Shrimp omelets taste better with burnt toast.

My children had an especially poignant way of celebrating mother’s day this year.

The festivities kicked off at 3:44am with my fifteen-year-old throwing up in the bathroom.  The ensuing mayhem of coughing, groaning, toilet-flushing and door-slamming punctuated with “MMMMOMMMMM!” every eight seconds was a hearty reveille for the entire household.

I am a bit hardened to this late night calamity because it is a semi-monthly occurrence at our house.  It is my son’s physical response to gobbling popcorn drowned in a full stick of butter before bed, an act which is not condoned by his mother or his stomach.  But he’s happy to invite me to share in the post-feast cleansing ritual.

I hid my head under my pillow, hoping that if I just lay there quietly, Scotty would beam me to Tahiti.

The next installment of mother’s day merriment came at 4:19am with my eight-year-old banging on the bedroom door.  “MMMMOMMMMM!  I need to use your bathroom.  There’s throwup all over mine, and I stepped in it.”  How sweet of her brother to leave a lovely trail of vomit-stained towels, toilet seats and countertops as a nice little present for one of his sisters to happen upon during a groggy early morning bathroom visit.

And to further commemorate the dawning of this special day, my five-year-old stood at my bedside in tears at 5:02am.  “I wet my bed, mom, and my rainbow blanket is soaked,” she sobbed.  “Can I sleep with you?”  This heartfelt plea comes from a violent sleeper who delivers roundhouse kicks to whoever else happens to be in the bed.  Sleeping is generally out of the question once she crawls under the covers.

But a few hours later, all was washed away with paper towels, laundry detergent, and the smiles of my little cherubs as they delivered artwork, poems, flowers and a painstakingly crafted shrimp omelet to my bedside.  I chose to ignore the burning smell wafting from the kitchen (luckily, it was just the toast).  Their father, bless his heart, had gotten up with the kids and taken care of the wet sheets and vomit footprints, letting mother sleep in for a glorious three hours.  Three hours!  Note to self:  do not comment on the state of his half of the closet for at least three months.

The richness of motherhood is derived from its own unique blend of bitter-sweetness.  It is the tranquil scent of your baby’s just-shampooed hair at fifteen months; and the putrid reek of your teenager’s buttered popcorn vomit at fifteen years.  It’s taking out the load of freshly washed charming pink sundresses; and throwing in the load of pee-stained bed sheets.  It’s delighting in your second-grader’s hard-won “A+” on the book report; and panicking as you review your teenager’s school suspension notice, wondering whether your particular brand of maternal incompetence is the reason for their misstep.

As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”  Perhaps the brilliance of motherhood lies in its contrasts, and that shrimp omelet wouldn’t have tasted nearly so good without the burnt toast.

It’s all about the fries.

“Mom, why did you take me out?!  I told you we’d lose if you took me out.  So what did you do?  You took me out.  And what happened?  We LOST!”

It sucks being the coaches daughter.

“But Olivia, you had a hattrick!  That’s terrific!  You should feel great about that,” I reminded her as I loaded the bag of soccer balls into the trunk of the car. Olivia had scored all three of our team’s goals in our first wet, muddy soccer game of the season.

“But mom, we LOST!  And that wouldn’t have happened if you’d let me play.”

She was probably right.  We had been ahead 3-2, and I took her out in the last five minutes.  And during that time, the other team scored two goals.

It may suck being the coach’s daughter, but sometimes it also sucks being the coach.  Like when you have to sacrifice the score to make sure everyone gets equal playing time.

Olivia was usually a perpetual ray of sunshine.  I’d never seen her this mad before.  Despite her hattrick, she was adamant that her mom lost the game for the team by taking her out.

“I hate soccer,” she grumbled, and climbed into the backseat.  Uh oh.  This was serious.

As the windshield wipers fought the downpour, I thought about some of my research into how we store memories.  Psychologists tell us we evaluate our experiences based on two points of reference:  the most emotionally intense point, and the ending.  In his study of memory and recall, Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman referenced a pain study that chronicled patients’ assessments of their colonoscopies. Every thirty seconds they rated their pain levels, and at the end they rated the overall pain level of the operation. Oddly, their overall ratings had nothing to do with the accumulated pain they reported every thirty seconds‒they reflected only the intensity of the last few minutes of the procedure.  Kahneman suggested that perhaps the memory of a very painful procedure could be improved by adding some low intensity pain at the end, since that’s what patients remembered in their overall rating.

