Why I Didn’t Tell Anyone I Was Doing Television This Morning:

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A few months ago, the nice young publicist from my publishing company called. He’d just had a call from a producer at the TODAY show! Did I have any television clips to send them? Um, yes, just let me dust off all those VHS tapes of the sitcom I starred in during the ‘80s.

I have no television experience. In fact, I’m one of those people who, when a video camera is pointed in my direction, turns so wooden that I need to stay away from matches and make sure I’ve got a fire extinguisher stashed nearby. I’m shy. I get flustered. When telling amusing anecdotes, I frequently go off on tangents that make sense to me but, sadly, leave everyone else puzzled.

Cameras make me nervous. (They’re watching me, judging me!) I told the publicist I didn’t have any clips. He said it wasn’t a problem at all — just have my husband shoot a couple minutes of video of me talking about my book. He could even use an iPhone. Fine, I thought. Two minutes is nothing. Especially since it’s a topic I know well. Piece of cake.

Not quite.

I put on a turquoise shirt and dabbed concealer on the dark circles under my eyes (which are not, technically, circles, but semi-circles). They now looked like makeup-caked dark semi-circles. A little lipstick would brighten things up, so I smeared some on. I don’t normally wear makeup, but since this was for television, I was willing to suffer. I grinned into the mirror. A crazed woman gazed back at me. We could do this! Jeff dragged a lawn chair underneath the Camellia tree, which was in bloom with pink flowers. Perfect. I sat and Jeff bent down, holding the camera eye level. I attempted a smile, but it was more of a grimace.

“Hi, I’m ….”

I forget my name.

Take two: “Hi, I’m Sue Sanders and my book is ….”

I forget the name of my book.

Take three: I remember the title of my book, but my words get all gummed together in my mouth and everything comes out as incomprehensible gibberish.

Take four: Beautiful! Except our neighbor decides to power-wash her fence at that particular moment. She kindly agrees to wait until we’re done. (Sidebar: we hit the neighbor jackpot.)

Take five, six, seven: Children next door play tag. They go inside. Come outside to play in their super-cool tree house. (Sidebar II: not only are all our neighbors great, they’re also very handy.)

Take eight. Forget what the hell I’m talking about.

Take nine, ten, eleven: We move to front porch and I sit in our wooden swing, flowering honeysuckle vine behind us. Not only will it be gorgeous on-camera, it smells great — aromatherapy! Except, I discover whenever I sit in a swing I will, without fail, rock gently. The video is blurry.

Take twelve: Try hard to keep porch swing still. Fail.

Take thirteen, fourteen: We return to the backyard. Stumble and slur my words. My stories run into each other and collide in fiery crashes. I no longer remember what my book is about and no longer care. I wonder why I can’t simply sit in my dark office and tap away on my keyboard. What does this publicity stuff have to do with writing? I check my Amazon numbers and realize exactly why I need publicity. No one will read a book they don’t know exists. So I become filled with existential angst. We are all just forces that are acted upon. Except acting involves cameras and cameras are sucking out my soul.

Take fifteen: Ponder why so many primitive cultures believe having photos taken steals their soul. Empathize with them. Daydream about moving in with the Toulambi of Papua, New Guinea.

Take sixteen to thirty-seven: We move around yard and then go into our house, where it’s too dark. We return to that beautiful tree. It feels right and then … wasps! A nest of wasps have made their home in the Camellia tree and they want to frolic. Like noisy little groupies, they’re drawn to Jeff.

Take thirty-eight: Start laughing hysterically.

Take thirty-nine: Stop laughing. Start sobbing.

We spent an entire day attempting — and failing — to shoot a two minute video. Jeff pieced together a few minutes into something presentable, with seams only slightly less jagged than a Frankenstein monster’s (which, by this time I was beginning to feel like). I sent it to the publicist, who sent it on to TODAY. They didn’t call.

So this morning I headed off to our local ABC affiliate, KATU, with all this going through my mind. I assumed that If I didn’t tell anyone I was going to be on television, they wouldn’t watch. Therefore, they’d never know if I made a complete ass out of myself and forgot my name.

