Monthly Archives: October 2013

It’s the Great Costume, Charlie Brown!

The scariest thing about Halloween, for me, has always been having to come up with costumes.  Not that I see competition or the potential for judgement lurking in all things, but in a costume situation, there’s always going to be someone craftier, more up-to-the-minute, hipper, more clever, more willing to go all-out, and certainly sexier than I.  Where’s my sense of fun, anyhow?

Halloween costumes generally fall into categories, summarized nicely by Wikipedia:

Costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, witches, goblins, trolls, devils, etc. or in more recent years such science fiction-inspired characters as aliens and superheroes. There are also costumes of pop culture figures like presidents, athletes, celebrities, or characters in film, television, literature, etc. Another popular trend is for women (and in some cases, men) to use Halloween as an excuse to wear sexy or revealing costumes, showing off more skin than would be socially acceptable otherwise. Young girls also often dress as entirely non-scary characters at Halloween, including princesses, fairies, angels, farm animals and flowers.

No daughter of mine is going out dressed like a farm animal.  And don’t get me started on the inexcusable sexism captured in that last sentence.

The point being made is that most costumes can be divided into the familiar categories of:  supernatural–often dead–beings, fictionally-inspired characters, pop-cultural figures, and excuses to act out various fantasies, whether it be dressing provocatively, cross-dressing, or going a bit too far and flat out humiliating oneself (you know who you are).

Another interesting costume category is the concept costume.  In this way, revelers can make social statements or otherwise comment on what’s trending culturally or politically.  I saw a recent photo, online, of a guy poking his head through a ceiling tile, with the words “Debt Ceiling” formed in black electrical tape below his face.  The downside with a concept costume is that you spend the night having to explain what you are, or having to walk around with a sign, if you can’t write it on the costume in electrical tape.

When I was at school at UW-Madison, where Halloween is the holiest day of the year, I remember one State Street Halloween Party where a popular concept costume was a tampon or a box of tampons.  Shocking?  Yes, and fittingly so.  Here’s what my research, looking back, reveals:

In January 1980, epidemiologists in Wisconsin and Minnesota reported the appearance of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), mostly in those menstruating, to the CDC.

UW students that year were commenting on the September 1980 recall, just one month prior to that Halloween, of Procter and Gamble’s Rely tampon.  I didn’t realize the connection between TSS and the use of tampons resulted from yet another form of reciprocity between Minnesota and Wisconsin, in this case, between our epidemiologists.

An additional and classic division among costumes is the store-bought versus home-made division.  The home-made category can be further divided, into pre-planned-carefully-constructed and slap-something-together-quickly,-today’s-Halloween varieties.

When the boys were dependent on me to outfit them for Halloween, things could potentially have been stressful.  I had my own graphic-design business during those years, which you would think would have made me very crafty, but it only made me insanely busy.

The boys relieved me of my costume stress in different ways.

Sam was happy, year after year, to go out in store-bought or otherwise pre-assembled costumes.  He was a Ninja Turtle several years in a row, followed by a Ghostbuster.

Nate showed me mercy in even more tender, earth-bound ways.  Through the winning combination of being a nature-loving, vegetarian with a good imagination, he chose to be things like creatures or vegetables on Halloween.  Two years in a row, he opted to be a moth, which involved grabbing an old sheet and a stapler and metamorphosizing him into this bi-winged, nocturnal insect in the laundry room on the way out the door to school.  When he got bigger, he wanted to be an eggplant.  I made him a cozy costume of this nightshade vegetable using aubergine polar fleece, and adapting a sewing pattern from the more conventional, commercially-available pumpkin costume.  This year, he’s going as corn.

As my luck would have it, I took a few years off work right when Sophie was in the prime ages of participating in the annual Public March for the Judgement of Mothers event otherwise known as the elementary school Halloween Costume Parade.  Finally, I had the time to make a real costume, and for a daughter, no less!  My feminist leanings flew from me like bats from a belfry as I became mesmerized by patterns for Cinderella and Snow White costumes at the fabric store.  I bought yards of light blue satin and delicate silver mesh fabric covered with glittering silver stars.  You won’t believe me when I tell you I even made a hoop-skirt petticoat using hoop boning, a sewing notion I’d never even heard of before, so when my miniature Cinderella walked, her skirt swished and sashayed like a real princess.

In what I still consider one of the most romantic gestures of our relationship, Howie surprised me with a new sewing machine during these couple years of my Halloween costume-making raptures.  At that point, I was battling the Singer Sewing machine I had gotten for my Bat Mitzvah 30 years earlier, over the silver mesh.  The new, high-tech machine was one of my biggest Halloween treats.

When it was all said and done, I could have won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for both the Cinderella and Snow White masterpieces.  People still talk to me to this day about how Sophie, with her dark hair and fair skin, in that outfit looked like the real Snow White.

This year, aside from the Twerking Teddy Bear Miley Cyrus costume, the latest trend is for something called costume mashups.  Sam is going as Pauly Dean, a mashup of Pauly D. from Jersey Shore (not to be confused with Pauly Shore), and the recently disgraced celebrity chef, Paula Dean.  I know this because he came here to borrow an apron, an oven mitt and some earring backs (don’t ask).  If I didn’t have kids, it would be trickier to keep up with such trends.

I’m not scared about Halloween costumes this year.  Sophie is old enough to come up with her own costumes and dress herself.  I won’t have to take her trick-or-treating, since she’s invited to a friend’s Halloween party for the evening.  And I don’t have to put on a costume, myself.

One year, as I was pulling out the witch costume I bought to wear when I was room mother at the grade school all those years, Sophie affectionately said,

“You don’t even need a costume, Mom; you look like a witch already!”

In a reverse-witch move, I’ll be spending this Halloween afternoon (not with kids, other than the stylists at the salon) getting my hair cut and colored.  And just in case, I noticed Party City has 60% off costumes today, and they’re open late!


Late Start

Circadian rhythms provide the daily beat for human life, in simple terms, as our 24-hour cycles of activity and rest are orchestrated internally, by our biological clock, and externally, by changes in the environment, especially the alternations between day and night.  In even simpler terms, the unique circadian rhythms of teenagers are seriously messed-with by the early start times of most high schools.

Sophie’s high school began experimenting with weekly late-starts a couple years ago, instituting an hour-later start time on Wednesdays beginning last year.  Ostensibly, the late start was to allow the teachers an extra hour of prep time but I think the real reason is that teachers were tired of having students fall asleep in first block every morning.

Research conducted at our own University of Minnesota, led by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom and her research team at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), has “led the way in the study of later start times for high school students, beginning with their study of the impact of later start times on educational achievement in two different districts (Edina and Minneapolis Public Schools).”   They began their work in 1996, the year Sophie was born, and have achieved great renown for their School Start Time Study, conducted from 1998-2001.

