Making Music Practice Less Annoying

Tariku loves music. He’s a terrific drummer and an even better dancer. But lately his music lessons have been becoming more and more of a pain, with whining and wheedling and foot-dragging and falling off the piano bench onto the floor once every 30 seconds. Even with Scott’s monk-like patience, it’s enough to make you want to gouge out your own eyes with the nearest drumstick.

There are a lot of reasons why practice is challenging for T. First of all, learning an instrument is just plain hard. If it were easy, we’d all do it. I personally took three years of piano and all I have to show for it is one scale, a C chord, and the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas,” so that’s useful. Secondly, T works hard holding it together in school all day, and when he gets home he lets it all hang out. Right around dinnertime we can usually count on some bonkers behavior. We generally try not to pay it too much attention, but in this case we needed to figure out a way to address it or his practicing was going to go out the window. I wasn’t willing to let that happen, both because he’s really talented and because I think it’s important to lean into the tough parts of valuable endeavors. It builds self-esteem. Having the grit to keep at something not immediately pleasurable is a learned skill. Plus, music is important to our family, and playing together is something T and Scott love to do. Every time I watch them jamming downstairs, I know they’re creating really special memories.

So how do you get past the epic annoyingness of trying to strong-arm a kid into practicing their instrument?

I found that threatening him with taking away his TV time didn’t help all that much. It was usually just followed with more bargaining and whining. I could see that we were going to have to rethink the whole thing, so Scott and I sat down to try to come up with some strategies. These moments give me a new level of respect for the creative, out-of-the-box teachers who have really made a difference in Tariku’s life. Because you know what? I don’t feel like being inventive about his practice. I just want him to sit down and do it while I get dinner ready. But no one asked me what I wanted (see: parenthood)…

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A couple of months ago, T started working therapeutically with horses. It’s profoundly regulating for him, and gives him a chance to address his feelings in a non-threatening way, by talking about the animals. He has a lot of responsibility at the horse ranch, and keeps track of all his tasks with a whiteboard checklist. He LOVES that checklist. So I dug a little whiteboard out of the garage and have been making a checklist for his music lesson every day. I make sure to build in choices for him. He has to play 3 songs, but he can choose what songs those are. And in between piano and drums, he gets 5 minutes of indoor soccer, so he can get his sillies out.  Then we incentivized his practice with little treats for ten completed checklists, so he has both immediate and long-term goals.

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Btw, this method is also pretty much exactly what I do to keep myself disciplined and motivated about my work. I feel overwhelmed and distracted and don’t generally want to sit down and write in the morning, either. I use checklists and timed tea breaks and little treats and big goals and it gets me through.

So far it’s working! We’ve had a few straight days of non-obnoxious practice. I’ll let you know how it progresses. What do you do to encourage your kids to develop the habit of practicing?

Shadow Puppets

Been slacking on the posts a bit, mostly because I’m having a challenging time balancing my upcoming book release with my mommy-ing…

Add homeschooling Tariku’s stuffed animals, and my schedule is way overbooked.

Here’s a picture of Tigey and Willie doing their math homework. Tariku is very serious about their education. He wrote out a whole schedule for me (Monday: Library, Tuesday: Music, Wednesday: Art, etc..) I took this photo to prove that they’re hard at work while he’s at school.

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Cute, right?

Well, very often, no, not so cute. Tigey winds up in time out more often than Tariku does. I’m totally serious. We have to put his stuffed animals (he calls them “the kids”) in time out. Mostly for talking back and fighting with each other. Your patience hasn’t truly been tested until a buffalo puppet has been whining at you all morning and demanding more bacon.

T’s thing with his stuffed animals started about 4 months ago. When he was a baby, he never took to a binky or a lovey. In order to self soothe, he would suck on his bottle like a man dying of thirst in the desert, while he rocked back and forth. As his trauma begins to heal and he feels safer in the world, he’s able to turn the clock back a bit and avail himself of some of the comforting things he never got the hang of back then.

As T’s behavior improves, “the kids” continue to act out. They’re whiny, aggressive, needy, demanding. In Jungian terms, I think that the kids are Tariku’s Shadow. The general idea of the Shadow is that it’s all of the thoughts and feelings we deem unacceptable to the public eye- it’s what we don’t want to be but fear we are. The tricky thing about the Shadow, is that if you try to stuff it down and ignore it, it may manifest in undesirable ways in your life. The Shadow needs some form of expression.

Tariku often expresses his socially unacceptable impulses through the kids. Which seems so creative and emotionally intelligent to me. It strikes me how tender and caring he is with them.  He doesn’t care how much they’re fighting with each other or crying about bedtime. He makes them little shirts and pants out of paper and tape. He cuddles them while he watches TV. He puts them in their pajamas (yes, they have pajamas) and makes sure that they each have a soft pillow under their heads before bed. He sleeps with his arms around them. He gives the kids unconditional love.

I think about the Shadow a lot. As a writer, I express the shadow on the page. That’s where I can allow all my darkest, most shameful thoughts and feelings to be heard. It’s a frightening thing to do, but it’s absolutely necessary both for the vitality of the work and for keeping my destructive impulses from screwing with my life and my relationships, including my relationship with myself. Tariku reminds me that even the really sticky icky stuff- especially the sticky icky stuff- deserves to be treated in a loving way. Our vulnerabilities are essential to our humanity. And they deserve to be dressed in their striped orange pajamas and put gently to bed.

For more on the Shadow, I highly recommend the book The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower– and Inspire You To Live Life in Forward Motion, by Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. It’s been tremendously helpful to me.

