My Convertible Life

Friday, November 13, 2015

Learning the #$@&%*! language

As one of the millions of big and small decisions my husband and I make as parents, we agreed that we wouldn't keep words a secret from our kids. And by "words," of course, I mean the "bad words." It's an age-appropriate, as-needed sort of lesson set, but we figured that all those bad words would seem less alluring, less powerful -- and (hopefully) less likely to get hurled at us -- if the kids knew what they were and knew they could ask us about them.

So over the past few years, we (my husband, mostly) have been dealing out a few choice ones now and then during bedtime chats with Junius. We started with the less controversial ones -- like explaining that the S-word isn't actually "stupid" or that the D-word isn't actually "dumb." As he got older, the words got a bit stronger, including the F-word, the A-word and so on.

Junius seems to savor these tidbits of verbal exotica and feels empowered not to use them. In fact, his favorite swear phrase, borrowed from this book, is to shout, "Curses and foul language!" Try it -- t's really quite satisfying.

We've only just started sharing the first words with Pippi, or so I thought. Which brings me to a little story that just needed to be captured somewhere, so here goes...

* * *

One day this fall while we were standing around at school pick-up, my friend H was sharing concern that her daughter (Pippi's friend) had somehow wandered into another person's virtual house in Minecraft and read an inappropriate word that was plastered on the wall. H was consulting Junius, as a former Minecraft fan, about how her daughter could have gotten into someone else's space in the online game.

Junius, after clarifying that he no longer played Minecraft (because I guess 5th grade boys don't want to get lumped in with 2nd grade girls), told H he wasn't sure how that could have happened. Then he asked the all important question: "What was the word?"

My friend looked at me, I nodded, then she told him: "Well, it was the F-word."

Junius gasped quietly and looked gravely concerned, immediately understanding why H was worried about her young daughter's experience.

Somewhere during this conversation, Pippi had strolled up unnoticed and was listening in. As she watched her brother frown knowingly about the seriousness of the matter, she leaned in a little closer to H and looked up at her.

"Mrs. H?" she asked in a hushed voice. "Was it fuck?"

* * *

So there you have it. No good parenting deed goes unpunished.

If your kids are playing with my kids and come home with some new vocabulary, you're welcome. And my apologies.

Friday, July 31, 2015


"Bye, Mom! See ya!"

And just like that, he pedaled down the driveway and into the street, his drawstring pool bag bouncing on his back as he pumped his legs to catch up with his friend.

I tried to act cool, like it was totally fine that he didn't need me. At all. And I immediately regretted telling him that he didn't have to call me when he got to the pool. I may or may not have texted a friend just now to let me know if she was there and could see him.


Who knew it would be so big?

Already, in his first three weeks of double digits, Junius has spent a week at sleep-away camp, filled his own Spotify account with Pitbull and Bruno Mars, and started going to the neighborhood pool by himself. He makes his own breakfast and lunch almost every day. He searches the young adult shelves at the library and calls his own friends to make plans to play. He occasionally employs Axe deodorant to combat the inevitable pre-teen boy smell.

Someone please hold me.

Walking away from him at summer camp earlier this month nearly broke me. But I survived -- and, more importantly, he thrived. He made friends, ate new foods, learned to sail, spent the night on the dock, earned a new nickname, did the whip/nae nae (how is that even a thing?). He claims to have mailed me the self-addressed, pre-stamped post card I put in his bag, but it never arrived. The other cards were still packed when he got home because he was too busy having fun to worry about them.

At age 10, he is already stronger and braver than I was at 27.

In spite of all his grown-up-ness, he still snuggles with me occasionally, tells me he loves me, lets me rub my hand across his fuzzy buzz cut, asks for us to read to him at bedtime. I try to remember to enjoy these moments instead of losing them in life's distractions.

A friend recently pointed out that I have eight more summers with him before he leaves for college. That statement sent my heart plummeting into my shoes and my brain scrambling to make plans for every one of those summers so he'll spend them all with me.

But then I remind myself that's what it's all about. Watching him grow and change and yes, even leave me behind -- that's why we're working so hard at this crazy parenting business. It's a gift to see him moving away from me, one bike ride and camp drop-off at a time.

While I was writing, my phone just rang. It was Junius, calling to let me know he's heading home from the pool.

He really does love me.

In case you want to join me down memory lane, here are links to past birthday posts about the boy:

  • Nine: The Last Single-Digit Year
  • Eight: A Champion Boy
  • Seven: How Big Is 7?
  • Six: Mr. Big Stuff
  • Five: Things I've Saved
  • Four: Junius Fest 2009
  • Zero: The Official Announcement

Friday, May 1, 2015

Music from Lost Time

Tucked way in the very back of my upstairs hallway closet, there's a storage bin filled with pictures, maps, brochures, coins and other bits from the year I lived in Cardiff, Wales. I filled that bin when I returned to my parents house after the year studying abroad and have moved it from house to apartment to duplex to apartment to at least three more houses over the past 15 years.

