During Pet Therapy, My Dog Does the Talking

Mary Dell writes: I come from a long line of talkers, gregarious Texans who delight in telling tales and learning the back stories from strangers. My upbringing served me well while I worked in media, marketing NBC shows like the Smurfs or Saturday Night Live as story-telling opportunities. Yet now, as a pet therapy volunteer, I struggle to find words while watching my partner, a chocolate Labrador named Moose, communicate fluidly.

Pet Therapy dog

Five years ago, while casually thumbing through a New York-Presbyterian newsletter, a small-print headline “Volunteers with Dogs Needed” grabbed my attention. I was struck with the idea that this would be the perfect volunteer job, one that could help fill a growing gap in my life. With our eldest child a high school senior and the youngest increasingly independent, an empty nest loomed. Plus, I am a big dog lover – we have owned four Labs during our two-decade marriage. Yet the mostly likely candidate to be my partner, Moose, was still a rowdy and marginally obedient two-year old puppy, and I questioned his suitability.

Until we walked up the steps to the hospital for our initial screening, I had never set foot on the grounds although I had driven by the entrance hundreds of time. The buildings on the 200-acre wooded campus are set far away from the road, hidden from the nearby commercial hustle-bustle. It is was only after we arrived and checked in for our evaluation that I learned that this branch of NY-P is a psychiatric hospital whose roots in this spot go back to 1894.

NY-Presbyterian Hospital

That fall night, Moose was excited and I was nervous. My treat-filled baggie did little to help me prevent him from rushing toward other prospective therapy teams, terrifying the Yorkies and Bichons. He jumped up on Stacey, the evaluator, who, with her own leap of faith, accepted us into training beginning with an obedience class followed by the pet therapy course. Within six months, Moose had become a better (far from perfect) behaved dog and I learned the skills and protocol I needed to pass the Pet Partners certification test. Our assignment was to pay a visit every Monday to the “Second Chance Program,” where our patients* (all names changed below) would be adults suffering from schizophrenia.

Every Monday we ride the elevator to the third floor, ring a bell and hear the key unlocking the door on the other side.

“Moose!” We are greeted with enthusiasm from a few of the residents. “Hey, hi, how are you? Are you coming to down to Pet Therapy?” I ask, encouraging them to attend.

Joey* crouches down and calls out loudly “Moose, Moose, come here.” He tugs at the leash while we hurry down the hall. Petting, hugging, tail wagging commence.

We continue our walk toward the meeting room, stopping for two men seated on a hallway couch to give Moose quick scratches behind the ears. Some of the residents are asleep and others look elsewhere, disinterested.

Pet Therapy is an “elective” and those who attend are rewarded through a therapeutic strategy of positive reinforcement. When behavior points add up to a certain level, privileges like walking around the grounds or having meals off the floor are granted. Generally half of the thirty residents arrive or drift in and out. Sometimes people join but fall asleep during the session.

Moose and I have visited this unit for five years. We have seen many patients in their very first days when their health challenges seemed almost insurmountable. Some pace silently, join us for a while and leave. I talk about the cold outside, NFL playoffs and seek out any fans who might want to talk about their teams. I bring stacks of magazines I harvest from our house, hoping a cover photo might trigger an interchange.

I tell stories about Moose and our other dogs, past and present. I hear about their dogs, those they had during childhood and others given up when their owners could no longer care for them. Maggie* shows me a tattered photo of her teacup poodle, whom she misses terribly. Moose is a substitute and Maggie sits on the floor at every session giving him extensive belly rubs.

Anna* was afraid of dogs and never wanted Moose to come near. Over the months of our visits, she gained confidence in him (and me) and began to take the soft white baby brush I offer at each session. The first time, I held his head away from her. She learned to trust him and offered him a treat with a steady hand. On the last day before she was discharged, she asked to hug Moose which she did for a very long time. He leaned into her as a knot grew in my throat.

I sometimes talk about my life and our kids. When I discuss my daughter’s soccer games, I am later asked if she won or lost. When our son graduated from college, they congratulated me, for him. When I travel and miss a Monday session, I am asked how my vacation was. We know little about each other but we share details of our lives.

