The curse of early success – in school and in softball

59660482_10156981864705801_7057403034296385536_o.jpgNeve’s in the midst of her first little league softball season, and although she adores all kinds of games, and very much enjoyed pre-season team practices, she’s been struggling recently.

To put it another way: as her fourth game approached, I was probably just as nervous, if not more so, than she was.

Not because her performance on the field is super-important to me, but because it’s so damn hard to watch your almost-8 year old kid collapse, again and again, in tearful disappointment.

And ironically, the drama has been heightened because in Neve’s first game, she was two-for-three at the plate, scored two runs, and earned one of the coaches’ post-game “Pringles Awards” for her contributions.

This gave Neve a huge boost of confidence, and made her think, “Oh, I’m good at this. This is how I’ll perform in every game.”

But that’s not how things have unfolded. She struck out each time she was approached the plate last game, and in game two, when she finally made contact, she was tagged at first to end the game – and Neve can’t, for the life of her, reconcile her early and immediate success with her current dry spell.

I call this “the curse of early success.”

Neve now, after each failed at-bat, leaves the dugout and slumps toward us, her face red with tears, her voice a weepy, pained monotone. She curls up on our laps, and we tell her all the things you’d expect. That professional players strike out all the time. That her team needs her to get back out there and keep going. That we love her whether she can get a hit or not. That if she wants to get better at hitting, and this is important to her, we’ll work on it together. That we know she can do it, but she has to keep trying.

None of this is what she wants to hear.

She just wants to get a hit and feel that thrill of accomplishment again. And until she does, she’ll torture herself with thoughts of, “I already showed myself and everyone else that I can do this. What’s wrong with me?” Continue reading

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My 5th grader quit band, and I can’t stop feeling sad about it

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Lily last fall, with her rented trumpet.

A few weeks ago, Lily, our fifth grader, told us she wanted to quit band.

To most parents, this kind of announcement would be met with a shrug. OK. It’s not your thing. Onward.

But to me and Joe – who MET solely because we were both part of the Michigan Marching Band’s trombone section (after playing for years in our respective schools’ bands) – well, to say the announcement has knocked the wind out of us is an understatement.

I will say that part of the problem is clearly the way Lily started on her short-lived band journey. When I was in school, you started from scratch in sixth grade, when it was an elective class in middle school – so it was simply integrated into your regular school day.

In my daughter’s school, you instead start the process in fifth grade by arriving at school an hour early on Mondays and Wednesdays and learning some basics on your chosen instrument, by way of the local middle school’s band director (godspeed, brave soul, godspeed).

Lily chose trumpet last fall (because, you know, there are only about four trombones in our home, so why pick that?); she went uncomplainingly to practice for several months; had one “talking too much during class” incident; and then, a couple months later, made her decision to quit, citing her annoyance at getting up early; her dissatisfaction with the director (though, again, hardest job in show business, as I tried to explain to her); and the fact that “all her friends had quit.”

Not great reasons, to my mind, especially since the before-school thing is temporary, and the issue of her friends having quit would be mitigated when several schools feed into her middle school band next year, thus giving her a whole new set of people to befriend. But here we are.

“It just makes me sad,” I told her. “Your dad and I got so many really cool opportunities because of band. We got to travel to lots of neat places, and be part of things like the Rose Parade, and so many of our closest friends came from band.”

“I know, Mom,” said Lily. “But that was you, not me.” Continue reading

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

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