Thanksgiving Guest Blog: My Favorite Olympians

Here’s a Thanksgiving guest blog from Pam Jenkins, President of Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. Pam is the mother of three daughters and an advisory board member of letterstomykids.org.

Emma, Britt and Dana,

Most people know of you guys for your athletic success. Your trophies, newspaper articles, and triumphs on the field, pool and track are the tangible signs of accomplishment – and it’s hard for me not to share with friends and family, even when doing so embarrasses you.

Not one of you seeks recognition. I have three very humble kids. In fact, you each seem happiest when you can privately enjoy the rewards of doing well. Britt, I remember when you were named to the U17 Women’s National Soccer Team pool, and you didn’t tell anyone. Not even your soccer coach or best friend. You hid from the Gazette reporter when you won Regionals because you felt they’d done too many stories on you, and it was embarrassing. Today you’re featured in the All-Gazette cross country section, the 10th time you’ve made All-Gazette. I doubt you’ll look at it. You never seem interested in looking at the stories and photographs. Or maybe you just want to do so privately. Dana, you won’t even let me say, “good job,” after a great game.

So it falls on my shoulders to do the bragging, posting photos and newspapers stories on facebook and interjecting a quick mention of accomplishments in conversations.

The irony is that the deep sense of pride I feel about each of you has little to do with your athletic feats. There’s no trophy, Emma, for being an amazing person. No badge for intellectual curiosity, work ethic, or desire to make a meaningful contribution to society. But there should be such a trophy and I’d display it proudly! Britt, being an elite athlete is great. But when I look at you, I see an independent, joyful young woman who sees no limits. I still have on my office wall a poem you wrote when you were 10 entitled, “I’m an independent girl who loves to climb.” A metaphor for your life.

Dana, as the younger sister of two high achievers, you can’t measure your own success against their shelves of medals, plaques, ribbons and trophies. While you’re amassing your own, remember that what makes us most proud are the simple things you do each day to show your love for family, your endless humor, your inventive mind, and that quiet drive to achieve.

Happy Thanksgiving to my mini-Olympic team – gold medalists in being terrific young women.
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Thanksgiving Guest Blog: The Myth of the Peanut Crunch Sweet Potatoes

Here’s a Thanksgiving guest blog from Michael Freeman, father of Alex, 23, Kelsey, 21 and Janice, 16. Executive vice president of the Healthcare Leadership Council in Washington, D.C., he provides speechwriting and communications consulting services through his firm, Podium Prose.

Dear Alex, Kelsey and Janice,

I should have known I was making a mistake as soon as I opened the food section of the Washington Post this past Sunday. Seeing a recipe for peanut crunch sweet potatoes, the amateur chef in me was intrigued and mentioned that we could make it a part of this year’s Thanksgiving menu.

The three of you looked at me as if I had suggested canceling the holiday altogether. Janice, you finished chewing your cinnamon roll and told me, in no uncertain terms, “no.” Kelsey, you told me to put down the newspaper as if it were a dangerous weapon with which I couldn’t be trusted. Alex, ever the diplomatic one, you told me I could add a new yam version to our traditional sweet potato recipe, but couldn’t replace it.

That’s the key – tradition. You three have upended the stereotype of teenagers and twenty-somethings who want to thumb their noses at the ‘way we’ve always done things.’ In fact, the three of you have appointed yourselves the protectors of family traditions, right down to keeping the Thanksgiving menu the same as it was when your arms weren’t long enough to reach the cranberry sauce.

That’s why it took you years to forgive me for ordering a turducken from Baton Rouge, back when you were in elementary school, to take the turkey’s place in the center of the table. And your mother and I have never been allowed to forget about the changes to the raspberry salad recipe that gave it the unfortunate consistency of a tough rump roast.

But what this tells me is how much you value the memories of your childhood, teenage and young adult years and the experiences we’ve shared as a family. And even if it means reining in my culinary creativity, there’s a rich reward in seeing that you’re in no rush to run away from the traditions you grew up with.

With that in mind, I guess we can skip peanut crunch sweet potatoes for another year.