But, as I’ve discovered (but apparently have not yet learned), if you don’t try new things, you can’t have new experiences. Ones that will make great memories or anecdotes that I can mangle. And my friends do want to know about this stuff and to support me. And true friends don’t care if you look like a stuttering moron on TV.

Also, because the host introduced me, I didn’t even need to remember my name.

KATU chatting in the morning

Late Nights

 

alarm-clockMy husband and I have had some late nights recently. This isn’t because our social life has suddenly caught fire. Instead, at the time we usually crawl into bed and fluff our pillows, we’ve been sitting by the phone, waiting for our fourteen-year old to call. The previous week has been filled with activities, all of which have ended late. Lizzie has been hanging out with friends, having dinner, going to outdoor movies, and, in general, staying out past our bedtimes. It seems like just yesterday her nights out ended around 8 or 9pm — or involved a sleepover, where it didn’t really matter when we went to sleep. Now, Jeff and I groggily watch House Hunters International and stare at the phone, willing it to ring.

Because of her new social life, we finally broke down and joined what seems to be every other family in America: we gave our kid a phone. Before this, I couldn’t justify giving her one (and I’m still a little puzzled why so many young children “need” them). If Lizzie biked to the library or walked to get a frozen yogurt with a friend, we knew she’d eventually come home. I’d thought of phones as yet another unnecessary technology and unneeded expense. To me, they seemed almost like a leash, tethering kids to parents. Plus, I worried about this:

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But now that she’s older, straying further and farther from home, I can see their value. As Jeff handed her the phone — a plain, pay-as-you-go model, nothing too fancy — she typed into it, fingers flying, setting up her email accounts and link to our phones. We’re astonished how quickly she can type on it, although I shouldn’t be. When we were in New York City, I wanted to check a museum’s website to find out if it was open. I pulled out my phone and slowly typed on its tiny keyboard, my fingers suddenly enormous.

Lizzie fidgeted and held out her hand. “Want me to do it?”

I assured her I could do it all by myself. Albeit slowly.

“But it’s really painful to watch you,” she said.

Finally, Jeff’s phone vibrated and buzzed. At last! We flipped it on. A text message read, “Hey.”

“Ready to go home?” Jeff typed. (Only a little faster than I can. Okay. To be honest, it’s a lot faster.) Then we noticed the time stamp from Lizzie’s text — 5:45pm — it was a practice text from earlier, linking her text app to our phones. So he added, “Or are you still having fun?”

Right away, we got this: “Still having fun.”

So Jeff typed: “Call later.”

Then nothing. We immediately decided to add “Please respond to our text to let us know you got it.” to our short list of phone rules. Maybe cell phones make parents more anxious rather than less so. A half hour later, we got a call. I could finally exhale.

I think the teen years are going to be interesting. Already, I’ve discovered that I need to take a breath, sit back and trust her. That and get used to staying up late. Luckily, I like House Hunters International.

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What you do when you haven’t seen your kid in seven weeks:

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Arrive at the New York Public Library an hour before the bus from camp is due to arrive, just in case it’s early. Fidget in anticipation.

Ask husband forty-three times: “Is that their bus?”

Ignore his exasperated sighs.

As soon as the bus arrives and kid gets off, rush over to her, squealing like a seventh grade girl. See:
(a) her face light up
(b) her cringe with embarrassment
(c) both.

(correct answer: c)

Give her a bigger hug than you’ve ever given her.

Notice she smells as if she hasn’t taken a bath in seven weeks.

Family hug. Tell her that you and her dad have been waiting to embarrass her.

Announce that when she goes to college, you’ve decided to move to that town.

Notice her look of terror.

Assure her you’re joking. Maybe.

Watch her collect her backpack and duffle. Wonder why a tree is sticking out of the backpack.

Admire the tree she chopped down with the ax she’d earned.

Notice she seems taller, more self-assured, (and can wield an ax).

Wonder how she’ll be able to take an ax on the plane.

