Guest Post: Life Advice for my Kids

booksI’ve known my friend David Sample for more years than I’d care to count, (think: attended my wedding; suffered through my first attempts at cooking and is still friends with me…) and since the beginning, I was sure be would be a fantastic father. Time has proven me right.  Not only does he do the standard stuff with his three kids, like build Pinewood Derby cars and act as timer for a swim meet, he is also very thoughtful about his parenting. Here is his list of 60 items he’d like to tell his kids, and perhaps you’d like to share with yours:

Life advice for my kids, by David Sample

1. Live close to work if you can, even if you need to have a much smaller house/apartment.
2. If you spend your life comparing yourself to other people you will always be unhappy. There is always someone that is smarter, better looking, richer, etc…
3. Don’t wear loafers with a suit.
4. Learn how to dance.
5. If you meet someone with a funny name, don’t make a joke about it. The person has already heard them all.
6. Try not to get mad at asshole drivers. It isn’t worth the energy.
7. Openly acknowledge awkward moments. It makes them a little less awkward. (Dan Savage)
8. Don’t gossip. At some point, it will come back to bite you.
9. When you go on a date, turn off your phone and put it away.
10. The human tendency is for expenditures to rise to meet income (and often exceed it). Plan with this in mind. (corollary of Murphy’s Law)
11. A properly knotted tie has a dimple where the tie comes out of the knot.
12. Take a driving class.
13. If you are physically attractive, remember to be a solid chocolate bunny: attractive on the outside and the inside. Hollow chocolate bunnies are lame. (Felicia Day)
14. Unless you enjoy the arguing, don’t talk politics. You aren’t going to change their mind, and they aren’t going to change yours.
15. “If it sounds good, it IS good.” – Duke Ellington. Listen to the music that you like and don’t worry about what other people think is cool or lame.
16. Just because someone asks you a question, does not mean that you have to answer it.
17. When driving, leave the other guy a way out, and try to use the two-second rule.
18. A tattoo does not make you unique.
19. Just because something is currently “in style” does not mean that it looks good on you.
20. Learn how to tell a funny story if you can.
21. Pride commeth before the fall. Stay humble. (Bible)
22. Take the time to carefully proofread before you turn in your work.
23. When you are planning your wedding, if you can, allow parents to bring their kids, allow single people to bring a guest, and have an open bar. People are more important than decorations (but not more important than the dress).
24. If you need to precede what you are saying with “no offense,” you probably shouldn’t say it.
25. Create new family traditions and continue the old ones that you like.
26. Don’t let yourself be “friend-zoned.” Express your desires early. If the response isn’t the one you want, move on.
27. Weddings are about the bride. The groom is a prop.
28. Choose a career in which you can find ethical expression.
29. Remember to honestly compliment people when you can. We hear about our faults too often.
30. Call your parents.
31. There is no such thing as “f” buddies. One of the people always wants more.
32. If you don’t know where to start, talk to someone who knows about it. If you don’t know anyone, there is probably a good book about it.
33. Don’t ask someone out via text message. Do it over the phone or in person. Always break up in person.
34. Hard work is almost always rewarded.
35. A vehicle is a tool, not a fashion statement. Spend accordingly.
36. If you are a “spender,” marry a “saver,” and let the “saver” handle the money.
37. If you are a “saver” and your spouse is a “spender,” put your spouse on an allowance.
38. A task will expand to fit the time allotted for it. Plan accordingly. (A corollary of Murphy’s Law)
39. Couples fight most often about money or sex. Keep this in mind when you are selecting a spouse.
40. Keep secrets.
41. Before you judge someone, remember that each of us thinks that anyone that drives faster than us is crazy and anyone that drives slower than us is an idiot. We can’t all be right. (George Carlin)
42. For men: when buying dress socks, buy the ones that come up to your knees. We don’t need to see your hairy shins when you sit down.
43. Start reading to your kids early, and don’t stop.
44. Floss daily.
45. Most women I know don’t mind receiving flowers, having the door opened for them, and having the man pay for dinner (notwithstanding our advances in feminism).
46. If you find yourself saying “those people,” “them” or “they” in reference to a particular group, the next thing out of your mouth will probably be bigoted.
47. Before you go out on a date, spend some time thinking about things to talk about.
48. In my opinion, a man needs no more jewelry for day to day living than a nice watch, and a wedding ring (if appropriate). For dress-up, add cuff-links – that’s it.
49. Don’t have sex until you can maturely and honestly talk to your partner about STD’s and birth control and you can buy condoms without blushing. (Salt-n-Peppa)
50. Wrap it up every time.
51. Puns get a bad rap. A good one will make most people laugh or at least smile and groan.
52. Bust your ass your freshman year of college learning how to be a good student. There will be plenty of time later to goof off.
53. When you ask someone out on a date, ask them out for a specific day and time and to do a specific thing. If the response is “I am busy,” ask again. If you get three I-am-busies, stop asking.
54. You will regret failing to try more than you will regret trying and failing.
55. Comb-overs are lame. Embrace your baldness.
56. In a marriage, apologize early and often.
57. Remember that the news is selling something, and that death and blood sell. The state of the world is not as bad as they say it is.
58. Date someone at least two years before marrying them – it’s a dopamine thing.
59. Remember that correlation does not equal causation.
60. Opinions (like everything in this list) are like assholes – everyone has one, and most of them stink. So, don’t get too worked up when someone expresses an opinion that you disagree with.