Thanksgiving Guest Blog From “Doctor Happiness”

Here, in honor of Thanksgiving, is a guest blog from Alan Schlecter, M.D., of NYU School of Medicine. A member of the letterstomykids.org board of advisers, he teaches a course in happiness to NYU medical students. He is also Associate Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at Bellevue Hospital; and Associate Director, Education & Training, Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dear Maisie and Marlowe,

I have so much to be thankful for this year. Your health, happiness, and laughter come first. Maisie, you are learning how to take turns. Marlowe, you are eating like a champ. I am thankful for what you have taught me. You have instilled in me a mindfulness that has expanded my meditation practice. When you struggle before I put you to sleep, I go to my breath and practice and practice and practice being with you. You have also brought me much closer to my parents and for that I am thankful.

Prior to having you two, I did not know what “parent love” meant. I love my parents and my wife and through them thought that I had some concept of what love meant. I thought of sacrifice, being there for the other person, joy, vulnerability, and growth to name a few of the qualities. In you I have learned that love is this enormous feeling in my chest. It’s realizing how much I miss you when I am away, it is the melancholy knowledge that life would no longer be worth living if the two of you were not there. My father had cancer when I was young and he has often talked of his dying as if it would be imminent (“I probably won’t live that long”). I found it (and find it) alarming (he lives on!) when he does this, it sets off some bell in my head. I do not think I am dying. I believe that if the two of you were ever taken away from me, I’m not sure there would be much point in life. It is amazing to think that Carlyn and I created two lives that are now more important than our own. A kidney (two kidneys!), a liver, my heart – I would gladly give them all to you as I know they would mean nothing to me. Only in loving you have I come to understand how much my parents love me. Even at the age of 35 I believe that my parents still love me in the way that I will always love you. In the past when I might have withdrawn from them for some small word or offense, I now think to myself how painful it will be one day when you pull away. I get over myself and work harder to honor my parents who have shown me so much love. You have taught me how to love my parents, and I am very thankful for that.

Love,

Dad

A Father Imperfect

Dear Michael,

You’re eight years old and scooping cold cereal from a bowl. You’re watching early morning cartoons, so engrossed you let milk dribble onto the living-room coffee table.

Eat over your bowl, I tell you. How many times have I told you that?

You look at me warily. Then you cough, but you forget to cover your mouth.

Cover your mouth when you cough, I say. I must’ve told you that a thousand times. I’m tired of reminding you to follow these simple procedures. I wish that, at least for once, you would absorb my advice.

Now you’re taking your time with the cereal and the cartoons.

Get dressed, Michael, I say. But 10 minutes later, you’re still in your bathrobe, dawdling, a puddle of milk spreading on the coffee table. Get dressed! I boom. Now!

You gobble the last of your cereal and move toward your clothes. As you do, I smack you lightly on the behind.

Do this. Do that. Do it right. Do it now.

Why? I ask myself. So what if you spill some milk? So what if you cough without covering your mouth? Why must I play the drill sergeant, coming down so hard on my son?

I should let you off the hook, I think. Once in a while, I realize, I should just let the small stuff slide. If I accept you as you are, I might come closer to accepting myself, too.

P.S. – Three guest blogs will appear next week in honor of my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.

The Night You Sang Your Solo

Dear Caroline,

You were going to be in “Kismet,” playing Lalume, at the DiCapo Opera Children’s Chorus on the Upper East Side. You went to rehearsals for months, several times a week, on nights and weekends. I had no idea how rehearsals were going because you never wanted to tell me.
What I did know was how hard you practiced your songs at home, and how good you sounded, how strong and beautiful. You would practice in your room, in our bedroom, in our living room, wherever you could find a space to practice, just as always.

And then came the night of the show itself, all those months finally coming down to the opening. The theater was packed, maybe 200-strong in the audience, on this Saturday night, aficionados of light opera from the neighborhood, family members and friends.

And the lights went down and right away we were all transported to the Arabia of yesteryear. Everything was lovely – the sets, the costumes, the songs.

And then came the best moment of all. You came out to sing your solo about Bagdad.
Now, I’d heard you practice the song for months at home, heard you stop to repeat a line, to refine it and rephrase it, holding your arms out as your voice soared.

