I’ll say it: Halloween is not a big deal

I’ve been thinking about Halloween a lot lately because as a parent with two small children, I’ve been sucked into this nostalgia that I simply don’t share.  Growing up, Halloween was just not that big of a deal to us.

In the Leventhal house, there was no planning our costumes, no mother toiling over a sewing machine, no decorating the door and conspiring to scare neighborhood kids. It was the mid-1980’s and my parents told us that Halloween was a pagan holiday and that we didn’t celebrate it. I never fought or questioned them, and as such we have few if any photos of my sister and me in costumes, trick or treating. And neither of us is scarred by this fact.

At the time, I went to a private, Jewish school, so the idea of a school-based Halloween celebration was not something I knew or understood, and as most of my friends were spread across town, I didn’t feel left out staying home to hand out candy. And because we lived in four houses before we settled into my “family house” in the fifth grade, we didn’t have close relationships with our neighbors. There were few invitations to go trick or treating with the other kids in the neighborhood, and my mother probably felt like the whole charade was a silly, waste of time.

My mother’s disenchantment with Halloween certainly came from a place of fatigue. My mom was on her own many nights because my dad taught high school by day and community college classes at night. She couldn’t take us trick or treating AND man the house. She was supremely irritated that the public school could require costumes for a parade–I wore the same witch costume in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade parade. My sister in her little angel costume did the same for first, second and third grade. When I went off to middle school, she inherited the witch ensemble. My mother could envision no other choices, and did not entertain other possibilities. And on the few occasions that we went out to collect candy, she would inventory the spoils and trade us for the stockpile. I didn’t care too much about the candy and usually nabbed some new paperbacks out of the deal, so I was happy.

As I got older and as kids could go out trick or treating on their own, I felt a little left out of the Halloween evening plans. I lacked the creativity to come up with my own costumes and my mother was certainly no help. In college, I tried to be creative, but learned early on that clever costumes are tough to pull off. After trying out Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and Tito in the Jackson 5 (just an excuse to wear some incredible plaid pants), I did what any self-respecting co-ed would do on Halloween: I slutted it up.

Slutting it up was kind of fun (and slightly cold) if only for a night. One specific October 31st, I am sure that my vodka jacket was directly responsible for my warmth because my “ice princess” ensemble was pretty useless. There was a white boa and silver platform shoes involved, of course. Nothing clever at all.

After college, I sort of gave up. Every year, I buy one bag of candy corn and try to make it last a whole month. And I don’t think about what I’ll be for Halloween. I don’t feel deprived because I have no opinion about Halloween. I like dressing in costumes as long as I don’t have to come up with the costume ideas. I really like candy. Who doesn’t like seeing their neighbors? I just really don’t like spooky, creepy things, horror movies, zombies, haunted houses or hayrides. I don’t even carve the pumpkin in this house. I like my autumnal entertainment as benign as possible.

In the past twenty years, though, Halloween has acquired a true secular, commercial status in American life. As a child, it was easy to abstain or avoid. Now, conscientious objection looks like you’re a big party pooper. And I’m not really a conscientious objector–I truly object to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day on multiple grounds, but Halloween is like nothing at all in my mind. I just don’t really care. And if it wasn’t for our kids, I probably wouldn’t give Halloween a second thought.

Still, I have to care or put on the mantle of caring because my little daughters know about Halloween. My kindergartner daughter has been waiting for the Halloween parade at her school. She has been doing candy corn math problems and reading pumpkin stories. Every person she meets asks her what she’ll be for Halloween. I want them to feel in the loop if they want to be, and I know that I can’t layer on my own malaise about this pseudo-holiday.

This morning, my older daughter woke up and her first sentence out loud was, “Guys! It’s Halloween today!” I imagine this is what it is like to celebrate Christmas.

So today, we’ll join up with some neighborhood kids and walk up our street and collect candy. My girls are too early to broker a true trade, so we’ll let them keep a few pieces of candy and I’ll bring the rest to my seminar students on Monday.