Teens and Parents and Communicaton

tin cansSome days are better than others with a teen and a tween in my home.  Last week I fought with Bailey about money, and with Sydney about her hair.  That doesn’t even scratch the surface of a few contentious evenings regarding schoolwork, reading, and Facebook chatting.  I don’t want to make it sound more difficult than it is, but it is definitely different.  I keep wondering at this phenomenon.  Different how? Different from when? It turns out that in my six months of absence due to successful cancer treatment, my kids changed as much as I did.

In the past two months since being reunited with them, I’ve had to get used to a high school freshman who is more likely to think about dates and ski trips than the video games over which he used to obsess.  (It’s not that he never plays anymore; he just doesn’t obsess.)  I now have a middle school daughter who gave up her colorful backpack in favor of a trendy Vera Bradley bag to be just like everyone else. I’ve had to get to know these kids all over again.  It turns out that Sydney loves a TV show called “Dance Moms” and has switched from playing the violin to playing the guitar because it’s an instrument she can sing with.  Bailey was on the freshman debate team this year and has discovered a passion for argument. He has buddies across ages and genders with whom he talks daily.

The boundaries are new; the thought processes are different. For the first few weeks, I was arguing with Bailey all the time until someone said to me, “Aimee, you have an entire lifetime to be on his case, but you only have three more years to build your relationship with him because once he’s out of the house, the building part is done.”  The words resonated: I have to think about I want Bailey to interact with me not just now, but in the future. How on earth was I going to achieve that balance between strengthening our relationship and being an authoritative parent?

Being a reader, I sought out writing to and for parents – often mothers – with teenagers.  A lot of it focuses on encouraging the mothers, validating their frustration and acknowledging what a tough time it is for the entire household.  But in general, having read parenting books, articles and blogs for all of my child’s life, I note that so many of the articles I found on the topic minister to desperation.  Sharing becomes more difficult because instead of cute little problems, our kids have bigger problems, ones that could potentially affect the rest of their lives.  That little saying about little kids and little problems turns out to be true!

My favorite piece, posted by my friend Carrie, is “Dear Lonely Mom of Older Kids.”  It’s a blog post that reminds parents that they’re not alone – and that parenting middle school and high school kids can be a lonely business.  Fewer people are willing to talk about the trials and tribulations of having older kids and the bigger problems it can cause in the family.  The piece is reassuring, comforting Moms and telling them that everything will turn out all right – eventually – and Moms will discover an inner strength they never knew they had in the process.

To that end, I also enjoyed the piece given to me by my friend Jacqueline from New York Magazine cleverly titled “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager.”  People never talk about how tough it is on the entire family when the cuddly kid turns into a sullen teen.  The piece is long but worth the read, covering topics such as parent conflict (with the teen and with each other) and resolution, sibling effect, and the most interesting part, about how and why the suffering ebbs but changes once a kid leaves for college.

