Monthly Archives: September 2013

Simple Weeknight Favorites

For my birthday last week, Sophie gave me a cookbook called, Simple Weeknight Favorites, along with the admonishment,

“You’re 54 years old.  You need to start cooking.”

Poor thing.  She’s hungry.

I will confess, I think every list of New Year’s resolutions I’ve made for the last many years has included “cook” somewhere near the top.  That is not to say we don’t eat.  No one is wasting away from starvation around here.  But I already consider myself a master chef of the simple meal, which I define as some source of lean protein, a vegetable or salad and some form of starch…with fruit for dessert.   If I ever did have any motivation to cook, I’ve lost it pound-for-pound as each family member (Sam, then Nate) has left this house.  By the time Sophie leaves, we’ll probably survive on Grape Nuts and apples.

Howie might be considered a foodie in some circles, but he is not demanding when it comes to dinners.  He claims one of his favorite meals is popcorn, a beer, and ice cream for dessert. He usually announces he’s having this when he comes home in the evening and finds me in the same position at my computer that he left me at in the morning.  Bless his merciful soul.

I thought that this year, since the majority of my time will be spent at home, writing, I would have no problem preparing delicious and nutritious meals for my dwindling family.  But as it turns out, between the blog and the thesis (which sits sadly neglected most days), I seem to have less time to devote to cooking rather than more.  In fact, I have been so preoccupied by writing lately, that I find myself throwing money at Sophie rather than home-cooked meals.  The more the writing consumes me, the more she has been forced to consume Noodles, Chipotle and Byerly’s salad bar.  Though I think of myself as an “eat-to-live” person, that doesn’t mean my baby should have to hunt and gather, foraging her dinners for herself.

My biggest culinary challenge started fifteen years ago when Nate announced–at six years old–that he had decided to become a vegetarian.  No one thought it would last, but I knew Nate had a will of steel once he made his mind up, even at six years old.  He was inspired by our beloved babysitter, Sari, a hard-core vegan.  The challenge of nourishing a child-vegetarian was compounded by the fact that Howie and Sam have always been real meat-and-potatos guys.

Even when I have had the time, I have always found cooking to be decidedly un-rewarding.  There were the years I’d try making something new, only to be met with a chorus of

“I don’t really like this.”

Then, when I found meals the kids would eat in a regular rotation, Howie would tire of them at the speed of sound.  The years their favorite dinners were tacos, mac-and-cheese, and vegetarian lasagne, Howie would inform me he “just can’t eat (tacos/mac-and-cheese or vegetarian lasagne) one more time”.

I thanked Sophie for the new cookbook, and pledged to get busy cooking some of these weeknight favorites as soon as possible.  I said I would try at least one new dish beginning the Sunday after my birthday, when I (supposedly) had more time.  I asked her to mark the pages of the recipes she wanted me to try.  She ripped up a sheet of yellow notebook paper, and marked Thai Coconut Curry Soup with Chicken, Matzo Ball Soup with Chicken and Asparagus, Cheesy Gnocchi with Cauliflower Gratin, Farfalle with Beets, Arugula, and Blue Cheese, Glazed Caribbean Tofu with Rice and Pigeon Peas, Couscous-Stuffed Acorn Squash, and about a dozen other fancy-schmancy dishes.  Weeknight favorites, maybe, but “simple”?  A frozen pizza is simple.  Udon Noodles with Edamame Pesto is not.

By the time Sunday came around, I spent much of the afternoon feverishly preparing for my Monday noon thesis meeting with my advisor, revising a blog post I had been asked to contribute to The Loft’s Writer’s Block blog, and tending to my usual Sunday household chores.  Soph and I made it to the grocery store by around 6 p.m.  At that point, we were in no condition to think about cooking the Penne alla Vodka with Shrimp she picked for our inaugural meal.  I bought the ingredients and promised to make it on Monday.  We stopped by the deli for some sliced turkey, and tore into the sample the counter girl handed us like a couple of wild dogs.

While at the grocery store, I noticed the Nestle Toll House refrigerated cookie dough was on sale, “2/$6”.  In a moment of utter hopelessness and despair, I purchased the pre-made cookie dough.  Please don’t tell the Senior Class Party bake sale committee the secret behind my “home-made” peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

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Senior Class Party 2014

“At the end of the school year, the high school hosts an All-Night Lock-in Party for the year’s graduates. The party begins immediately after the graduation ceremony. Parents plan and prepare and of course pay for the party.”  I lifted this right off the Senior Class Party page of the school’s website, under the tab, “Parent Involvement”.  Of course parents plan, prepare and pay.  Who else is going to do it, and why should this event be different from all other events in our kids lives?

My boys didn’t attend this mythic party, so I never saw a reason to be parentally involved in the planning, preparing and paying until now.  In fact, though both of my boys made it into their senior years at this high school, both graduated from somewhere else, but maybe we’ll get into that in future posts.  Suffice it to say that since Sophie is on track to complete this year, at this school, not only is she the last in our family to be eligible for some of these classic yet ordinary events, she’s the first.

The night of the first Senior Class Party 2014 planning meeting fell on a spectacular September evening; unseasonably warm, no wind, leaves just beginning to turn.  I made a deal with Howie, whose vision for this evening was a motorcycle ride out to the Ox Yoke in Maple Plain for some burgers, and told him that I would love to join him if he would then accompany me to the high school for the meeting.  He was less than enthused with my ending for his vision.  I wasn’t at all motivated to attend either, in fact I had all but talked myself out of it, but after reconsidering, my argument–to both of us–was,

“Why should all the other parents be expected to plan these events?”