My intent, of course, was to make a series of photo scrapbooks that would capture all the beautiful places I went and all the things I accomplished that year. I planned to have albums that I could flip through to treasure the memories or share stories with my children of the great adventure mommy had before they were even an idea.

And yet, more than a decade later, everything is still shoved into that same plastic bin -- much to my husband's chagrin.

Thankfully, treasured memories aren't dependent on neatly organized photo albums. Sometimes, a particular scent or sound -- or even a cartoon glass -- can be enough to conjure up the most vivid picture of a day long gone.

Today it was Spotify that served as my Proustian madeleine, courtesy of a playlist built around a mix tape that had been my sound track during that year in Cardiff. A fellow American scholar studying at Oxford became one of my favorite friends that year -- we visited each other and marveled that we, with our parallel lives and similar tastes, hadn't crossed paths sooner. The mix tape she made for me offered an entire Gravity's Pull album on one side, harkening back to the days when we didn't know each other at UNC, and a collection of tracks from Nancy Griffith, Nikki Meets the Hibachi, Shawn Colvin, Del Amitri, Shannon Worrell, Soul Miner's Daughter, Rebecca Riots and more on the other side.

I listened to that tape, my walkman tucked into the pocket of my weather-proof coat, every day for months as I walked to class, to the city centre, to a friend's flat, to the train station, to museums and galleries and castles and pubs. The songs rang of strength and friendship, searching and wonder. They were my constant partner as I found myself able to live so far from home, able to succeed on my own in a way I hadn't been sure was possible.

When I came back to the U.S., I was still listening to that same tape as I walked the halls again at UNC, where I found myself surprisingly ready to meet the man who would be my husband.

This morning, more than a decade gone by, I listened to Dave Matthews hum out his "Christmas Song" on the Spotify playlist that I finally built based on that mix tape. There's no tape deck in my car anymore, but I didn't want to give up the tape -- iPhone to the rescue.

Although I was driving roads in Raleigh, running ordinary errands on this ordinary day, I had the extraordinary sense of being transported through space and time I thought were lost. I felt the blessings of being known by a friend discovered in a moment when I needed that connection more than ever. I recalled the confidence borne out of finding my own way. I pictured the path I walked from my flat toward the capitol, the details of my room, the oceans of daffodils filling the gardens, the faces and voices of people I haven't seen since I returned home after we completed our degrees.

And I smiled to myself, holding the treasure of that year and that entire dusty storage bin in my mind.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pillow Talk

I love being married. It can be a helluva lot of work -- don't get me wrong -- but as a package deal, it's the greatest plan ever.

Among the things I love most about being married? I'm like a kid at a sleepover. Every. Single. Night.

I was always that kid at sleepovers, the last one whispering into the darkness "Is anyone else still awake?" I treasured the talking for what seemed like hours in the half-light of sleeping bags and pillows as my friends drifted off to sleep one by one. The conversations never really ended, they just got quieter and slower to be continued another day. 

Many nights now as the clock ticks toward midnight, my husband finally leans over, kisses me and says, "You can keep talking if you want to, but I'm falling asleep."

My love of the (bedtime) chat seems to have been genetically passed on to my children, who talk continuously without breaking for breath during the day and don't really slow down at night either. So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when they started sharing a room. 

It happened at first as a special "sibling sleepover" treat one weekend when I was out of town. Junius moved up to his top bunk, while Pippi assembled her own pillows, blankets and friends on his bottom bunk. They had fun pretending to camp together, and my husband had an easier time putting them to bed when he didn't have to bounce back and forth between their two rooms. 

That was two months ago.

Any day now, I keep thinking she'll want to go back to her double bed and all her own space. Or that he'll get tired of her stuff in his room and kick her down the hall. Instead, the only change they've made is to trade bunks.

They even asked if we could turn her room into a play space instead of a bedroom. I said no, knowing that three minutes after I finish, I'll have to turn it right back. 

But it doesn't matter how long it lasts, this bunk-sharing approach. All that matters is that I will always know -- and hopefully they will remember -- that it ever was. That there once was a time when they shushed each other to sleep because they loved each other enough to tolerate the one sneezing and humming while the other tosses and rattles the beds in exchange for being together just a little bit longer. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Seven, going on seventeen

Dear Pippi --

I completely missed your birthday month on the blog this year. Not your actual birthday, of course -- for that there was the sleepover party with your besties and the dinner with grandparents and the earlier dinner with your other grandparents plus the museum party with school friends and about 847 presents that were exactly what you wanted.

No need to feel neglected, I just missed the writing about it in your actual birth month. If it makes you feel any better, I was even later writing about your brother's last birthday. It seems to be the state of affairs these days at My Convertible Life. (Although if you're using this blog for some sort of archival study one day, then apologies for having apparently missed last year's post altogether. At least I wrote about turning five.)

You turned seven this birthday. Seven doesn't scare me so much, except that you seem to be seven going on 17 -- and that is terrifying.

Right now, you still love me. You actually tell me that, almost every day. You give me tight hugs and pronounce me "the best mommy ever in the whole universe" on a regular basis. You ask for extra kisses when I drop you off at 1st grade, even when I'm running late for work and being short with you. You want to be my sidekick, want me to be your playmate, want to show me everything.