These days my friends and I discuss our kids in light of behavior expectations, technology interruptions and distractions, and getting into college.  But we’re still talking.  One friend’s kid can’t pass math; one friend’s kid got on to the baseball team while another kid didn’t.  There are ups and downs and the only way to survive them is to derive support from those who have gone through it before or are going through it with you.  It doesn’t matter if your kid isn’t getting a 4.0, playing an instrument and five sports.  Parents need other parents who won’t judge or compare. We need to do that for each other.

And then there’s the communication with the kids themselves.  I have learned to listen more and talk less.  I have learned to ask questions before making demands.  I have learned to shoot off a quick text instead of calling if I want a response.  I shouldn’t say “I have learned” but rather, “I AM learning.” It all happens in fits and starts and some days are more successful than others. My children and I had to spend some serious time apart from each other and so we’re all interested in spending time together now.  That instinct might fade, but it might not. So far the kids are still communicating with me. What a gift.

Everyone grows and changes over time and it seems that the trick is to allow kids to do it safely and securely while hanging on to your own sanity – even if by a thread.  I have no magic solutions or ideas, but simply gratitude for the kids I have raised so far and the loving friends who laugh with me as we go through it all together.

Hearts in February

hearts1Inspired by my friend Cathy Michaud, I am putting a heart on each of my kids’ doors for every day in February.  On the hearts I write something I love about them. 

As you probably know, I was away from the kids for more than six months due to my successful battle with lymphoma, so I wanted to do something special, something meaningful for them to remind them that I’m here, I’m here to stay and I lohearts2ve them.  Beyond that, though, being away has given me a little distance on the kids and I feel like I’m looking at them with fresh eyes.  These kids are not perfect, not even close!  But for an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, they’re pretty great people with a myriad of talents, ideas, and activities.  These hearts also serve to remind me of the things that make them special – to me and to others with whom they interact.  And it shows them specifically that they are valued by their dad and me. I continue to be grateful.

How I Found The Spirit of “DanShaRi” – My New, Favorite Japanese Word

dansharipicMy acupuncturist worked her magic on me but kept muttering over and over about how tense I was compared to my session just two weeks prior.  Finally, after the session I told her that we were about to move to a new apartment in Tokyo, and it was just plain stressful.  Adding to the stress was the fact that this would be our first move without babies.  When we moved into our house six years ago, we had small kids – ages 5 and 8.  We had an entire room in the house stuffed with their toys and books.  Being a writer and writing teacher myself, I get very attached to books.  In addition, my mother, a career kindergarten teacher, calls herself Grandma Book, and when she closed her classroom in the U.S. and moved south, she sent five packing cartons full of children’s books.

But fast forward six years with kids ages 11 and 14, and most of the books and toys had to go.  I spent a lot of time on the floor one weekend in early May just going through a lot of books and remembering them.  Crying. Feeling. Mourning a little, even. Some special books, the ones my kids really remembered and loved, they wanted to save and keep on their shelves, and I certainly allowed that.  In the end we had at least ten trash bags of toys to give away and five suitcases full of books to donate.  In my heart, I knew that other kids would be able to love the books and toys as much as my babies and I had loved them, but letting go of them was tough.

That’s when the acupuncturist, listening to my tale of woe, taught me a new Japanese word.  “Dan-sha-ri” she told me.  “That’s what you’re doing: Dan-Sha-Ri”.

She wrote out the Kanji for me, and it’s really three Kanji put together to make up the very connotative word.

Dan the first Kanji, means to refuse.  People are supposed to refuse to collect more THINGS in their life, or refuse to block the flow of their lives with stuff.  Sha means to throw away things – get rid of unnecessary items in the home.  And Ri means to separate – separate what’s actually valuable from your possessions – your stuff is not your life; you and your memories and the people you love are your life.

When put together, the word DanShaRi means to let go of possessions, but also to free yourself from them; to poetically purge what’s cluttering your life and let go of it gracefully.  The result is intended to be a lighter and free-er person.

