Falling With Style

We had a trampoline when I was a kid and I jumped on it all the time, but I don’t think I’ve been on one for probably 25 years. I’m all about safety, and it’s paid off in the lack of broken bones in our family. But sometimes I wonder if my kids are missing out on taking risks just because I’m too cautious.

Out of the blue a few weeks ago, I decided we needed an afternoon trip to Lowes Xtreme Airsports (a trampoline/trapeze/parkour/ninja warrior training camp), and I decided I wouldn’t just sit on the sidelines to watch. After signing five waivers and watching a video detailing all the ways we might possibly break our necks, we gave it a try. Aside from the initial dizziness from the trampoline, I didn’t have too much trouble returning after all these years. At one point, I looked at each of my boys with flushed, sweaty faces from playing so hard, and I realized it’s been a very long time since we all played together.

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I showed great restraint by not audibly gasping every time I saw a teenage boy flinging himself off walls and landing in precarious ways on trampolines because I didn’t want to scare Fritz out of trying new things. He was already refusing to try some activities because he was”a coward,” but with enough time gathering enough courage, he was loving it by the end. When I told him it was time to go, he didn’t fight me. He simply pressed me like a pushy salesman to commit to the exact day we would return. “So, should we come back every Monday? How about this Saturday? So, like once a week or twice a week?”

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He made big plans to return for his birthday and wouldn’t take off the wristband for days. A week later, we were talking about basketball. He mentioned a friend who’s better than he is and I said that’s ok because they’re a sports kind of family. Grub said, “Yeah, and we’re the music family.” Fritz said, “Well, the music family and the Lowes family.” He was so serious about returning, he somehow guilted the neighbors into letting him tag along when they went last weekend. He has found his happy place.

We played with the new slo-mo option on our camera and compiled our favorite falls into this very professional video. Enjoy!

Oh, Snap!

Like a lot of people, I’ve had a rough couple of weeks (okay, months). Deep down inside (okay, pretty near the surface), I’m freaking out about the state of the world. All the time. Constant panic here! But I realize that I can’t live that way all the time, so I’ve been trying to find some coping mechanisms to see me through. Here are a few I have found that work for me:

  1. Naps. My favorite coping mechanism – naps never fail me.
  2. Binge reading four or five books at a time.
  3. Mint chocolate chip ice cream.
  4. Korean Dramas.
  5. My newest security blanket and this week’s blog challenge: Snapchat.

You may notice that the running theme here is “escape”. That’s precisely the point. I get a few doses of reality each morning when I read the news but then I have to find some way to escape that reality or I’ll go crazy. (You just thought, “too late!” didn’t you? Admit it, you wiseacre…)

I know I seem super savvy in the Ways of Social Media, but it may surprise you to learn I’m really just a fuddy duddy who never ventures beyond Facebook. I have no interest in Instagram, I only tried Twitter for a challenge, and I don’t even know of a third platform to mention here. That’s just how out of the loop I am. My husband’s been trying to talk me into trying Snapchat for over a year, but since I’m not fifteen, I didn’t see the point. Plus, I’m just not comfortable taking selfies.

I still don’t see the point of the social media aspect of Snapchat. I have one friend on there (my sister-in-law), and neither of us has figured out how to actually interact on Snapchat. We just text each other about it instead.

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But the filters. The filters! Those crazy filters have seen me through many a dark day in the last month. I mean, how can I keep the weight of the world on my shoulders while doing this?

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Snapchat offers me bonding time with my children,

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my neighbor (my GIF buddy-turned-Snapchat buddy-but not actually on Snapchat neighbor),

and my parents.

Sometimes I can even talk my husband into it.

I love making freaky face swaps with my children

and with random celebrities.

I even spent one evening finding inner peace by swapping my face with every famous Kristen I could think of:

I got in touch with my masculine side,

my artistic side,

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my inner child,

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and my inner gangster.

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And I got to torture my husband a lot. Who knew he would hate it so much when I send him creepy selfies?

I never bothered with the filters that tried to make me look prettier, unless it was to make terrible faces to counter the false eyelashes, false eyebrows and false youthful skin.

But last week, as I was reading Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, her description of people who use irony to avoid looking stupid in real life gave me pause.