The only upshot of Halloween is that it helps us autumn lovers hold on dearly to pumpkins, apple picking, mulled cider, warm sweaters (if it ever got cold enough) and fall leaves, because tomorrow, Christmas will be upon us.

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Explain less, worry less

I explain myself too much.

I explain myself to cover my bases, to be sympathetic and to be empathic. I explain myself even when no explanation is necessary. Sometimes, my explanations are apologies for nothing warranting regret.

Explanations roll off my tongue from an unidentifiable place in my heart. Whenever I feel misunderstood, I dig deep to find a way to be relatable, and I launch into that explanation.

I’m already explaining too much about where this whole post came from.

Recently, I hustled across campus to teach after lunch, running several minutes late. I apologized to my colleagues for having to leave the meeting, and on my way to teach, I drafted the apology to my students. My immediate inclination was to explain my lateness. I value my students’ time and don’t want them to think I am more important than them. I imagined my explanation would include a mea culpa.

As I walked, I also imagined my explanation of the lecture I planned to give–my least favorite of the semester–where I describe historical origins of schooling. It is a crucial discussion to have in a class about schooling, but I have always felt clumsy toggling through dates and ideas. I feel fatigued at the end of it, so I always preface that particular class meeting with an explanation of my own skills as a sociologist and not a historian. I explain too much, and, frankly, my students don’t care.

As I walked to class that day, I was embracing this feeling of lightness. Instead of stomach churning or nerves fluttering, I felt self-assured, unphased by the hustle. I started to wonder if I had finally shaken off the tendency to worry that I’ve been battling for too long.

When I went to grief therapy, one of the first tasks I worked through with my incredible therapist was my inclination to pre-worry about everything. I was in therapy to work through the sudden death of my mother, and all I could do was worry about my dad and sister, about our husbands, about my relationships in my own family and to my married family, with my friends. I worried about the holidays when they were six months out and I worried about family visits and events. I just worried constantly. My therapist helped me to see that worrying was a productive behavior for things I could control, but for (so many) things largely out of my own control, worrying was wasteful. Worrying depleted me, diverting energy from behavior or feelings that could have buoyed my spirit rather than dragging it under.

Explaining myself is an outgrowth of worrying. I have probably always explained myself because I worried about how others perceive me, about whether I’ll be taken seriously, or whether I’ll be liked by others.

But I’m getting to a point in my life where I just don’t have the time to worry about it anymore. Professionally, I’m feeling the most confident I’ve ever been. Teaching and advising are coming easily to me. I feel inspired by what I do and I am constantly learning from my colleagues and my students. And personally, life is like a train rolling down a hill. We have our health and we have each other. Our schedules are chaotic at times but we’re all surviving life and each other.

Even though I could probably draft a litany of things that could worry me, I have to focus on this moment, this day, what comes next. And for some reason, I am simply not worried. I want to be worried, but I can’t put myself through it.

It’s all about the short game right now. No further explanation necessary.

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I feel lightness….

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about my present state of mind. Re-reading my last few posts–laments on my August slump, my daughter’s first day of school, and my coming career exploration–I just realized that I seem melancholy.

On the contrary. Most every day, all I feel is lightness.

I feel lightness at the five o’clock hour looms large, as I shut down for the day, pack up my things, and descend from my office on the second floor out the back door of the building, walking over the gravel, broken and scattered to my tired sedan in the parking lot. My mind races with a list of things I haven’t yet completed and a list of things awaiting me at home. Yet, the air is the perfect temperature, it covers my bare arms. I feel a lightness in the pre-twilight air that is somehow fresh even though the day is stale.

I feel lightness when I see my children at the end of a hassled drive even though I have just sprinted through the parking lot and even though sometimes I face exhausted and moody rather than joyful faces. I see their dimpled cheeks and their crazy curls, messy from fighting a day of restraint in a ponytail. They clamor for my attention, making demands, whining to be carried to the car or running away, and though corralling them is a test of my patience, I am sometimes (but not always) able to lose myself in the chaos of reunion.

