Monday, March 23, 2015

Never take a snow day for granted

From Saturday's Briefing:
My hands tingle with pain. I can’t feel my toes. My nose is numb. It’s time to go home.
“We can’t go inside yet!” Katie implores. “We might not have weather like this for another five years! I want to keep sledding!”
Nothing she can say will sway me. I trudge up the hill toward home, willing my frozen feet to move.
Then Cooper chimes in, “In five years, I won’t even be home for snow days.”
The truth paralyzes more than the bitter winter wind. Cooper’s well-timed retort buys them both a few minutes more in the sleet/ice/snow.
(In fact, we’d get more wintry mix that same week, but Texas kids never take snow and ice for granted.)
All that snow has melted, and spring has officially, if begrudgingly, begun. Yet I can’t shake the chill of Cooper’s words. His time at home is slipping away.
He’s filed his degree plan for high school. He’s selected his freshman classes.
We’re experiencing the “last” of everything related to middle school. The last UIL band competition and the last track meet will eventually yield to the last bus ride home, and then we’ll have exactly four more years.
It’s the kind of countdown that makes me want to gather up all the previous days that I wished away. You know the ones.
“I can’t wait until my baby sleeps through the night.”
“I can’t wait until my toddler is potty-trained.”
“I can’t wait until my child can read.”
It’s the kind of countdown that keeps me awake at night, keeping him company while he finishes homework.
We don’t talk much during those late hours. He solves quadratic equations and studies Spanish vocabulary at the kitchen table while I grade papers, fold laundry, wash dishes, read — and try not to wish away the late nights.
When he does pause from his studies, it’s usually precipitated with, “Oh! Momma, I meant to tell you ...” followed by a joke he heard or a song he wants me to listen to or an observation about the complicated middle school social structure.
How many of those moments would I miss if I shuffled off to bed? I’m not panicked about the passage of time; all the same, I’m in no position to waste it.
This year’s spring break adventure (yet another shared experience with an expiration date) landed us in Southern California, where we stayed with dear friends, visited the beach, explored botanical gardens — and sat in the car.
I admit, I was grumbly about Los Angeles traffic at first. It should not take 90 minutes to drive 30 miles in the middle of a random weekday. My grand plans for nonstop sightseeing were thwarted. We simply couldn’t navigate from one place to the other fast enough.
Who was stuck in the rental car with me, though? My two children, who for the next four years have the exact same school calendar.
I embraced that traffic as extra time with my two people — Cooper in the front passenger seat, helping me navigate and offering commentary on every automobile on the 5, the 110, the 134, the 405 and Santa Monica Boulevard, and Katie in the back, asking questions about every billboard on the 5, the 110, the 134, the 405 and Santa Monica Boulevard.
As always happens when I’m driving in unfamiliar territory, we got a little lost a couple of times. I tried and failed to parallel park at least three times. We wandered 20 minutes in a Hollywood parking garage, desperate to locate our rental car. (Parking, clearly, is not my forte.)
Not a single second was wasted.
We were together for every missed turn, for every comical attempt to slide into a metered spot, for every increasingly uncomfortable minute searching in that nondescript basement lot.
Bring on the sledding, the marathon homework nights, the stuck-in-traffic days. They’re limited edition, supplies lasting not as long as we’d like.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, February 23, 2015

Living proof

From Saturday's Briefing:

The sun has set. The wind chill is 43 degrees, but from atop the metal bleachers, I swear it feels like 33.
Katie and I are huddled together, struggling to wiggle our fingers and toes.
“You’re a good sister,” I tell Katie.
“I’ve never been this cold,” she says through chattering teeth.
When we arrived to watch Cooper’s first race, the sun was shining. No gloves or scarves or hats were required. Now, four hours later, I stare longingly at families — forecast-checking kinds of families — draped in sturdy quilts and down jackets.
At last, we hear the starter gun we’ve been waiting for. We watch a cluster of boys thin out into one lane. I keep my eye on the tallest boy, my boy, and each time he passes the stands — four times for this race — I holler, “Go, Cooper!”
He finishes in fifth place. Katie and I scramble down the bleachers and wait just outside the track fence — both to congratulate him and to hasten our departure.
We arrive home, and a different type of race begins. The kids need to unpack backpacks and lunch boxes, shower, eat, complete homework. I need to fold clean laundry, wash dishes, answer emails and read over lesson plans for the next day.
In the middle of that frenzy, I consider my current level of mom guilt — that emotional weight I carry as provider, nurturer and guardian of two humans.
I should have been more prepared for the weather, with more blankets and outerwear.
I should have insisted that Katie study spelling words while we sat for hours. I should have folded that basket of clothes last night. I should have taken care of the dishes before work this morning.
My mom list of “should haves” is long. I’ve built up years of missed opportunities. Of moments when I should have stepped in and others when I should have stepped back. Conversations when I could have been more patient, more hopeful, more trusting.
Yet worse than carrying around self-inflicted guilt is letting that guilt take control. So I try to shake it off (a phrase I can no longer say without hearing Taylor Swift in my head). I try to offer myself grace — and then try to accept it — but I’m not always convincing.
And then, in the midst of all that rushed school-night busy-ness, I rediscover an antidote to mom guilt: my own children.
Cooper was studying for a test on The Count of Monte Cristo when Katie walked through the kitchen for her nighttime cup of water.
“Good job tonight, Coop.”
A few minutes later — and an hour later than usual — she was climbing into bed. Cooper walked by her room.
“Love you, Katie!”
“Love you more!”
And just like that: poof! My mom guilt vanished — at least for the night.
My occasional lack of planning and my temporary oversights are insignificant compared to what matters most: a home that offers shelter from the cold. A home in which each person is valued. A home where each person is loved beyond measure.
I pray that my children continue to praise each other, that they’ll lavish each other with kind words and that they’ll forgive each other’s mistakes. Mine, too.
And I pray that when my “should haves” list gets too long, I’m able to remember that my “did it right” list is perhaps even longer.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper, in between races, last Wednesday