Remember how she used to call her dad “Jet” since she couldn’t pronounce “Jeff.” Smile and blink back a tear. Was that really ten years ago? Briefly wonder if there’s a glitch in the space-time continuum.

Ask when she last took a shower. Wonder if it’s possible to turn on a fire hydrant and hand her a bar of soap before hopping on the 2 train to her grandmother’s apartment.

Hope her grandmother’s sense of smell isn’t what it used to be.

Hear about her 22-mile hike and a night alone in the woods with just a potato, matches and newly built lean-to. Be glad you’re hearing about the night alone after it happened.

Be thankful your family is back together. Notice how it no longer feels like a limb is missing

Call TSA about taking an ax on the airplane.

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To The Woman on the NYC to Portland Flight:

We need to chat. First, let me tell you that I love little kids. Really. Their enthusiasm, their energy, the way they can turn a few paperclips into farm animals and spend hours mooing and clucking never fails to astonish. I have a daughter, and although she’s now fourteen, she used to be younger. (As happens.) I’ve never written a letter to a stranger on an airplane before, but, after tonight, I feel compelled to.

Trust me, I know it’s hard traveling with young kids. I’ve done it and I suspect many others on tonight’s flight have, too. Young children get bored. They’re tired and won’t go to sleep. But when your five-year old screams loudly and repeatedly that she wants to watch a movie NOW, may I respectfully suggest that popping in your earbuds, turning up your iPod, and ignoring her might not be the way to go in a full airplane. Don’t get me wrong — I totally agree about not giving into tantrums. But this wasn’t that. This was not being a parent.

A little before this, when your five- and six-year olds got into a kick-the-seat-in-front contest, you didn’t say anything, even when the people who were sitting in those seats turned around and glared at you. I’m usually not the sort of stranger to say, “Hey, there! Do something! Wake up!” But, gosh, I was ready to pour you a piping hot espresso.

Oh, you’re dozing again. I’m sorry. I’d love to sleep, too, but couldn’t. Did you know that after you fell asleep, your children ran up and down the aisle and crashed into the drink cart? And that a flight attendant told them it wasn’t safe and they needed to sit in their seats? Hey, I’m totally anti-helicoptering, too. It’s just that maybe a full airplane is a good place to be a bit of a whirlybird.

My complaint is not that your kids acted out — they’re kids; that’s what they do — it’s that you stuffed in your earbuds, blew up your neck pillow and tuned out, leaving a plane full of strangers with headaches. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an airplane full of strangers not long to become annoyed with your laissez-faire parenting.

Look, we understand. Traveling with young ones is tough. Heck, after dealing with delays, tiny seats, and pungent bathrooms, I’m ready to bang my fists on my tray table and bawl, “I can’t take it anymore! I want legroom! I want a snack and a nice glass of sauvignon blanc!”

I have nothing but sympathy for an infant who cries because her ears hurt — and for her parents who try to help. Or for the wiggly toddler and his frazzled mom, who pulls trick after trick out of her bag, like a magician. Juice box! Crayons! Plastic animals! But that’s the thing. These parents work to engage their kids. You disengaged.

I know. I hear you. I was there once upon a time, too. It seems like just yesterday I tried to to jam my breast into my wailing baby’s mouth, while silently praying she’d latch on. I got understanding looks from some passengers and less than sympathetic ones from others who, it seemed, wished I’d open the emergency hatch and skydive off the plane clutching my bundle of joy. I was ready to rustle up a parachute. When I was a single mom, I took too many flights with a fidgety preschooler. My daughter was bored. The seatbelt, uncomfortable. The phone lodged in the seat in front of her, tantalizing. The cushions in front of her, imminently kickable. I wanted nothing more than a Xanax and to be wherever we were going, already. But I had to be on duty. I told her to use her inside voice. I doled out usually forbidden snacks and new activities. I may not have been always able to placate her, but I attempted.

I don’t know what it is, but, lately, there have been more than a few of parents like you. Is it that I’m getting older and crankier? Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s all to it. Are there are simply more people flying with young children? I’m sure this is part of it. But is it something else? Is there too much hands-off parenting in places where there should be boundaries? How can we teach kids to be respectful of others if parents plug in and tune out?