I also think Howie and I are both curious about some of the most normal things normal high schoolers do; things we haven’t had the opportunity to plan, prepare and pay for yet, since our boys followed their own paths in high school.  And Howie is great on a committee.

We arrived at the high school with the meeting in full swing.  Our relaxing dinner at the Ox Yoke, followed by a ride past the stunning autumnal sunset, plus our ambivalence, made us 15 minutes late.  We found room C220 and had to cross the front of the class in our biker regalia, wedging our bulky, bad-ass jackets in between the chairs and the desks.  Have we become “those” parents?

Once settled, I whispered to the kind-looking woman next to me,

“Did we miss much?”

“No!  We just went around and introduced ourselves.”

I’m always relieved to miss that part of a committee meeting, though now that I think of it, I am curious to know who was in the room with us.  I recognized only three or four women of the 40 or so packing the small classroom, a few fanning themselves.  And they were all women, except for Howie.  The chair of the committee was upfront, doing a nice job of moving things along.  She and another of the mothers in attendance were familiar faces from Sophie’s past, the mothers of Soph’s friends from over the years in middle school and earlier in high school.

Then, I spotted across the room, the attractive mother of a boy Sophie went all through grade school with.  I got to know this lovely woman, Anne,  back in the day, because she had an older son one of my boys’ ages and she had a warm smile.  I flashed back to the elementary school gymnasium, on the night of kindergarten orientation for our youngests.  And I’m not making this up for effect.  I remember sitting next to Anne that night, fighting back tears.   I remember the feeling sitting in that kindergarten parent meeting, physically digging my heels into the gym floor, as if doing so could stop time.  I must have felt safe, as the parents all stood up to leave at the end of that meeting, finally crying to Anne,

“If I’m this distraught sending her to kindergarten, how am I ever going to let her go to college?”

I’m going to admit something snarky, here.  My motivations for going to this senior class party meeting were mixed.  Part of it, like I said, was out of a sense of parental civic duty.  It’s important to step up, or as John D. Rockefeller once said,

“We must instill a sense of duty in our children; every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty”.

So I had that honorable intention.  And I already mentioned being motivated by curiosity. Exactly what goes on at a senior party planning meeting?  What is the conversation?  What is being decided upon and by whom?  This was my last chance to find out.

And here’s where the snark comes in.  I imagined this meeting being a grown-up version of a teenage party planning get-together.  I pictured a group of moms with their own social agendas, the same ones who have been hosting all the coolest house parties (or pool parties, or boat parties) all these years on behalf of their kids, maybe out of an urge to live out their own teenage party fantasies.  Or maybe out of a desire to be the coolest moms in school, or to elevate their sons or daughters to the position of being the kids with the coolest party houses in school.  In any case, my most dishonorable incentive was that this meeting would provide me some good fodder for blogging.  I hang my head in shame.

This meeting resembled not so much a scene from Mean Girls as it did a high-level corporate or governmental strategic planning meeting.  There were reports from fundraising chairs and treasurers.  There was talk of cut-backs and fiscal responsibility.  There were binders laid across the book shelf at the front of the room, containing historical documents describing detailed ideas for decorations, menus and entertainment from parties dating as far back as ’08.  These people were serious.

School party planning has changed over the years.  In elementary school, a few mothers would meet for coffee at Byerly’s and plan arts & crafts projects and games for class parties.  We would submit our receipts for donut holes and punch, and collect empty toilet paper rolls or plastic liter pop bottles for supplies.  Now the budget is in the tens-of-thousands of dollars and the planning committee has their own Facebook page.

The meeting ended with a plea for staffing for the actual, all-night party itself.  Apparently, staying up all night is an even less popular job than soliciting for donations or coordinating ticket sales.  And they’ll need nurses; probably several nurses, working in shifts, purportedly to manage the kids with allergies or the gluten-free kids, should they eat something they’re not supposed to, or to administer medications kids may need to take over night.  No one mentions needing nurses to tend to the kids who drink too much or who decide to use the all-night party as a place to experiment with hallucinogens for the first, or not the first, time.

Aside from the fact that Sophie would kill me if I volunteered to chaperone the actual event, at least I know I could do that job.  I’ve stayed up all night with kids in the past.  First, I was one of those kids, watching the sun rise over Lake Minnetonka at my own senior party.  Then as mothers, we all have had all kinds of practice staying up all night with kids, either nursing them as infants, or changing bedsheets when they come down with the stomach flu in the middle of the night, or waiting up for their safe arrival home when they break curfew.

I’m not sure which committee I’m going to sign up for, or to what extent I’ll be involved.  First, I have to decide what to bake for the bake sale next week.

Birth Day

Today’s my birthday, and though my therapist assures me that I don’t fit the clinical description of a narcissist, I don’t want to be seduced by the thought that this is MY day, and I do want to give a shout out to those who made this day possible for me: my parents, Merle and Mort.

It’s pretty safe for me to say anything I want to about my parents, since I don’t think they’re big followers of my blog.  I tried to encourage them to check it out by going over there and setting my blog site as the very first tab in my father’s bookmark bar and showing them both how to just point at it and click.  My dad has embraced technology and has gotten quite proficient at group emails.  But my mom is an incurable technophobe, though I believe she prefers the term “Luddite”.  Just in case you are reading this mom and dad, you know I love you both no matter what.

Loving someone no matter what is a lesson our parents are supposed to teach us.  If they’re good at it, they impart in us the ability to unconditionally love our own children.  But the first thing they must do is help us see and love ourselves.  And the thing we can do as we grow up is to identify which part of ourselves comes from each of them and (try to) love those parts, regardless, along with all the other stuff that is uniquely ours.

