The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”


Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.


“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.


The Forgotten Homework Lesson

homework-1950sDear R,

I’m sure you were cursing me yesterday because I refused to run home and get the homework you’d forgotten. I know you were frustrated. Understandable–I would have been too if it were me. I saw how hard you worked–even after football practice and getting home late–to get it done. It must piss you off that after all that, you’re still going to be marked down for not handing it in.

I’m sure you thought I was just looking for a way to say “I told you so.” But what you don’t know is that it hurt me to see you upset and frustrated and unsure. What you don’t know is that I had to remind myself more than once that interrupting my plans to go and get it for you was the worst thing I could do.

Why? Because this is one of those stupid little life lessons that suck to learn. It’s one of those little things that suck even more because it’s not that you didn’t do the work–you just forgot it. And let’s face it, we all forget things. Heck, I forget what I went to the kitchen for at least five times a day.

What you don’t know is that the “I told you so” part of remembering to put your homework in your backpack is only one small part of this sucky little lesson. That’s the easy part. Another part? Realizing it’s ok to make mistakes. Realizing that no one is perfect. Part of the forgotten homework lesson is learning how to own your mistake. Part of the forgotten homework lesson is not looking for someone else to blame.

What you don’t know is that I’d be doing you a disservice if  I swooped in every time you forgot something or had trouble with something or had a difficult decision to make. What you don’t know is how much I need you to realize that my time is valuable, that it is not ok to assume I will drop everything simply so the you will not have to be in an uncomfortable situation.

These small sucky lessons? They teach you how to hold your head up and admit you made a mistake. They teach you how to handle disappointment, from within and without. They teach you how to accept accountability. Today it was only a piece of Spanish homework, but eventually it’s going to be someone’s feelings, or someone’s heart.

franklin_d-_sergent_who_is_13_years_old_and_in_the_fifth_grade_does_his_homework_-_nara_-_541349I didn’t bring you your homework because you need to learn to rely on yourself. You’re still young, but these little responsibilities add up to bigger ones. Looking after your homework now is looking after your body later. It’s making sure you have a condom in your wallet. It’s making sure you have an out if you need to extricate yourself from a tricky situation. It’s making sure you if you hurt someone you take responsibility, if you screw up, you accept it, you learn from it, you fix it and move on.

Who would have guessed there were so many lessons to be learned in a piece of forgotten homework, eh? But the biggest one is this: There’s no shame in messing up now and again. The real shame would be if I never let you do it.


Turning to Face the Strange

b031b9c52b45607e8e3d0979812803caSitting with a good friend who is soon to be repatriating, we zipped our way up and down the standardized questions:

Are you going back to the house you lived in before?

Have you sorted out school for the kids?

How do you feel?

As we delicately wove our way through the challenges churned up by any move, we talked a little about her family’s willingness to test the repatriation waters to see if the temperature was right before committing to anything permanent.

You know those Homer Simpson “Doh!” moments when the light bulb clicks on above your head? I had one. Because in her statement, bold as brass, was the truth about the greatest gift I’ve been given on this topsy turvy expat journey: the willingness to turn and face the strange.

Seven and a half years ago when my husband brought up the prospect of leaving my beloved NYC, I was more than slightly terrified. The fear stemmed from a multitude of reasons, but the biggest was questioning my ability to successfully move myself, my little nuclear family and our belongings 7,000 miles away from family, friends and incredible take-out options. The plan was to stay out in the field for two to three years. Two turned to four, then six, now here we are going into our eighth.

Yes, it's just temporary, don't worry
Yes, it’s just temporary, don’t worry

Even though moving again is a near certainty, even though I know it will be one giant pain in the ass, I now no longer doubt I can do it. The time we’ve spent abroad has taught me that nothing is permanent, and I mean that in the best way possible.

I’ve loosened up. Sure, I still like a good spread sheet. I still like plans A through F lined up like ducks in a row. But our time as expats has taught me that if one way doesn’t work, there’s sure to be another one that does. I’ve learned to accept the change, to face the strange.

As my own life get ever so closer to words like pension and retirement and further from ones like boozy brunch, we will be faced with certain decisions. Seven years ago, those decisions may well have paralyzed me into indecision. Even three years ago. But the longer we’re out, the more clear it becomes that everything doesn’t need to be clear, not immediately anyway.

I wouldn’t call our life nomadic, we are rooted to a large degree, but living outside our comfort zone has, strangely, only widened the zone in which I feel comfortable. I think most expats feel the same.

This is the gift that moving has taught me: nothing has to be forever. Change is not to be feared. If it isn’t working, we’ll pick up and find a way to make it work. I’m not saying it won’t be uncomfortable or scary. It will almost certainly be a huge pain in the ass. I mean I don’t feel like we have to lock ourselves into a decision that is forever and ever until death do us part.

