Why I’d like to enroll in Neve’s School for Unabashedly Expressing Joy

IMG_4002.JPGI’m pretty sure I was the world’s least fun kid. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

I wasn’t ticklish (except for mild sensitivity on the bottoms of my feet), so there were no bouts of me rolling around on the floor, giggling helplessly.

And from Jump Street, the details of the whole Santa/Easter Bunny thing just DIDN’T. ADD. UP. (Why would just some reindeer fly, while most did not? And going to everyone’s house in one night? That’s just not logistically possible, man. Ditto on carrying presents for everyone in a single sleigh. I mean, didn’t the physical laws of science still apply?)

As the family’s middle kid, I desperately wanted to be identified as super-smart and precocious. I longed to be listened to and taken as seriously as an adult (which I felt I was, albeit in a kid’s body). So I went through a second grade phase where I’d order coffee in restaurants (and add a billion packets of sugar just to get it down); and though I had a dry sense of humor and pretty solid mimicry skills, I was stingy with my own laughter – to the point that one of my more boisterous middle school teachers gave me the nickname “Dip-n-Stiff” (emphasis on the “stiff”) and regularly said things like, “Careful, McKee. Don’t smile, or your face will crack!”

So … yeah. Not your most happy-go-lucky kid.

By contrast, there’s Neve, my chirpy spark plug of a seven year old, who loved the “Mary Poppins Returns” movie and soundtrack so much that while listening to its closing number (“Nowhere to Go But Up”) for the billionth time on a recent afternoon, she could barely contain herself. She ran to the den for a piece of paper, starting drawing a hand with a finger pointing upward, and a balloon, and a few words that are points of emphasis in the song’s lyrics.

After furiously cutting around each item, Neve started the song again and danced around the kitchen, staying close to the table so she could grab the hand and point it skyward each time the word “up” was sung, and she skipped around with her small paper balloon over her head.  Continue reading

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A critic’s quandary: Why did I give blueprint-reliant ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ a pass but not ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’?

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Let me start by saying I had one of my all-time favorite Christmases ever in 2018, in part because it was my first full-on Jewish Christmas.

That’s right. It finally happened for me, people.

After years of being an honorary Jew (by way of marriage), and hearing tales of casual Christmas Days spent eating Chinese food and going to a movie theater – two things, by the way, that would absolutely be included in the Jenn McKee version of “My Favorite Things” (though I rarely get to do either) – my time had come.

At long last, I noshed on takeout kung pao chicken with the fam (plus my mother-in-law) and watched “Mary Poppins Returns” from the vantage point of a comfy cinema recliner.

It was heaven.

Including the movie itself, which utterly charmed me, despite its song-for-song replication of the 1964 original film, “Mary Poppins.” I mean, it’s not subtle. At one point, I remember thinking, “Oh, a big production number with the leeries should be coming up, since this is about where the chimney sweeps go full-out via ‘Step in Time.’”

And sure enough, the opening notes of “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” soon sounded. Continue reading

Doubling down when tragedy strikes

45020394_10156107337357632_1994368411789950976_nOn Monday morning, following the massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, my husband Joe, who’s Jewish, donned his reading glasses, bit his lip, and sat at our kitchen table filling out paperwork, so that our interfaith family could join a nearby temple.

We’d had the packet of documents or a while. Lily, our 10 year old, fasted (for the first time) on Yom Kippur, and Joe had found an afternoon kids’ service not far from our home, so he picked her up from school, and off they went. (I’d attended my usual, 90 minute Wednesday morning yoga class while also fasting, so by this time of the day, I’d collapsed into a nap.)

When that service ended up being for preschoolers, Lily and Joe instead got a temple tour from the educational director.

Hence the big white envelope of registration materials on our table.

For Lily has expressed an interest in having a bat mitzvah; and as we’ve explained to her, learning what’s necessary to run a service – a healthy portion of which involves speaking Hebrew – will take a few years.

But I’ll confess that while Saturday’s hate-fueled, anti-Semitic murders gave Joe a renewed sense of urgency about Lily’s Jewish education, I was struggling to get past my anxiety.

Because this is all new to me. Continue reading

How a board game prompted a conversation with my kids about what it means to be ‘American’

IMG_3592.JPGIdentity politics can be played like a game by cable news talking heads – so perhaps it’s only fitting that a kids’ board game got me talking about this topic with my daughters.

Lily, my 10 year old, got the game “Guess Who?” for her birthday. Similar to Battleship, each player has their own board that the opponent isn’t supposed to see, with several rows of different character faces and names. Based on the draw of a card, each player assumes the identity of one of these characters until game’s end, and asks one question per turn to the opponent to determine who their character is first.

So this is about the process of elimination. You ask things like, “Does your person wear glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?”, and you pull down the tiles that the question eliminates as possibilities.

But shortly after Lily got this gift, I overheard her playing with her 7 year old sister, Neve, who asked, “Is your person American?”

Lily said, “No,” and I thought, WHAT IN THE HELL IS HAPPENING IN OUR HOUSE RIGHT NOW? Continue reading

The koan that is my professional life (or, ‘How did that phone job interview go?’)