I feel lightness when I feed them something to eat and especially on nights when their mouths are full and quiet because they are so satisfied. I listen to their report of the days’ events, sneaking in snippets of my own to my husband as we eat and talk. And while sometimes my culinary feat is refused, I resist disappointment when full plates of food return to the kitchen counters and requests for “toast, please” bubble up from the peanut gallery.

I feel lightness when I tuck them in at night, snug in their pajamas, under blankets with loveys, flipping the light switch and wishing them “sweet dreams.” I secretly delight in returning for an extra kiss or hug but only the first few times. And even when the indignant bedtime protestation swells, I still chuckle over the creativity employed, luring us back to their rooms.

I feel lightness in moments where my husband and I work side by side doing anything. We try to be in each other’s company once the children are in bed because if we thought about how little time we actually spent together, it would depress us. Often it’s clicking our respective keyboards, but sometimes, it’s doing the dishes. We say words to each other and listen and question. We catch up on a television show. And sometimes we just sit in silence.

I feel lightness when the clock strikes eleven or twelve and I remind myself that it is time for bed. I take a moment in my bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I make some notes about the day for myself in my journal. I take out my earrings and toss my dirty clothes next to the overflowing hamper in the corner of the room. I check my alarm to make sure it is set for 6:45am. I check it a second and third time because we have only recently started setting alarms and I do not trust that I have done it correctly. And then I snuggle my feet under the sheets and relax.

How can I feel anything but lightness with the things that I have. My husband, my children, my family and friends, my home, my car, my job, this life. Some days feel so ragged and frayed. Some days I feel like I have everything wrong, that I haven’t lived the day with the grace and patience I imagine I have, that I have not been genuine and present. But wallowing in that kind of self-doubt, in that insidious negativity does nothing for me.

I feel lightness because I pay attention. It would be easy to feel the weight of the day in everything I do. It would be easy with the kind of uncertainty I have at work, to feel unappreciated or frustrated with my family or my students, to feel worried and nervous about the coming months, the coming years. Instead, I remind myself to have patience, to be grateful, to have some faith, to really see the precious, little moments.

And instead of the unbearable weight many insist on carrying, I feel lightness.

But really, I choose lightness.


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When first days and last days collide: back to school

Summer is over and no matter how hard I try to conjure up corn on the cob, swimming with my littles, picking berries, lazy post-dinner walks, or getting some sun, those last days are fading.

Every last bit of everything has become like a sacred ritual around my house. As summer wound down, we remarked on the last backyard dinner al fresco, the last trip to the park before school starts, the last swim at the pool. We’re making each little moment so precious that we’re almost unable to enjoy them for risk of spoiling their memory, so obsessed and consumed with the end of things and the start of things.

These last days beget first days. We have been counting down the days until the next big milestone: the start of preschool for the little sister, the first day of kindergarten for the big sister, the first day of classes for me, first first first. Cherishing our every move has become a full-time job around here.

We have lost sight of the in-between moments, though. And for me, I am stuck in-between because some of this year’s firsts might also be lasts, and it is too difficult to discern the starting and ending points. So I don’t.

My firsts and lasts are on a collision course headed for the start of classes at my institution. Most of my life has run on the academic calendar–I have been going “back to school” for all save two of my last thirty years as a student, graduate student, and now professor. I always liked school but fell further in love with school over a long stretch of time. Because I did well enough and stayed out of trouble in high school, I went to college and then graduate school, investing time first in myself and eventually in my ability to think and reason. In many ways, school has become both part of what I do and who I am.

And even with thirty odd first days of school and even though I have had plenty of time to think about going back to school this school year, as the day crept closer and closer, my mind could not reconcile the confusion I feel about this coming year. I remain in a professional holding pattern because my contract is winding down and I am planning for what I’ll do after this academic year. My first day of teaching might be my last day of teaching–for now anyway. I don’t mean in the sense that I won’t be a teacher anymore, but I won’t be a teacher like this.