0e7400575ac0be32424adcf87bc39962On the surface it doesn’t sound like a big thing, but stop for a minute and think about all the things fear of change may have stopped you from doing–quitting a dead-end job, leaving a deader-ender relationship, moving, even trying a new dish at your favorite restaurant. Our time as expats has taught me the importance of flexibility as well as the courage to face change.

When our second son was born, we named him Reed. One of the very first comments someone made to me was how wonderful it was to be named after a part of nature which has the ability to bend and sway with whichever way the wind changes, but never lose its strength. It’s a characteristic I think many expats discover on their journeys, and one in which I am only now truly learning to appreciate.

Here’s hoping it’s one I can remember for a long time to come. Maybe even over a boozy brunch in a place I never thought I’d find myself.

If One Night In Bangkok and the World’s Your Oyster, What Does Four Years in Denmark Get You?

img_5764_carlsbergFour years ago we stole a last glance at the Tattooine landscape of Larnaca Airport and after a brief touch down at Schipol made our way home…another home, a new home, a Copenhagen home. My kids now have officially called Denmark home longer than any other place. They’ve lived in the land of Lego and Viking horns longer than the country they were both born in, the country either parent carries a passport for, or the one where the older started school and the younger learned to walk.

Four years is a long time. Four years as an expat in one place is a really long time; about a year past the normal sell-by date. Sure, one night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, but four years in Denmark? I’ve haven’t learned the language, but I’ve picked up a few other things.

For one, I no longer take the sun for granted. Also, you get lazy with your cleaning and dusting routines when the sun doesn’t come out often. How do I know? Because when the sun eventually does peek out from behind the clouds, it highlights the sixty-two filthy windows and a house full of dusty surfaces like a solar spotlight.

Four years in Denmark has taught me happiness is relative. Denmark is consistently voted the happiest nation on Earth and for good reason; but they might not be the reasons you think. The reasons the Danes are happy are deep-down reasons, not surface reasons. Turns out not fretting about medical bills, college, and retirement frees up a whole lotta time and money to find your own version of happiness.

And that happiness is self-defined. Happiness for me? Four years in Denmark has afforded me a room of my own and I’ve used most of the square footage to learn to write again.

Forget the tax rates…it's the parking fines that kill you...
Forget the tax rates…wait until they see the parking fines!

So you see, I’ve learned happiness is not dependent upon just one thing.

After four years I’m still surprised by the cost of things….like, say…a parking ticket.

Four years here has taught me the wind in your hair as you zip past people on your bike is a pretty good feeling.

I’ve learned that wooly inserts in your shoes in the winter are the best thing since sliced rugbrød.

I’ve accepted there is no single right way to do things. There’s a lot that is right with Denmark, but it’s not perfect. The Danish system wouldn’t work in the US for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look more closely at the pieces of it that would….

Four years here has taught me there are things you can adapt to (bike rage instead of road rage) and there are others which are going to make you scratch your head, seethe, or stand with your jaw on the floor (adults shushing other adults, herring in curry sauce) no matter how long you’ve stuck around.

I’ve learned that Danes swear a fuck of a lot more than I do.

Sun? Who needs sun? Weak people, that's who. Weak people need sun.
Sun? Who needs sun? Fucking weak people, that’s who. Weak people need sun.

I’ve concluded that hygge, while a sweet concept in general, doesn’t really make a difference when it’s gray and dark and wet for long chunks of time. Nice idea, but a mantle full of scented candles doesn’t…well, hold a candle to a vacation in The Maldives during February break.

Speaking of the sun….four years here has taught me that the sun will come out…maybe not tomorrow. Or the next. But someday! And when it does your house is going to look filthy even if you just dusted.

I’ve learned Americans should stop complaining about gasoline prices.

I’ve learned they should start complaining about plenty of other things.

I’ve learned a danish is not a danish in Danish.

Every time I go food shopping I’m reminded you need to adjust in order to survive. You need to find new favorites or at least learn you can have more than one. No one ever tells you that as a kid, that you can have more than one favorite. Except for Goya black beans. I go black market for the black beans now, judge me if you must.

I’ve learned to cook more, bake more, and seek out the sales.

Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.
Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.

I’ve learned when you’re in a winter coat five to six months of the year, you can get away with doing a lot less laundry.

…and that hats cover a lot of bad hair days.

I’ve learned to let go and watch my kids experience the same kind of freedom I grew up with without the questions, the second-guessing or the fear of someone calling the cops on me for letting them walk to the park on their own.

And I’ve learned, time and time again, that home is a concept rather than a place.

There’s no place like Bangkok. I mean Cyprus. Or Denmark.

I mean home, wherever you are.