Here are the most compelling findings to emerge from this study: (

…adolescents have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. Medical researchers found this cycle is part of the maturation of the endocrine system. From the onset of puberty until late teen years, the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until approximately 8 a.m., nine hours later. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms and is rather fixed. In other words, typical youth are not able to fall asleep much before 11 p.m. and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8 a.m., regardless of what time they go to bed.

So teens are dancing to the circadian rhythms of a totally different drummer than younger or older humans.

The summary of the research goes on to explain how sleep–or lack thereof–impacts education,

These adolescent sleep patterns can have profound consequences for education. With classes in most high schools in the United States starting at around 7:15 a.m., high school students tend to rise at about 5:45 or 6 a.m. in order to get ready and catch the bus. It’s no wonder that 20 percent of students sleep during their first two hours of school, when their brains and bodies are still in a biological sleep mode. The loss of adequate sleep each night also results in a “sleep debt” for most teens. Teens who are sleep-deprived or functioning with a sleep debt are shown to be more likely to experience symptoms such as depression, difficulty relating to peers and parents, and are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.

As if we need more debt, of any kind, in this country.

The reasons given for early start times for teens include bus scheduling, after-school sports and activities, and day care for younger kids.  And the school day, like the school year, seems like an anachronism in certain respects, harkening back to a time when families lived and worked on farms and older kids went to school after completing their morning chores, even before the sun came up.  Now just getting these kids up is a chore.

As compelling as the data from this study is, the schools seem to be responding to the information by hitting the snooze button.

Sleep deprivation is a condition mothers are as familiar with as anyone on the planet.  Just this morning, I re-read a chapter of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, the book I mentioned in a post last week, about her first year as a single mother.  Here’s one of many things she had to say about the inevitable sleep deprivation inherent in caring for an infant,

It’s incredible to be this fucking tired and yet to have to go through the several hours of colic every night.  It would be awful enough to deal with if you were feeling healthy and upbeat.  It’s a bit much when you’re feeling like total dog shit.  When he woke me up at 4:00 this morning to nurse, I felt like I was dying.  I felt like getting up to pull down the shades and wave good-bye to all my people, but I was too tired. 

Substitute “homework” for “colic”, above, and waking at 4:00 “to nurse” with “to answer a late-night text” and you can see how the sleep-deprived high school student and mother feel each other’s pain.

Weekday mornings are miserable in our house for both the high school student and her mother.  As I’ve said before, neither of us are morning people by nature.  It gets worse as the week, and then the year, goes on.  Monday, when I went down to wake Sophie, she said,

“I’m miserable.  I hate this.” even before she opened her eyes.  Tuesday, she got up, but stood at the bottom of the stairs looking pitifully up at me and said,

“I feel so tired, I’m sick.” and with that, she crawled back into bed, and I let her sleep an extra two hours.  I’m sick and tired of her being so tired she’s sick.  Call me irresponsible for calling our own late start, but I’ll point out that it’s also irresponsible to deprive young drivers of sleep.  MSNBC did a story in 2010 linking early classes with teen car crashes.

For now, we’ll somnambulate through this year and they’ll probably revamp the whole school start time schedule the day Sophie graduates.  It’d be nice to rise and shine, but for us the late start times are too little, too late.


My friend, Sarah, from my MFA program at Hamline has a piece published in the current issue of our local online literary journal,  It is a haunting piece with  a breathtaking lyric (a word whose definition we grapple with in the creative writing business) quality.  I’m so proud of her.  She has given me permission to include a link to her piece in this post:

I was drawn to Sarah from the first time I met her in our introductory Creative Nonfiction class.  One evening during class, as I stood behind her chatting while we were on break, I started absent-mindedly playing with her hair.  Her hair is long and dark, like Sophie’s.  As soon as I realized what I was doing, I withdrew my hands and apologized.

“That’s O.K.” Sarah said sweetly, “It feels good.  My mom does that.”

Sarah’s parents live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Sarah’s hometown.  When we are together–and we have been together in classes, in our writing group, and at various literary events over the years–she needs a mother, and I need a daughter.  We both attended a writing conference in Chicago in the late winter/early spring of 2012.  Walking down Michigan Avenue, we put our arms around each other as a hedge against the chill off the lake.  That’s when she named herself my “Sophstitute”.

Sophie isn’t so sure about having a stand-in, but I think she understands my need for a surrogate daughter in certain situations.  She and Sarah have met several times.  When I first introduced them, I felt like I was introducing Sophie to her understudy.  Sarah is no stranger to the theater, either.  I have attended several of the shows she’s performed in recently as an improv student at the Brave New Workshop.

After I had my two boys, I begged the universe not only for a third child, but–if it wasn’t too much to ask–for a daughter.  I am very close with my mother and longed for a daughter of my own.  I promised the universe, in return, to love her in a manner befitting the reception of such a gift, if the universe deemed me worthy.  Not a day has passed in the last 17 years that I am not thankful beyond description for my Sophie, no matter how sassy she can be.

I am thankful for my boys, of course, too.  I was happy that I had two boys, since I think boys bond more easily with their brothers than they might with other boys, but that girls can find themselves sisters,  if they don’t have any biological ones.  Women bond with each other differently, in my opinion, than men do.  We find ourselves not only sisters, but also mothers and daughters, if necessary.  Just like Sarah and I have done.

Running as an undercurrent in Sarah’s published piece, entitled Break, is a story of a young woman trying to recover from a severed relationship.  I am embarrassed when I respond to love stories and love songs by thinking about my children, rather than my husband.  But my husband hasn’t left me.  My children have.

The song I used to sing to Sophie when she was a little girl is the one from Cinderella,

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes:

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep
In dreams you lose your heartaches
Whatever you wish for, you keep.

I still can’t hear this song without weeping, both from the joy of having her, and from the harsh reality that I’ll have to let her go.  Dreams may come true, but whatever you wish for you can’t always keep.

When Sarah says, in her piece, Break, “…you are embedded in me like a sliver of glass…”, I know she is talking about a lover who has left her with an annoying and painful reminder of the fact that he was there, but is there no longer.  It is with this same sense of completely irrational anger that I acquiesce to the leaving of my children from my daily life.  Sarah continues,

He told me it was nothing personal and thanked me for being so patient with him.  I wanted to tell him it wasn’t patience.  It was paralysis, immobility brought forth when every move meant maneuvering an ever-changing minefield.

I feel ashamed and embarrassed to admit that facing the “Exit, stage left” of my children from my home feels like an abandonment on par with any major traumatic breakup.  Truthfully, I don’t know why I keep obsessing over this same tender spot.  I keep hoping that, over time, it will work its way out, like a sliver of glass.

A Bushel and A Peck

I love you, a bushel and a peck!

A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck.