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Not a shield but a guide

From todays' Briefing:

Moments of clarity are unpredictable.
Both children are away, one at a science competition, the other at a friend’s house working on an art project. I’m cleaning out the refrigerator and washing dishes in preparation for my weekly grocery trip.
That’s when it hit me, when my role as a parent became completely unambiguous.
My epiphany in the midst of the mundane: My job is not to shield them from pain and discomfort but to guide them so they can cope with pain and discomfort.
That’s not easy for a bubble-wrap momma like me.
In my earliest mom years, my goal was to completely protect Cooper and then Katie from any and all trouble. No sickness, no turmoil, no dysfunction. No raised voices, no processed foods, no violent images.
I thank God for that foundation.
When Cooper was 6 and Katie was 2, their daddy was diagnosed with incurable cancer. My illusion of control was stripped away. Trouble that I could never imagine showed up, uninvited, and moved right on in.
Ever since then, we’ve been coping.
In the middle of my Saturday chores, I was wondering about each child. How was Cooper’s presentation? After reviewing other projects, did he expect that he and his group would win an award? What if he wins and I’m not there to congratulate him? What if he doesn’t win and I’m not there to console him?
How was Katie’s project? Was her vision (as usual, grandiose) coming to life? Was she working well with her friend? Was she being bossy?
So many questions. All answered by a much bigger, more important question: Am I equipping my children to adapt?
I’m trying mightily, but it’s a tough job.
Katie did, in fact, struggle with the art project. We had barely climbed into the minivan after leaving her friend’s house when she burst into tears.
“The archway we made isn’t as good as I expected,” she sobbed. “It barely stands up. It doesn’t look good. We didn’t get enough done.”
(The archway is made of aluminum cans and packing tape, with a cardboard box base. It’s a fine piece of architecture, created by two creative 9-year-old girls with high expectations.)
I let her cry. I ask a few questions. She acknowledges that she’s tired and volunteers to lie down for a little rest.
Meanwhile, I check Cooper’s competition online and notice that the awards ceremony is being live-streamed at this very moment.
I stare at my laptop, watching groups accept accolades for months of innovative, hard work. I’m afraid to walk away, just in case.
At last, my lanky son and his two buddies bound through the lecture hall and onto the stage to accept congratulations for “excellence in systems integration.”
Cooper’s smile reveals that he’s totally surviving without me in the room.
He won’t always win a special award. There will be moments when, despite diligence and extreme effort, he won’t be first or best. There will be moments when, in the words of his sister, life “isn’t as good as I expected.”
Of course, I want my children to steer clear of trouble, to stay healthy, to be rewarded for hard work.
More than that, though, I want them to find joy in tough circumstances. I want them to know when it’s time to rest. I want them to win — and lose — with grace. I want them to revel in the sunshine — and be prepared for the storms.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Clearest view of fight for civil rights lies outside the comfort zone

From Saturday's Briefing:

Cooper was 4 when I first read to him the picture book Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. He’s been a student of the civil rights movement ever since.

He devours books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. He can name heroes of the 1950s and ’60s and discuss key court cases and legislation with clarity.

He has watched countless movies and documentaries. He has read historical fiction.

We have stood near the Woolworth lunch counter, instrumental in the desegregation movement in Greensboro, N.C., and now housed at the National Museum of American History. We have stood on the National Mall, imaging what the grounds were like during the March on Washington of 1963.

Yet nothing compares to experience — at least as close as you can get 50 years after the fact.

Cooper joined other teens plus some parents and ministers on a civil rights bus tour last weekend. The group traveled to Jackson and Oxford, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. They toured museums and worshipped together. They watched documentaries. They visited with the Rev. Ed King.

King is a veteran of the civil rights movement, an instrumental force in helping African-Americans register to vote in the 1960s, and a colleague of the late Medgar Evers. And he has stories — often harrowing stories — to tell.

It was after the visit with King that Cooper sent me this text: “I never knew how horribly they treated African-Americans and whites that did not agree with them.”

My first reaction: goosebumps and tears.

My second reaction: How could he not know, after all of his research?

My third reaction: This is why we can’t shelter our children too long. This is why we have to allow our children to experience life outside our comfort zones.

No amount of reading, watching television or even standing inside the Lincoln Memorial compares to talking with someone who lived through and struggled through those pivotal years in our history.

After Cooper returned home, he explained more. He described how authorities abused people who were demanding voting rights. How King and his colleagues were tortured. How King, a white man, was willing to stand up for African-Americans, even when it wasn’t socially acceptable.

Even with all these years of research, “It means more to talk to the person and know what they felt,” Cooper says. “It makes me think more about the people who were treated badly.”

Cooper’s weekend away encapsulates my own struggles with raising children in an affluent community.

We live among children who know very little about struggling. All of their needs are met. They’ve never experienced poverty. They are fortunate.

They are living the way all children should live.

Yet there are children nearby and all over the country who don’t have the luxury of being pushed out of their comfort zones — because there is no comfort zone at all. They live with racism and poverty, with poor education options, with crime, with unemployment, with inadequate health care.

They are living the way no child should live.

I do not want my own children to feel guilty for their relatively easy way of life, but I do want them to appreciate their way of life. I’m not certain they can fully appreciate it until they experience something different.

Cooper, already a well of empathy, needed to look into the eyes of a man who was tortured to fully understand the inhumanity of unchecked power. Now that my 13-year-old son is armed with both research and the voice of a survivor, I have a feeling there’s no limit to what his compassion can fuel.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at