Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

THE BOOK OF KID: the origin story

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BookOfKidCoverI didn’t write THE BOOK OF KID. My daughter’s third-grade class did. I just published it. Their teacher, Ms Diamond, asked her students to give their parents some child-rearing advice. And it turns out they have a lot to tell you (spoiler alert: they want you to get off Facebook and play with them.)

It started as the classroom project for the school auction. I thought I’d get involved. After all, I like books. And I had a printer. Match made in Heaven.

The kids made a list of stuff they wanted their parents to know. For example, my daughter wanted me to know that “Just because we are little versions of you, doesn’t mean we act like you.” Which is interesting, because we look nothing alike.

From their list, each child picked one snippet of advice as the caption to a picture they drew. The picture was then traced onto foam, which became the cut for a color print. Then each 8.5″ x 11″ page was bound accordion-fashion into a book. The winning bid for the book was $800.

Since the class made two copies of their print, I had a complete set which was then scanned and put into a book-book with the rest of the students’ advice. I have to say, it’s really heartbreaking, and if I had a little more editorial control, I might have sat them down and said, “So let’s start with all the stuff your parents do that you really like.” Because it’s not so pleasant to realize how much your kids notice. Like, how often we’re on our phones or how often we complain about someone else.

Because the impetus for the book was a fundraiser, it only seemed right that the royalties from the sale of the book would be donated. We discussed it, and the students were given three options: 1) the money would go to their school; 2) the money would be donated to the middle school that many of them will attend in sixth grade; or 3) the children would donate the money to another elementary school in Oakland Unified School District.

To make the decision, Ms. Diamond didn’t just ask for a show of hands; she made them write opinion pieces. What were the pros and cons of donating money to the neighborhood middle school? The kids had to address tough questions that accompany any gift. What would the school spend it on? What if the kids wanted the money to be spent on computers but it went to something more boring, like school supplies?

After a month of discussion, each child wrote an essay and read it to the class. A blind vote was taken. The winner? Another elementary school in Oakland. Stay tuned to figure out which school will receive the royalties generated by the book sales.

The book is available on Amazon and Create Space as well as Diesel Books and Pegasus Books.

OH, and here’s what some superstar grownups had to say about THE BOOK OF KID:

“A great reminder for parents of kids of all ages: Kids are taking notes every time we swear, check our phones compulsively, or say something negative about someone else. This book is an inspiration to be the best role models that we can be. Moreover, this advice from children to parents mirrors what research shows is best for them; sometimes kids really do know best!”
Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents 

“The Book of Kid is evidence that kids hear and see and know more than we sometimes give them credit for. This book is chocked full of sound advice from kids to parents, advice that will help us be our best selves and also the parents our kids need. Read this book and then go play, listen, hug and challenge your kids. They’re begging for it!”
Kate Hopper, founder of Motherhood & Words & author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers

“This little book has the potential to transform lives – if parents follow the sage advice in these pages, relationships can improve, children will thrive, and the benefits will radiate out into the world with positive repercussions for generations to come. I highly recommend this book for parents of young children everywhere.”
–Nina Lesowitz, co-author of the bestselling titles Living Life as a Thank YouWhat Would You Do if You Knew You Could Not Fail?; and The Grateful Life.

“If you don’t want to wait until your child grows up to find out how you could have been a better parent, read this book of heartfelt and surprising third grade wisdom. These children know better than many adults what is really important. Their beautifully illustrated jewel of a book has a prominent place in the waiting room of my child psychology practice.”
–Lucinda Cummings, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

“Listen to your children, Put down your phone, swear less, don’t bad mouth family–easily the best parenting advice I’ve ever read, and straight out of the mouths of funny, honest, wise kids.”
Ann Imig, founder of the national live storytelling series, video-sharing company, and acclaimed book LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER

V is for Vicarious

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VSo. I didn’t write a post for today.

But luckily for you, someone else did. Last night was the first of many book launch parties. Here’s fellow WoM Claire Hennessy’s run-down of the night. And here’s WoM Lorrie Goldin’s account of the night as well as an eloquently written backstory behind getting shit done when you don’t feel like it. Or the way Lorrie puts it: “the alchemy of the collective transforms inertia and demoralization into something altogether different.”

 

T is for Thank You

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TBack in a past life, I was a ballerina. Only I never called myself that. No dancer uses the word “ballerina.” I sort of like the word now. There’s a lot of stuff I grasp now that I had hated in my previous life.

My entire dance career felt like a fight. That’s part of being a perfectionist. You have to keep the struggle alive. You can’t just be satisfied with something. You have to tear yourself up because you are yearning for that satisfaction and at the same time are terrified that you only have success because of your drive.

I was thinking about this today because I’m in the midst of writing all these emails to people—we’ve got a book launch party! Can you come? And just a few years ago, it would have twisted me up inside to ask people to come.

When I was dancing, sometimes I wouldn’t even come out for my bow. I could do this because many of our bows were ensemble bows and no one would have missed me except for the people on stage. Somehow I’d talk myself into a frenzy. A bow was self-indulgent. It seemed needy and insincere.

I don’t need those people’s approval, their applause. And let’s face it, they’re not clapping for me or even for us. They’re clapping because that’s what you’re supposed to do at the end of a show. Well! I for one will not participate in this farce!

I only sat out the bow once or twice. Turns out directors find that more selfish and self-indulgent than just bowing to the crowd.