The group is fluid, with men and women being dismissed and others taking their places. Many have spoken to me about their frustration of waiting for a bed to open in an adult house. One was a patient named Marlene* who left and, three weeks later, returned. Formerly a Moose-enthusiast, she turned her head away as we walked in.

We celebrate the holidays with cupcakes and Christmas cards. In July, on Moose’s birthday, we sing “Happy Birthday” with more cupcakes. Weekly, I offer a bit of conversation but mostly I bring them Moose who, for a speck of time, is a comfort. Now a settled seven-year old, he is obedient and patiently cuddles with anyone wanting to draw him close. He leans into their hugs, often collapsing onto his back, paws up and readily accepting the attention and petting. (For a dog, really, it may not ever be better than this.)

And for me, what do I receive? Frequently, someone will look me straight in the eye and thank me for coming. Juliet* tells me “God bless you, Mary Dell.” My words fail me and I struggle to croak back, “God bless you, too.” My heart breaks for these men and women who face such serious health challenges. I wish them well when they confide that they are leaving and I pray they are successful. I pray for those who remain. Each Monday, I thank the group for being so friendly to Moose and me. He conveys his happiness with ears back and tail wags. I don’t have the words to express my deepest gratitude.

Good Dog, Moose

NY-P is a Planetree Hospital, one of 500 health care facilities around the world recognized for its exemplary patient-centered practices.  Annually, the Planetree organization recognizes individuals at these hospitals through its Spirit of Planetree Awards. Moose was among the 2013  Animal Therapy Award honorees and you can read about it here.

Moose, pet therapy dog

His good deeds were also noted by The Container Store who chose him as one of ten, out of more than 600 entries, in their holiday It’s Better to Give contest.   His story is included here.


pet therapy dog, Moose


USA, OLympics, therapy dog

Moose therapy dog, UVA fan

therapy dog, Moose

Moose, therapy dog

Pet therapy

Tyranny of the Mirror: a Reflection on Aging

Lisa writes: This photo was up on the HuffPost50 Facebook page last week (see below.) It is a picture of Dyan Cannon, the well-known actress, at age 77. Cannon looks great at this age, but she looked great at every age. Yet, there was another message here, it seems, the message that this is what 77 can look like, that if we play our cards right and spend more time and more money on our looks, we too might never look old. It is a message designed to make us feel better about aging, but I fear it achieves just the reverse.

Snow White, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, aging

In the name of making us feel good about aging, to show that time’s erosion can be fought at every turn, are we are just making ourselves feel worse about an unstoppable process? Was an earlier generation, far less desperate to cling onto any and every sign of youth, far more comfortable with what nature had to dish out?

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Nine Things You Should Know About Downton Abbey

Lisa writes: As inspired by our friend and fellow Downton Abbey fan, Sharon Greenthal, (Empty House, Full Mind,) here are nine things you should know about Downton Abbey.

Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey

1. Highclere Castle

The “above stairs” scenes are filmed at Highclere Castle, the 1830s great house designed by the same architect who designed the British Houses of Parliament. The similarities between the buildings can be seen in the sand-colored stone and Gothic Revival turrets. Since 1679, the family of the Earl of Carnarvon has had a home on this spot. Beneath the current house are the ruins of a medieval palace. The “below stairs” scenes are filmed at the famed Ealing Studios on set in West London.

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Is it Worth the Money?

Lisa and our good friend, Sharon Greenthal, who blogs at Empty House, Full Mind, asked the question “What is worth spending money on?” Money is a private and often touchy subject, yet the respondents were candid and their answers, revealing.  Here is the post appearing today on both blogs.

In the weeks between tossing out the turkey carcass and dragging the Christmas tree to the curb, the average American family is expected to spend $740 on gifts in this brief, intense shopping period. As the year winds down we will also give generously, writing checks for $79 billion in charitable donations or a quarter of our annual giving.

bank vault, money, bank

How we spend our money speaks to who we are and what we value. For each of us it is a trial and error process. We spend impulsively, and we live to regret the purchase. We save up carefully, and the object of our desire become obsolete or out of fashion. We buy things or experiences, we invest in education, and charity and with each step learn more about our personal relationships to money and more about ourselves.