It’s not just you. On a recent trip, where a preschool-aged child in the row in front of me spent most of the flight using her seat as a trampoline and her voice as a bullhorn, a kind-looking elderly woman across the aisle asked the mom if she needed any help. The mom very sweetly said, “Oh, I don’t want to stifle her spirit.” Eventually, after the flight attendant came over to stifle her spirit, the surrounding travelers applauded.

I hope we don’t share a flight again.

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Why I Write About Mental Illness

This blog post is a little different from previous ones.

An essay I wrote for Real Simple was picked up this week by CNN. I was pleased that a story about a serious issue — mental illness — was getting attention. My ex, who I’ll call Mike, developed bipolar disorder after we’d been together thirteen years. I spent another five years with him, trying to make him take his meds so he’d stay well. He didn’t. I took Lizzie and left — Mike’s untreated illness had made him a danger to us.

I write about Mike because I got a firsthand look at a mental health system that’s broken, and far too many of the most vulnerable fall through the cracks. Mike did. I write about my experience of seeing someone I once loved fully and deeply change into a stranger because it changed me. I write about mental illness because, after I “came out” about Mike’s illness to friends and acquaintances, I was astonished to find out how common it is, precisely because it’s not talked about. But mostly, I write about it because I have to. There’s an almost burning need to share our experience.

It’s been eleven years since I left Mike. Everyone who knew us back then knows about his illness and has seen him deteriorate. I can’t sit silently by and whisper, “Poor Mike.” That doesn’t do a whit of good. Instead, I have to put fingers to the keyboard and get our story out because I can’t sit by and do nothing about mental illness. I can’t cure it. I can’t fix the system. But I can write about it. I can tell my story.

When I logged on to CNN and read some of the comments, I was surprised at some of the vitriol. I know I shouldn’t be. I’d already learned firsthand about trolls — when Salon published an essay of mine for the first time, the editor told me she warns writers not to read the comments. We all know that it’s easier to judge and express rage anonymously rather than expressing legitimate concerns using a real name. So I thought I’d address some of the recurring comments.

One thing that struck me was that so many people didn’t seem to know about how bipolar disorder can vary and that it can present differently, especially in severe cases. This, to me, is yet another indication that we need to talk about mental illness instead of keeping quiet about it. Mike, after several misdiagnoses (which is apparently common), was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder about fourteen years ago. He’s been in and out of hospitals and has seen different psychiatrists. They all agree on his diagnosis. But apparently many on the internet, who’ve never met Mike and are most likely not psychiatrists, know better.

I was stunned by those who kept chiming in about “What about her wedding vows: in sickness and in health?” When I was married to Mike, I took those vows seriously (as I do with my incredibly wonderful second husband). I spent the final five years of our eighteen year relationship trying to make Mike better, taking him to doctors and pleading for him to stay on his medication. That’s an awful lot of “sickness and health.” But vows take two people. Mike repeatedly went off his meds. What happens when the person who has bipolar disorder refuses to do his part to keep himself “in health?” What happens when they refuse to take them not just for themselves, but for me and for their daughter?

It’s an interesting question, though: whose responsibility is it if a sick person refuses his meds? If they’re sick and refuse to take part in their recovery, are they responsible for their choices? If Mike didn’t think he was sick and didn’t take his meds, whose “fault” is it? His? Mine? An inadequate health system that flings meds at people with mental illness, hospitalizes them — but only if they’re a danger to themselves or others, and only until they’re stable — and releases them without followup healthcare? Would the old Mike, pre-mental illness, choose to be unmedicated? I truly can’t imagine that. Ultimately, I had to protect my daughter and me. And I’m confident I made the right decision, as I wrote, in this essay.

The fact is that Mike’s mental illness doesn’t just affect him — it affected me, his daughter, his parents, his sister, his relatives, his neighbors and his friends. Mike’s mom has stuck by him and has spent both massive amounts of time and money attaining legal guardianship. She should be at the point in her life where she gets to enjoy herself and her grandkids rather than worrying what will happen to Mike in the future.