Instead of a first day, or a last day, I am stuck in-between.

Though I would like to think that we would hold up the in-between moments, make them sacred, I am certain that I won’t. I keep asking myself, if I knew this day or this year was really the last teaching I’ll do for a while, would I change what I do or how I do it?

Teaching is what I do, and it is also part of who I am, but teaching isn’t the only thing I can or should do, either. But being in-between means facing the fact that I might be leaving academia, giving up this kind of teaching, and beginning to disentangle a professional and personal identity that have grown (more like fused) together. Tougher still is that disentangling them feels like surgery without anesthesia–it feels arresting and frustrating and a little painful when it should really feel uncomfortable.

Being in-between feels a little achy.

Leaving a job is difficult because transition is difficult. I am thankful that I have time to negotiate this next transition. Once you make a transition, theoretically life changes because for better or worse, you also change. Last days pass awkwardly into first days, and suddenly you’re in-between again.

But it’s okay because just when we thought summer had ended, a wave of humid heat swallowed our town up yesterday, reminding us of the steamy, messiness of in-between moments like these. On this second anniversary of Rogue Cheerios, I have to return to the advice I got before I started writing: I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. So, I have no choice but to settle in. 

Posted in academia, blogging, everyday life, higher education, lessons learned, personal, schools, summer, teaching, what professors do, work, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What I want to tell my daughter on her first day of school


You have no idea what’s about to happen. Well, maybe you do. People have been grilling you about your level of enthusiasm over this transition for months, asking you at every opportunity, “Are you going to Kindergarten? Are you excited?” You have been patient with them, thankfully, but even you are starting to run out of patience. They don’t know what else to ask a five-year-old, babe, and though their questions have bored you, you have been polite.

PencilsThe big day is finally here. No more playdates and popsicle socials, orientations and one-hour visits. It’s the main event.

Tomorrow begins a new chapter of your life. I would be lying if I said that I was not a little sad about your starting school. At our orientation today, seeing you with your hair in pigtail braids, lined up with your backpack perched on your shoulders, I caught a lump in my throat. You look so big in this sea of big yet little kids. The moment feels surreal, like I’m looking at a group of some other kids that cannot possibly include you. And yet, there you are.

I’m not sad for the reasons that many other parents are sad, though. Though I’ve read many nostalgic accounts of other parents’ sadness about the start of kindergarten, I am trying not to be self-congratulatory. I am a little bit sad because I know what’s about to happen.

For the first five years of your life, the only real social institution you’ve been a part of is our family. Our family is a safe haven, and you are a lucky little girl. Our family is warm and loving, we live in a safe place and rest easily at night. Though you’ve been cared for a by a team of people that has included your dad, me, and some incredible teachers at two different daycare facilities, your world has been very insular.

MarkersWhen you walk through those school doors tomorrow on your own into your kindergarten classroom, we lose a little part of you. You become part of the school, another big social institution, and we lose a little control–not that I need to control your life. We just don’t have the same kind of say that we did when it was just us four, in our house, spelling words on the fridge after dinner. You become part of a class, you have new people (big and small) who will become part of our family, too. You will have new norms and rules to learn and follow. You will have a new adult in your life, your teacher, who we think we like already but who we hardly know.

Even though we’re losing a little part of you, we can’t wait to ride shotgun on your grown-up school kid adventure. You are already an amazing little person, ladybug. You are bright and curious. You are kind to your friends and your father, sister, and me. You wonder about things. You are eager to learn. And as you told me recently, you “love school.” I hope that kindergarten is the first of many years of exploration for you.

