Debra Downs

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

Debra Downs

Alvin Roth, a Harvard University professor, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his design of the New York City’s high school match system. Really?  

I recently arrived late to a packed open house for one of the most coveted specialized high schools in NYC.   I was stuck in the back of the auditorium, berating myself for getting there late and sitting behind what appeared to be about 3000 people. 3,000 of us, vying to get one of the rare 175 seats offered to our own personal Einsteins.  

As soon as the charismatic principal finished his presentation, he informed us that the actual campus was not located on the luxurious, sprawling green campus dotted with beautiful, historic lecture halls that we were on, but across the street and around the corner.  Being stuck in the back was suddenly the prized location.

He hadn’t even completed his closing speech when a herd of people started running toward the door. Call it NYC instinct, but I shoved my husband out of the way and suddenly, I was in the streets of Pamplona running with the bulls.  Trying my best not to look too desperate, but desperately trying not to be left behind, I passed each parent one by one pretending I was in one of my road races, plucking off the out of shape, struggling runners.   As I turned the corner, I nearly fell to the ground laughing.  The building that our scholars would learn in, was this tiny six room building that reminded me of an old airplane hangar.  The line had already formed and snaked around the block.  I knew the tour would take another two hours, but at least I could check it off of my list of 20.  I felt duped.  

Why do we go through this insanity?  If we offer our kids more opportunities than we had as children, is that helping or hurting them?

I remember walking the halls on my sons first day of middle school in awe that every wall surface was covered by artwork and challenging vocabulary definitions. I was ecstatic that my son was being nourished on a daily basis, yet felt my own sense of sadness, that I never got this.   

This is why I stampede with the bulls.

BARBIE AND KEN

Debra Downs

As my son was just getting off the tennis court with a bunch of kids from our overly involved, gossip-driven, shabby-chic tennis and beach club, I caught one
of the kids making fun of him.  The kid rolled his eyes when my son turned around, and laughed at him behind his back. This kid, from this really nice family, was trying to impress his friends, and my son was the bait. I was mortified.

I watched this scene unfold while in the middle of a conversation with one of the moms, half-listening to what she had to say, but mostly planning my revenge on the 8-year-old jokester.  I grew up in an Irish-Catholic household surrounded by silver-tongued, witty and sarcastic men, so if there was any zinger comment out there, I would find it and use it in my son’s defense.  I chose to stare him down so he knew I was on to him.  

On our ride home, I asked my son if he enjoyed the tennis clinic and liked the kids he just played with. “Yeah Mom, it was fun and the kids were really nice.”
I bit my tongue.

This need to fix it festered inside of me and a few days later, I found myself at the Nike store, picking out cool clothes for my son to wear to his next tennis clinic.  There I was ringing up the latest tennis gear at the register, coming home with bags of stuff for him to try on.  I thought that if my son could be my own little Nike-clad Federer or Nadal, then all the boys and girls would want him as their friend.  

Fast forward to the fall, I question my daughter’s outfit as she leaves for school.  She brushes me off and leaves, wearing her beloved pinks, blues, greens and purples. I tease her on our way out the door.  

Running late on the night to my best friends daughters bat mitzvah, I notice my son’s shirt is just a shy too short on him and suggest he changes it.  He refuses and I realize that it’s a much bigger deal for me than him. The whole night, I’m more hyper-vigilant than I need to be and every time I see my son off on his own, I have this deep longing to dress him differently and inject him with a dose of confidence.  I want him to be popular and outgoing; I want him to not be me at that age.

What is going on with me? Why do my kids’ outfits unhinge me?  

And then Jada Pinkett Smith’s words hit me like a freight train.  “Even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes and desires.”  That was her FB response to the critiques and public backlash about her daughter’s unconventional haircut.

I had to own this one and leave my kids alone.  Dressing my kids up like Barbie and Ken dolls is my way of coping with my own insecurities and feelings of fear that my kids will suffer the way I did as a teen. Whatever fashionable outfit I wore back then or now never increased my self-confidence, so how was it going to change theirs?  Projecting my own belief that love and acceptance can be found in an outfit was only deepening the grooves of my own misconceptions but holding me back from celebrating their uniqueness as well as my own.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF MUFFIN DOWNS

Debra Downs

Under the glare of the fluorescent lights in Petland, I stare at the clock registering 8:45 PM wondering how futile this venture would be.  I’m with my kids and the reason for the Petland emergency visit was our 5-day-old pet hamster, Muffin.  Muffin, whom we bought from Petland a week before, hadn’t touched his food in 2 days and we knew something was amiss.  Our cuddly, chilled-out hamster who would actually let you hold him was the polar opposite of his hyperactive siblings.

Holding limp Muffin, we described our woes to the disinterested, sales clerk who had one eye on the clock and the other on his cash register.  We quickly realized we were getting no sympathy, so we searched for help from someone else.  Luckily, we found Susan.  A perky, pleasant salesgirl who had owned multiple hamsters herself, and knew right away what Muffin was suffering from: wet tail.  Don’t ask.

Within 3 minutes, I was juggling 4 different medicines and writing down a feeding & tail wipe schedule.  Excuse me, tail wipe?  Oh, and did Muffin have a vet, Sweet Susan asked?  A vet? For the $5 hamster I bought 3 days ago?  I tried to hold back my chuckled reply when she suddenly flips Muffin over in her hand and blurts out, “I think he’s dying!”   

This is when everything turns surreal.  As Muffin’s eyes begin to shut and he gasps for air, now Saint Susan begins to massage his heart.  Inconsolable, my kids then say, “Mommy, oh my god, he’s dying, do something!“  I stare even harder at this resuscitation procedure and realize that I, too, am not breathing.   Within seconds, Muffin responds to the pressing of Susan’s fingers on his little chest, and I am drenched in sweat.  Without missing a beat, I’m writing down a treatment plan and still trying to wrap my head around an actual visit to the vet.

With a bag of goodies and a treatment plan, we all head home to recover from Muffin‘s flirt with death.  My husband and I exchange non-verbal looks of Muffin’s deteriorating state as we usher the kids to bed against their pleas.  As I turn my attentions towards Muffin, I am pained by the amount of effort this tiny animal is using in order to breathe.  I try to make Muffin comfortable as he lays motionless on his bedding.  I follow the directions of the useless medicine that I know will not be saving Muffin, but will somehow assuage my own feelings of guilt for living.

At some point past midnight, I pick Muffin up in my hand and from the shallowness of his breathing and feeble state, I know he is dying and I cry.  I cry not because of how this will impact my kids when they get up in the morning, not because I have no clue how to tell them.  

I cry because in that one moment, I understand the fragility of life and how this little animal didn’t have a chance.  And just how utterly helpless I feel and how many little, precious moments I’ve missed because I was on my way to getting somewhere better.  

UNHOOKED

Debra Downs

I just ended a close friendship of 20 years.  I guess you can say we broke up.

No need to put her down.

No need to make myself right.

It’s just the way it is.

My ex-BFF knew me inside out.  She went to my wedding, rehearsal dinner, visited me many times at my weekend home, knew my kids and husband well, traveled with me. We even had a business together, once upon a time.  I met her when she was single and living full time in New York City.  She lives in California now.

I logged on to Facebook last month and there she was looking beautiful in her vintage-white dress, celebrating her wedding day with a bunch of friends.  I was ecstatic for her.  At 50, she met her Prince Charming and married him.  
Great ending to a romantic story.

And then it hit me.  

I wasn’t there.

As hard as I looked, I couldn’t find me in any of the pictures celebrating and toasting her.  I saw a bunch of her east coast friends.  But not me.  I had just seen her the previous month when she came to NYC and nothing was mentioned. To complicate matters, she introduced me to a good friend of hers, who is now my therapist; she was even in one of the FB photos toasting the bride.

An hour later, I played a tennis match and relayed the details of this betrayal to my tennis opponent who was visibly uncomfortable listening to my grievances every time we changed courts.  All week I moped, I whined, I asked my husband a thousand times why she excluded me.  It drove him crazy to the point where I wasn’t sure whom he hated more, me or her.

My other girlfriends’ reactions were all over the map.  

“Send her a wedding gift wishing her well!”  No thanks.  

“Write to her expressing your hurt and disappointment.”  

Dear friend,
I was really hurt when I logged on to FB last week and saw that you got married and didn’t invite me.   Excuse me, but WTF?   Sincerely, me.
                                                                 

I’ll pass.

No matter what advice I got, it didn’t matter. Even my therapist, the invited one, had no clue why I was shunned and had to let me work my way through it.   

What I needed to do was nothing.  

I let the nature of disappointment run its course through my psyche and I felt it all.  

Disappointment, grief, insecurity, envy, anger and finally acceptance that a hurtful event does not have to own me.   

I turned the lens inward (again) and saw the dynamics of our friendship over the years and actually learned something from this process.

Like a drug, I used to get emotionally hooked on her.  Going to an amazing place in first class? Envy.  In an amazing and new relationship?  Envy.  Left out of your wedding.  Poor me, I feel abandoned.  Over the years I got to know that hook really well and started to see when it was coming.  

This time, when I stayed with my self and worked through the disappointment, I got unhooked.  
Game over, not interested.  This is not what I want in a friendship.

How come she didn’t invite me to her wedding?  Who knows?

I’ll stick with my 10-year old daughter’s theory….

Maybe she just forgot to invite me.