But this was different. You were no longer practicing at home. Now you were performing for real, on a real stage, in a real theater, in a real production, with a real opera company. The audience had paid for tickets, even dressed up for the occasion.

And there I sat, too, with Mom and Michael, as you took your spot and sang your big number. You sang about Bagdad being gaudy and bawdy, sounding gutsy. It was a tribute to the city and all its life, and it painted a portrait of a time and a place in history. You looked so beautiful, and sounded so beautiful, all your practice now playing out as perfection. You hit every note just right, your heart in every syllable, telling the story you had to tell about romance and intrigue.
And then you came to the end and those last notes. Your voice took flight and swooped higher and higher, climbing and climbing from the unlikely to the improbable to the almost-impossible. I’d heard you practice that finish a hundred times, maybe 500 times, but never here, never at this moment, never in front of an audience. You swept me away. My eyes filled with tears. My jaw must have dropped, too. I felt such astonishment at you – at your talent, your poise, your dedication.

But most of all I felt proud. That was my daughter up there singing her heart out so spectacularly, my girl, my baby.

And all I wanted for you at that moment was for you to feel proud, too, proud of yourself. Always you should feel proud. You certainly have every reason to be.

Mr. Tool Cool for School Redefines Cool

Dear Michael,

Just in case, just as a precaution, I had to stop you from turning into a kid I know in junior high school named Tony. Tony had acted as if he had seen it all and done it all and nothing much mattered to him anymore.

You seemed at risk of becoming likewise indifferent. If you stopped caring, nothing would touch you, dulling your impulses for sympathy, compassion, love. If you acted like this at age seven – you seldom missed an opportunity, especially with an audience handy, to jut out your little jaw and tell me to cut you some slack – how might you then act at age 17?

So over the following weeks I tried to redefine cool for you. Now, cool, by overwhelming consensus, is based on your look, your image. But it seemed to me that your concept of cool should extend beyond mere aesthetics. So I took every opportunity to share my personal code for cool – to cooperate, to care and, better still, to be kind.

Well, something must have clicked. One day you went to school minus bandana and earrings. That afternoon you sat next to your sister on the living-room floor and, unbidden, read nursery rhymes to her.

The following weekend, when two boys traded punches in the schoolyard around the corner, you yelled so loud and for so long for the fight to stop that the kids felt too embarrassed to keep duking it out.

Then you went yourself one better. You watched a TV news segment showing how political upheaval somewhere, maybe Sarajevo, had left thousands of children orphaned and hungry. You turned to me to suggest we send some money.

Now that’s cool, I thought.

P.S. – Question of the day: how do you define cool?

She’s Too Legit to Quit: Part 2

Dear Caroline,

Mom and I agreed you should go to rehearsal at DiCapo for “Of Thee I Sing,” no matter what. You’d invested months in the show and so had we, often picking you up by car on the Upper East Side on weeknights to make it easier for you to get to sleep earlier and make it to school the next morning.

We knew it had to be hard going for you, but we also knew from our own lives that doing anything special often turned out to be hard going. If you were to be a singer, as you told us you wanted with all your heart to be, then you would have to get used to the rehearsals, however grueling. You would have to get used to rehearsing even while fatigued, singing songs you might dislike, taking directions you disagreed with, giving it your all while others skimped.
Otherwise you would have no future as a singer. In this moment, we saw all that clearly.
And just as doggedly as you refused to go, we adamantly refused to let you quit. It would be a mistake and you would come to regret it. Worse, if you quit on a show once, you might never try again, or – equally bad – you would get in the habit of quitting.

Mom went out to talk to you some more, and I joined her, and we tried to reason with you. All in all, the argument must have gone on for more than an hour, complete with yelling and crying. Back and forth we went, you making your case, we making ours.

Finally, after all this, your face red and wet with tears, you relented. You would go. You would rehearse along with everyone else, even though you knew nobody there well and felt out of place and disliked your role and felt too tired to sing or dance or smile on any stage.

And go you did.

And come opening night, there you were.

And then, over the next few years, came all the other shows at DiCapo. “The Mikado” and, most triumphantly for you, “Kismet.”

You fulfilled your potential there – just about everyone with eyes and ears knew it – and then you simply outgrew the place.

