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

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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

In defense of throwing your own damned middle-aged birthday party

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My beautiful 2018 cake, by Jeff Pavlik at Sunflour Bakehaus.

I remember the first time it really hit me that adult birthdays can kind of suck.

Two years before we had Lily (2006), February arrived, and I told Joe that all I wanted for my 35th birthday was to go out for dinner and to see a movie in the theater, which is something I love to do.

We did that. And as we were driving home, I stared out the window and inexplicably started to cry.

That sounds stupidly childish, I know, but friend-filled birthday celebrations were close enough in my rearview mirror that I suddenly, desperately missed my closest girlfriends from grad school, who were spread across the country. I felt dull and pathetic – and old. As if friendship was something you got to enjoy in your youth, and then you had to white knuckle it the rest of the way with your partner only.

“I don’t understand,” said Joe. “You said you didn’t need a party, or a dinner with friends, and that you just wanted to see a movie.”

“I know,” I blubbered. “I really did think that was what I wanted. But I guess I was wrong?” Continue reading

Adventures in parenting: getting the kids to try Indian food

Maybe our parental hubris arose from spending Thanksgiving week (and the equivalent of a small country’s GDP) at the Disney World parks, thus expanding our sense of where we might be able to go on family vacations in the future.

Or perhaps we’d decided to fly directly toward the sun on wax wings after I’d explained to the girls at dinner one night that our regular push to get them to try different foods wasn’t about being cruel, but rather so we could realistically think about taking them to cool places (with different cuisines) all over the world.

Whatever the impetus, Joe announced to me last Saturday morning that we would be going to our – that is, his and my – favorite local Indian restaurant that night. With the kids. Despite the menu’s complete lack of grilled cheese, hot dogs, mac and cheese, or chicken nuggets.

Uh … OK.

“Have you told the kids?”

“No,” Joe said. “I figured we’d just tell them when we’re about to go. And I’ll sweeten the deal by telling them that if they at least try a few things, we’ll take them to Orange Leaf for dessert.”

Well, this was definitely a recipe for a modest domestic adventure. Continue reading

Disney World travel journal: The Mouse Diaries

IMG_0003So. Disney World. Where was I?

Panicking before we left, right?

Months ago, I’d decided to schedule our flight on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so we’d have Saturday to prepare. (As it happened, though, Lily’s all-day Lego Team tournament landed on that Saturday, as did my niece’s baby shower up near Alpena. Phew!) Fortunately, we were scheduled on a 12:30 p.m. flight, so we got up at our usual, leisurely Sunday morning pace, checked out the forecast for Orlando (70s, a mix of sunshine and rain for much of the week), finished packing up our bags, and drove through snow flurries to the airport.

(As a sidenote, I’d packed a plastic grocery bag with about a half dozen snacks for the girls. By trip’s end, I’ll have wished that I packed an entire suitcase of them. The “general store” and cafeteria at the resort had prices in alignment with those inside the parks – which is to say, HIGH – so we could have saved a bundle right there, had I known.)

The girls have been on a number of flights by now, but they’re usually smaller planes, with two seats (or two and one) on each side of the aisle. The flight to Orlando was on a huge plane, with individual video screens on the back of each seat, which allowed passengers to choose a movie for herself.

The girls were gobsmacked, and prepared, on pretty much this alone, to declare this the best vacation EVER.

So we all happily plugged in: Joe watched “The Hangover,” laughing loudly every few moments (which I was glad to hear – he’s often so stressed and overextended professionally that I don’t hear him expressing unfiltered joy like this much anymore); Neve and Lily watched “Despicable Me 3” (again); and I watched Salma Hayek and John Lithgow in “Beatriz at Dinner” – because nothing says vacation like a film that ends in what appears to be a Virginia Woolf-style suicide. Am I right? Continue reading