From my dad, I get a sense of discipline and a love of learning, among other worthy attributes.  From my mom, I get a feeling that I am connected to another human being directly from heart-to-heart.  This combination of inherited parental gifts makes for a somewhat rounded person.  The rest of the rounding is up to me.

My dad and I were on a bike ride the other day (oh yes, from him I get my exercise compulsion) and I said,

“Hey Dad, I meant to thank you for something.”  He didn’t miss a beat,

“What, like, you mean your LIFE?”

“Yeah!” I said, also not missing the beat.  But what I had really meant to thank him for, in part, was the meat tenderizer he sent over the other day to treat my bee sting.  Not only did he have the Morton’s (his namesake) tenderizer, but he had the knowledge of the home-remedy and the willingness to be available to me, at any moment, for anything I might need.  And I’m a grown woman.

My parents have given me so many things, from the biggest to the smallest, and sometimes the smallest things are the biggest.  And sometimes a headache is among the things they give me, but I have reciprocated with a few of those for them over the years.

In keeping with my theme here of letting children go, my parents have walked that fine line between keeping me close enough to meet their own needs of me and letting me go to find my own way.

As kids, we did many of the things that our kids are doing that make us nervous.  But I always say, at least we had the decency to shield our parents from what we were doing that might have upset them.  We kept various things hidden not out of a desire to deceive them so much as out of consideration for letting them sleep at night.

But I certainly don’t feel like lecturing, or even thinking too hard, on my birthday.

What do you get on your birthday?  You get a free coffee at Caribou.  You get “Happy Birthday!” messages on Facebook.  But if giving is better than receiving, think about what you can give.  My mother always said,

“If you want to feel better about yourself, do something for someone else.”

This holds doubly true on your birthday.

I would like to give thanks; for seeing another year, for my health relatively speaking, for my husband and children and their health (I guess at my age, health becomes key!), for the people in my life who think of me on my birthday, and especially the ones who call me the rest of the year, too. Like my mom and dad.  Almost every day.  Thanks, guys.

And this year, I give thanks to anyone who bothers to read what I write, even if that isn’t my mom and dad.

Today, I will celebrate the gift of another year by honoring the person I am striving to become.  I am blogging (which just means trying to write something every day), teaching a group of  twenty-two, six- to eight-year-olds how to “Write Your Own Silly Story” at a Minneapolis Public Library as a teaching artist for the Loft, then my family will join me for dinner.  My family–and friends–are my greatest gifts.  So is not cooking.

In the spirit of giving, I will leave you with a link to a gift, first given to the StarTribune a year ago by my true friend and masterful writer, Susan Byers, in keeping with the theme of giving birth to adults: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/168216206.html

This year, as adults ourselves, let’s continue to deliver and transform our own lives for the better.  Thanks to my mom and dad for bringing me into this world 54 years ago today, and for encouraging me to fly all these years.

Time for cake!!

Senior Photos: Take 2

There is a tenet in fiction writing that says,

“Only trouble is interesting.”

And though I write nonfiction, it seems to hold true in writing about “the truth”, as well.

I called yesterday’s blog post “Senior Photos: Take 1” confident that there would be a dramatic “Take 2” to follow.  But another fiction principle is “Desire+Danger=Drama”, so though we had the desire to make the most of Sophie’s senior photo shoot, I guess there wasn’t enough danger to ignite the drama.

The potential for mother/daughter drama is always there on some level with me and Soph.  I thought we might have sparked some on the elevator up to the studio, when Sophie said,

“Don’t make that worried face; you’ll get wrinkles.”

Funny, I’m not even aware that I have a worried face, let alone what that face looks like.

And I wasn’t that worried, since we had chosen Margie, the mother of Lucy, Sophie’s childhood friend and classmate, as our photographer.  Sophie has always loved and felt comfortable with Margie.  Margie took photos of all the girls at one of Lucy’s birthday parties years ago, when she first started her photography business, and they were gorgeous.  But I thought there might be a dramatic moment when memories of all the times our girls spent together would come flooding back.

I was imagining other moments where I could break down in tears, as my baby was transformed before my eyes into the beautiful young woman she is today, for yet another life event captured on camera.  I imagined flashbacks to earlier photo-ops making me cry: the first photo my own high-school friend (and exceptional photographer), Lisa, took in the hospital when Sophie was born and the first-year photos she took of Sophie on our lawn wearing miniature straw hats; the school photos, dance photos, team photos and just four, short years ago, Sophie’s Bat Mitzvah photos.

(Cue Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack, Sunrise, Sunset, “Is this the little girl I carried”…that song kills me every time.  If you don’t know it–and you’re launching a child–now is not the time to look it up.)

But there was no trouble, and I was happy to do without the drama, this lovely fall evening.  I decided to splurge and hire Sophie’s stylist, Sylvia, to glam-up Sophie’s hair and do her make-up, so we wouldn’t have the stress of the DIY makeover between us.

It takes a village.

When Sophie came in the house from being styled by Sylvia, she looked radiant but I had braced myself so, though I was stunned by her radiance, I held it together.

I had already pulled out all the things we’d agreed she’d wear (and some we hadn’t agreed on) and hung them on hangers, to smooth out any wrinkles, and filled a bag with shoes.  Sophie filled another with underthings, a brush, Fig Newtons and a Diet Coke, and we headed downtown.

Even with rush hour traffic, we were only a few minutes late.  We found a parking spot, and hauled all our props out of the trunk.  I told Sophie how I felt years ago seeing girls coming in the studio, after we had finished up the boys sessions, with their armloads of clothes, their bags stuffed with make-up and accessories, and thinking how different it would be taking my girl to her photos rather than my boys.  Girls looked like trouble.

But still, no trouble.  After marching up one, wrong street, we found the studio, and Margie was ready for us.  Sophie was a natural in front of the camera, and I enjoyed keeping busy, bustling in and out of the shot, tucking away an errant strap, rearranging a lock of hair, straightening a crease in a sweater.

When it came time for the mother/daughter shot–something sweet Margie includes in her sessions–she arranged us for the photo like a pro,

“Lean your bodies toward each other, tip your chins out, tilt your heads in; that makes the shape of a heart, see?”

Still, I’m good.

For the rest of the session, we were up to the studio to change outfits, then back down on the streets of the warehouse district for the shots.  We started around 5:30 p.m., when hipsters and business people were milling through the streets, on their way home from work or out for the evening.  When I caught sight of a young man taking in the splendor of my posing daughter, I kvelled (Yiddish for “beamed with pride”), like I used to do when they’d look at her as a baby, even though now there’s some heat behind those glances.

At the end of our two hours together, I felt completely spent.  I mentioned this to Margie, who said, as she was packing her camera away,

“Well, yes, I guess this is one of those, what do you call it, milestone moments.”

And I thought about something I read in that Charles McGrath essay, Regime Change, I mentioned a few posts back.  He said it in reference to the moment of separation from his son as a freshman on the college campus, but I think it holds true for many of life’s big moments,

“This was a moment…I had been both dreading and anticipating for weeks, and it happened so swiftly, so unceremoniously, that the actual instant (of separation) took place almost before we could register it.”

I’m not saying that I didn’t register this photo session; I actually thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with Margie, fussing and gushing over Sophie.  But it seems like we are often so prepared for–and even steeled against–the milestone moments, that these aren’t necessarily the ones that unravel us.  It’s the moments that catch us off-guard, the sudden, unexpected realizations for instance, that hit us like a thunderbolt, making us temporarily fall apart.

At the end, Margie told us,

“You two make a cute mother/daughter team.  I remember the first time I saw you two together.  It was during the Halloween party in third grade.  You two were in the bathroom, and, Gail, you were fixing something on Sophie’s costume.”  I have always relished my role as Sophie’s attendant.

On the way home, I checked in with Sophie, and asked her,

“Is all this focus on you making you worry about leaving me?”

She said, candidly,

“It’s not like leaving home is going to be easy for me, either.”

And I realized that I’ve been so focused on my own drama over Sophie’s impending launch that I haven’t attended as carefully to hers.  I will have to remember which side of the lens I need to stay on.

Senior Photos: Take 1

We are fashionably late in having Sophie’s senior photos taken this afternoon.  Here we are at the end of September of her senior year, and I swear we started receiving promotional brochures and postcards from photographers over a year ago.  We have missed every early-bird-special booking discount, and are coming dangerously close to the deadline when pictures are due to the yearbook staff.  But Sophie was away all summer working at camp, and now goes to her job after school most days…oh who am I kidding; I’m late, fashionably or otherwise, for almost everything.

Senior pictures have certainly changed since I had mine taken in 1976.  Back then, the same photographer propped us all up against the same tree, had us face either right or left, and had us fold our hands either across our chests if we were standing or in our laps if we were sitting.  The only variation is that two boys got to put their hands in their pockets.

Now, there are myriads of package options and add-ons, like “Road Trip-starting at $35” and “Hair Change-$25”.  You can have your child’s portrait reproduced on ceramic mugs, magnets, dry erase boards, photo note books and even dog tags.   And what senior photo session would be complete without “your very own custom mobile app to view your photos on the go!”

Nowadays, it’s all about the individual.  Kids are photographed in pools, on horses, in their hockey jerseys or ballet slippers, on their skateboards, holding the family pet or their saxophone or guitar or drumsticks, sitting or leaning on the hoods of their cars, and one boy is even breakdancing.  I’m not going to say some of the girls‘ photos border on softcore porn, since I’ve seen much more suggestive poses on their Facebook pages.  But since when does a girl lying on her belly on the beach, sand smeared across her forearms, wet ringlets spilling around her come-hither stare, say “high school graduation”?  Am I being a prude?

Sophie’s upcoming photo session prompted me to give a little more forethought to these pictures than I did with her brothers.  You could argue that it’s because she’s a girl, but I think it also comes from being more familiar with the process than I was the first two times around.  With the boys, it was the night before our appointments when it occurred to me that these photos would be framed and hung in a prominent spot on our dining room wall, and I said to each of them in turn,

“Do you have a clean t-shirt to wear tomorrow?”

With Sophie, we started planning a few days in advance, discussing outfits and how she would style her hair.  This forethinking prompted me to think back, to my own 1976 photo, and I offered,

“Would you like to see my senior picture?” and in a not-too-overtly patronizing voice, she said, “Sure, mom!”

I dug my yearbook out of a box in our storage room, and Sophie started reading some of the inscriptions my classmates had written to me, out loud.  I noticed she was looking for comments the boys had made, since she started reading one and said,

“Oh, that’s a girl.  Never mind.”  Was she trying to get a read on the value of my social stock, or even my suburban street cred when I was her age?

She read the following, written next to a black-and-white photo (they were all black-and-white in our yearbook) of a boy lining up a soccer shot:

“Ever since you came to our school, I have loved to wear my soccer uni around you (hoping you’d be impressed!)”

“Mom!”  Sophie smiled at me, impressed, “He’s flirting with you!”

This hot guy, as Sophie would have classified him, wasn’t wearing his soccer uni when I saw him recently at the Target Pharmacy, picking up his Lipitor.

She kept reading, and was interested in the comment,

“Gail–you throw great parties…”, asking,

“Did you, mom?” though I know I’ve boasted about this to her over the last few years, as she’s become quite a party-thrower, herself.

We sat on her bed and looked at pictures of me and my classmates that were taken 37 years ago, and I felt transported back through the photos, remembering the crushes, the friendships, and the lessons learned, as fully as if it was yesterday.

I showed her the boy I dissected my cat with in anatomy class, like she dissected a cat last spring in her anatomy class.  I pointed to various faces, remarking on what they meant to me back then or fast-forwarding to where they are now; “this guy kissed me in the back stairwell at school”, “this girl grew up and married our anatomy teacher”, “this guy’s a urologist, and this one is an orthopedic surgeon”, and even “this girl was very popular and got married early, but then left her husband for a woman”.  I didn’t get much of a reaction out of her until I mentioned, “This boy got herpes right after high school”.  She gave me a quick, wide-eyed glance.  I said, “That’s why you have to be very careful.  Not only to protect yourself physically, but people find out these things about people. It’s embarrassing.”  I’m not opposed to the use of certain, albeit tacky, scare tactics.

After evaluating Sophie’s wardrobe options, we decided to go out shopping yesterday for one more casual top, just to have it. Clearly, I had something different in mind for her to wear than she did.  After a couple of hours of me pulling things off racks and her responding,

“Do you know me at all?  Is that something I would EVER wear?”

I felt something in me release.  It happened somewhere between walking past the New, Fall Arrivals! and heading back toward the Clearance: 70% Off All Summer Items.  I let go.  I had told Sophie earlier in our retail struggle, “I’m spending a lot of money on these pictures.  Don’t I get a say in what you look like?”  And now suddenly, I realized, no, not completely, I don’t.  It’s her turn to be an individual.  These are her senior pictures, not mine.  These are the pictures she’ll be sitting on her kid’s bed looking at some day, reminiscing about the girl she once was.  Right now, I have to let her be that girl.

In a couple weeks, we’ll choose the shots of Sophie that will join her brothers’ portraits in the senior photo gallery on our wall.  But one of the pictures I keep of her in my heart is her in her pink, onesie pajamas, sitting at that same dining room wall, watching with me out the picture window as her brothers walked down to the bus stop years ago.  Somehow, I tricked myself into believing that even though the boys left, she would stick around and keep me company.  I know she’ll continue to hang out with us, like her brothers do, but soon a snapshot of her independence will hang in a frame on our wall (or on a mug, or a magnet, or a keychain…)

Write of Passage(s)

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.

                                                                                                               ~Gail Sheehy, author of Passages

The other day, Soph said,

“I love being my age. I don’t think it’s the prime of my life, but I’m really happy being this age.”

And what’s not to like?  Have you looked at 18 year-olds lately?  Sophie gets a little freaked out to think her mother looks at “boys my age”, but like my grandmother used to say,

“I was a girl once, too, you know.”

I’m not just looking at the boys; I’m looking at the girls, too.  And I’m not just looking at them on the outside, I’m looking in to all the promise life holds for them at their stage in the game.  Imagining life from the vantage point of senior year of high school conjures up blue sky, a world of possibilities, pure potential, unspent life capital.

The other side of that coin, however, is blue sky, a world of possibilities, pure potential, and unspent life capital.  In other words, exactly the same things that make senior year awesome also make it anxiety producing.  This duality of feelings gets repeated again in about four years, at the end of college and the commencement of “real life”.  Except that four years from now, the stakes may seem a bit higher.  Each stage in life comes with its benefits and limitations, and each choice begins to determine the shape of the road ahead.

In fact, later the same day Sophie proclaimed her love of her current age, she talked about feeling “super anxious”.  When I empathetically admitted that I’ve been feeling anxious lately, too, she shot back,

“What do you have to feel anxious about?”  Which sounds really dismissive on the one hand, but provides an interesting glimpse into her understanding of what lies ahead in life.  If she has things to be anxious about and I shouldn’t, that might mean she sees my life as all figured out.  After all, my biggest life decisions have already been made.  I got accepted to college, found jobs, embarked on a career (or three), chose a mate (sounds like the Nature Channel),  bought a house, created a family, and now I’m even finishing up that part of my life.

WHAT ABOUT MY POINT IN LIFE WOULD MAKE A PERSON ANXIOUS??

As an aside, I think the whole world is jacked-up on anxiety these days, creating a boon for anti-anxiety medication manufacturers.  Better living through pharmaceuticals, as they say.  But socio-cultural commentary is not part of this blog’s mission statement.

From Sophie’s perspective, at least, I’ve made many of my major life decisions.  The course of my life has been largely established, whether I like it or not.  If I’m lucky, I have a length of road ahead of me, even if it’s not as long as the span I can see in my rearview mirror.

But from my perspective, I look back at the starting point of my adult life and the cool thing is I get to use what I’ve learned as I participate in the life of my daughter as she enters adulthood.  I get to assume the roles of mentor, advisor, guide, coach, cheerleader, and realty-checker.  And I would be lying if I said there isn’t some possibility for me, here, too.  I can live vicariously through my daughter, yes, but I can also consider any regrets I may have about choices I made.  I can’t have a do-over through Soph, because, as she has told me before, usually in exasperation,

“Mom; I am NOT YOU.”  Well thank goodness for that.  One of me is plenty.

But coming from the “if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now” point of view, we can at least suggest doing some things rather than others.  This is why I think, for instance, more kids are urged by their parents to travel if at all possible; to see the world before they settle down in order to provide for themselves, their futures and future families.  This is where counseling on sex, drugs, and even rock & roll comes from.  I don’t know how many times I’ve advised my kids to check the volume on their headphones, out of the concern,

“You don’t want to grow up to be deaf like me, do you?”,  then I say, “Speak up nice and loud when you answer.”

Gail Sheehy released her revolutionary book, Passages: Predictable Crisis in Adult Life, in 1976.   Passages remained on The New York Times bestseller list for more than three years, has been reprinted in 28 languages and was named one of the 10 most-influential books of our time, in a Library of Congress survey.

The description of this book claims, The years between 18 and 50 are the center of life, a time of growth and opportunity. But until now no guide has existed to help us understand the mysterious process by which we become adults.” Sheehy advises adults in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s to “…use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change–to grow to your full potential.” What’s interesting to me here is that, according to Sheehy’s paradigm, Sophie is entering “the center of life” just as I am exiting.

Launching young adults is a chance to rethink what goes into building a life that is richly satisfying and one that matters.  As parents, we can share our hard-won wisdom from our own life experience to guide our children, and in doing so, we re-visit our own youth.  We look back at the whole gamut of choice, and maybe even discover some new possibilities there for ourselves.  Perhaps this is another potential benefit of going through these milestone transitions together.

Though our Kids R NOT Us, which is important to remember and respect, we may catch a glimpse through this process of where along the way we might have done something differently, something more, and do it now.  Maybe I should have been an English major the first time around, for example, but maybe it’s even better I’m coming to it now.

And we may forgive ourselves, if we haven’t already, for things we did then that we regret now as we are reminded, through our own kids, how uncertain and anxiety-laden these stages can be.

Our kids are facing a new passage, and we will pass through alongside them.  Then we can seize the opportunity for creative change that their flying will make room for in our own lives.  This is not without a sense of loss, to be sure, but as Sheehy spins it,

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another!”                                                                                                                                     ~Gail Sheehy

Fortunately, Unfortunately

One of my family’s favorite books when I was a kid was Fortunately, by Remy Charlip.  It tells the tale of Ned, whose luck ricochets from good to bad as quickly as a ping pong ball in a table-tennis tournament.

Here’s an excerpt from that book, first published in 1964:

Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.

Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.

Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.

Unfortunately, the motor exploded.

Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.

Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.

Here’s my own version, from just last night:

Fortunately, my brother and his darling family are visiting from Oregon.

Unfortunately, we don’t see them often enough.

Fortunately, we were gathering at my parent’s house for dinner last night.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished my blog by late afternoon, and was feeling anxious about that.

Fortunately, I spent the time making my famous Greek salad for 20 people instead.

Unfortunately, I left the whole damn thing on my kitchen counter.

Fortunately, Sophie was coming from work and driving right past our house.

Unfortunately, the keypad’s battery had come loose and she couldn’t open our garage door.

Fortunately, there’s a key to the house.

Unfortunately, it was locked inside the house (long story).

I don’t tolerate frustration well.  At all.  This is one of many skills I need to work on.  I’m ashamed of the example I set for my children in this regard.  My mismanagement of my own agitation sets those around me on edge, causing my children to sometimes assume the role of parent and try to soothe me.  Bad mom.  That’s not their job.

Part of the anxiety we might feel as our kids are about to leave our nests is,  Have we taught them all that we intended to teach them?  But this teaching doesn’t end once the kids leave the house.  Nor is it all intentional.  My two grown sons were at dinner last night and were the first on the scene to see what I needed and try to calm me down.  While I haven’t mastered my own self-management, I guess I should be proud that I have raised children who are compassionate to others, even when those “others” make mistakes or behave badly.  As we all do, once in a while.

Fortunately, I posted to my blog once we got home, honoring my commitment.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t that jazzed about my post.

Fortunately, my husband was willing to give me feedback on it.

Unfortunately, he said I’m quoting too much from other authors.

Fortunately, I still allowed myself to begin this post with an excerpt from an author.

Unfortunately, I must keep this post short, so as not to neglect my thesis for another second.

Fortunately, I have plenty of Greek salad for lunch.

The Full Half of the Martini

I’m a Libra and Libra’s crave balance.  Yesterday, I focused on the contemplation of death that emptying the nest can trigger.  Today I will shift to the consideration of life– more specifically life after the nest is emptied–in order to right my tipped Libran scales.

If I’m going to be honest, and why stop now, I must admit that I’ve flashed on the potential upside of an empty nest.  Just a few weeks ago, I crossed paths with the mother of Sophie’s closest friend to have left for college this fall.  As you would expect, I asked the mother how she (the mother, not the daughter) was doing.  She said,

“I miss her, but now the house stays clean!”

So there’s one benefit.

Of the books I found at the library on the empty nest, two of them deal exclusively with this afterlife.  One is called Barbara & Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest; Discovering New Purpose, Passion & Your Next Great Adventure, and the other, Fun Without Dick and Jane; Your Guide to a Delightfully Empty Nest.  The cover of this second book sports the kitschy art we Boomers (obviously the book’s demographic) remember from grade school.  But instead of Dick and Jane featured running front and center like the original, this cover has them waving from the side, pushed off the edge of the front cover, while Father and Mother get down together in a large illustrated nest.  Mother’s right arm is around this metrosexualized version of Father and her left arm is hoisting up a martini.  Party on, Mother and Father!

I haven’t delved into these utopian books.  I’m not there, yet.

But I did read the third essay in The Empty Nest book, the book from which I shared an excerpt from Anna Quindlen’s piece in my post, “Missing Children”.

This third essay, entitled Regime Change, by Charles McGrath, is written in two parts.  McGrath writes the first part with poignant humor after delivering his youngest child to college.  This part must have been published independently, because the second part begins, “I wrote that more than ten years ago…” and he goes on to talk about some things that happened hence, including a reaction from someone who wrote to him saying,

“It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this important moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption.  I’m a parent. I don‘t feel that way.  Frankly, I just don’t understand it.  Must be part of this ‘me‘ thing.”

In fact, we Boomers are the original “Me” generation, spawning what Time Magazine, in their May 2013 issue, called the current “Me, Me, Me” generation.

Getting back to McGrath, he responds to this accusation,

“Guilty as charged, and why not?  I wasn’t worried about my son, who went on to enjoy himself immensely in college, just as I suspected he would.  I was worried about me, and about how my wife and I would cope with a house that for a while seemed to echo with emptiness.  The refrigerator no longer needed to be replenished daily.  We needed to run the dishwasher no more than once or twice a week.  My son’s room no longer needed to be tidied, or to have the door shut so that we needn’t look upon the mess within.”

Reading this, I flashed on Sophie’s nuclear-holocaust of a room, which suddenly brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.

(continuing):

“There were a couple of evenings early on when my wife and I were at a loss for words.  What was there to talk about, if not the kids?  Plenty, it turned out, as gradually, like a change in government, a new era of liberation set in.  Dinner on TV trays! Wine! Living room nudity! We slept soundly at night, no longer waking up in those early, white-knuckle hours, waiting for the blessed sound of a car pulling into the driveway and the back door softly shutting.  On weekends, we stayed in bed late if we felt like it or else, on the spur of the moment, we hopped in the car and went somewhere without a thought as to when we might return.  In a way we became kids ourselves.”

I read such accounts like I might read a travel brochure describing an exotic destination I’m considering visiting.  The pictures are lovely; I can even feel the tropical breezes and the chilled, umbrella drink in my hand, like Mother’s martini.

In a global way, I can imagine some advantages of an empty nest.  This week, for example, when I had to make my pilgrimage to Sophie’s school for senior parent night–my third, over the course of the last seven years, but last fall senior parent night–I still dreaded it.  I didn’t even bring a notebook this time, and kept nodding off during the presentation.  I guess I’ve become jaded about some of these parental obligations.  These are some of the things I won’t miss.

But I can’t even be sure about that.  Last week in High Holiday services, I glanced across the sanctuary and spotted the siblings I used to drive in Hebrew School carpool.  The boy is Sophie’s age and is one of her best friends.  His sister is already in her second year of college.  I used to dread driving to Hebrew School, too, but now I thought I might like to go back to those sweet, hectic days.  I would love to listen to and participate in the conversations we had in the thick of things during those years.  Have you ever noticed how kids will say all kinds of things with other kids in the car that they would never say to just you?

And it’s not like Howie and I haven’t had stretches of time in the house by ourselves.  Sophie spent 8 weeks as a junior counselor at camp this past summer, and will spend this coming summer there as a full-fledged counselor.  Howie and I have had our dress-rehearsal (or undressed rehearsal; sorry kids, I know that’s “gross”) in the role of empty nesters.

I can only imagine how different it feels when the last one’s not coming back.  But I can’t be sure about this, either.  I am familiar with the term “boomerang” children; in fact it sounds like there’s a whole generation of them now.

For the moment, considering the possible advantages of life beyond nestlings has somewhat restored my Libran equilibrium .  I’ll have to watch those martinis, though.

I-M(O)M-ortality

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying. Woody Allen

Woody Allen was asked, in a recent interview, about his relationship with death.  He answered,

“My relationship with death remains the same.  I’m strongly against it.”

Woody Allen is the poster child for necrophobia, or fear of death.  He’s the face of  of this issue, for me.  Yesterday, I posted links to two wonderful musings on the letting go of grown children.  One was written by a father, one by a mother.  The father was reflecting on sending his eldest off to college, the mother was about to watch her youngest graduate from college.  Both parents were mourning the loss of children who were still present but moving on in their own lives.  And both writers made reference to death.

The father, Michael Gerson, took a scientific approach to the subject of mortality:

“Eventually, the cosmologists assure us, our sun and all suns will consume their fuel, violently explode and then become cold and dark. Matter itself will evaporate into the void and the universe will become desolate for the rest of time.

This was the general drift of my thoughts as my wife and I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college.”

The mother, Madeline Levine, took a less astronomical, more intimate view of the situation:

“Part of our sense of disruption…comes not only from the loss of a particular kind of relationship with our children but also because this loss is temporally close to other losses in the life cycle. Our younger selves have dissolved…We are too old to realize certain dreams. We’ve made choices that are now irrevocable…The marriage that sputtered along, the career that never quite materialized, the friendships that couldn’t be maintained and of course, most acutely, our own mortality.” (italics are mine)

Ultimately, I feel the fear of death is at the bottom of all this discomfort around launching children.  Am I overstating the obvious?  On some level, I am aware that if I am old enough to have children who can survive on their own, I am not only less necessary but also closer to my own death.  It’s one thing to know this rationally, but another to have the feeling seriously creeping up on you, like spider veins.

Mothers of young children look dewy and succulent, even when they’re exhausted.  Mothers of older children just look exhausted.  I’m not saying there isn’t a regal beauty in our corporeal exhaustion–a hard-won badge of physical honor–but what I would give for hair that doesn’t seem as if it’s turning to straw, for example.

So I looked into the subject of fearing death and found a book that gets right to the crux of the matter.  Again, I shamelessly steal the following from the eternal fountain of information, Wikipedia.  The description of book’s premise is so meaty, that I decided I better cut it up into bite-sized pieces (another maternal instinct) so no one would choke on it’s author’s astonishing theory:

“The Denial of Death is a 1973 work of psychology and philosophy by Ernest Becker.  It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, two months after the author’s death. The book builds on the works of Søren Kierkegaard , Sigmund Freud, and Otto Rank.