Yes, I spent some serious time on the floor stressing and crying over my children’s bygone childhood, but I admit now, three weeks later, that I do feel lighter for the exercise of it.  My children are growing into such fine young adults, that I find I don’t need their baby stuff anymore.  I can carry the memory of their babyhood in my head and in a few photo albums without having to carry the actual, physical trappings of that babyhood – which also means that I can fully enjoy the present.

I am grateful to my acupuncturist at Theracua for treating the whole person a few weeks ago, and not just my joints and muscles.  She made the process of DanShaRi in my life a whole lot less stressful and more of a thankful experience.

Sometimes the connotative, on-the-fly nature of Japanese has just the right word for the situation.

blog matsuri pic

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

A Journey of Lessons (A Hopeful Sign)

Please see my latest posting on the e-zine A Hopeful Sign about being in Southeast Asia and experiencing the 5-star hotels juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of the region, as well as its affects on our kids.  To be fair, it’s also about bringing the lessons of the world in which they do not live to them and making it accessible via experiences right here in Tokyo as well as the tie-in to the Jewish holiday of Passover, that happened while we were visiting Cambodia.

The E-zine is called A Hopeful Sign for a reason – the messages of hope and positivity it brings are a breath of fresh air in today’s increasingly negative and pessimistic world.  Go see my posting, but also go to see all of the other wonderful writers who post there.  Click HERE.

Here’s the body of the text:

Our Journey of Lessons Travelling in Southeast Asia

Photo: Child begging for money from her little “boat”, a pot (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)

I never doubt that my kids are indeed children of privilege, which is not necessarily bad, because the important thing, I believe, is what one does with that privilege.  In recent weeks my kids have had many lessons in humility and giving, and the grace that comes along with the ability to recognize the gifts of humanity, no matter how they are packaged.

We started our journey of lessons at the Asian University for Women (AUW) fundraiser.  AUW, located in Bangladesh, takes young women from around the region and gives them a top-notch university education. The support committee, of which I am a part, showed an American PBS film about Women and the Taliban in Afghanistan and how they are fighting back.  My son who is 13 understood a lot of it, but my daughter who is 10, did not.  The important part for both of them, though, was the speeches that followed the movie by the two girls who had come to Tokyo from AUW in Bangladesh.  One girl, originally from Afghanistan, stressed the importance of education, finding one’s voice, and telling one’s story.  The other, from Nepal, spoke eloquently on the idea of one person making a difference and changing the world.  Both kids were enthralled by these two girls.  Obviously young, they carried themselves with poise that belied their backgrounds and they spoke confidently about their viewpoints and ideas, something my children could admire and appreciate.

The next day after hearing the girls at the AUW event, the kids, my husband and I got on a plane for Southeast Asia.  We spent the next six days exploring Hanoi, Vietnam, and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh Cambodia.  (You can read about our adventures on http://TokyoWriter.com)

It wasn’t our first trip to the region, but seeing the extreme poverty never gets any easier, especially for the kids.  Hanoi was chock full of honking cars, a mix of traditional and modern architecture, and people who were thrilled to see tourists.  Many people approached us on the street to sell us something, and of course, some were kinder than others.  When my daughter expressed discomfort, my husband explained that this was how people made their living; not everyone can afford a storefront.  We bought things we wanted and said no to vendors when we had to.

In Siem Reap, the resort hotels eclipse some of the more extreme poverty, but it was really unavoidable as we took a boat ride up the Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages there.  Random kids approached us over and over again, begging, one little girl with a snake around her neck asking if we wanted to give her a dollar to see the snake up close.  Another girl approached us as we were eating our dinner at a sidewalk café.  My daughter was stricken when we wouldn’t buy her books and the girl groaned her disappointment. I faltered when I explained that one to my own darling girl.  That young lady was helping her family by trying to sell the books.  Maybe she had been in school all day and worked a little to make extra money at the dinner hour, but this was her life and this was what she knew.  Even I could tell that the explanation fell flat – of course the girl could observe that we could afford dinner in a restaurant and she couldn’t – but we noticed our daughter chewing on what she had seen and the ideas I presented.

