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.


Teaching My Kids To Fish

…give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish
and you feed him for a lifetime.**

Picture No. 10172009Sometimes in the dead dark of night I worry. I worry about a lot of the same things most mothers worry about. Whether I’ve peeled enough carrot sticks for lunch. Whether I’ve remembered to sign the field trip permission form. Whether I’ve forgotten some major life event my kids will be traumatized by me not remembering. But mostly I worry I’m not doing a good enough job of teaching my kids how to fish.

Forget fishing. Sometimes I worry they couldn’t even order take-out sushi.

Like most, I started out with the best intentions…and like many, I usually fall into less than ideal habits along the way. My kids have chores and responsibilities, not to earn money, but because I believe they should contribute to the upkeep of their home. I expect them to do their part to ensure our place of residence does not resemble a hovel. Or something out of an episode of Lego hoarders.

But then….

It’s the middle of the afternoon and the dishwasher needs to be emptied…so I empty it. There are teetering towers of boy boxer briefs threatening to suffocate us all…so I put them away. It’s late after football training and they need to do homework…so I clear the table. They look weary under the weight of their backpacks…so I carry them on my bike.

It’s easier if I do it, quicker if I just do it, they’ll do it wrong and I’ll need to redo it so why not just do it right myself the first time?

I’m doing myself a disservice of course. They are more than capable of doing the things I ask, of them. More than that however, I’m doing them a disservice. Because by doing it all for them, I’m not teaching them how to fish.

It took me a long time and a lot of muttering to realize I don’t need to play Mama Punkawallah to my kid’s Lazy Lordships. It took me a long time to realize my kids aren’t going to sue me for motherhood fraud if I don’t get them every glass of water they ask for or acquiesce to every play date, if I make them clear the plates or sweep the floor or assume responsibility for themselves, their things, and their lives.

And that’s when the idea of teaching them to fish really became a bit of an obsession.


It’s possible I’m slightly more gung-ho because I’m raising boys and I want them to be well-rounded (and my definition of well-rounded includes knowing the working end of a mop and how to do a load of darks.)

More than simple household chores however, I want my kids to be able to do things. By themselves. Without me. I realize I’m outing myself as a quasi-free range mother, but I want my kids to go places and do things and make choices and decisions and have experiences. Without me. Without me advising or rescuing or informing or being on the other end of a text or packing a sandwich and a baggie full of Goldfish in case they get hungry.

I want the little buggers to feel confident enough to fish for themselves. To go out and catch their dinners. To cook them up and clear up the plates afterward and go to bed with a full stomach.

That kind of personal responsibility, the kind that leads to being able to take care of yourself?  It  starts at home. Making beds and clearing plates seem like minor things, but a kid who knows how to clean up after himself will eventually carry those lessons through into his adolescence and adulthood. Cleaning up your messes becomes a dirtier job as you get older. It’s one thing to pick up the Lego off the toy room floor, it’s another to pick up the pieces of a heart you’ve broken. But in the end, they are all part and parcel of the same lesson.

Learning how to speak up for yourself, taking responsibility for your belongings, not just the physical ones but the mental ones too, looking after yourself, physically and emotionally, all of those are fishing lessons. They are the stepping-stones between dependence and independence.

1950s-boy-plaid-shirt-sailor-hat-fishing-pole-dog-pulling-on-tail-of-caught-fishTeaching my kids to fish means giving them the skills they need to make toast without burning it, but it also means giving them the tools to be independent. To go forth. To ask, to question, to stand up, and yes, to fall down and screw up as well. To navigate their own lives without my constant intervention. Without me to always carry their burdens and fight their fights and clean up their messes.

They’re still young. I’m not going to push them out into deep waters and leave them to fend for themselves. I’ll be waiting behind the counter at Mom’s Live Bait ready to offer tips, to help untangle their lines, give them advice on lures. But as young as they are, the more I step back, the more I notice how capable they are, even at untangling the tough knots.

Eventually, if I do my job, they’ll be able to fashion their own custom rods. My hope is that one day, sitting out on the dock of their own bay, they will be able to confidently cast their rods, sure that they can handle whatever it is they reel in.

I hope I’ll have done enough to teach them how to fish. And at the very least, to order sushi without my help.

**I’d always assumed the fishing proverb had a Biblical source, but it turns out I was
wrong. Most sources cite Anne Isabella Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray as the original mid-20th century source.