling short.
Still, Katie is only 9, and there are events that demand some sort of celebration. (Or moments that not even the tightest hugs and most sincere words can make better.)
So I’ve asked for a Katie-approved list of possible treats. Her suggestions include:
  • New book
  • Squares of felt from the craft store
  • Extra minutes of nighttime Harry Potter read-aloud
  • New markers
  • New paint
  • Movie night at home
  • Time at the playground
  • Episode of Gilligan’s Island
  • New rosin for violin bow
  • Homemade Chex mix (“As long as it’s not burned,” she added without a trace of judgment and, yet, no doubt recalling my last batch.)

Free-spirited, creative, poetic Gramma (who cooked a mean batch of Chex mix) would no doubt approve.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at