“We call attention to awkwardness as soon as it flares up so we can’t be accused of being oblivious. We keep announcing to the world how little we’ve studied so we can’t be called dumb. We put ourselves down before others can get the chance. Whenever anything seems like it’s on the verge of becoming earnest, we come blasting out with snark.”

That hit a little too close to home. Then, as I read further, “…we put on dopey glasses and grimace so no one can tell us we’re not pretty,” I realized that’s what I’d been doing all month with my silly Snapchat pictures. Sure, I thought they were hilarious, but I was starting to understand why my husband had no interest in seeing yet another picture of me with creepy teeth or scary eyes.

So for the rest of the week, I forced myself to try an actual selfie with the intent of actually looking attractive. Sure, I still used the dippy filters, but for every weird one, I forced myself to sit up straight, adjust my hair, and hold my phone at an angle that would minimize my neck rolls. It was way out of my comfort zone, but I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?

I think I still prefer looking at the weird pictures of myself – it’s kind of like looking in a fun house mirror. Plus, it’s just so fun to torture my high schooler. For someone so talented in taking icky pictures, he sure doesn’t like it when his mom invades his turf. Like I said, it’s the little things that bring me joy these days.

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When Nice Just Isn’t Enough

My husband and I were out to dinner one night when I told him my idea for this blog. He got very excited about the concept and we spent the rest of our dinner compiling my List of Uncomfortable Things to Force Myself to Try. One of his first suggestions was for me to attend a protest rally. That definitely did not sound like my kind of thing, so I put it on the list and it has stayed there for three years, waiting for such a time as this. I was so hesitant to do it that I actually thought I’d reach a point where I’d say, “Looks like the only thing left on this list is to protest something. Guess I’d better find something that will count so I’ll have something to write about,” but those were simpler times and it’s been a really rough week.

I didn’t attend any of the women’s marches last week, but I followed the posts of my friends who did. Later, I wondered why I hadn’t gone. I think it was a lot like the time my family went bungee jumping. I told them I would watch and not jump, but after seeing my sister do it, I decided it wouldn’t be as scary as I thought. My sisters who marched gave me the desire and the courage to attend a rally at the Salt Lake Airport to protest Trump’s travel ban for refugees.

I realize there are strong feelings in my community regarding those who exercise their first amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I’ve heard a lot of criticism in the last week and have thought a lot about the reasons some are uncomfortable and angry about recent protests. (Although I haven’t noticed anyone complaining about Saturday’s March for Life, so maybe it’s not the act of protesting itself that’s so distasteful, but the reason for gathering.)

I also thought about the reasons that kept me from protesting before. What was stopping me? I’m not going to presume to know why others don’t think it’s appropriate, but I do want to explore why I personally was uncomfortable with the idea. I also want to, without rehashing all the arguments that have been flying around, explain why I felt that it was not only okay for me to speak up, but that it was the right thing for me to do.

As I thought about it last week, I realized that my own reservations about joining a rally boiled down to, “It’s not nice. I don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable.” I struggle to be the soft-spoken, sweet spirit that I sometimes feel I’m supposed to be. I often wish it were easier for me to be nice. I really try, but then out pop my real thoughts, I see the surprise on people’s faces and I realize that, for me at least, being nice is sometimes just another way of pretending to be someone I’m not.

I thought about the line from Into the Woods that says, “nice is different than good,” and for my own purposes have changed it to, “nice is different than caring.” I’ve decided that, although I’m not cut out to be nice all the time, I do care earnestly about things. I know it sounds strange to make that distinction, but I think there is one. Sometimes the two go hand in hand, but not always.

According to my mom, I was a sweet child, quiet and shy. I remember it as backward and socially clueless, but sure, we can call it sweetness. (I also remember plenty of instances of me being quite mean to siblings and neighbors, so I’m not claiming to be an angel.) Often, my shyness meant I didn’t speak up when I should have.

When I was thirteen, an older boy I hardly knew came up behind me in class without warning and reached his hand up my skirt to grope me. I was horrified but I didn’t do anything about it. I was frozen and had no idea how to react, so I did nothing. A few years later, someone at my job helped himself in a similar way and I reacted in a similar way.

A few weeks later, I mentioned the incident casually to my mom. My grandpa, who was not quiet or shy, overheard me and was enraged. He shouted, “He did WHAT? You should have slapped him or gotten him fired!” I remember two distinct thoughts when he said that: I was embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything of the sort, but at the same time, I also remember a feeling of relief because for the first time, I knew what to do in that situation, and because I felt like I had been given permission to speak out – that I was giving myself permission to speak out. I realized didn’t have to be nice and sweet all the time.