Here’s Willie at his first Weezer show:

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Friday Favorites: Confused Easter/Passover Edition

Happy Everything, from our confused family to yours! Here are a few holiday favorites…

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1. East Side Jews is having a community Seder on Saturday at the SLJCC! If you’re in Los Angeles and you’re looking to connect to Judaism alongside eclectic, interesting people and holidays filled with an unconventional take on ritual, story, song, art and family, the ESJ event may be a great fit for you. We’ll be there!

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2.Thou must have deviled eggs on Easter. It was supposed to be the 11th commandment, but it got edited out due to limited room on the tablets. I made these last year and they were a huge hit. Remember- they’re from BETTY CROCKER, so they taste better if you make them while wearing 3 inch heels and a smile!

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3. Rabbi Becky Silverstein’s Open Letter to Tom and Transgendered Teens Everywhere.
“Tom, at the heart of our communal narrative is the courage action of individuals taking a risk. In sharing your transition with your parents, community, school, and the greater world community, you modelled for all of us what it means for us to feel as though we ourselves were leaving Egypt, a central commandment within the Passover Hagaddah.”

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4. Sam Sifton, Melissa Clark, Kim Severson, and Julia Moskin are personally answering all your Passover and Easter food questions on the NY Times Food FB Page. The questions are great! I LOVE me some Melissa Clark. Also… the ham I’m trying.

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5. Practice Resurrection: Progressive Christian Theology for Easter, by Carl Gregg. There is so much cool stuff in this post, including terrific poetry the the origin story of Habitat for Humanity.

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6. If I was a better person, I would actually make these rather than just drinking chardonnay and midnight and wistfully Googling them.

Book Gift Bag Giveaway!

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Most of you know I wrote a memoir called Everything You Ever Wanted, about how the crazy quilt of my family came to be, and what these early years have been like for us. It comes out May 5– one month from Tuesday!

Pre-orders really help…

If you pre-order my book now from anywhere and send your purchase confirmation to Sarah (if you already pre-ordered and don’t have the confirmation, just shoot her an email), we’ll enter you in a drawing to win one of a limited number of gift totes that Penguin is so generously donating to the cause. It’ll contain signed copies of my other two books: Some Girls and Pretty, a signed bookplate for your copy of Everything You Ever Wanted, and a signed Weezer CD (cuz I can). Penguin has also promised to throw in some other surprises. It’s a terrific goody bag, if I do say so myself.

And if you share this giveaway on social media and mention that in your email to Sarah, we’ll enter your name in the drawing twice!

Of course, I also completely love if you wait and support your local indie bookstore. Either way, I’ll give you a giant hug when I see you.

For an early taste of the book, check out an excerpt in the April issue of Elle Magazine, on stands now (not online, on actual pages).

Please indulge a little buzzy bragginess…

I was so touched that Jamie Lee Curtis read the memoir, seeing as her book Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born was Tariku’s favorite for about 2 years. I can still recite it by heart. Here’s what she had to say about it:

“Everything You Ever Wanted is a transformative, unflinching account of the creation of an adoptive family. Jillian and Scott and their son Tariku show us, painful, frustrating and joyful step by step how to attach, heal, listen, trust and then let go. A testament to the fierce and fallible journey of any mother. Reads like a novel and moves you like any great story of survival would, to tears of joy and triumph.”

—Jamie Lee Curtis

Talking Forgiveness

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On Sunday, I attended a brunch hosted by my friends Kristen Howerton and Laura Tremaine. We were privileged enough to have Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin of the Parents Circle- Families Forum (PCFF) come tell us their remarkable stories and speak about their efforts toward peace through radical forgiveness. The PCFF is a joint Palestinian Israeli grassroots organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. It promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge.

Robi (her story here) is a bereaved Israeli mother whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper, and Bassam (his story here) is a grieving Palestinian father whose ten-year-old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers.

You may not think of me as a shrinking violet, but there are a couple of subjects that shut me right up. Top of the list: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though it affects me deeply and personally– I have family in Israel, including my brother and my nephew– I don’t engage about it publicly very often. I tell myself that when it comes to Palestine and Israel, I am overly emotional and under-qualified, and that whatever I say, I’ll be hurting someone I care about. Until now, I’ve dealt with that by avoiding the subject. I went to the brunch with the hope of changing that, of beginning to reach for my own voice. I challenged myself to learn, to get in the discussion, to be unafraid to make mistakes. I never could keep my big yap shut for very long.

Hearing about the losses of Robi’s son and Bassam’s daughter felt like being kicked in the chest. It was not an easy morning, but it was a hopeful one.

Robi was quick to point out that she doesn’t have an easy definition for forgiveness, or any definition at all, really. I relate to this. I’ve always thought forgiveness is a word that’s bandied about way too easily. I’ve wondered- can forgiveness be manufactured? Can you just decide to forgive someone because you think you should? Or is forgiveness an action? And if so, what action?

Robi fielded the question to us:

What is forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is owning your part,” one person answered. “Forgiveness is giving up your just right to revenge,” said another.

“Forgiving allows you to stop being a victim of that circumstance,” said Robi.

The PCFF uses art exhibitions, film, dialogue meetings, and various other creative and humanitarian projects to discuss the human side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and why mutual understanding of the “other side” and a reconciliation framework is necessary for any sustainable peace agreement.

I was especially captivated by Bassam and Robi’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling– of narrative– in relationship-building.

“Once you understand how the other sees their story, they become human.” said Robie.

If I’m impassioned about anything, it’s the healing power of narrative, both on individual and larger cultural levels. I left feeling emotionally wrecked, but also mobilized and inspired.

You can sign up for the PCFF newsletter here, to learn more about their ongoing programs. Please do!