How we spend our money is a sticky, complicated question that is burdened by the behavior of our family of origin and says something about the example we hope to set for our own children.

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Waiting for Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier: What I’ve Missed Most

Mary Dell writes: Lisa and I are among the millions of US fans who have spent the last 11 months pining for our favorite period drama. Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier is January, 5, a date already circled in red on my calendar.

Here is what I’ve missed the most during this long wait for the show to resume:

Downton Abbey cast, Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier

1. Theme Song

The gorgeous orchestration of the theme music by British composer John Lunn prepares viewers for the weekly feast of audible pleasure to come. While I have endured the wait for the program to resume, I have clicked on the YouTube recording, closing my eyes, and imagining the cast beginning to assemble at the manor house.

2. Opening Photo montage

Creator Julian Fellowes is a master of detail and the opening montage richly displays life in both the upstairs and downstairs quarters at Downton. Fellowes’ wonderful dialogue and highly textured use of period furnishings in this television production are of the caliber of feature film Gosford Park, a movie for which he wrote the script, winning a best screenplay Academy Award in 2002.

3. British History

Every Downton Abbey episode gives viewers a chance to absorb lessons in British history. The writers have already covered WWI, the influenza epidemic, the decline of the landed aristocracy, and the beginnings of the Irish Free State. Season Four is set in the Roaring twenties and a new Season Five begins production in 2014; we have much more to absorb.

4. Interior Design

I savor the details of Downton Abbey’s set design, and wonder what it would be like to live with the sweeping staircases, vaulted ceilings, and formal home furnishings. Every Sunday night I am inspired to take my own decor up a notch.

5. Parenting Lessons

Lord and Lady Grantham face challenges with their daughters and extended families that are surprisingly relatable. Watching the interpersonal dynamics presents vivid examples of parenting do’s and don’ts. The world may have changed much in the last ninety years but the challenges of parenting remain unaltered.

6. Grantham Clan

Downton has an expertly drawn cast that I love visiting every week. Fellowes made these characters real to me and I am invested in the lives of both the gilded Granthams and the downstairs help.

7. Smash Hit

Downton Abbey is a rare quality costume drama, the biggest success ever for PBS and ITV, where it is shown in the UK.  I recall watching every episode of Brideshead Revisited and Lisa fondly remember Upstairs, Downstairs. But those shows were televised in 1981 and 1971. Success like this does not come around often.

8. Gorgeous Clothes

The ladies’ period costumes are stunningly beautiful. From wedding gowns to sleeping attire, the luxurious fabrics and intricate accessories are breathtaking. Watching the show feels like playing dress-up. Just imagining the contents of the Grantham ladies’ closets makes me want to put long leather gloves and strands of pearls on my Christmas list.

9. Maggie Smith

Dame Maggie’s lines alone make the show worthwhile, and she dominates each and every scene. I lean into the TV whenever she appears to make sure I don’t miss a word (although I can count on seeing her in a Monday-morning meme with the best zinger of the previous evening.)

10. Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley

The hopes for happily ever after for our favorite upstairs couple ended with the Season Three finale. Though there is no doubt that Mary will thrive without Matthew, I can’t help but grieve for the what if’s in their lives together.

11. Date Night

Discovering a show that both my husband and I enjoy is a gift. On the evening of January 5, we will set a fire in the fireplace, pour two glasses of wine, and watch the Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier together. In our almost empty nest, watching this favorite show together has become our date night. I am counting the days until it returns.

Cooking for Two in an Empty Nest Kitchen

Mary Dell writes: One of my roles as a mom has been that of chief hunter and gatherer for our family meals. To say I am bored with every single chicken dish that I have placed on the kitchen table over the last two decades is an enormous understatement. With our youngest child a senior in high school, the end is in sight for family dinners as I have known them but a new challenge looms – cooking for two.