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The site of my most recent job interview, on Walloon Lake.

It wasn’t your typical setting for a job interview.

I sat with crossed legs on a white, cushioned wicker chair (where I’d done a short, 12 minute meditation just moments before); wore my black Ragdale t-shirt and gray, ankle-length, lightweight travel pants (having forgotten to pack more business-appropriate wear); looked out, through leafy limbs, at sun-glittering Walloon Lake; and made sure my earbuds were firmly inserted.

Unconventional, perhaps, as interviews go, but also not a bad way to approach this age-old ritual.

And I’d done my homework. Though I’d initially attempted (and failed) to push for a 30 minute phone interview slot the following week, after our planned extended-family vacation in Boyne City, I ultimately found myself strategizing about how to prepare while surrounded by eleven kids and adults in a rented house.

Breaking it up into parts, I thought, was my best bet. So I spent a bit of time on Sunday perusing the organization’s YouTube channel, while also studying the website and its social media presence; I watched the head honcho deliver an hour-long speech about how things are going, and what’s new, on Monday; and on Tuesday, I researched some of the most common interview questions and jotted down ideas for how I might answer them.

You’d think that with all this prep – way more than usual, I might add – I’d be bursting to share when, during Wednesday’s interview, a woman kicked things off with, “Tell us about what you did to prepare for today.”

I had that moment where you feel like rubbing your hands together, so confident are you about what you have to say – and then I gave a lame, vague answer that didn’t lay out precisely all the prep I’d done.

Even in the moment, I was like, “Uh, what just happened there, Jenn?” Continue reading

Chopping off some hair (and baggage)

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Before and after. And yes, I call my default selfie expression Resting Mom Face.

As a middle child, I was a conflict-averse sulker of the first order.

My older sister raged against the machine, but I, by contrast, opted to weep pitifully FOREVER, crimson-faced and cross-armed, hoping to get my way through what I considered a stealthier, guilt-inducing form of rebellion.

My batting average wasn’t much better than any other kid’s, of course. But there was one conflict with my parents – specifically my mom – that stands apart in my mind by virtue of its sheer intensity.

After some lice breakouts at my elementary, the school nurse – ah, remember when one was just hanging around all the time ON STAFF? – pulled on some latex gloves and went from class to class, checking our scalps. Freshly back from Girl Scout day camp, I immediately landed in the principal’s office with one or two other lepers. (Ironically, I remember making a mental note that THOSE kids were gross and unhygienic rather than internally chanting, “One of us! One of us!”)

My mom took me to see Dr. Kim, our pediatrician; got a prescription for the tar shampoo (that you have to leave on your scalp for five minutes each time); and bought a double-sided black comb with two rows of short, crazy-narrow teeth – as if it was built for massaging a groomed chihuahua instead of actually combing human hair.

Particularly MY thick hair, which we’d all inherited from my mom. The trademark mane that hairdressers cooed over and complimented before, after working in it a while, saying, “Boy, you’ve got a LOT of hair.”

And because I’d spent my short lifetime absorbing inalterable truths about feminine beauty – my glasses, prescribed in first grade, would obviously need to be replaced by contact lenses as soon as humanly possible, and my hair should, upon release, tumble down to my waist (though I’d only just gotten it to grow below my shoulders) – I grew panicky when Mom started balking at the nit-picking comb’s ineffectiveness.

“We’re going to have to get your hair cut,” my mother told me. “You just have too much hair.”

Cue my crying. I wanted long tresses! Didn’t she understand I needed to grow my hair out to be seen by my peers, and by the world, as beautiful? To have my big-reveal, room-stopping moment of glory?

Nope. Off we went to the salon. Continue reading

How appealing to a parent’s vanity ultimately leads to a kiddo’s heartbreak

IMG_2981.jpgMy nine year old daughter wept and screamed at me through breakfast this morning.

Not a great day-starter.

And the irony is, the episode was an outgrowth of something that seemed, at first blush, a wonderful thing.

A little over a week ago, I went to the mailbox and found a formal-looking envelope addressed – in faux caligraphy – to “The Parents of Lily Grekin-McKee.” Curious, I tore into it, read the first couple of paragraphs, and instantly beamed with pride. Yep. Tears actually rolled down my cheeks as I read this:

It is my pleasure to inform you that your daughter, Lily, has been nominated by [a teacher from Lily’s school] to participate in the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF): Pathways to STEM, an Envision program to be held at [nearby college] this summer, 2018. Only the brightest, most highly motivated students are singled out by their teachers for nomination to NYLF Pathways to STEM. You should be very proud of this achievement. Lily was selected because [her teacher] recognizes her as a student who already demonstrates exceptional maturity, scholastic merit, and leadership potential even at her young age.

I mean, what parent wouldn’t lap this up?

I joyfully cried some more, re-reading the letter a few times, and I shared a photo of it on social media.

I thought about how excited Lily would be, and how much it meant to me that her teachers recognized her academic promise and character. I was so happy for her, and for the experience she could have at this five day overnight camp, which offered cool activities related to forensics, medicine, and engineering. “What an amazing opportunity!” I thought.

For someone with a handful of degrees, I can be remarkably dumb at times. Continue reading