That night was the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and our normal celebrations at home include a large seder with many friends.  It’s the holiday when we retell the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt – it’s a celebration of freedom.  I had packed a few copies of our Haggadah, the book we read at the table for Passover, so the four of us sat in our hotel room after dinner reading about our ancestors and telling the story as it is commanded, as if we ourselves were enslaved in Egypt, feeling the yoke of slavery and the gratitude for the miracles wrought by God to bring about its end, even if did mean forty years of wandering in the desert.  We tell it that way to encourage empathy and enhance that gratitude.  In addition to telling the story faithfully to our children every year, we – Jews – infuse the seder with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, saving the world.  “Let all who are hungry come eat,” says the Haggadah, commanding not just Jews, but really everyone, to share the gifts they are given.

Even though it was the lowest-key seder we’ve ever had, and the smallest, it was by far the most meaningful.  The kids were both able to talk about not just freedom to walk around and go wherever they please, but also freedom from tyranny and freedom from want.  The Haggadah gave them language to appreciate the accident of their birth into a loving and financially stable, Western family.  We were able to talk about the gifts of their good brains and the ability to use them and the bright girls who go to AUW on scholarship who have a stroke of luck to get their fine education whereas our kids tend to take their schooling for granted.  They vowed never to complain about it.

We saw some exquisite sights throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, things that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  One morning we woke the kids before the sun to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, an enthralling picture that I can still see weeks later when I close my eyes.  To think that was built in the 12th century!  Later that day, my son said that he was sorry he fussed (which he really hadn’t) about getting up because it was worth it, and he was going to tell his kids about it someday.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

“Maybe you’ll take your own kids to see it,” I suggested.

My daughter watched my son nod in agreement and smile. “Maybe,” she allowed finally, “But I hope I can give my kids what you and Daddy give me.”

I don’t think she understood my silent hug or the tears that sprang to my eyes as I surveyed both of my children.  My children are among the luckiest there are to be American and live an exciting life abroad in Japan.  They have every gadget available as well as access to the finest schools and activities in the world. I have no idea whether these lessons will stay with them even into next month, but I am sure that we planted seeds in the children that week, seeds that will hopefully bloom into beautiful tomorrows.

Is There Such A Thing as Too Much Technology?

tin cans

My son’s computer is driving me crazy.  I know; it’s a machine and doesn’t have actual powers, but in this case, it really is making me nuts.

Bailey’s school, The American School in Japan (ASIJ) required him to have a brand new MacBook this fall.  We bought the top of the line machine, fully loaded, the best available.  He has to bring it to school every day and they use it in class for taking notes and for writing blog posts.  At home he uses it for research and homework purposes.

Bailey is taking Algebra, and about twice a month he has a “problem of the week” (POW) due.  However, it’s not just a math problem.  The way the teacher has structured it, Bailey has to do the math, then create a video of himself doing the math – or practicum – or whatever it is – and then has to prepare an audio as a voice-over to narrate the film, before uploading it all to his teacher.  I am fully in favor of technology in the classroom, and he has definitely learned a lot by doing this.  I’m just on the fence as to whether or not the math class is the right one in which to put the skills into practice.  This is something I’ve written about in the past.

But back to the actual computer.  This week, as he did his POW, he was chatting online with friends.  He watched sports videos between takes of his own videos.  Sometimes he even checked Facebook. There are so many distractions available!  On Monday night when he was working on a social studies project I moved my computer next to his so I could see precisely what he was doing any given second.

The school, however, has tied my hands.  I can’t take away the computer as a punishment if he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing.  It’s his learning tool and he needs it at school.  So if he wastes time being distracted, I have very little recourse besides simple nagging.  I would like to make it so he has to just sit and work, not have the distractions available, but I can’t do it.  I am having trouble teaching him about staying focused.

I am by no means a Luddite; I believe in using technology to the fullest.  But there has to be limits somewhere, and perhaps 8th grade is too young to expect kids to be in charge of themselves fully.  Focus, time-management, and study skills are things that do not come naturally; they need to be taught, and sometimes the computer is an impediment to that.

Please, if you have a different opinion, or a suggestion here, let me know.  I’m having trouble reconciling myself to my son’s dependence on technology and the issues implied therein.  Feel free to let me know what you think.