Fortunately, Lisa and I had a serendipitous introduction to Katie Workman, author of The Mom 100 Cookbook, when we were all on a terrifying flight  from Chicago back home this summer. Our shared adversity fostered a friendship and, by the time we finally arrived (safely) in New York, we had learned that Katie is not only an amazing writer and cook, but also someone with a steady sense of humor, regardless of the circumstances.  She offered this advice for retooling our empty nest kitchens:  katie workman   chili-636

Dialing the quantities of recipes up or down sometimes feels daunting, but many recipes are highly flexible, and the freezer can become your best friend. Even if you make half of a recipe of turkey chili (a very easily recipe to scale down) you may have more than you need.  Just freeze extra in pint size containers for easy defrosting, and pull them out as you need them. Not only are you not worrying about how to consume the whole pot, but you’ve got another dinner ready to go. Apple Cider Beef Stew is another great candidate, as are most soups and stews, and casseroles (just divide them into two smaller pans and freeze one).


Also, think of how leftovers can be used in other meals a couple of days later. Extra Citrus Basil Shrimp Kebabs are a wonderful way to turn a green salad into a real lunch, cooked sausages get crumbled into a pasta, leftover Lemon Garlic Roasted Turkey Breast becomes Turkey Posole Soup.  Making cookies, but don’t want an extra dozen lingering around your kitchen? Freeze half the dough in rolled balls, then transfer them to a zipper top bag with all of the air pressed out, store them in the freezer and defrost and bake them as needed. And don’t forget – your neighbors will always appreciate a little care package!

StruesselApplePie-636 To that we would add, your college kid might actually venture to his post office box if he knows homemade treats awaits for him and his roommates. The cookies that Katie suggests seem perfect!  

Katie Workman is the author of The Mom 100 Cookbook  and the creator of themom100.com blog.  She is also the founding Editor in Chief of Cookstr.com, “the website that shares tested, trusted recipes from cookbooks created by respected chefs and cookbook authors.”

Photo credit: Todd Coleman

Katie Workman and the Empty Nest Kitchen

Why You Should Blog: A Legacy in Black and White

Lisa writes: There was a time, barely memorable, when we reflected upon our lives through letters and diaries, baby books, scrapbooks and photo albums. Committing our thoughts to paper documented them for both ourselves and posterity. The pace of writing encouraged introspection, but pens are obsolete and for most of us our thoughts remain in our heads or are shared through a stream of emails, texts, tweets and FB posts.

blogging, writing, blog

In my photo albums I have a second grader but in my home, a high school senior. Time has moved on, but until I started writing a blog, my chronicling had not. A blog is a point of personal retrospection, a way to leave something more lasting than a snap chat. This is why you should blog.

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Sally Koslow Writes the Book on Reinvention

Mary Dell writes: Sally Koslow is a friend and was my writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence College.  The story of her success, including the publication this month of The Widow Waltz, and dark moments of her career are an inspiring story of reinvention.  She spills all:

Sally Koslow, Sally Koslow's The Widow Waltz, reinvention, summer fiction


From Sally Koslow:

Once upon a time—a long time, 30+ years—I was a magazine editor, the job for which I felt I was born. A shy kid, I learned to manage that handicap as I scaled the consecrated trajectory of high school newspaper editor/college English major/hometown newspaper intern/college town newspaper obit writer/moony poet. By the time I presented my still-reserved Midwestern self to Manhattan’s Conde Nast–which I was too big of a yokel at 21 to realize was the ooh-la-la of publishing companies–I had a fat portfolio of clippings. They helped land a job at Mademoiselle, a powder puff-y magazine with a literary edge: Sylvia Plath had once been a guest editor and the masthead prided itself on back-in-the-day, publishing the likes of Truman Capote and W.H. Auden and at the moment, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley.

In the 70s intense female ambition hadn’t yet reared its feverish head. No one expected to reach the top fast. Or ever. This allowed me to loll around MLLE until after having a child at 28, I became a freelance writer. When my son was four I returned to another magazine staff and began to rise in various ranks until McCall’s anointed me as its editor-in-chief in 1994.

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Stalking My Kids

Lisa writes: When my kids were little they stalked me.  They followed me from room to room, they banged on the bathroom door and almost never left my side.  Sometimes I loved it, sometimes it made me mental, and sometimes I worried they would never successfully separate.  I wondered why they wanted to be with me so much, stalking day and night.  I thought it might be a little like our Labrador who follows me around every evening hoping to be fed.  Yet they still seemed to want to be with me even after they knew how to open the refrigerator door.  Now I find,  it is me, stalking my kids.

NYC nightlife, NYC

Sometimes I would say to them, why do you want to come with me?  I realized that whatever I was doing would be slowed down by their presence and when I was in a hurry, I felt frustration.  But they wanted to be with me, even if the task was tedious, and irrelevant to them. If I just wanted to roam, they wanted to know where we were going. I loved being with them, loved everything about their presence, but their questions could wear me out.  They seemed happy just to be with me.

Then it struck me.  They wanted my life.  They wanted to be able to go where they wanted and do what they wanted.  They wanted to call the shots and be the person who made things happen, even if it was just going to the grocery store or, on a good day, Toys R Us.

Now they have that life.  Two are grown, out the door, and the third is in possession of a driver’s license.  The eldest has an apartment for the summer and the middle one left days ago to squat on his brother’s couch and soak in the City Life.

And now I find I want to stalk my kids.  I want to be 21 years old and see New York City anew. I want to live in an apartment with almost no belongings and hold impromptu parties on Friday nights feeling no compulsion to provide my guests with anything other than cheap beer.

So last night I was stalking them.  With the feeble excuse of bringing some extra sheets for the couch surfing brother, I drove into NY to see them.  I followed them from room to room looking at the apartment, I talked to one through the bathroom door and helped carry garbage to the downstairs.  I wandered the building’s basement and asked where the laundry room was and if the closed door was a gym.  I asked about work being done in the hall and why they had left the air conditioner on when they went out.  They looked at each other, with an expression that could only have said, “This would have been faster without her.”

When we left the apartment it was late and dark and I asked where we were going.  I was told, “We will find something, Mom.”  We stopped at a small take-out and picked up falafel and humus.  We wandered over to a teeming Union Square with bags of wonderful smelling food.  All the benches were full and my kids sat themselves down on some steps. The ground was dirty, my pants were white and I had a handbag that I would not have set down on my own clean kitchen floor.  The air was sticky and humid and teens swirled around us on the skateboards. The person next to me was blowing smoke in my direction and there were buses idling on the road nearby emitting noxious fumes.  But I was just happy to be with them.

photo credit (above): Tasayu Tasnaphun

+ Lisa Endlich Heffernan

The Generation Gap Isn’t What it Used to Be

Lisa writes: The generation gap that separated me from my parents was defined by our views on music, sex, skirt lengths, the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency. My whole goal in shopping was to buy things my parents hated. But my children and I like the same music, have similar politics and shop for clothes in the same stores. The issues that separate me from my offspring are of an entirely different nature.

Where has the generation gap gone?  Once defined by cultural touchstones and political splits, the gap that divides the generations is now far more subtle, defined by differences in outlook and attitude, rather than fundamental beliefs.

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My sons think nothing of leaving the house and venturing out in public in their PJ bottoms. This has been a recurring nightmare of mine since 1971.

I use cash. They use credit for any purchase over 24 cents.

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Motherhood and the Empty Nest

Lisa writes: This morning, The New York Times posted a wonderful article, “After the Children have Grown,” about motherhood and the transition to the empty nest.  The author, noted psychologist Madeline Levine, confirms what Anna Quindlen has often said, that the real empty nest begins the day our youngest child graduates from college.  Yet Levine takes a different look at our children’s separation as not a single moment but rather one more step on a long path of pain and happiness that is parenting.  She explains,

Motherhood inextricably weaves growth and loss together from the moment of physical separation at birth to every milestone passed.

Yet she finds that, in some ways, parents are unprepared for this transition despite the fact that we should have seen it coming.

motherhood, empty nest, mothers and sons, after the children have grown

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Weekend Reading with Grown and Flown in Mind

This past week, Grown and Flown was thrilled to be featured in some of the blogs we love the most.  If you are looking for some new weekend reading, you might want to take a peek at these:

Weekend-Reading, favorite blogs for women, Grown and Flown, empty nest blogs

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I Don’t Really Want to be Turning 30 Again, but…

Lisa writes: I don’t really want to be turning 30 again.  I truly believe what I wrote about midlife being a time when we have more time, more confidence and more resources. And given this, it is not surprising that once we pass 46, we are happier.

New York Times Social Media Conference, turning 30, Twitter

I have largely come to grips with the underbelly of aging, the image in the mirror.  But this weekend I was at The New York Times Social Media Summit listening to 20 and 30-somethings expounded on how Twitter and its brethren have forever changed traditional news gathering as we know it and, for a moment, I could not help wishing that, once again, I was turning 30 and here is why.

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Staying Young: It’s About Questions, Not Answers

Lisa writes: Recently a friend told me of a thrilling career opportunity that he had been offered and accepted. He and his wife are in their late 50s and the opportunity involved relocating to Asia. Excitement was written all over his face as he said to me, “It is so much easier to do this now with the kids gone, and us staying young. Or at least believing that we are still young.”

To me those words said everything. He looked, and I am going to guess felt, younger than I have seen him in years as he told me of the job he had never expected to be offered, in an industry from which he had retired a decade earlier. When I watched him I felt a little like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. I wanted what he was having.

On a parallel track I am watching my nearly grown sons go out into the world for the first time. They are experiencing life in the big city, minus mom and dad. When I cut through the thick layer of jealousy that comes from wanting to be my children, I realize that both my sons and my friend are at a moment in life where so many things are unknown and so much feels possible. The reason my friend is staying young is that at this moment, his life is much like my children’s, filled with more questions than answers.
Dock, looking out from the dock, rustic dock
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I Should Know Better

Lisa writes: I am over 50 and I should know better.  I should know that life isn’t always what it seems, that everyone is just doing their best and that perfect is a dangerous fantasy.  But somehow, deep, deep into adulthood, I still hold on to childish dreams.

It is much easier to imagine that other’s lives are perfect and that I can never measure up, than to realize no one’s life is perfect and I just need to work hard to make mine better.

Perfect Marriage:

I have a very close friend, a go-on-vacation-together, close friend.  We brought our children up together from birth and forged a deep friendship that comes from sharing that pivotal moment in life.  Geography eventually separated us, but we barely missed a beat.  I love her and her husband, but my love for my friend was mixed with deep envy.  I wanted her marriage.

She had the best marriage I had ever seen. It appeared to be almost effortless perfection.  I would have sworn that to you any minute of the day, any day of the week until the day she called me in tears.  Her marriage was not as it had seemed to her or to me.  There had been deceit and the pain and shock of it was tearing her apart.
wizard of oz exposed, nothing's perfect
Over the course of years, she and I would spend hours examining why women stay in marriages and why we leave. We drew even closer together, and found greater honesty in our friendship.  We delved deeply into what we loved about the men we had married, the men we had chosen to be the fathers of our children, and why marriage is so hard.

I watched my friend rebuild her marriage, an effort that was never effortless to begin with.  In the end, her less-than-perfect marriage taught me far more than a perfect one ever could.

Perfect Mother:

I have another friend who is the perfect mother.  Before you laugh, let me explain.  She has seven children, some she received in the delivery room, some from other countries, some are multiple births and some are singletons and they all arrived in her home in the space of seven years.  It is a lively, happy well-adjusted brood of thriving kids.

My friend has a huge corporate job and never seems to be anxious, out of control, or even in-over-her head.  When many of us seem to barely be able to manage with one, two or three kids, she appears to effortlessly manage with seven. If she were not one of the sweetest people to grace the Earth, you could hate her.  But instead, you just want to be her.

We are long-time sideline pals and I have stood beside her, or her equally calm husband, at countless soccer games. Never has either of them said a sour word about a child or made a disparaging comment about a coach.  But yesterday she told me she was nervous, really nervous. I looked at her face and saw something I had never seen before. The kids were in a big game and as a mom she couldn’t help feeling tense for her son. She was truly shaken, and suddenly she looked quite mortal to me.

The danger, of course, in wanting what isn’t, is failing to see what is.  It is a lesson I should have learned watching The Wizard of Oz at age five, but somehow I missed it, or simply chose to ignore it.   I am over 50 and I should know better.