You would go on to perform with other opera companies – Amato Opera and Opera of the Hamptons, among others. You would appear in “La Boheme” and “The Merry Widow.” Just this past May, you sang at a concert fund-raiser on the same stage as Marcello Giordani, lead tenor for the Metropolitan Opera, and “Phantom Of The Opera” star Lisa Vroman.

I’m glad we took a stand that day. Who knows for sure what might have happened if we had let it slide?

But let me tell you this: I believe it would have made no difference in the long run. Somehow or other, sooner or later, either at DiCapo or elsewhere, you would have come back to doing what we all knew you were always meant to do.

Singing. On stage. In the spotlight.

She’s Too Legit to Quit

Dear Caroline,

You’d made up your mind. You had a rehearsal at DiCapo Opera Theatre on the Upper East Side that afternoon and now you’d decided against going.

You were to play Diana in the Irving Berlin show “Of Thee I Sing.” But now, halfway through rehearsals, with the show about two months away, you refused to participate.
We knew you could sing, and you knew you could sing, and everyone at DiCapo knew you could sing, too. You had other issues, as I gathered from Mom.

You knew nobody well there and almost everyone knew everyone else, so you felt out of place, an outsider. You disliked the show, too, and how Diane directed you to sing – the style felt all wrong – and the role itself.

Besides, the schedule of rehearsals had begun to take a toll – all those nights after a day of school, all those weekend afternoons, schlepping in on the express bus or the subway to be put through your paces, practicing the singing and the dancing, going through number after number.

You were only 15 years old, only in your second season at DiCapo, but you felt worn out and cranky, completely out of it, enough so to quit cold. You’d complained before, just a whimper here and a whine there, but this decision – to drop out, to cut your losses – took Mom by surprise.

Mom had asked you to get ready to leave that Saturday morning in March, and you’d said no. It was about 11, the sky grey with clouds.

You have to go, Mom said. You should finish what you started.

I can do what I want, you said. Nobody can force me to do anything.

You have to stop giving up on stuff so easily, Mom said.

I can change my mind, you said.

You still should go, Mom said.

Are you going to make me? you said. It’s my decision to make. Mine.

But this is what you always wanted to do, Mom said.

You’re acting like a stage mother now, you said.

I heard your voices from the other room, right through the bedroom wall. Your voices grew louder, angrier, more insistent. I had no idea what the fuss was about. I came out to find out.

Mom told me and we huddled in the bedroom.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Mr. Too Cool for School

Dear Michael,

You’re seven years old, in second grade, and you’ve put on your standard outfit. You wear pointy black cowboy boots, a brown leather aviator jacket and faded blue jeans, each knee with a rip of your own making. You have on black sunglasses and a black-and-white bandana wrapped expertly, by your own hand, around your brow. To top it off, dangling from your right ear, left over from a Halloween costume, is a gold-plated, clip-on hoop earring.

You’re a four-foot tall, 45-pounder decked out like a rock star on a cross-country tour. Thus do you board the yellow bus for your daily trip to elementary school.

So it went with you then.

You would hang out in front of the bathroom mirror, combing your thick, wavy brown hair to mimic the styles you caught on MTV. You’ve begged us to let you grow your hair longer so you can sport a ponytail.

You’re barely an adolescent, yet you’ve already mastered a second language: fluent backtalk. If I joke with you too freely or somehow upset you, you might tell me to give you a break or take a hike. You will propose, with growing frequency, that I either get out of town, get real, get a job or, more simply, get a life. Your mouth strikes me as a prematurely, precociously adult instrument.

Oh, you’re the complete package all right: the funky uniform, the hipper-than-thou attitude, the up-to-the-minute idiom. Your purpose is clear. You want more than anything on the planet to be cool.

As you strut through our apartment, you lip sync to M.C. Hammer, fingering an air guitar. You now carry a comb to school and chase girls around the playground. You bop along with us on family outings – bandana, earrings and all – and draw gasps and surprised glances from passersby.

One time we all go out for pizza and the teenagers at the next table are so taken with your look that you’re invited over for a cameo appearance.

You’re Mr. Cool. Mr. Too Cool For School.

P.S. – Question of the Day: What do you say to your kids about the concept of cool?