Some commenters mentioned, validly, about Lizzie appearing in the photos. We discussed it with her beforehand. She has a say. She also knows about Mike’s illness — I’ve been open with her about mental illness in an age-appropriate way from the time we left. I never want her to think mental illness should be stigmatized.

I can and do ignore trolls. Writing about mental illness it too important to worry about what others say. I don’t have time to fall into the troll pit. And I’ve been truly floored by the many emails and messages I’ve received from people who’ve gone through something similar. If my essay made even a few people feel they were less alone, then it was worth it.

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Grand Parenting

Imaginary play
Imaginary play

My grandmother died yesterday. When my parents called to tell me, I felt a sadness for my mom, who, even though she’d been expecting the news, was understandably upset. And I felt a sorrow that my grandma was gone. After I’d hung up the phone, though, I realized: my grandma was pretty much a stranger to me.

In a way, she’d always been one. When I was a kid, our family would visit their small Missouri town each summer, driving from Louisiana or California or Texas (or wherever) when we lived in the States, or fly as part of our “home-leave” when we lived in Indonesia. For a few days or a week each summer, my sister and I played in my grandparents’ yard, hammering nails into the hard dirt or building roads with metal Tonka bulldozers, hand-me-downs from my mom’s eight brothers, the youngest only a few months older than me. We’d dart from room to room in their old wooden farmhouse, box fan churning up humid air. We played with board games and slept on sagging mattresses upstairs with a revolving cast of girl cousins and second cousins. We’d creep downstairs to pee in the house’s single bathroom, stairs announcing our whereabouts. Before bed, we’d catch lightening bugs and eat watermelon, getting in seed-spitting contests with the other kids, while all those older uncles and their wives/girlfriends sat in fold-out aluminum lawn chairs, chatting with my parents and grandparents.

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It sounds pretty idyllic, and it both was and wasn’t. There were always people and activity, but there was also always a divide. Life there was like constantly sitting at the children’s table — we could eat with our mouths open and laugh loudly with the other kids, but the adults stayed segregated. The typical image of a grandma bouncing a child on her knees didn’t exist; babies were passed around the adults like adorable toys, but we older kids were left to our own devices. Maybe this was because of the time, or maybe it was the result of the sheer number of people.

Although I feel for my mom’s grief, my grandmother’s death got me thinking about how different Lizzie’s relationship with her grandparents is compared to mine.

Whenever we saw my parents when Lizzie was younger, it was like she suddenly couldn’t see me (and later, when I remarried, Jeff turned invisible, too). My toddler would grab my mom’s hand with one of hers and my dad’s hand with the other and show them around our small Brooklyn apartment. They were the type of grandparents who’d get down on the floor to play. My dad became “horsie,” leaving Lizzie in hysterical laughter on the Persian rug. My mom would snuggle and read Lizzie the photo books she’d made and mailed — with titles like “Lizzie Makes a Chocolate Pizza.” (At fourteen, Lizzie still has all of them.) Lizzie would dart into her room and put on one of the Halloween costumes my mom sewed each year for her and spend hours doing imaginary play. They endured endless games of Candyland and Hi Ho Cherry-O, a certain sign of selfless love, if you’ve ever played those games.

Handcrafted by Grammy
Handcrafted by Grammy

The first time Jeff and I left Lizzie for more than a night was with Grammy and Grampy, when we took a vacation, our first extended time alone as a couple. The first night, as I dialed my folks’ number on the cellphone, expecting to hear from Lizzie that she’d moped around the house all day, I could detect no sadness in her voice. “Mommy, I swimmed with Grampy and played beauty shop with Grammy!” she said, adding, “I have to go. Bye.” Apparently she did not miss us much at all.

Another time, when Lizzie was nine, my folks took her on a trip to San Diego. Later, as she excitedly filled Jeff in about visiting an amusement park with “huge roller-coaster and splashing rides!” and an aquarium, where she got to see her favorite animal, dolphins, she sighed contentedly. “It was the best day ever!” she said. She’s fourteen now, and that day with Grammy and Grampy is still one of her best days ever. And I suspect it will always be.

And, in the distant future, if our grandkid wants to play Candyland nine times in a row, I’ll sit on the floor and enjoy it.

Endless games of Candyland gave way to endless games of Dominoes.
Endless games of Candyland gave way to endless games of Dominoes.

Names

 

Hudson Valley gorgeousness
Hudson Valley gorgeousness

As I read yet another headline about British bookies taking bets for the new royal baby’s name, I wonder: why is this news here? Anyone else find it odd that Americans (or American editors) seem a little obsessed with the monarchy? Didn’t we fight not to have a king (among other things) all those years ago? It’s as if the United States has a mass case of Stockholm Syndrome.

But this whole “Guess Her Princessly Name” got me thinking about kids’ names. At the end of the last century, when my daughter Lizzie was born, parents seemed to favor names from end of previous century.

I’d take my toddler to our local playground in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and, if I closed my eyes while I sat on the concrete edge the sandbox, (and pretended not to hear the roar of traffic and airplanes), it was almost as if I’d traveled back to Victorian times, as I listened to parents and sitters call out to their charges: Rose, William, Emma, Owen, Prudence. My child fit into that era, too — she’s an Elizabeth.

Then a parent would say, “Grace, do want yummy organic strawberries or Veggy Bootie?” and I would be whisked back to 2001.

Assorted Victorian children of Brooklyn
Assorted Victorian children of Brooklyn

When we moved from Brooklyn to the rural Hudson Valley, trading our Park Slope city street for a gravel one, I noticed a difference in many of Lizzie’s peers’ names. In that gorgeous part of the world many parents had obviously been inspired by nature’s majestic beauty.

We still met lots of Victorian children — Katherines and Charleses  — but we were introduced to quite a few Nature children. Lizzie danced with an Ember. She had playdates with a Sequoia. She went to school with a River, a Hudson and a Skye.

I went to high school in the South. When I read posts from Facebook friends and admire photos of their children, it seems that when choosing names for their kids, many of my classmates were influenced by places they visited. Towns were popular, but instead of, say, Brooklyn, it’s as if parents gazed at a map of Texas or Florida before deciding on Austin, Tyler or Destin. There are also quite a few Makaylas, Treys, Trevors and Briannas.

This is NOT a value judgment of different names. And it’s a generalization so broad that it’s practically the tundra of sweeping observations, but it’s fascinating that there seems to be a geographical component to what parents decide to name their children. Maybe one day there won’t be a Red America and a Blue America — instead just a vast divide of names. But, I’m sure it’s a divide we’ll be able to cross easily.

Years ago, when Lizzie was in preschool summer camp, the mom of one of her friends came over to introduce herself. She was a few years younger than me and her name was a product of Woodstock-era parenting.

“Hi, I’m Sunshine,” she said, extending her hand and giving me a smile.

She was an investment banker.

 

Texas
Texas

The Graduate

A few weeks before Lizzie left for summer camp, she graduated from middle school. At graduation, the kids received handshakes or hugs from a much-loved teacher as well as a personalized certificate. Hers says “Congratulations, Lizzie. You survived middle school!”

I lied. It doesn’t actually say that, although maybe it should. After all, how many adults look back to their days in junior high, sigh dreamily, and say, “Those were the best days of my life!” I suspect very few.

For me, middle school felt more like a life sentence. I was that weird kid, the one who didn’t wear the right clothes or listen to popular music. A week or so before I started seventh grade, our family moved from Jakarta, Indonesia, which I’d loved, to a small town in southern Louisiana, where I felt like a freak. I was the freak.

This was back before the homogenizing effects of television or the internet, so I went from dancing around our Jakarta living room to bootleg Disney cassettes of the Aristocats to listening to American Top 40 radio, which left our whole family slightly baffled. (I can see us in our white Dodge Aspen station wagon, my dad whispering in a slightly scandalized voice to my mom, “What are they saying?” when “Play that Funky Music” came on the the AM radio.) I still shudder when I think about outfit that I wore the first day of seventh grade — a batik wraparound skirt, a red “Property of the Macadamia Nut Factory” shirt and white patent leather sandals. All the other girls were dressed in Chic jeans, gold belts, and blue eyeshadow. The first day of middle school did not go well.