That permission freed me to notice other situations where I should speak out, and boy, did I. But as I got more confident and found my voice and expressed my opinions more freely, I started to become more sarcastic, critical, and argumentative. I was still me, but with a bit more salt. It was a gradual change, so I didn’t even recognize it when a guy I was dating brought me a cactus as a gift because he said it reminded him of me, “Kind of prickly, but really nice.” I started to assume that I was just bitey by nature, and that my parents must have been mistaken when they remembered me as sweet.

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I can remember the exact moment it dawned on me that I didn’t have to be prickly. I could speak up and still be kind and I could soften up some of my hard edges a bit. It was when I heard Margaret Nadauld say in the Fall 2000 LDS General Conference: “The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind.”

Much like the time my Grandpa gave me advice, I felt both embarrassed by the persona I had adopted, and relieved to realize that deep down I really was a tender and kind, and that I should work harder to bring those qualities back to the surface. I’m still working on it (sarcasm is such a handy crutch to use), and I am aware that I have a long way to go in that department, but I am trying.

When I heard those words the first time, they were elevating and empowering to me, and I felt that all the confidence and strength I had cultivated the past ten years were something I needed, but that I could do so much more good in the world if I could learn to express myself with more love and kindness. It was very meaningful for me at the time, and I consider that moment to be pivotal in my life. That’s why this week as I’ve seen many women post that quote on social media as a criticism towards women who marched, I haven’t just been annoyed, but genuinely hurt. That moment was precious to me and each time I saw it being used as a weapon, I felt that my experience with those words was somehow tainted by association.

I have also felt pain reading that quote posted again and again because I feel like it’s being tossed at a whole group of individuals who are being lumped together and labeled “The World.” I understand that if you can distance yourself from a group of people and other-ize them, it’s easier to hate them. I’m guilty of that too. Maybe those posting it didn’t know anyone marching, or maybe they didn’t particularly like the women they knew who marched, but I did know many who marched, and each one is a person I admire for his or her kindness and integrity and compassion and faith. They didn’t march in spite of these qualities. They marched because of these qualities. They weren’t a big steaming pile of The World. They were individuals gathering together for a cause they felt was important, and they did so peacefully and with love and respect.

I realize that many were offended by the term they appropriated for their hats, but that word didn’t come out of thin air. It came from the grown man who bragged about doing to women what those teenage boys did to me. It’s not a word I choose to use, but, quite frankly, it’s not an act I choose to have inflicted on me or anyone else, so I can see why they used it to make a point. I understand those who recoil when they hear the word because I do too, but I think getting hung up on the language misses the point. In our real lives as grown ups, we don’t always get VidAngel to edit out the parts we don’t want to see.

On Saturday, I was appalled by news of refugees and green card holders being detained at airports throughout the country. I won’t rehash things I’ve already written, but I was shocked and sickened to learn that the things I had worried about in November were actually happening at lightning speed right before our eyes. I felt completely helpless, and I wasn’t even personally affected by the ban. I couldn’t imagine the fear and pain of those who are. I was heartened by the protests in New York and wanted to do something to show my support as well but didn’t know how. It was frustrating and it felt so wrong. It still does.

That evening, just as I was walking out the door to take my younger kids to a play, I noticed an announcement for a protest rally at our airport and I knew that this was my chance to stand up and be heard. I turned to my husband who had been looking forward to a quiet evening home alone, and asked if he’d go to the play instead so I could take our oldest son to the airport. He told us to go for it, so we grabbed some poster board and Sharpies and hit the road. I drove and he assembled the posters. (I used stickers on mine because I love stickers so much.)

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The rally didn’t feel like I thought it would. Somehow I imagined that shouting and waving signs would just fuel the anger and anxiety I had felt all day, but the gathering didn’t feel antagonistic at all. Sure, we were protesting the ban, but it felt less like a show of dissent than a show of love and support to those affected. When one woman grabbed the megaphone and tried to get the crowd more angry, suggesting more aggressive tactics, the whole group responded with some form of, “Um, nah, we’re good,” and she backed off. When one of the speakers praised us for coming, one person politely called out, “It’s not about us!” Everyone was civil and kind to each other. At one point, I looked down and noticed a credit card on the ground and asked the girl next to me if it was hers. As she picked it up and expressed her relief, I said, “Oh, wait, I forgot we’re supposed to be looting,” and then we laughed together as if I had actually said something funny. It was a very mild-mannered event.