Sometimes I catch myself wondering when it's going to stop. When are you going to be too big, too grown, too stylish and notice that I am too old, too embarrassing, too out-dated?

I try not to worry, to stay in the moment. I hug you back until you let go first, fill your pockets with blown kisses to save for later, lie beside you and scratch your back at night. I admire how funny, smart and strong you are. Some days I remember.

Then there are days when I forget everything except that, no matter how frustrated I am, I am not allowed to sell you on Craigslist. Those days -- when you don't listen, don't follow directions, don't want anything to do with me -- push me past my limits. And yet still, even on those days, you love me. I hope you know that I love you, too.

When you ask funny questions like "What does Taylor Swift mean when she says she's a nightmare dressed like a daydream?" I know you're just trying to make sense of the lyrics you're shockingly good at remembering. But it also reminds me that there is so much you don't know about, don't understand, might not be prepared for. You are my baby and I want to protect you from all of them.

There will be hundreds (millions?) of things in the coming years that I will get wrong with you -- things that will disappoint or infuriate you. I can already see some of them, but I'm not sure that will help me avoid the mistakes. When those moments come, I hope that both of us will feel some tiny pull back to these days to bind us together.

You are my second child, my last born. When you were brand new, I was able to soak in all your warm, round, sweet babyness in a way that I couldn't in the early terrifying first-born days with your brother. So bear with me while I try to keep you small for just a little bit longer, keep telling me you love me and be patient with me on the days I forget.

I love you, baby girl.
- Mommy

Friday, February 6, 2015

How do you grade a school? See for yourself.

Yesterday morning, a friend texted me following a tour of our assigned middle school. Our oldest kids are slated to go there after next school year -- she's planning ahead, visiting magnet schools as well as our base school.

Her text: "VERY impressed!"

After her visit, my friend happily talked about "the spirit" of the school and how the students were "so proud and so excited." When's the last time you saw middle schoolers excited about school? That sense of community, combined with a growing engineering program, connections with NC State and enthusiastic teachers is what won her over.

This morning, the newspaper ran a full-page listing of the letter grades assigned yesterday to all public schools in North Carolina for the first time. According to that report, this same school is a D.

So who's right?

I'm betting on the assessment made after actually going to the school, hearing from the students and talking to the teachers. That barely passing grade from the state is calculated using only last year's scores on end-of-grade reading and math tests (80%) and a small measure of student academic growth (20%) -- it doesn't come close to capturing the full picture of what students and teachers are accomplishing in the school, where more than half the population lives in poverty.

In a statement Thursday about the grades, Senator Pro Tem Phil Berger (R) basically attacked anyone questioning the validity of the labels. "We’re troubled by early knee-jerk reactions that appear to condemn poor children to automatic failure," Berger said. "And we reject the premise that high poverty schools are incapable of excelling, since today’s report shows numerous examples that are proving that myth wrong. We must give these grades a chance to work so we can learn from them and improve outcomes for our children.” (WRAL)

Berger seems to think that it's the grades that will change the schools, not leadership development, instructional supports or professional salaries for teachers. Despite Berger's allegation, no one believes that "high poverty schools are incapable" -- but decades of research and observation tell us that poverty creates challenges and obstacles to effective teaching and learning that have to be overcome. Slapping a letter grade on a school won't change that.

Rep. Craig Horn (R), chairman of the House K-12 education committee, acknowledges that the formula might need to be adjusted, but says the letter grades are easy for parents to understand. "At least A, B, C, D and F, people have a much more definitive idea of how that school is performing and will make judgments accordingly," Horn said (WRAL).

It's exactly those "judgements" that scare me.

When parents see a D or F assigned to a school, it will be easy to remove that school from the consideration set. But when parents make decisions about whether or not to send their children to a certain school based only on that letter grade, they could be missing out on a great school. That decision can quickly turn into a vicious cycle for the school, where reputation becomes reality as more parents with the means to make different choices opt out of the school.

That's not what I want for any school -- but especially not for the school my son is likely to attend in another year, a school that has worked hard to become a popular choice after spending years rumored as a school to avoid.

Even Republican Senator Jerry Tillman, sponsor of the original bill calling for performance grades, predicted that the grades "may fall along demographic lines." Then the senator, also a former public school administrator, added this surprising statement: "If that's the case, I will be pushing to see some changes. I'd rather be in a D school making great growth than in an A school where growth is stagnant. I know if these kids are growing, there has to be good teaching and good leadership for that to be occurring." (The N&O)

I don't expect to see changes to the law any time soon -- Sen. Tillman acknowledged as much, and Sen. Berger is far too pleased with the law as it stands.

What I hope, though, is that parents and community members won't judge schools by this law. I hope that they will take the time to walk into these schools and judge for themselves. Look for the good teaching and good leadership that Sen. Tillman referenced. Get a sense of the community in the school, watch how students interact with each other and with their teachers.

The feeling you have inside the school will tell you far more than any letter grade -- regardless of what that letter happens to be.