The measurements “bushel” and “peck” aren’t used much anymore.  They are used to measure produce by volume, as opposed to weight (a bushel is 8 gallons and a peck is a quarter of that, or 8 quarts).  Some things are harder to measure than others.

My grandmother, Sugar, used to sing me the song, A Bushel and A Peck, made popular through the score of the Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls in the early 50’s.  At the apple orchard, where I took Nate and Sophie yesterday, they still sell apples by the peck.

For some reason I can only guess at, Nate said to me the other day,

“You can take me to the apple orchard if you want.”

Maybe he said it this way because, historically, an annual fall trip to the orchard was my idea.  Like the enthusiastic camp counselor I tried to be as a mom, I dragged the kids on various seasonal field trips.  They often resisted, but once there, we always had a good time.  I remember one of the last years I was able to to get all three kids to go with me, the boys were in their mid- to late-teens and rode the hay wagon with their earbuds in their ears and their hoodies pulled over their heads.  Is it nostalgia that moved Nate to suggest an outing to the apple orchard this year?  I’ve gotta believe there are less time-consuming ways for him to get apples.

Speaking of consuming time, I have been spending so much time writing about emptying my nest, that I’m afraid I may not always be seeing the forest (or orchard) for the trees.  As I have been writing these past couple months, the boys have been flocking home quite a bit more than they used to.  Both live in town.  Sam has a “real” job as a Sales Consultant at a car dealership, and Nate is finishing up college.  I don’t think they read my blog every day, but they are sensitive young men and we are close.  Still, I can’t figure out if they’re coming around for me to care for them, or them to care for me.  Hard to gauge; maybe it’s a bit of both.

Either way, this is clearly the next phase of parenting after the kids leave the house.  Parents have to figure out how to have relationships with their adult children.  Even though technology allows us to talk to or even see (if not in-person, then via Skype or FaceTime) our kids whenever we want, wherever they are, how much contact is appropriate?  This is another thing that’s hard to measure.  I’m trying to follow my kids’ cues.  If they’re coming around more, I figure there’s something they need from coming around, and I don’t think it’s just for food, like they say.

When the boys come over–and while Sophie is still a fledgling in this house–I sometimes find myself feeling too busy to spend quality time with them;  just like when we all lived here together and I would busy myself with house work, work-work, or in other ways allow myself to be distracted while they were around.  What was/am I supposed to do?  Sit and stare at them?  Was/am I supposed to engage in meaningful conversation with them every minute?  Of course that’s ridiculous.  But the work/home balance is another thing with parts that are notoriously hard to measure.  What’s enough time?  And what is “quality” time?

In my attempt to launch myself into my new life as a writer and teacher, I’ve been teaching classes for The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  This past Saturday morning, I taught Spooky Stories, Creepy Creations to a dozen 6-8 year-olds.  They spent the first hour-and-a-half writing scary Halloween stories with me, and the second hour-and-a-half making pop-up books in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA); The Loft and MCBA are both housed in The Open Book building downtown.

Saturday morning, I put on Nate’s old Scream costume, the witch hat I bought to wear to Halloween parties when I was room mother at the elementary school, took a pumpkin full of candy (which I used as a bribe for good behavior), my books and notes and spent the morning interacting with other people’s kids.

That afternoon, Howie and I attended the memorial service for that 61-year-old friend I mentioned last week.  The Pastor was refreshingly down-to-earth, so he got my attention.  He reminded us of all the things you always hear at funerals; that we will be remembered not for the sales we make or the awards we win, but for the ways in which we touch and are involved in the lives of those around us.

I came home from the service and decided that Sunday, instead of catching up on a bunch of work around the house, I would take Nate up on his offer to  to visit the apple orchard.  I invited Sophie and Sam along, too. Sophie was willing to put off her homework for a few more hours and join us, but Sam said he wanted to come over in the evening instead, to watch the Vikings/Packers game with Howie.

On the way to the orchard yesterday, Sophie read the news, on her phone, that Lou Reed died.  As we drove, the airwaves were filled with Lou Reed songs, and the three of us sang with the colored girls,

Doo da doo, da doo, doo da doo, doo da doo da doo doo da do

Do you notice how once someone is gone, all of a sudden we crave hearing them again?  When’s the last time they played Lou Reed music throughout the day, but today, we can’t get enough of it.  We all have songs to sing, but our songs seem to become so much more precious when we’re not here to sing them anymore.  I can’t hear A Bushel and A Peck without imagining my grandmother’s voice singing it to me.

Out at the orchard, I tried to get Nate and Sophie to do all the things they enjoyed doing there when they were little.  They wouldn’t climb on the hay bales, but they were happy to ride the hay wagon behind the old tractor driven by one of the orchard’s old timers.

The woods behind the apple barn, on the way to the U-Pick groves of trees, were decked out with the same cheesy Halloween decorations that have been there since the kids took buses from the preschool to this same apple orchard years ago.  Back then, I went along as a chaperone, and still love the pictures from those days.  I took pictures yesterday, too, and Nate and Sophie were good sports about posing for some classic orchard shots for me.  But then I realized that too much focus on picture taking was taking me out of the experience of just walking around the orchard on a gorgeous fall afternoon with my now-grown kids.

This morning on the Today Show, they did the expected tribute to Lou Reed.  They called him the punk poet, and said he is admired for doing exactly what he wanted artistically; that this “ethos made Lou Reed a pure artist”.  I especially loved what they dug up from his 1959 high school yearbook (when he was Sophie’s age).  It read,

“As for the immediate future, Lou has no plans, but will take life as it comes.”

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own plans, that we miss the chances we have to take life as it comes.  I made the right decision yesterday to leave my work sitting for a few hours, and revive a fall tradition with my kids in the apple orchard.  That approach seems to have worked for Lou, as well!

Right now, I could keep working to refine this post, but I think I’ll take time out to make my guys and doll an apple pie, instead.  Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.  Unless, of course, you sing it…

I love you, a bushel and a peck!

You bet your pretty neck I do.

Doodle oodle oodle

Doodle oodle oodle

Doodle oodle oodle oo.

Be the Blanket

Yesterday’s cliffhanger of a post obliges me to begin today’s post by saying, I’m fine, thank you!  First thing this morning, I was examined by a specialist at the Piper Breast Center, had a diagnostic mammogram followed by an ultrasound, and the conclusion is that what I was feeling was a teeny-tiny lymph node.  All is as it should be.  In my world, the earth shifted back on its axis. I am grateful for my continuing good health, but even more grateful for the warm thoughts and wishes from the wonderful people in my life.

I was examined by a Dr. Johnson, breast cancer specialist, and a Dr. Carlson, radiologist, so I knew I was in Minnesota, you betcha.  Once it was determined that what I had palpated was normal tissue, I started to feel like the woman who cried wolf.  I felt a little embarrassed and apologetic, yet they both assured me that it is always better to check out suspicious lumps and bumps rather than dismiss them as nothing.  Better safe than sorry, all agreed.