ImageI saw this phenomenon playing out with Olivia’s memory of the soccer game.  She was letting our loss in the final moments override her personal accomplishment, and her brain’s selective memory technique had the potential to damage her entire attitude toward sports.

I decided to intervene with a little memory reshaping of my own.  “In our family, do you know what happens when you get a hattrick?” I asked.

Steamy silence from the back seat.  I studied her face in the rear view mirror.  “You get to go to McDonalds.”

I take my kids to McDonalds about once a year, so for Olivia this was a big deal.  A smile developed on her mud-splattered face.  Her sun was coming out again.

She sang along with the radio as we went through the drive-thru and picked up a Happy Meal.  I ordered her a milk with it in a weak attempt to assuage my guilt.  “Should we pick up some fries for your brother and sister?” I asked.

“What did they do?,” she shot back.

“Good point.”  No fries for them.

Those french fries transformed our team’s loss into Olivia’s personal triumph.  During the rest of the car ride home, I replayed the highlights of each shot with her, reminding her in detail how she had dribbled elegantly past three defenders, called to her teammate that she was open for a pass, and masterfully drew the goalie to one side creating an open space for her to fire the ball in.

When we got home I had her pose, in all her muddy glory, with the soccer ball holding up three fingers.  Then I carried her muddy little body upstairs and put her into a warm bath, making sure to do a snoopy dance in honor of her hattrick.  Over dinner that night I gave a play-by-play of the three goals to her brother, who missed the game, while Olivia listened intently wearing a big grin.

There was no more mention of our defeat that day, and I’m happy to report that Olivia loves soccer once again.  All thanks to a strategic McDonalds intervention.

But my husband thinks that what most shaped her memory was that she got to have fries, and her brother and sister didn’t.

No longer invincible.

Sometimes being born with an extra adrenaline gland does not work in my favor. As I sized up the newly constructed half-pipe at our favorite ski area, I teased my husband Erik about not having enough guts to catch air off the lip.

“You first,” he insisted.

In a moment of extreme stupidity, I accepted his challenge, and embraced my “go big or go home” philosophy to make sure I’d be making the most of the experience.

I hit the half-pipe at full speed, and did indeed catch air.  Plenty of it.  Perhaps a bit too much, in retrospect, because the coming back down part didn’t turn out as planned.  As gravity pulled me back into the pipe, I hooked my skip tip on the top edge, resulting in a full body slam into the side wall which was about as forgiving as concrete.

For a good twenty seconds I laid motionless at the bottom of the pipe, trying desperately to inhale.  I finally caught my breath, and crawled away with a mildly mangled shoulder.  The shoulder would heal, but I wasn’t so sure about my pride.  I painfully collected my gear and got back on my skis.

“That was something!”  Erik exclaimed, skating around to the bottom of the pipe to meet me.  “I’m not sure what, but something!  Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I grunted.  “Not my most graceful stunt ever, but nothing a little ibuprofen won’t fix.  Or perhaps rotator cuff surgery.”

“Wow, you scared me there for a minute.”  Erik took off his goggles and rubbed his eyes.  They looked a little misty, and he cleared his throat a few times.  It appeared that this event was generating a little emotion in my ultra-stoic husband.  He’s trying to hold back tears, I thought.  How sweet!

“Aw, Erik, are you tearing up?  Really, I’m fine. I appreciate your concern, but I’ll heal.”

He snuffled a bit and wiped his eyes again.  He was even shaking a little bit.  I didn’t realize he had such a sensitive side.

“I’m touched, honey.  But really, I’m okay.  Don’t worry, I’m not planning on widowing you anytime soon.”  His shakes were getting more pronounced.  “That’s very sweet of you to‒hey, wait.  YOU’RE LAUGHING, AREN’T YOU?”

As Erik doubled-up into a full-scale fit of laughter, I skied off in a huff to go in search of a large dose of ibuprofen.  Beast.

When we finally found a ski patrol and I asked for some pain relief, he quizzed me about my accident.  I described the stunt, and the patroller said with a snicker, “What are you doing in the half pipe at your age?”