One thing I’ve found about having a child in middle school is that if you hated it, watching your child go through rough patches is a bit like having flashbacks. Seeing Lizzie on the receiving end of some mean girl stuff when she was in seventh grade transformed me into a 13-year old again, all hormones and emotion. I found it difficult to take a step back, a deep breath and remind myself that Lizzie handles things differently than I did. Even though I know I’ve got to keep my stuff far away from Lizzie’s, it’s hard.

I suspect high school will bring similar challenges. But I’m glad middle school is over. For LIzzie and, for the second time, for me.

So at Lizzie’s graduation:

“Mom, be sure to take photos of graduation,” said the daughter who can actually take phone photos that aren’t blurry to the mother who apparently cannot.

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Blue Fingernails

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The other day I checked the website of the sleep-away camp my daughter, Lizzie, is attending. I hoped to catch a glimpse of whatever it is my fourteen year old is spending her days doing there. At Lizzie’s camp, cell phones and email aren’t allowed — there’s no modern technology. Actually, there’s not much older technology, either — the cabins don’t have electricity. We communicate the old fashioned way: by letters. Which means we haven’t heard much from Lizzie. We’ve received one postcard, its note to us as brief as a text.

The camp occasionally posts candid shots so parents can see that their kids are having too much fun to spend time writing long letters home. These pictures are our only snapshots into Lizzie’s days there. But scrolling through them feels a little odd, a bit like I’m a Peeping Mom, peering through a virtual window into Lizzie’s life.

The first picture I saw was of Lizzie building a bonfire with a few other girls in a field. I recognized the shirt and jeans she was wearing, but as she tossed twigs into the pile of logs, I saw something she hadn’t had when she left home: electric blue fingernails.

I studied the photo. She didn’t notice the camera as she was so involved with the bonfire. It struck me that her blue fingernails are more than just polish — they stand for a life apart from her dad and me. She’s building bonfires with children we’ve never met and living a life that’s unknown to us. Those blue fingernails are signs — bright ones — of her further independence. As I enlarged the photo on my computer’s screen, I was filled with mom-pride that Lizzie’s growing into an independent young woman, but, at the same time, a sadness she’s growing up. In four short years she’ll be away for longer than just a summer — she’ll be in college, living her own life. Which is what we want. But still, it’s hard seeing the kid I nursed and comforted over skinned knees not so many years ago, pulling away. To me, her blue fingernails are bittersweet.

This summer is also Lizzie’s last at the camp she’s attended for five years. She’s aging out of it. That first summer years ago, as I helped her zip her overstuffed duffle shut, making sure Stripey the stuffed tiger was in the bag, I realized that most of the nervousness and apprehension about Lizzie going away was coming from me.

Summer camp is about so much more than Lizzie heading off into the countryside and living with other children for a few weeks or a few months. It’s also about relaxing our parental grip and letting go — each year a little bit more than the previous year. And Lizzie’s blue fingernails are a snapshot into her more independent life. They’re a pretty great electric blue.

Seeing this photo reminded me of a time not that long ago. When Lizzie was little and people told me that you blink and your five-year old is a teenager, I used to roll my eyes (not unlike my daughter does now). But it’s true. It seemed like just a few weeks ago that Lizzie was in kindergarten playing “spa.” My husband or I sat at the kitchen table as she painted our nails and, occasionally, our fingers, with pink sparkles or green polish. Here’s a picture from back then. About half an hour after it was taken, we made an emergency trip to the drugstore for nail polish remover.

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Welcome to the first post on my sparkling new blog. I’ll post things here that I hope parents of preteens and young teens find interesting. If you’ve got anything you want to talk about, send me a note — sandersue(at)gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.

Author of Mom, I'm Not a Kid Anymore