Tomorrow, Howie and I will attend the funeral of a 61-year-old friend of ours.  I saw this friend about six weeks ago and he seemed fine.  Then he started not feeling well and went to the doctor, at which point it was too late; they found he was full of cancer and he died.  Pardon my language, but you don’t fuck with cancer.  Cancer can fuck you up.

There is a sober feeling in the Breast Center, even though if you accept their offer of a glass of water, they ceremoniously serve it to you in a wine goblet.

What I appreciated most was the utter seriousness (so tempting to say they are serious about udders) with which I and my concern were treated.  Dr. Johnson had a hard time finding my tiny BB-sized node.  She said sometimes things are easier to find sitting up than lying down, so I sat up.  She did not dismiss me.  She thoroughly examined me until she felt what I was feeling.  It is amazing how these doctors examine anxious patients, mostly women, all day, everyday, yet they maintain a level of professional patience and seriousness that feels very validating to me as a patient.

Women can be very sensitive and may be prone to worry about themselves and those they love.  On the one hand, these attributes make us particularly suited to our roles as caregivers.  Taken too far, our concern can be judged as something more neurotic or pathological.

The word “hysterical” comes from the Latin, hystericus, “of the womb” and was “originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus”.

Bill Casselman, Canadian writer and broadcaster (and blogger!), wrote the following etymology of the word hysterical:

Ancient Greeks and more modern men too had the sexist notion that nervous afflictions were peculiar to women and were symptoms of various uterine maladies. Plato imagined that the uterus…was a separate spirit and animal part of a woman that only wanted to become pregnant. If it did not, this imaginary uterus-spirit wandered in a fit…through the female body causing trouble. When it arrived at the brain, this hystera (womb animal)…induced feminine hysterics.

If we don’t take ourselves seriously, how can we expect others to?

When it came time for my ultrasound this morning, Dr. Carlson also struggled to find my elusive node.  They had me laying with my arm over my head, but once I suggested we look for it with my arm at my side, she, too became serious.  She said to the imaging technician,

“Can you give me some more depth?  Good.  Give me color.  Thanks.  Zoom in right there…”

I’m sure I’ve got her exact instruction wrong, but the point is, I was almost through with this exam, relieved that things appeared normal, then this fresh concern sent me into the murky waters of nervous uncertainty once again.  The two doctors consulted about this new finding, and ultimately determined that these were normal lymph nodes they were seeing.  Nevertheless, Dr. Johnson asked me to come back in six weeks for a follow-up check to be sure nothing has changed.  As I mentioned earlier, things can change in six, short weeks.  But I am certainly feeling reassured today.

With all the interior views I got of my body this morning, I was thinking about what a strange and wondrous capsule our human bodies are.  We live inside of them all day, every day, all our lives.  Yet there is so much about them that is hidden from view, and once viewed, seems so foreign or even alien.  Dr. Carlson reviewed with me that in our armpits alone, there lies muscle and bone, tendons and ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, nodes and glands.  What a fantastic, if a little bit gory, design.  And again, how much we’ve got going on behind the curtain that keeps us moving and functioning and we simply take it for granted everyday.

This was the first ultrasound I have had in the eighteen years since I was pregnant with Sophie, and was nowhere as thrilling.  Seeing the inside of your own chest and armpit is not dynamic or exciting.  Seeing an embryonic human swimming around in your belly is.  Once again, the concept of kids as company entered my consciousness.  Being pregnant is such a bizarre condition.  It’s like taking in a border–a complete stranger–in an intimate, one-room apartment.  Last time I had an ultrasound, I was looking inside two of us.  Today, it was just me up there on the monitor, in black and white.

I was a bit chilled walking in the halls of the Breast Center, so the technician escorting me offered to grab a blanket from the blanket warmer on the counter.  I said I didn’t need it, and she said,

“Oh, come on, take it.  It’s a warm blanket!”

Like Linus, who doesn’t love a warm blanket?  Which brings me to my final point for the day; our dear friends and family are our warmest blankets.  Nothing can shield us from danger in this world, either real or perceived, but the love of those who care about us can be wrapped around us like a warmed blanket providing comfort and a sense of security.  Like my garbage man, Dave, said in his first letter to us,

“…people do care about you–even people who don’t know you, even a little bit.”

The more we look out for the people around us, from people we love to people we don’t even know, the more comfort we can provide and the more we can contribute to the healing and restoration of our world.

Go out there and be that blanket.

Mission Statement

Expecting to Fly Mission Statement: My mission is to chronicle a bittersweet year in my life by writing about what is closest to my heart each school day through my youngest child’s senior year in high school.  By addressing what is truly top-of-mind each day, I aim to create an authentic mapping of the emotional terrain of this transitional year as I prepare to empty my nest.  In doing so, I am constructing a travel log that I am willing to share with parents everywhere who wonder, like I do, what it’s like to navigate, survive and even  thrive throughout the journey.

Mission statements often arrive out of inspiration.  Part of the inspiration for this blog came from another such travel log, in the form of the national bestseller, Operating Instructions, written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott.  Lamott journals her way through her harrowing first year as a single-parent to her newborn son.  This book has comforted countless new-and not-so-new moms, as “Lamott narrates the great and small events that make up a woman’s life…Anyone who has ever had a hard time facing a perfectly ordinary day will identify.” (quoted from the back cover of the book).  I wished there was such an honest account I could find written about the last year with a child in the house.

Mission statements differ from business plans, in the simplest terms, in that mission statements include aims and values, and business plans include goals, objectives and strategies.  One explanation I found of mission statements delineates four key elements necessary to construct effective statements: value, inspiration, plausibility, and specificity.  Business plans direct the action, but mission statements engage the imagination.  Business plans are the brains, and mission statements are the heart and soul for both businesses and individuals.

Am I preparing a lecture for the Carlson School of Management, here?  No.  But when I woke up this morning and asked myself what is most pressing for me to write about today, I came up with something I wasn’t sure fit the mission statement of this blog.  So I figured I should first articulate my mission statement, so I could figure out if and how today’s topic fits within it.

Without any further ado, what is on my mind this morning is actually what is on (or in) my body; literally, very close to my heart.  I found a tiny, BB-sized lump (lump makes it sound too big) in the area of my right armpit.  It’s a little bit smaller but about the hardness of the BBs from Nate’s AirSoft gun, which I used to pick up off the basement carpet before I would vacuum.

It was quite by accident that I discovered this lump the other night, but I did.  I am not proud to admit that I am not diligent about breast self-examination, but once I felt this tiny, hard mass, I am proud that I scheduled an appointment with a specialist right away.  You can see why I am a bit squeamish about publishing this tiny, hard mass of news.

So I made a mental list of all the reasons I should share this news, and reasons I shouldn’t.  And then I filtered them through my newly-composed mission statement.

One reason I thought I shouldn’t share is that it might freak out my loved ones.  Let me first state that I am not too freaked out about it myself.  I know that most of these things turn out to be benign, and I know that my own tissue tends to be somewhat cystic (TMI, sorry).  I mentioned my finding to my brother, the doctor, over the phone in an unrelated conversation last night and he said,

“99% of these things we see in the hospital turn out to be nothing.  But it’s good you’re going to get it checked out.” I love my brother.  He’s very calm.

Howie obviously knows about it, and I shared it with my sisters at lunch yesterday, so that leaves the kids.  My parents still haven’t started reading my blog, so I’m not worried about them learning about it this way.

And speaking of my parents, they are from the generation that withheld “bad” news, so the kids shouldn’t worry.  I am not of that generation or that belief.  I think scary news should be shared, so the bearers of the bad news receive the necessary emotional support from those who care about them.  My children have gotten upset when they’ve found out I was shielding them from bad news.  Sam was away at camp when my grandmother died, and I didn’t share the news with him until he came home.  I wasn’t going to bring him home for the funeral, so I didn’t see a reason to upset him while he was there.  He got quite angry when he got home and realized he had been left out of this family event.  I understand that now.

I hadn’t as yet shared this development with Sophie, probably out of a desire to not worry her (now I’m completely contradicting myself).  I prefer not to worry until there’s something to worry about.  I prefer this, but am not always successful at it.

Anyway, as I was considering writing about and posting this, I decided to run it past her, as I often do with my blog ideas, out of respect for her feelings and reactions.  I asked to come into her room, since this wasn’t the type of thing I wanted to say through the door.  I assured her that there are much greater chances that this lump is nothing rather than something, and in that way tried to keep both of our concern in proportion.  She showed great maturity in trusting me to handle this discussion in the way I see fit.  I appreciate her loving respect.

Another fear I had about writing about this topic is that it would come off in some way as manipulative, sensational or exploitive, or as over-exposing of something relatively private.  Is this development something I want to launch into the blogosphere, or share with 315 of my closest, personal friends on Facebook?  And my answer to my fear, on so many levels, is why not?

First of all, if my sharing this prompts even one person (woman or man, since I do have one male friend that found a lump in his breast) to conduct a breast self-examination, I will have fulfilled my public service purpose today.  If my taking action by scheduling an appointment, despite my doubt that it’s anything serious, inspires one person to fight the urge to “ignore it, it will go away”, then I have performed a mitzvah.  If Angelina Jolie is lauded as a hero for sharing her news, I feel encouraged to share mine.  And with Howie Milstein standing by my side, who needs Brad Pitt?

Mission statements involve things like intention, brand or identity, and purpose.  I just mentioned some purpose for sharing real news, but if my brand includes authenticity, I am compelled to write what is really going on, not what feels neat and tidy to talk about.   Regarding intention, this whole blog was created to keep me intentional, and to focus my attention on the most urgent concerns of each day.  In my first post, I also said,

“…I’m not only mothering Sophie this year.  I will have to be a loving and nurturing mother to myself.”

Hence, I will take myself to the doctor tomorrow morning, like a good mother, and I might even buy myself a treat on the way home.

A large part of my identity has to do with being an extremely healthy person.  I value my health above just about all else, considering when you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.  Sometimes I even commit the sin of taking my good health for granted.  But I take care of myself as best I can, and I try to model healthy habits for my children (which includes pointing out the anti-oxidant properties of my evening glass of wine).  I read somewhere that if you reach the age of 50 without any major illnesses, your chances of living to 100 are significantly increased.  I am incredibly lucky to have passed that milestone.  It sure beats passing a kidney stone.

But here’s another real concern: what if it’s not nothing?  Honestly, I wanted to document my thoughts and feelings before I find out for sure.  I have faith that whatever awaits me, I will get through it.  We all know–and love–people who have survived breast cancer.  We also all know some who haven’t.  According to the National Cancer Institute, the odds of a woman being born now and developing breast cancer sometime in her life are about 1 in 8, as opposed to 1 in 10 in the ’70’s.  A diagnosis of breast cancer invariably changes the life of the patient as well as the lives of the people who love them.

And such a diagnosis would change the nature of this blog!  So in keeping with my commitment to show up here everyday and tell the truth as I experience it, I didn’t see any way around this new development, other than to plow straight through it.  Please excuse me if I’m a little late in posting tomorrow.

Please also hold all sympathetic and supportive emails, calls, cards, flowers and gifts (j/k; I mean do hold them, but you know I’m kidding). I am humbled to think your thoughts may be with me and I promise to write about what happens either way.

I was thinking about that age-old truism that life can change in the blink of an eye.  Tomorrow will provide me either an opportunity to courageously face one of life’s most difficult situations or an amazing reminder of the enormous blessing of good health and “normal” life.  I aim to respond accordingly, since I highly value my audience.  In any case, I am on a mission, so that’s my statement.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, can I post Sophie’s chosen yearbook picture here and take the rest of the day off?  After weeks of pouring over proofs from our photo session last month, Sophie finally selected one shot from the online gallery and our photographer, Margie, submitted it to the yearbook this morning on her behalf, just under the wire of this Friday’s deadline.

The word “proof” in photography used to refer to a tangible printed contact sheet containing thumbnail images from a roll of film.  Proof sheets were less expensive to produce than full sized images, for shot selection.  In our digital age, proofing can be done online or even on a camera display, but any means of viewing a photo before creating a final print is considered proofing. With everything being done electronically now, we don’t even get the spiral-bound book of proofs we got just a few years ago when the boys’ senior photos were taken.  And digital proofs seem so fleeting.

The fleeting nature of these images reminds me of the Impressionist painters in Paris in the late 1800’s.  They were interested in capturing their impressions of the changeable interplay between light and color rather than static scenes rendered with technical precision.  Their paintings, often portraits, were of everyday people engaged in ordinary activities.  And they preferred painting outdoors to working indoors in studios.  Our session with Margie would have suited the Impressionists in all respects.  I guess I, too, am trying to capture my impressions here, with words.

The word proof is a loaded word.  By loaded, I’m not suggesting the use of the word as it relates to alcoholic strength, indicated by a number that is twice the percent by volume of alcohol present, as in (shameless plug alert) my brother-in-law’s 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, which is 80 proof (40 percent alcohol).  I mean emotionally or philosophically loaded, like the words “truth” or “fact”.  Who is to say what proves something to be true or factual?  Again I wax metaphysical, pointing to the impermanent and relative nature of life as we know it.

The word proof is used in a legal context in courts of law, referring to evidence, and in the realms of math and logic.  A proof is something that can be pulled for examination or correction, such as proofs used in the printing process.  But proof is generally understood in terms of the process of establishing the validity of a statement.

What I’m getting at is that Sophie’s senior photo session provided us visible proof that she has grown up, even though when I look at them, I see so much more than a snapshot of this moment in time.

The collection of photos from this recent session shows the many moods of Sophie.  There’s the silly, the sassy and the serious Sophie.  There’s even the sultry Sophie (oh my!).  But I see an evolution and a back story culminating in this series of present-day Sophies.  I see the physical Sophie: the quirky, horizontal dimple on the top of her right cheek, and the loose-jointed bones of her “floppy” wrists as I have called them; both characteristics I checked out with the pediatrician when she was a baby, when I studied her every feature so carefully.  Her imperfections were proof to me that she was human and real and not some figment of my imagination I dreamed up because I wanted her–both a third child and a daughter–so badly.  I studied all my children this way in their early years; a mothering practice that comes out of a combination of vigilance, self-indulgence and awe.  But I see through the surface of these proofs to Sophie’s sparkling, spunky, self-sufficient spirit, too.

I see my daughter on that fleeting cusp between young adulthood and full-blown womanhood.  Her long legs and dark hair are evidence of her father’s genetics.  She gets her curves from his side of the family.  The curves of her cheeks are evidence of the baby face there is a hint of in the mornings when I wake her up, but almost no where else.  She thinks her cheeks look like they did when she had her wisdom teeth removed a few years ago, but I think they look kissable.  Women of all ages can be so hard on themselves.

The identification photo on the back of my Costco card has a picture of me and Sophie on it.  I am bending down, resting my chin on the top of her probably five-year-old head, when I was still taller than she.  Her hair was just as shiny and black back then, but she allowed me to have it cut in that China doll style (this is probably too politically incorrect a term to use anymore, forgive me) with bangs that are really back “on trend” these days.  Costco keeps allowing me to renew my card with this picture on it.  I wonder how long I’ll feel it necessary to carry this proof of our daily partnership, running errands together, being the smart, wholesale shoppers I trained us to be.

The clothes Sophie is wearing in these pictures are also worth a thousand words.  The black peasant top brings me back to a boutique in Omaha, where we went for Howie’s Auntie Rose’s 85th birthday party last spring, and the three of us shopped together that Saturday afternoon.  I tried the shirt on first, but it looked better on Sophie.  I always say a daughter should surpass her mother in as many ways as possible, and that is certainly our case.  The black lace dress was an unexpected find in the gift shop at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  I’ve taken the kids to the annual spring event, Art in Bloom, since they were in strollers, but Sophie has embraced that event over the years as much as I have.  Both these wardrobe selections are proof of wonderful times spent together over the years.

The blue top she’s wearing in the first round of photos and the striped top with the red collar in the last round are Sophie’s own choices.  I tease her that everything she picks out has Where’s Waldo stripes, so it’s fitting that the photo she finally chose is one with her in the striped top. Now her friends can search for her in the senior photo section of the yearbook like they searched for Waldo in the big picture books when they were younger.

The mother/daughter shots Margie took of us are proof of some other undeniable truths.  I have lovely crow’s feet crinkled at the corners of my eyes, and smile lines etched around my mouth.  It makes sense that a mother bird would have crow’s feet, I suppose, and smile lines from the joy her children bring her.  The worry lines in my forehead are not as visible, though all three children share the burden of proof there.

Proof also has the meaning of making something resistant, able to withstand something damaging, as in waterproof or shatterproof.  I can look at this collection of proofs, some with me in them, but most with Sophie confidently occupying her own space, and feel neither the tears nor the heartache that would require waterproofing or shatterproofing.  That is proof that I am making progress on my way to being able to survive the emptying of my nest.

Proof is what writers and editors must do to their work, to check for mistakes.  I’m sure I’ve made mistakes along the way, but these latest images of my daughter give me proof beyond a reasonable doubt that she’s on her way, as well.

Free-Floating Thoughts on Gravity

Gravity, the space thriller in theaters this month starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts surviving a damaged Space Shuttle mission and attempting to return to Earth, is not my kind of movie.  But Howie really wanted to see it.  So as part of the give and take–the push and pull if you will–of any relationship, I agreed to go.

On one level, the movie is just a visual extravaganza.  On another, it is a reminder of some elemental realities of life on (and off) Earth.  I walked out of the theater thankful for things I never even think about.  All of a sudden, I was ecstatic that I live in an oxygen-rich environment, and that my feet, for the most part, stay anchored to the ground.  I can breathe freely and I don’t go tumbling around in space at nauseating speeds; both conditions that, up until seeing this movie, I completely took for granted.

In the movie, Sandra Bullock reveals that she’s lost her 4-year-old daughter in a freak playground accident.  This detail adds an emotional depth to both her character and the story that serves a purpose in the movie’s climax.  It also represents a catastrophic reality–the actual death of a child–that makes me ashamed for obsessing over and writing about my chosen topic of children leaving the nest.

Children leaving the nest is normal.  It is what we want, even though we may not feel like we want it.  We want them to grow up (yet stay our beautiful babies forever).  We want them to become independent of us (yet need us forever).  We want them to live on their own (yet stay close to us forever).  I feel that spinning starting.  Where was I?

The opposite of gravity is zero-gravity, or weightlessness.  The opposite of weightlessness is the way I’ve been feeling lately.  Minutes after I posted yesterday about my existential crisis in Madison, my son, Sam texted me,

“Your Madison blog might be the most depressing thing I have ever read in my life.  Are you alright?”

That, on top of Sophie characterizing my narrative as fiction, made me feel like I should lighten things up a bit; like those comedians I saw the other night,

“Did you hear the one about the…”  (ba-dump, bum).

In an odd turn of events, Sophie’s been talking about applying to the U of M.  I asked her,

“Have I just pulled off the most brilliant example of reverse psychology in the universe?  I keep telling you you must leave home, and you are deciding you might want to stay here in town?”

I’ve told her not to put me in a position where I have to insist that she do the thing that I claim is breaking my heart.

“Don’t make me say this again, Little Missy.  You need to go away.”

I don’t want to portray myself as so broken down, or broken up over my kids’ leaving that they clip their own wings to spare me from doing so.  The last thing on earth I want is for them to feel they have to take care of me.  What a predicament for the mother bird, to have to shove her birdlings out of their cozy nest.  Sophie can and should leave home.  It will be fun for her and she’ll regret it if she doesn’t fly away and have a campus-oriented college experience.


Gravity brought to mind another movie that is my kind of movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Based on a 1984 postmodern novel of the same name, this movie also works on two levels.  On the surface, this is a sexy romp among a group of Czech intellectuals living together in Prague in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. But the novel has deeper philosophical underpinnings:

Challenging Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum), the story’s thematic meditations posit the alternative; that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again — thus the “lightness” of being. In contrast, the concept of eternal recurrence imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make (to borrow from Nietzsche’s metaphor, it gives them “weight”.) Nietzsche believed this heaviness could be either a tremendous burden or great benefit depending on the individual’s perspective.

Books and films that operate on two levels, one surface and one deep, are a metaphor for life, for sure.  We witness the action, then feel compelled to give it all meaning.

Friday morning when I woke up in Madison, still reeling from the elemental realities of the first day of our visit, I left the girls sleeping in the room and headed to the Lakeshore path for a meditative walk to try to sort out my feelings.  Just as I was leaving the hotel, my best friend from high school, Lisa, called my cell.  I briefly told her of my distress over the finality of severing my ties with Madison.  She told me about a friend of hers, a woman who married her yoga “guru” 20-years her junior, and the Zen wisdom the guru shares with his disciples,

“You are exactly where you need to be at this very moment,” to which I reacted on two levels.

On the one hand, the cynic in me says that this is the type of new-age bullshit we tell ourselves when we are struggling with something we can’t quite get a handle on.  On the other hand, to let go and think this way is immensely freeing.

The next and even more poetic thing my girlfriend said as we continued to talk about then and now was,

“Fuck!  Where does the time go?”  I couldn’t have put it more eloquently, myself.


I am not feeling the gravitational pull at the center of these random ramblings, holding them all together.  It’s making me feel hypoxic.

But I did catch a glimpse of something on the horizon, at a fundraising dinner I attended last night for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, which feels tenuously connected like Bullock and Clooney were in their spacesuits at one point in the movie.

The keynote speaker last night was Gordon Zacks, and though his name is not recognizable, he did serve as an advisor to the first Bush administration to advance Israeli-American relations, the Middle East Peace Process, Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, and to fight anti-Semitism.  Somehow, hearing him speak so passionately about all the work that has to be done to heal our world, on any number of issues, filled me with a new sense of purpose.

I felt like I could consider taking off my claustrophobic space helmet of fear over my daughter’s flight and open myself to new possibilities of contributing in all kinds of ways on this planet.  There is so much work that needs to be done in this world and I could thrust (more astronaut imagery) my energy towards a constellation of causes. On that deep level, this feels enticing and exciting to me.  Not that I haven’t volunteered on some level all these years, but the absence of kids in my house will leave space that will need to be filled by larger, more meaningful activity.

That’s another thing I walked away from Gravity with, thanks to Sandra Bullock’s compelling performance: our survival instinct as individuals, like our maternal one, is a mighty powerful force.

One last space-related note about life on earth in this house, this morning when I woke Sophie, she looked out her window and said,

“I shouldn’t have to get up when the moon is still out.”

Houston.  We have a problem.  But tomorrow is a late start, so we will reassess our mission in the morning.

Mad Town: After

Dear University of Wisconsin-Madison;

After careful consideration, we regret to inform you that it will not be necessary for you to regret to inform us that we will not be accepted into your exclusive institution.  We are working on not having any further regrets.  

By “we”, we mean both mother and daughter.  We admit that our decision of non-application has caused some emotional fallout for both mother, who is almost over it, and daughter, who was never bothered by it in the first place.

Though we are admitting to some bruised feelings, we realize this does not turn this into the letter of admission we were hoping for (or at least one of us was).


A Ghost from the Class of ’81

UW-Madison is currently populated by 42,820 students, but returning there this time, I felt oddly and inescapably alone.  From the moment we got in the car, it’s as if I wasn’t there.  Sophie and Anna were connected to each other and to their phones.  They were respectful and interacted with me to an appropriate extent, but any lasting sense of general connection remained elusive.

Sophie and Anna had met some new boys the night before we left and were absorbed in communications with them.  They were sending and receiving texts that had nothing to do with me; they were in their own bubble, and I was clearly on the outside.  This was a taste of things to come, it seemed to me, when they head off to school next year, and I am no where to be found.

Once we arrived in Madison, I wanted to take the girls on a walking tour, to orient them to the campus that feels so very familiar to me even after more than 30 years since I was a student there.  First we stopped in Memorial Library and from there we headed to Memorial Union.  If “memorial” is defined as “something, especially a structure, established to remind people of a person or event”, then both buildings lived up to their names as far as I was concerned.  Ghosts began to emerge that only I could see, which had nothing to do with the Halloween displays decorating the campus.

In the library, I was struck simultaneously by the presence of things that weren’t there when I studied there and the absence of things that were there then, that aren’t there now.  There are computers everywhere and security gates at the entrances that seemed grafted on to the old building, giving it a Back to the Future feel.  But there were no familiar faces, no recognizable characters in what used to be the first floor smoking room, hence the ghosts that started to appear in their place.

But what was most striking for me was the realization that while Sophie and Anna and I were all standing on the same hallowed (for me, anyway) ground–my old college campus–we were looking at it from two vastly different vantage points.  I was looking back to my past, and they were looking forward to their futures.

I took them to the Union for a bite to eat.  The Rathskeller is undergoing renovation, so it feels like a Hollywood movie set reconstruction of a German beer hall rather than a real place where real students would congregate, drinking pitchers of beer and discreetly passing around the occasional joint.  The girls and I sat out back on the famed, tiered terrace, and I took in all the beauty of the present moment; the warm fall sunshine, the sparkling water, the boats out on the lake from the university’s sailing club, Hoofers, the iconic round-backed chairs, and the faces of the two girls sitting with me.  Yet, there were the ghosts again.  The past kept superimposing itself on the present in a way that made it seem strange that I was here with these two, beautiful young women, who, though they seem so young to me, are the ages I was when I first came here 36 years ago.

I started to point out some ghosts to them.

“This is the lake where my roommate and I cross-country skied late one winter, and our skis began to break through the ice,”

“That must have been scary,” Anna politely responded.

“It was!  And over there is where the fake Statue of Liberty sat; the one I told you about.  And just past the boathouse, there, is the Lakeshore path. The path around Lake Harriet always reminds me of this path.  I used to run this one with my friend, Elliot…”

But I had already lost the girls back to their phones, their texting and Instagramming.  Suddenly, I could see myself through their eyes, a middle-aged woman reaching back for a youth that isn’t alive anymore.  I was trying, but failing, to reconnect with my past, and in doing so, was losing connection with the girls in the present.

I realized that when I reminisce out loud to them, they must feel like I do when I drive with my own mother through her old neighborhood in St. Paul.  My mom points to landmarks and says,

“Here’s where we went to the movies on Saturday afternoons,” and “There’s where Henry used to walk me home from Hebrew School, when he said…” (and then she’d re-tell me a story I’d heard many times before).  But I wasn’t much more interested in my mother’s ghost stories than Sophie is in mine.