I should have smacked him.  That really was not a very kind thing to say to someone who just made a valiant attempt to defy gravity, and was clearly suffering the consequences.  But he had a point.  It was time I accepted a key tenet of your forties:  that you are no longer invincible.  Erik, who I expected to pile on with some more snide remarks about age, gravity, or showing off, redeemed himself by piping up with a very sweet comment in my defense.

“If you ever watched her ski, you would not be asking why she was in the half-pipe.”

Huh; well how about that.  I withdrew the beastly insults I was conjuring up, and replaced them with several tally marks in Erik’s “done good” column.  Which of course went to cover the large deficit in his “done bad” column after laughing at his injured wife’s bravery.  I may no longer be invincible, but at least I have Erik in my camp.  Most of the time.

Not Man’s Best Friend, MOM’s Best Friend.

Here’s a typical scenario every weekday at 3pm at our house.  The front door slams, and in storms my emotionally charged teenager.  He throws his backpack on the floor and hollars “MOM!”  I cringe, and quietly duck behind the closet door.  He’s had a bad day, and clearly I’m at fault.  Again.  This time I must have bought the wrong brand of lead for his electronic pencil.  Or perhaps the repair job I did on his jacket zipper didn’t stand up to tug-of-war with his buddies.  Or maybe I washed his t-shirt using a new detergent and the fragrance isn’t to his liking.

I cower in the closet, praying he’ll find someone else to be the recipient of his imminent outburst. Then from the kitchen comes my favorite sound in the entire world: fwap, fwap, fwap.

It’s the overactive tail of our beloved mutt Jenna, who doesn’t care that her teenage pack-mate is suffering from a momentary oxytocin deficit.  Keenan sees her and the problems of his day disintegrate.  He curls up with Jenna on her dog bed and coos, “Awww, Jennnnnnna,”  and instantly transforms from a T-rex into Ghandi.

I can now safely come out from behind the closet door.  “Oh hi, Keenan,” I venture.  “How was your day?”

“Fine.”  He actually smiles as Jenna gives him a big wet sloppy lick.

Thank goodness Jenna doesn’t charge for this therapy, because I would willingly fork out a hefty sum. With just a simple fwap, she slow his breath, his speech, and his mind, and an amazing psychological transformation occurs. No legal pharmacology in the world can work this kind of magic (trust me on this, we’ve become experts in this field).

Like all pets, Jenna’s magic is derived from the healing power of touch. Just the act of petting a dog has been repeatedly proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure.  And the ensuing hugging, wrestling, and laughter floods our bodies with oxytocin, reducing stress and boosting levels of serotonin and dopamine.  And unlike any human companion, Jenna’s love is completely unconditional.  She’s a great listener, and will never judge, interrupt, or offer unsolicited advice.  And she’ll probably talk you into a walk or a game of fetch, which will invoke the multitude of benefits fresh air and exercise can deliver.

It’s worth every bit of dog hair on my sweater and every muddy paw print on the carpet.  And moms need that therapy too.  As Nora Ephron said, “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

The art of proving love.

It isn’t enough to love; you must prove it.  I stumbled across an article the other day by Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru, in Good Housekeeping.

“My spiritual master,” wrote Rubin, “is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the great French saint who died in 1897 and is known for her “Little Way” — her way of achieving great virtue through small, ordinary actions and as part of everyday life. For me, one of St. Thérèse’s most haunting observations is ‘It isn’t enough to love; we must prove it.'”

My husband proved it just the other morning.  Bleary-eyed and a bit sleep deprived, I was fumbling around in the kitchen searching for a box of tea to mix up my morning concoction of choice:  a chai tea latte.  Erik was sitting on the couch working on his computer, and from the string of expletives coming from the pantry, he guessed correctly that I was out of chai.

He packed up his bag and headed off to work, kissing me good bye as he went out the door.  I went about my morning routine (which was already off on the wrong foot without my beloved chai), and ten minutes later I heard the front door open.  There was Erik with a box of chai in hand.  He had made a quick stop at the grocery store and was surprising me with a chai delivery on his way to work.  For no other reason than to prove his love.  Delighted, I thanked him profusely.  My day immediately hopped to the right foot.

It isn’t enough to love; we must prove it.  This bit of poignant advice should be a foundational principle of every marriage.

One of my resolutions for 2014 is to find more ways to prove my love to those closest to me.  If we could all do that, what a wonderful existence this would be!

My three favorite pieces of crisis advice.