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We were there because we wanted Muslims in our community to know they are not alone. We didn’t block anyone traveling or cause a disruption. We just gathered together to give greater strength to each of our individual voices. I’m not much for chanting with a crowd, but it felt good after a day of feeling no one is listening to have my voice join with all the others.

Aside from the feeling of unity I got from the rally, I appreciated the chance to share the experience with my son. We are very similar in our tendency to feel strongly about issues and to express ourselves. Often the subjects we feel passionate about are very different, and our desire to express (sometimes loudly and fiercely) those feelings leads to arguments between us. My poor husband has had to referee many heated discussions late into the night. Things have become less contentious since he went away to college, but I still sometimes find myself thinking, “Why can’t he just be nice?” (And I’m pretty sure he thinks the same about me.)

On Saturday, we were able to bring our similar personalities together for a cause we both feel very strongly about. We were able to raise our voices to their full volume without my husband having to remind us to settle down (in fact, he was cheering us on from the play). And as I went to bed that night, I realized that, as much as I feel my son’s life would be easier for him if he just played nice, nice is different than good. I wondered, if I had to choose, would I rather have him be a nice, obedient son who can’t be bothered by the plight of others? I realized that my answer, without a doubt, was that I would absolutely, no question about it, rather have a son who cares. We taught him to stand up for what he believes and he is doing that, even when nobody wants to hear what he has to say, even when we don’t agree with him. And we’re proud of him for it.

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While we were at the rally, my son posted something about it on Facebook, encouraging his friends to come out and show support. Among several antagonistic responses, someone he doesn’t know sent him this horrible message:

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Yeah, when I stop to think about the alternatives, I find I’m very happy with the son I have. The world has enough people who are harsh; we need people who are friendly. The world has enough people who are apathetic; we need people who care. The world has enough fear; we need love.

Saturday afternoon, as I was reading stories of refugees and crying, out of nowhere I wondered how my grandpa would react to this news. Just that thought felt like a punch in the gut. I have to open my mouth because I can’t imagine seeing my grandpa again someday and hearing him say, “Why didn’t you speak up? You should have said something!” I have to speak up now because I can’t teach my children to stand up for what’s right as long as it doesn’t hurt someone’s feelings.

This is why I protested. I wasn’t throwing a tantrum or whining. I was expressing my opinion as a citizen of my country and I was proud to share that moment with my son. I’m not saying anyone who doesn’t choose to protest is wrong. I’m not saying I’ll feel as strongly about other issues as I do about this one. I am saying that this last minute scramble to get to the airport Saturday night was absolutely the right decision for us, if only to be reminded that, “It’s not about us!”

Best Before

I remember when we were poor grad students a friend telling me she had to throw out some moldy grapes and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it later. She bought grapes and didn’t eat them? They sat long enough to get moldy? To me, having a grocery budget big enough to not only buy grapes but also forget that I bought those grapes long enough to let them go bad was almost impossible to imagine. We had just spent the summer living off of food storage so my husband could study for his comprehensive exams. My kids would think they had died and gone to heaven if I bought them grapes.

I remember the time we felt like we had really made it in this world. It was when we decided we could finally afford to buy real butter all the time instead of margarine. What a luxury! We were rich! Since then, I’ve had several times where I was embarrassed to find that I had to throw out perfectly good food that had gone bad just because I forgot about it. I was ashamed by all that waste.

So this month, as part of my effort to be grateful for what I have, I gathered all the food in my house that was past its expiration date (or almost past) and I planned most of our meals around using it up instead of throwing it out. Are you grossed out? Don’t worry, I stayed away from expired meat or eggs or dairy. I’m not that crazy.

I was a little worried at first about giving us all food poisoning, but aside from some jams I threw out because they obviously smelled off as soon as I opened them, I didn’t find anything really wrong with the expired food. We were able to clear out a lot of room on the pantry and the condiment door of the fridge, try some new recipes, and no one was afflicted with any gastrointestinal ailments.

In order to use up enough ingredients, I pulled out some of my latent skills from our years of being starving students. I googled random ingredients and found new recipes and even made up some of my own. One night, I threw together a pasta dish that used up five things I needed to get rid of. Score! Grub liked it so much, he asked what the recipe was called so he could request it again.

Not only did this challenge help me avoid waste and appreciate all that I have, but it also taught me an important lesson on the dangers of the impulse buy. I will now remember forever that it doesn’t matter if it’s on sale – a giant bag of croutons from Costco is not a wise purchase for our family. I’ve had to spend a whole lot of time on Pinterest searching for casserole recipes that call for crushed croutons because there’s no way we’re going to eat that many salads before March 2017. Also, I think I need to remember that, although my kids used to be okay with cardboard-tasting pancakes, now that I’ve been making light, delicious ones from scratch for so many years, we really have no use for a giant box of Bisquick.

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In the future, I plan to keep better track of my food storage rotation and stop buying stuff we just don’t use anymore so I don’t find myself in the same situation. But it is good to know that the numbers stamped on the package are really just a suggestion. I can use my best judgement and not freak out at the strike of midnight on the expiration date. Just don’t tell my kids or they won’t touch the stuff.

The Joy of (Someone Else) Cooking

My brother-in-law has a theory about distribution of responsibilities in marriage. He insists that division of labor happens early in the honeymoon phase and pretty much stays the same throughout the rest of the marriage, so his advice is that if there’s a job you definitely don’t want to get stuck with forever, do it poorly so your spouse will want to take over. I’ve never tried that trick with my husband but I have to admit that I really like it when my children gain skills which relieve me of some responsibilities, especially when they take pride in it being their own thing.

This is particularly true when it comes to cooking. I love to cook, but sometimes it’s nice to spread the joy. If I’m in the mood for chocolate chip cookies, I just ask Fritz if he wants to make some. Since chocolate chip cookies are his specialty (he has the recipe memorized, sings to himself as he cooks, and eats half the dough), he’s thrilled for the opportunity. Grub makes great cakes and omelettes and is always eager to share his skills freely.

It’s really quite nice. They get to show off their talents and I get to eat food I didn’t have to cook. Of course, if they’re not around or if they’re not in the mood to cook, I’m willing to step in. I’m quite capable. Except when it comes to Grub’s artisan bread.

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Last year, when our friend Glen asked if he could crash at our house while he was in town for a few days, my husband jokingly said, “Only if you teach Grub how to make your bread…” Then a few days before his arrival, we received a few packages containing a recipe book and a Dutch oven. Glen claimed he needed the right tools to teach Grub the proper technique.

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Since Glen’s visit and tutorial, family, friends, neighbors, and even his teachers have benefited from Grub’s bread making skills. The bread is perfect – crusty on the outside, light and chewy on the inside. This summer at a family reunion, Grub made a loaf each day, each devoured within minutes.

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One morning, he wasn’t home when I wanted him to get some dough rising. I figured I had the cookbook right there. How hard could it be? A few hours later, he returned and was shocked that I had presumed to make the bread without him. He inspected the dough and declared that I had done it wrong. I argued, “You can’t tell just by looking. It’s not even done rising. Besides, I’ve probably made hundreds of loaves of bread in my lifetime. I think I can handle it.” He rolled his eyes and muttered something under my breath, probably something about my imminent failure.

When it was time for the second rise, I checked on the progress and realized that there had been none. Nothing had happened. The dough hadn’t risen. And worst of all, Grub had been right. I threw away the evidence before he could find it and gloat.

The one benefit of my failure is that I don’t have to make the bread. I just sit back and wait for him to serve me, and he gets heaps of praise. It’s win-win, really. Except sometimes he’s not around when I really need bread. Or he’s not in the mood to make it. Plus, he’s not going to live at home forever. If he’s going to grow up and move away, I need to have the skills to be self-sufficient without him. I needed to swallow my pride and have him teach me how to make the perfect loaf.

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Under his tutelage, I succeeded this time around. Look at this beauty – perfection, inside and out!

The thing about this bread is that it takes a really long time. The first rise alone lasts 12-18 hours. So if you want bread for lunch, you have to make the dough before going to bed the night before. And, as Glen insisted, you really do need a Dutch oven to do it right. Other than that, the only other ingredients are bread flour, salt, water and yeast.

I’d give you the recipe (for all the good it will do you without Grub there to poke your dough and make suggestions like, “More water. Now a little more flour. Now some more water. Flour. Okay, that looks good.”) but Grub insists it must remain a secret. That’s how he wields his power, I guess.

Braving the Elements

I like that it gives me the chance for a fresh start with goals and organization, but other than that, January and I just don’t get along. I usually spend the month holed up inside my house whenever possible under as many blankets as possible. My students come to me, my kids walk to school, and if I catch him at just the right time, I can get my husband to stop for a few groceries on his way home from work, all so I don’t ever have to leave the house.

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On New Year’s Eve, I spent some time playing with my son in the backyard and realized that winter can actually be quite lovely. The snow’s pretty, and if I wear enough layers and the conditions are just right, it can even feel pleasant. It was quiet and peaceful, and I thought to myself, “I like this! I should do this all the time!” So I added “Go Outside” to my daily job list, along with all the other chores I won’t do unless I get to check off a box as a reward. This was going to be a New Me this New Year! No more hiding out inside like a hermit!

So I made myself find things to do to get me outside, even if it was only for ten minutes a day. I walked my son to school (“Only kindergarteners need their parents to walk with them, Mom!”), shoveled the sidewalk, even hung out with the dog in the backyard.

But January just had to show off. Days of snowstorms followed by temperatures below zero, windstorms and rainstorms followed by more wind and rain. Somebody getting arrested in our front yard one night followed by reports of a mountain lion roaming the neighborhood the next day. Why would I dare to leave the house at all? It was as if January was laughing at me and doing its best to remind me that I just don’t belong outside.

Today I didn’t want to do anything but read my book under my blankets, but I had to go to a meeting. After talking myself into putting on shoes and braving the outside world one more time, I realized that, aside from the wind, it wasn’t too cold. I could do this. Then five minutes later, I found myself in the middle a freak hailstorm accompanied by strong winds and lightning. Of course.

I was driving past a pasture at the time and was alarmed to see dozens of cows, freaked out by the sudden storm, running straight at me. Of course, they turned before actually plowing through the fence and into my car, but how was I to know? I have limited knowledge when it comes to cattle. And besides, if the storm was crazy enough to make all the cows start running, why on earth had I even left my house in the first place?

I gave it my best shot these past eleven days, but January won. January always wins.

Just Not Feelin’ It

As the parent of four boys, I should know better than to expect any of them to be similar in personality, but every once in a while, I’m caught off guard and have to be reminded that, oh yeah, this is a different kid who will need to be parented differently. (Is “parented” even a word?)

When my third child, “Grub” was two, he refused to eat anything for meals but cereal and cheese. We couldn’t get him to try anything else, but we would find 8 oz. blocks of cheddar with a Cookie Monster-like bite out of the corner hidden in couch cushions and behind blinds. All my usual tricks to get the other two boys to try new foods didn’t seem to work with him. We tried making him stay at the table long after dinner. We tried offering extra t.v. time. Once we even got a fancy, yummy-looking cupcake we knew he’d want and placed it in front of him as a reward for just three bites of actual food. Nothing worked. The kid was stubborn.

Then one day, at my wit’s end, I tried something that seemed ludicrous to me and I still don’t know where the idea came from: I pretended to cry. I wasn’t even that good at fake crying, but he immediately grabbed his fork and said, “Don’t cry, Mom. I will eat my potatoes for you. I will make you happy. Watch me eat this fish and don’t be sad.” It was a miracle.

So at every meal, I honed my acting skills and he learned to like a variety of foods. His older brothers caught on to this aspect of his personality and exploited it. They could get him to share anything or clean up anything they asked just by acting sad. It was shameless, really. He eventually grew out of his stubborn phase, but he is still just as soft-hearted (and just as addicted to cereal).

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Then Fritz came along. Maybe it’s payback for all my blatant emotional manipulation of Grub, or maybe it’s that he’s just a completely different person, but for Fritz, empathy does not come naturally. He’s a good-natured kid who’s fun to be around, but he seems to get uncomfortable around real emotion. He even faked a headache while watching Inside Out at the theater because it was just too much for him. We sat out in the hallway waiting for the rest of the family until it was over.

I figured it was just a phase and was willing to wait it out, but then he started to react to other people’s pain with jokes and sarcasm, like “…and that’s a good thing!” We weren’t sure if he was just saying that to hide is discomfort or if he really does have trouble empathizing with others. Either way, I decided I needed to find a way to teach him empathy. This was a first for me as a parent.