I’m a little sad, ladybug, because I know too much about school–not just from my own experiences but also from my work. All I do is think about schools and schooling. I teach about, study and write about education. I know about the hidden expectations you’ll face as a student (and as a girl) to be quiet, obedient, and even passive. I know (from experience) that other kids can be vicious in small and big ways. I know how social pressure can impact your self-esteem. I know easy it is to get lost in the mundane day-to-day, to get bored and to lose your intellectual curiosity.

But if I told you all of this, your hazel eyes would stare at me, confused and impatient. You would push past me through those doors, waving a quick “bye mom” over your shoulder, racing off to meet new friends, to color, to read, to be that vivacious little lady that I know is ready for this new school year.

I wish I could just freeze this moment. I want to hold this moment in my hands and squeeze it, cuddle it, keep it close.

But I can’t.

So all I can say is, be aggressively kind to yourself and your friends, be loud, be patient, be thoughtful, ask for help, and stay innocent for as long as you can.

I cannot wait to hear about this first day and every other big and small day, kiddo.




Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, schools, students | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 100th post: Getting some perspective

I finished a book this week–my third of the summer.

In June, I tore through Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks. In July, it was Heartburn by Nora Ephron (oddly recommended by Matt Dicks’s delightful wife, Elysha). And earlier this week The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I found each one easy to pick up and tough to put down. I loved getting lost in the reality of these characters any of whom could be people in my everyday life.

Many academics will tell you that they don’t read for pleasure, casually laughing over the last time they read a “book book” as opposed to a “work book.” When reading is part of your work, and when what you read is so laden with heavy jargon or depressing statistics, you find yourself conditioned to read speedily, frantically searching for the argument to critique. Reading for pleasure requires you to slow down, to appreciate the prose, to connect to a world or a character or an idea. Work reading, for me at least, is about consumption at a fast clip.

As a child, I was an avid reader and I longed to be a writer just like the authors I loved. I started to lose my love of reading, though, around middle school when English class layered on expectations of understanding theme and tone and metaphor. I felt pressured to discover something in the text that might not resonate for me, that might not even make sense to me. In high school, I slowly disconnected from reading for pleasure because reading was so entangled with others’ expectations or interpretations of text. As a college and graduate student, the sheer amount of reading expected of you is so daunting that it could dull your interest entirely. Only now as a recovering student have I edged slowly back to reading as an indulgent escape.

Reading reminded me how important perspective taking can be.

Perspective taking is something I do as a matter of course as a sociologist. All I do is see things from another perspective, turning social norms on their head or troubling assumptions we make about our social lives. Sometimes, I forget that perspective taking does not come as easily to other people, and simple, poetic stories are a powerful way to shake up how we think or even what we think.

Narratives help us understand a perspective that is different from our own. This is true of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, where many powerful narratives are emerging to help us understand frustration, fear, and desperation. None of these narratives are new, but they have a new platform and broader audience in social media. There is endless potential in using narrative as a tool for reaching students in my teaching, as a way to shed light on veiled experiences in social life: poverty or racism, mental illness, and violence. Though I have not lived these experiences, I can start to appreciate and learn through fictional and nonfictional accounts.

My reading this summer expanded my perspective on parenting. Two of the three books I read were written from the perspective of children: one an eight-year-old imaginary friend and the other a sixteen-year-old terminal cancer patient. Their stories reminded me that though parents try to take the perspective of their children, our adult view of the world is colored in a way we can’t quite discern. We try to see the world through their eyes but often can’t unhinge what we know or how we feel about people, places and things. Even if on some days, we get to see or experience the world as they do, we will never fully understand their confusion, their disillusionment, and their frustration over their place in the world.

None of these stories occupied a grand scene, rather these accounts captured relatively ordinary people facing the challenges of living everyday life. I got lost, though, in the arc of each story, the delicious snippets of text, the words they said, their thoughts and fears, and the final resolution of each tale. I felt inspired by and humbled by their stories.