The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.

Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving our symbolic halves.

By embarking on what Becker refers to as an “immortality project” (or causa sui), in which a person creates or becomes part of something which they feel will last forever, the person feels they have “become” heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to their physical body that will die one day. 

This, in turn, gives the person the feeling that their life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.

From this premise, mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a bogging down in one’s hero system(s). When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result.”

In sharing this theory with you, I may inadvertently be contributing to the death of this blog.  Once we name the elephant in the room–the elephant that lives not only with Woody Allen but with every conscious human being–what more can we say?

But wait; perhaps I am viewing the half-empty part of the glass (I told you, I love my cliches), and not the full half?  And perhaps this is a glass half full of something intoxicating!

Both articles I referenced earlier end optimistically.  Maybe writers feel a moral responsibility to provide a happy ending.  As long as today’s topic is THE END, why not look for some hope in even that?  Here’s how Madeline Levine ends her piece:

“Our children’s independence is a reminder of how much we had to give and all that we have accomplished. It is a pleasure to remember that it is not a form of abandonment but an expression of a job well done — and is something to keep in mind as we move back into the center of our own lives, (boldface, mine) in ways that will make our children proud.”

And here’s yet another take on the end from Woody:

Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon. Woody Allen

Let’s try this for today’s ending:

The Beginning

To Be, or (Not) To Be(seech)

With the Jewish high holidays over so early this year, and the first two weeks of school under our belts, I stare into the void of the remaining 164 school days I have committed to blog.  Sure, I can think of plenty to say, but who is listening?

Sophie says kids at school have been reading this blog.  Really?  Now, there’s an audience I didn’t anticipate.  Kids; don’t you have homework to do, or ACTs to prep for?

The thought of writing something that both parents and kids can read makes me a little dizzy.  There are feelings I’d like to express here that I don’t want kids to have to worry about.  They shouldn’t have to worry about our emotional transitioning, when they have so much transitioning of their own to tend to.  But such is the nature of electronic sharing.  Everyone has access to the blogosphere, though many don’t know (or don’t care) exactly how to do it.  According to Wikipedia, my trusty source for insta-information, there are more than 158 million identified blogs, with more than 1 million new posts being produced by the blogosphere each day.  That’s a lot of blogging competition.

I still know almost nothing about blogging, other than how to post.  There is a “Stats” page that tells me I am linked to 312 “friends” on facebook, that I have had 863 views, and 15 Visitors already today, even before posting this.  What I’m most humbled by is that I have 17 Followers, though I don’t know most of them–or why they’ve chosen to follow me–and one of them appears to be me.  A heartfelt “thank you” to my other 16 followers; 6 of whom follow me on WordPress, and 10 through email.  I have a long way to go to catch up to one of WordPress’s “Recommended” blogs by another mom who has 4,427 followers (I never thought blog envy is something I’d suffer from, but I’m feeling it now).  I look forward to learning all kinds of fancy blogging tricks, like adding tags and posting pictures and maybe even selling advertising space someday.

This blog began as a multi-purpose project for me.  First, I wanted a warm-up writing exercise each day that would launch me into my thesis writing for the day.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I am working on my thesis and plan to receive my MFA from Hamline University in Creative Nonfiction this spring.  Unfortunately, so far, this blog has been so much more fun to work on than my thesis that it has turned into one, giant procrastination device.  I really have to get my writing life under control.  If not, that MFA is in serious jeopardy.

The second purpose is a therapeutic one.  I am in such a panic about letting my last chick fly from my nest, that the only thing I could think to do was to write my way through it.  In doing so, I’m hoping to connect with moms–and dads–who are experiencing this same anticipatory panic.  And the third, related purpose which is also therapeutic is that through writing, I hope to psyche myself up about my own launch, which I have told myself I must consider this next phase of my life to be.  This is meant to model a when-life-hands-you-lemons sort of spirit.

For those of you who tune in regularly or even occasionally, I want to reward your attention with something worth your while each day.  When I can’t come up with something profound to say on my own on this vast topic of emptying the nest, I will gift you with the words of others.  I will serve as your scout on this topic as we continue down this road to our children’s ultimate departure.

I will leave you with two such brilliantly-written articles today.  They don’t do much by way of curing the pain of this process of letting go, but they provide the next best thing, which is an acknowledging of the pain and dignifying our collective and inescapable suffering.   Isn’t this all we can do for each other as human beings in a pain-filled world?

The first link is to a piece written by Michael Gerson that was published on August 20, 2013 in the Washington Post, called Musings from an emptying nesthttp://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-saying-goodbye-to-my-child-the-youngster/2013/08/19/6337802e-08dd-11e3-8974-f97ab3b3c677_story.html  Here are the most stunning exerpts from this musing, as far as I’m concerned:

  • …it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most.
  • …with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.
  • Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story.

The second link is to a piece written by Madeline Levine that was published on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2013 in the New York Times, called After the Children Have Grown. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/opinion/sunday/after-the-children-have-grown.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.  It was shared with me by my friend Susan, who has shared the joy and pain of motherhood with me since our first children were born; even before we began our regularly-scheduled walks around Lake of the Isles around the time I was pregnant with Sophie.

I BESEECH you to read the Madeline Levine piece.  I will use discretion in beseeching you to do anything, but if you do nothing else today, READ THIS masterpiece.  It’s not only empathetic, but also reassuring and a good heads-up.

Now I will summon my muse for inspiration for tomorrow!

Note: These, and other wonderful essays, are listed on the site Grown & Flown, at http://grownandflown.com/8-best-of-the-empty-nest/.