I know, you’re wondering how I’m going to bring this back to the book launch party, how I can possibly justify these shameless plugs.

Part of this has to do with the fact that my identity as a person is not as a writer. I’m ok being a lousy writer or a novice writer. Or an amateurish writer. I’m also ok with the idea that someone might think I’m a pretty good writer.

I was never like that as a dancer. I wasn’t ok with the idea that anyone would think I was a lousy dancer and at the same time, I balked at the idea that I could ever be a pretty good dancer. I had to keep the fight. No wonder if felt insincere to invite someone to see me perform.

By contrast my writing isn’t about me (even though all I do is write about me!). I know the two people on staff at the NICU who ask about my writing will genuinely want to know about this book event, even if they can’t go. So I’ll invite them. I know my neighbors are curious and the moms in Chiara’s classroom are supportive, so I’ll invite them. They’ll be too busy to come or they’ll want to come but can’t or who knows, maybe they are secretly hoping I’ll fail, although I don’t attract those sort of people the way I did when I was dancing.

And none of it will have to do with me.

Here’s what I didn’t get as a dancer: that the bow is the time when the dancer is face to face with the audience as a person, not a character, and she has the opportunity to thank them. Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoyed the show. Not, “I hope you liked me.” That’s what I didn’t get.

That’s what these parties are. A chance to celebrate. To say “thank you” to the people who have supported us and “look!” to the people who have been curious. They might not be able to come. They might not be able to buy books. But that’s not the point. The point is that I can thank them and I can thank them in the invitation to the dance.

If you’d like to be thanked in person, come join us tomorrow night at Diesel Books in Oakland at 7pm. Or Sunday, April 27th at the Bookmine in Napa. Or May 4th  in Corte Madera at Book Passage. How about May 8th in San Francisco or May 17th at Copperfields in Sebastopol? (See what I did there?)

Life at Our House

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©DeluxePhotography2012This year I decided to do something different with our Christmas cards (in addition to actually mailing them).

You see, I just couldn’t send out a blank card with our family picture in good faith. It shows you what we look like, (sort of, it’s actually from Christmas 2012) but it doesn’t give you the faintest idea of what we’re like. See how quiet, still, and fully dressed we are? Yeah. That never happens. We cling to this one photo with the idea that we could be like the clean and quiet, fully-dressed people in the photo and you could put a card like this on your refrigerator and be fooled into thinking that we look like this, but really, this photo is a bold-faced lie. True, we do smile a lot, but we’re also a lot stickier, stinkier, and more naked than any Christmas card could (or should) convey.

So I thought I’d have our family answer the 10 questions that James Lipton asks his guests at the end of each episode of Inside the Actors Studio. If you’re a fan, you know that these questions were adapted from Bernard Pivot questionnaire. If you’re not a fan, you can either take my word for it or look it up on Wikipedia. Or you can decide you don’t care. Doesn’t matter. These 10 questions give you an idea what it’s like to be in the Kovac household in 2013 in a way that a family photo cannot.

Here goes.

1. What is your favorite word?
Michael: Yes!
Chiara: My favorite word is Oompa Loompa.
Wagner: (to Janine) Your favorite word is “Mama.”
Chiara: (to Wagner) Your favorite word is “L-o-o-o-v-e and kis-issssses.”
Michael: Can I have another bowl of cereal?
Janine: Let’s go on to the next question.

2. What is your least favorite word?
Chiara: My least favorite word is…that’s really hard. Hey, wait—what are you writing down? Why do you need our favorite words and our least favorite words?
Matt: Kumquat.

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Chiara: What does that even mean?
Janine: It means, “what helps you be imaginative and what helps you think of God.”
Chiara: Um… my brain?
Wagner (pointing to the laptop): Are these letters of the alphabet? Is ‘W’ here? ‘W’ is a letter of the alphabet.

4. What turns you off? (Rephrased to: “What makes it hard to be creative?”)
Chiara: (in the doorway from under a blanket) People who are really loud and make it hard [for me] to think with my brain. (to brothers) Come here and be part of the dragon. Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Boys: (chanting under blankets) Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Chiara: Be careful! Don’t step on the kitty!

5. What is your favorite curse word? (Rephrased to “What do you say when you are mad?”)
Michael: Stinky Face!

6. What sound or noise do you love?
At this point Janine is following her children around with a laptop, yelling questions at them. She walks in on a game of “Let’s Pretend to Cook the Cat” in which Wagner is the cat and the guest bed is the oven. Janine decides that she loves the sound of laughing children.

7. What sound or noise do you hate?
The children are still playing their delightful game, but Janine is afraid it might quickly devolve into sounds she hates: children screaming. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells” is a close second to screaming Kovac children.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”)
Michael: A fireman!
Chiara: A teacher who teaches ballet!
Wagner: I want to be a arch-ee-ol-oh-gist.
Michael: Yeah, I want to be that, too.

9. What profession would you not like to do?
Chiara: A sea diver! It seems dangerous.
Michael: A fireman!

10. What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Chiara: Welcome, Chiara!
Michael: Welcome, Michael!
Wagner: You mean Jesus?
Janine: Yes, Jesus. What do you think Jesus will say when you go to Heaven?
Michael: Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel! I made it out of clay!
Wagner: I don’t know what Jesus will say but I think it will be something not what I think Jesus will say.

That pretty much sums it up. Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy New Year! See you in 2014.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.