My day job gets a bit myopic and sometimes, I forget that as a teacher and a writer, reading makes you better at both. I struggled with what to write in this 100th Rogue Cheerios post because I wanted it to be monumental and special and congratulatory. Instead, I am happy to remind myself and my readers that perspective is so often lost on those not paying attention. And as John Green writes in The Fault in Our Stars, “…the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention…”

And upon noticing a new angle on life, I hope you’ll help others see that perspective, too.

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August slump

I know I am not the only person caught in a serious slump.

The summer is becoming a blurry afterthought as I cling desperately to every ray of sunshine, every ripe tomato, every minute of twilight in the driveway, watching the girls ride bikes or color with chalk.

This was the summer when our new house became our home. We have wrung lots Kids meet the beachof precious moments out of our days: picking berries, jumping full force into the pool, building castles at the beach, eating anything outside, and most recently streaking in the backyard (the kids–not me).

Now that it is finally August, things are starting to unravel at a fast clip. Overnight, temperatures in the northeast have dipped slightly and on my way to work this morning, I saw red leaves on the trees. Autumn is creeping in.

Though the summer has been full of some routine for my oldest, this week she asked if it was autumn yet. When we told her it was still summer, she was sure it was July. She is trapped in a time-space continuum that makes complete sense–no one has had circle time in weeks so why should she know that we’re inching closer to Labor Day?

There are less than fourteen days until school starts and everyone is ready for someone to give us some structure. We are getting tired of everything.

Tired of the never-ending cycle of laundry. Wet towels, soggy bathing suits, that favorite sundress–piling up day after day, spinning over and over again. Loads remain unfolded and I’m nearly certain some items don’t have any homes at all. The homeless towels take up residence in the pool bag or the kids’ backpacks, never quite finding their place anywhere.

Tired of the debris all over the house tracked by dirty feet that I’m scrubbing every night in the “foot bath” because we’re all too lazy to run a full tub. Blades of grass, bugs from outside, buttercups and dandelions picked hours ago, now wilted on the kitchen floor.

Tired of the interrupted work time. Having worked in sporadic but concentrated stretches all summer, it is no surprise that I am coming up short on my completed projects. And as we close in on the start of the semester, I want my courses to be prepped and settled but I can’t bring myself to put the finishing touches on my syllabi.

Tired of lacking motivation. I want to read the books stacked up on my nightstand–the ones for work and the ones for me, but I just can’t bring myself to read more than a page or two. I want to exercise outside but I can’t bring myself to wake up in the morning. I set my alarm every day for 6:30am in the hopes I’ll get up and do some writing or reading or exercising and nothing happens. I snooze twice and wake up to curly heads climbing into my bed.

Tired of the lovely burdens of summer. The constant shucking of corn on the cob, the carting of dinner plates out to the yard and into the house, shlepping to pick berries or checking on the garden in my neighbor’s yard, the constant fly infestation from doors left open too long, the search for sunscreen or hats or that missing flip flop kicked off carelessly on a tear into the house. Nothing feels orderly.

And tired of being tired. The late bedtimes, the tantrums pitched in exhausted desperation before passing out under covers (“but not sheets, Mommy”). The discovery and rediscovery of toys long forgotten after hours spent at camp and the wars waged over “who got it first”. The protestation over going to camp because “I just want to stay home” mingled with the exclamation that “I want to go DO SOMETHING because I’m bored” while spending a scant hour in the house.

We are standing on the precipice of new territory. Soon, my oldest will start kindergarten and my youngest will begin proper preschool. I will start my last year on my contract at my current institution. My husband’s company launches a redesigned version of their main product. It is a busy time for us.

In a few weeks, when twilight creeps in minutes and then hours earlier, and when our new routine has regimented our days, we will long for carefree, post-dinner walks, for the quick trip to the farm for ice cream after dinner, for our soggy bottoms at the pool, or our lazy mornings with nothing planned.

And that is when I’ll remind myself that this isn’t really a slump. It’s just life.

Posted in everyday life, family, gardening, kids, lessons learned, personal, summer, Uncategorized, vacation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments