Ten-thousand Hours and Then Some

IMG_9035There are 8,760 hours in a year. Twenty-two years of parenting translates into 192,730 hours. That number reflects only the hours logged since nurse Lonny handed me our first child, Leo, without compounding the hours from the three additional kids we added to the mix during the same time period.

My combined parenting hours accrued, thus far, for our twenty-two, sixteen, and twin fourteen-year-olds totals 578,170.

Now, I realize that I was not actively parenting each and every one of those hours, but as all parents know, once you take the job you’re never really off duty.

Herein lies the rub. Unlike most endeavors, my ten-thousand-and-then-some hours of parenting have not earned me a higher rank or a corner office. Most of my adult life has focused on raising children from birth to young adulthood and yet I do not feel like an expert or master of anything.

The teenagers currently under my care remind me that I’m actually growing exponentially more embarrassing, stupid, and irrelevant everyday.

On the other hand, my oldest son, who has flown the coop into the wide open space of adulthood, texts me often with kind words of praise. We have long since negotiated a path to a mature, mutual respect and friendship.

These, and the many conflicting data points I’ve collected during my time in the field, have led me to characterize my parenting style as that of an ill-equipped but optimistic shepherd.

The kind of shepherd who goes out to pasture on a stormy day without a raincoat because of a hopeful certainty that the sun will come out and the skies will turn blue.  

Soon realizing the disconnect between years on the job and parenting expertise, I patched together four everyday directives that form the guiding cardinal points on my shepherding compass.

  1. Listen to the Universe.
  2. Be solution-focused.
  3. If truly lost, stand still.
  4. Listen to the Universe.

It’s not a mistake. Listening to the Universe is such an critical part to finding my way that it’s both the North and South poles on my compass.

There have been plenty of times as a parent that I have not walked the talk but I’m always steady in my preaching of these cardinal points. I regularly quiz the kids, call and response gospel-style, on the four most important lessons that I’ve taught them.

As Leo gets older, he plays along and replies in half-hearted agreement. Eli, our most analytical child, thinks it’s all bullshit and is certain that we do not exist in a talking Universe and questions my mental health. The girls roll their eyes in disgust and beg me to never mention the Universe in public or in front of their friends.

That being said, there are moments when I see the glimmer of indoctrination.

Last week I picked up my daughter from school to drive her to dance practice. In my ever-increasing ineptitude, I brought her the wrong, apparently see-through, leggings. It was too late to go back home and get her to the studio on time. It was a trivial problem but the situation soon veered off into a moment of teenage drama.

I was about to launched into the #4 combo on my standard parenting lecture menu, Get a Reality Check with a side of shame. Instead, I listened to the Universe and stopped myself.

The car was quiet. My daughter huffed, sighed and scrounged around at the bottom of her dance bag and pulled out a dark colored pair of tights.

By this time, we’d arrived at the studio. Without looking at me, she announced that she would wear the tights underneath the see-through leggings and got out of the car.

She took a few steps and then turned and walked back toward me, but this time with a sly smile on her face. I rolled down the car window as my daughter uttered just two words, solution-focused, and then gracefully spun around and walked away.

Can I hear an Amen!

I took the picture at Milton Reimer’s Ranch Park, Dripping Springs, TX.


The Bird Mask in the Back Seat


It was my carpool night when I remembered that the bird mask was resting on the back seat where the girls from my daughter’s gymnastic team would soon sit. When I turned to check if it was still there, the fluorescent glow of the gym’s parking lot lights hit its eerily long white beak and hollowed out eyes in a manner that made me feel like a freak-mom for carting it around in my minivan for the last two months.

I’m embarrassed to say it’s just the latest move in my dance with the Medico della Peste, the plague doctor mask. Earlier that day I failed again to hand it over to the perplexed-looking person at Goodwill.

My son Leo brought the mask back from Venice when he went to Italy the summer after fifth grade. My friend Ilaria is from Milan. We met as founding members of the self-proclaimed Neurotic Mothers Group that spontaneously formed on our sons’ first day of kindergarten seventeen years ago. It was an oddball group of capable but anxious women, mostly first time mothers, that hovered at the end of the hall to compare worries.

Ilaria’s son and Leo became fast friends. By third grade Ilaria promised that if the boys were still good buddies at the end of elementary school she would take Leo on their family’s summer visit to Italy. I still have a clear memory of Leo’s only phone message from his Italian adventure bellowing out from an old school answering machine – “It’s Leo. Happy Father’s Day from Venice!”

Although the Medico della Peste is considered one of the typical masks of the Venice Carnival, its true origin dates from the 17th century and credits Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII, as the likely inventor. He designed the mask and costume for doctors during the Bubonic plague that ravaged Europe, killing nearly two-thirds of the population. Plague doctors wore the protective dress when they visited their patients. Below is Charles de Lorme’s description of the full gear.

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.

In 1630, Venice was devastated by the plague, losing 46,000 of its 140,000 inhabitants which likely contributed to the downfall of the Venetian Republic. Over the centuries the mask’s association with death has lessened and it has evolved to become one of the most popular costumes worn during Carnival.

When Leo returned, he placed his newly acquired mask on his bookshelf. A few years later it made its way to the back of his closet. I knew it was in his room but it was not until four years ago, when we moved, that I became aware of mask’s influence.

Anyone who knows me will confirm that I have a getting-rid-of-stuff super power. It protects me from being swayed by sentimentality or emotion on my mission to unburden myself and others of the clutter that holds them prisoner. My rule for stuff is simple; if the item is neither useful nor beautiful then it needs to find a new home or purpose.

The bird mask is my kryptonite. Since our move I have tried to give it away a gazillion times, sell it at garage sales, and send it back to college with Leo. The mystery for me becomes evident at the moment when I should close the transaction – I can’t.  It’s like the mask has me under a low-grade possession that doesn’t cause me any harm except for the fact that I cannot rid myself of the thing.

I’ve researched the Venice Carnival and the mask’s history in search of answers and scoured my motives to find the key to my release. I can’t point to a single rational reason why I cannot let go of the mask.

I know this sounds crazy but each time I’m at the edge of giving it away, I get this gnawing feeling that the mask is like a thread, that if released, will unravel my entire life. Maybe this is how hoarders feel about every item in their house.

So I’m stuck with the mask. It’s still in the back of my minivan. I’ve stopped explaining myself to the man at Goodwill because there really isn’t an explanation.  He just rolls his eyes and asks if I would like a receipt for the other items.

Feeding the Bear

“Why are we stopping at Wheatsville, we just went shopping?”


When Leo is home from college it’s just a given that I have to maintain a supply of frozen blueberries. He eats them in a stainless steel mixing bowl like a bear at the zoo.  I’m sure he eats more blueberries than the average bear. Trying to be the good organic mama, I buy him those precious little bags of frozen organic blueberries. I would always look for sales or store brands but it takes a big bite out of our weekly grocery budget. We know when the bear is home and midway through the holiday break I toss out any concern I have about organic and go for the three pound bags at HEB.

I have to lay down the frozen fruit law for the visiting bear. I’m not sure why, but the cost of frozen blueberries has spiked. The new rule is no more than half a bag of blues a day – and he has to switch fruits to cheaper frozen options like raspberries and mango chunks. The bear sulks and eats raspberries and mangos between his allotted servings of blueberries. If the bear goes too many days without his ration I notice changes in his mood.  He is grouchier and won’t give his brother the time of day. I know blackmail when I see it.

He can’t just come clean and state his demands but I know bear behavior. What he doesn’t know is that I use his covert blackmail scheme to my advantage. It’s animal training 101, give rewards intermittently and the desired behavior increases. I time my blueberry purchases strategically.  For example, this morning I needed Leo to get up and get Eli out of the house.

This brings me back to my Wheatsville blueberry run.

Our neighborhood co-op currently has a great deal on three pound bags of frozen blueberries.  A cup of coffee for me and a bag of blueberries for the bear – my unknowing partner in crime. I walk upstairs and find the bear asleep on the couch. I say good morning to Eli and ask him what he has planned for the day.

“I’d like to hang out with Leo if he’s free.”

I shake the bag of berries next to the sleeping bear and his eyes partially open. Like a subliminal message, I know the bear has heard Eli’s request while I continue to shake the bag. In my most sunny, it’s-a-beautiful-day voice I ask if he minds waking up and doing something with Eli. The bear grumbles. I walk downstairs and put the berries in the freezer.

Twenty minutes later the bear comes down. The response time is better than I had predicted. He is moving hours before he is usually up.  Without contact the bear picks up his stainless steel bowl and fills it with frozen blueberries. He eats the berries on the couch next to Big Otis. His lips and teeth are blue and his mood becomes more engaging.

He smiles a big blue-mouthed smile. This signals to Eli that it is safe to sit next to the bear and discuss plans. Eli wants to go to lunch and play basketball. The bear has only eaten enough blueberries to agree to lunch but we all know a second helping will get Eli some basketball time. The bear has to first brush the blue from his teeth, the evidence of his weakness, and then the brothers are out the door. Mission accomplished.

Blueberries really are a super food.