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I tried to think back at times when he appeared to feel actual empathy and I realized the two times I remembered seeing him cry because something sad had happened to someone else were when I was reading stories to him. He cried when the boy in Polar Express lost his bell and he really lost it when the old lady in A Small Miracle had to pawn her accordion only to have the money stolen. (If you haven’t seen this Christmas book, please do! I am forever grateful to my friend Kathleen for giving it to us so many years ago. It’s our favorite.)

small-miracle

I thought of recent news articles about studies linking reading fiction and feeling empathy, and realized that, much like my other boys at that age, Fritz always chose nonfiction books to read. I decided I needed to find books for him that would trigger his emotions and help him see and feel things from others’ points of view. I figured that it would work better if I read them aloud to him so we could stop and talk about those things as we read. I searched the internet for ideas, but most articles and book lists about teaching empathy weren’t what I had in mind. Those books were specifically about understanding others’ feelings. I wanted books that would evoke feelings for others. (I’m not saying that only sad books can teach empathy, or that we only read to improve our character. I’m just saying that I was looking for sad books for this particular kid and this particular purpose.)

It seemed a bit backward to me – most parents want their kids to be happy and here I was working hard to find ways to make my kid cry. Since I couldn’t find much help online, I started by thinking of books I remember making me cry, then asking friends for suggestions. Fritz was not a fan of reading aloud. In his mind, only preschoolers needed their parents to read to them.

We started with The One and Only Ivan. It was a struggle to get him to agree to it each night, and often it was a struggle to find time to do it regularly, but we made our way through it. There was no miraculous reaction on his part, but he did seem to like getting to cuddle in my fleece sheets. (I can get my kids to do just about anything for the chance to hang out in my fleece sheets. They are heavenly.)

readers

We made our way through a few more books on our list but I still wasn’t sure if we were getting anywhere. We were going to read Charlotte’s Web next, but then got tickets to the play instead. Did I mention that Fritz also really hates plays? He thinks plays and movies are too long and boring, but I promised that this wouldn’t be as long as the last play he’d seen. We took our neighbor with us as added incentive and were finally able to convince him to come, although he was grumbling about it the whole way there.

I had hopes that Fritz would feel something, but I wasn’t holding my breath. So far, all our attempts to understand book characters’ feelings had resulted in eye rolling and snide comments, but he seemed to enjoy the play. Then, during the scene where Charlotte dies, Fritz turned to me and mumbled something that I couldn’t really understand, so I asked him to repeat himself. It sounded to me like maybe he wanted to act out the play at home, so when he said, “What if you were Charlotte?” I misunderstood and thought he was just assigning parts. When he repeated himself, he said, “What if you were Charlotte? That would be…” and then he made a raspberry noise and a thumb’s down sign.

Still confused, I asked, “Why would that be bad?”

He leaned over and furrowed his brow, “Because she died!” I suddenly realized that he was telling me he would be sad if I died like Charlotte did. This was a really big deal. There was no avoidance, no “…and that would be a good thing, heh heh.” He was feeling real things and he had expressed those feelings to me, all triggered by Charlotte’s Web. He turned back to watch the rest of the play and I sat sobbing in the dark. I finally had some hope that this experiment of mine was doing some good.

After a year of slowly chipping away at our list, I am in need of more suggestions (some on the list aren’t quite age-appropriate for him yet). Plus, since my search led to slim pickings, maybe someone else might benefit as well. I’ll post what I’ve got so far and hope for suggestions from everyone else. Notice I left off “Love You Forever” and “The Giving Tree”. I’m not a fan of those two. Also, feel free to suggest any non-sad books that encourage kindness and empathy. We could all use a little more of that nowadays.

SAD CHILDREN’S BOOKS:

The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbit

Those Shoes – Maribeth Boelts

A Small Miracle – Peter Collington

The BFG – Roald Dahl

The Hundred Dresses – Eleanor Estes

Old Yeller – Fred Gipson

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

The Toys Go Out – E. Lockhart

Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch – Eileen Spinelli

A Taste of blackberries – Doris Buchanan Smith

A Sick Day for Amos McGee – Phillip C. Stead

Leonardo the Terrible Monster – Mo Willems

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White