I often find it strangely cathartic to know that someone else’s life is more chaotic than mine.  This time, let me give you that small gift.

We all have those moments when the proverbial $#@! hits the fan.  Like when your boss announces that your high tech start-up (the one that was supposed to be your golden ticket to early retirement) will not be making payroll this month.  Or, quite frankly, ever.

Then the school principal calls informing you your son has hijacked another kid’s cell phone and texted expletives to the first number on the list… which happens to be the dad.  Not surprisingly, he’s irate and would like to talk with you.

And then that charming son decides the best way to deal with the ensuing interrogation and lecture you’re delivering is to walk out front door.  At 9:30pm.  On a school night.  In a winter rainstorm, wearing shorts.  By 11pm, he still hasn’t returned.

These three delightful life events hit me in a span of 45 minutes.  At times like these, when my load has exceeded my carrying capacity, I find myself counting spare change to see if I have enough for a ticket to Tahiti.  One way.

I have three favorite pieces of advice I draw on during those moments when my tiny stores of fortitude have dried up altogether.  They are:

  1. This too shall pass. These simple words remind me that my current discomfort is temporary, and many have been through far worse and recovered without psychiatric intervention. Unless you’re Victor Frankl, it can always be worse.
  2. One day, you’ll laugh about this.  Or at least share it with friends over the internet to help them feel better about their comparatively sane lives. It’s definitely true that the worst moments make the best stories, and give you good fodder for the next cocktail party.  And quite honestly, life would be completely unbearable if it we couldn’t find a little hilarity along the way.
  3. You’re smart, you’ll figure it out.  I use this one on my kids when they’re asking me a dumb question.  When I turn it on myself during a crisis, I find it quite empowering.  Reminding myself that I do have the wits and tenacity to make it through the debacle of the moment helps me move out of panic mode and into problem solving.

As I was pillaging the coffee jar in search of spare change to fund my Tahiti escape, my five year old bounced in with her perky blonde pig tails.  She has an amazing ability to tune in to how others are feeling.  She handed me her favorite stuffed panda.  “Here,” she said, “You can hold Pierre.  You’ll feel better if you just pet him for a minute.”

I think her advice is my favorite of all.

Ego vs. Character

I hate losing.  Especially when it isn’t deserved.

The soccer team I coach lost today.  It wasn’t one of those severe beatings where you were outplayed at every turn, but it was one of those losses that sneaks up on you.  All the sudden the game is over, and you are behind.  Our team controlled the ball more, took more shots, and played in the other team’s half for the majority of the game.  But somehow the score didn’t show it.

As the coach, I always feel responsible for showing my team a good time, and to me, losing isn’t really a good time.

A great shot... that didn't go in.

A great shot… that didn’t go in.

The girls seemed fine with the loss and were really more interested in the post-game juice and cookies, but I was stewing.  When I got home I took myself for a long run to “go think about it,” which is what I tell my kids to do when they need an attitude adjustment.  After working out my frustrations on the running trail, I arrived at a few conclusions about losing:

  • We often think of failure is the worst thing that can happen.  But it’s actually an essential ingredient of success.  It’s feedback about our shortcomings, and highlights the areas where we need to put in a little more effort.
  • If we fail, we’re in good company. Some of the greatest successes were born out of failure.  Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn’t think he had the skills. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he lacked imagination and original ideas. Oprah Winfrey was fired from a TV station because she wasn’t “cut out for TV.” And Abraham Lincoln was defeated in eight elections before he became President.
  • Every successful person or team has many stories of failure, and what they all have in common is that they learned from those failures to go on to greatness.

Ultimately, winning builds ego, but losing builds character.

The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as a coach is that failure is my team’s greatest teacher, and I have neither the power nor the right to take it away from them.  A coach’s work is to teach players how to fail, and help them get back up until they can do it themselves.  If we try to protect them from difficulty, we are depriving them of the challenges that will help them grow physically, emotionally and intellectually. And if we can help our players appreciate the gift of failure, and they will savor success even more.

When I asked my daughter how she felt about the game, her response was indicative of her overall attitude toward life.  “Mom, we didn’t win, but Ashley scored two goals, and I know she felt great about that.  And I think Hailey played her best game ever.  Hey, what’s for dinner?”

In the game of life, I think it’s better to be thought of as a player with more character than ego, don’t you?