It occurred to me that I feel a disconnect from my mother when she talks about her life before I was born.  That’s not the part of my mother that I knew or that was any use to me.  I want her to be my mother who is so important to me and makes me feel like I am so important to her, but in reminiscing, she makes me consider that she had a whole life before she had me.  I was never as interested in that “before” part of her life, so why would I expect Sophie to care about the girl I was before she and her brothers became the most important things in my life?  The place where a mother connects with her children is a place that can shield each from a sense of aloneness.

After our late lunch, the girls were getting restless.  I knew I was going to have to cut them loose, but asked if I could just walk them up Basom Hill, the main mall on campus.    I told them they had to experience the hill that gave Mad Town students their famous “Bascom Hill thighs”.   I showed them how to rub the toe of the Abe Lincoln statue at the top of the hill for good luck.

I pointed out to them the lawn outside the sociology building where I remember eating my first Dannon Fruit on the Bottom yogurt; stirring the jammy blueberry compote up into the creamy white yogurt.

“Yogurt was just becoming a thing to eat in the late ’70’s,” I expounded, as if I was uncovering a Mastodon skeleton lying on the top of the hill.

The girls wanted to ditch me so badly they actually opted to join a friend, who’s in school there, for an art history lecture.  I proclaimed my own love for art history but at that point, they looked so “Why do you refuse to take a hint and let us be on our own?”, that I finally let them go.

Walking back to State Street, I called Howie, just to tell him how utterly alone I felt.  He heard me quickly, but was with a work colleague and couldn’t talk.  I walked through streets and began feeling like a ghost myself.

I came to the pedestrian bridge with “The University of Wisconsin-Madison” carved in stone, and as part of yet more construction, there was a sign under the bridge that read, “Road Closed”.

Boy, did I hear that.

I continued to walk the familiar streets like it was yesterday, as I became acutely aware that it was not yesterday.  I felt disconnected from the girl I was when I was a student here.  I felt disconnected from the girls I came here with.  And I felt the approach of the Big Disconnect which is why, after all, we are looking at schools; I will let go of Sophie before I am fully connected to the woman I will be once all my children are on their own.

This dense, fuzzy sense of isolation wrapped around me like thick, pink housing insulation, yet instead of warming me, it gave me a chill.  Are these the symptoms of an oncoming existential crisis?

I thought of people I could call; my mother, my sister who also went to Madison, but there was something almost sacred about feeling so completely, quietly, alone that I wanted to try to stay with; not because it was pleasant, but because I wanted to observe it, to stare it down, to survive it.

As I was walking, I noticed an advertisement for a comedy show that evening.  I knew the girls would have dinner with me, then want to be with their friends again. A little comedy was just what I needed to give my melancholy mood a psychic chiropractic adjustment.  I thought the only thing sadder than sitting in a comedy show by myself would be sitting in my hotel room by myself at 7:30 on a Thursday night.

I arrived for the show and was seated with a group of three others around a small round table.  We listened to some very funny people talk about their misery and loneliness in a way that we could laugh at and feel better–or at least forget–about our own particular misery for a while. Before the show started, the MC asked us to turn off our phones, framing it positively,

“Disconnect from the world for the next hour and a half, relax and enjoy yourselves.”

And though I had felt disconnected since we left the house, I entertained the idea that stretching out into my own space and being carried away by humor might be very enjoyable.  It was.

Several of the comedians joked about being single, as if the only goal they had was to connect themselves with a partner.  It made me feel suddenly not alone.  I have a partner.  I also have children, who are scattered, but are mine.

This brought me back to thinking about the vantage point of the girls and how it differs from mine at this juncture in our collective lives.  So much of what lies in front of them, now lies behind me.  So many of the things I dreamed or wondered about have already come to pass.  I am happy with my life, even though being in Madison brought me back to roads–literally and figuratively–not taken.  I can’t go back.  And I can’t go with Sophie.  I had my turn to go to college; now it’s her turn.

So I think where this leaves me is not so much “all alone” as at this spot where all my travels have brought me to this day.  Sophie doesn’t have to go to Madison, because even if she did, that part of my life is said and done, never to be resurrected, except in my own mind where I can connect with all the old memories I choose.

She announced, with quite a bit of finality, when we met for dinner that night,

“I don’t belong here.  This is not my school.  I’m not comfortable here.”

And I realized I don’t belong here, either.

Mad Town: Before

MEA weekend has had a name change (Minnesota Education Association, MEA, has become Education Minnesota), but nobody seems to know what to call this four-day weekend now.  EM weekend doesn’t have the same ring to it.  The high school calendar for tomorrow and Friday simply says “No School for Students”.  But some things haven’t changed; it’s still the third weekend in October, it’s still a good time to run little ones around apple orchards or pumpkin patches, and it’s still the time parents take high school juniors and seniors on college visits.

Over this weekend last year, Howie and I took Sophie to visit my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Back in the late ’70’s and early ‘80‘s when I went to college, Madison was the default school for kids in this area.  Kids who wanted to get away–but not too far away–had a decent GPA and parents who liked the idea of paying in-state tuition for an out-of-state school (thanks to reciprocity between Wisconsin and Minnesota), flocked there.

Now, it’s not so easy to get in to Madison.  With a required GPA between 3.5-3.9 and ACT scores of 27 or above, one UW-Madison admissions counselor told me, over the phone yesterday, the university now has the reputation of being “the Harvard of the Midwest”.

Sophie has always been a good student, but test-taking is her downfall.  So her chances of being admitted to Madison as a freshman are slim to none.  It’s so competitive, with thousands more applying than can get in, that grades and test scores are the most objective, if seemingly ruthless, means to admission.

Why, then, am I piling her and her friend Anna, their pillows and blankets, and a cooler full of drinks and road trip treats into my car tomorrow and heading there for a second visit?  This is what I’ve been asking myself for weeks.

Here are the easiest answers:

  1. We need a change of scenery.  Sophie and I have both been working hard since school began, and we want to get out of Dodge.  Howie will be away on business, so he won’t even notice we’re gone.  The drive to Madison through the fall foliage is beautiful this time of year.  It’s a fun, inexpensive getaway.
  2. Though Sophie will probably be rejected as a freshman, her chances of being accepted as a transfer student–at which point test scores are no longer part of admissions criteria–increase substantially (48% acceptance rate for transferring Sophmores, 41% for Juniors).  I want her to take one more look, in case she would consider transferring as an option.  Realistically, this is our last hope.
  3. Last time we visited, the decision was over a year away, too far for her to think about it seriously, and she was stuck touring campus and State Street with her parents.  This time, the decision and application processes are well underway, and she gets to bomb around campus with her BFF, Anna.
  4. This is my last college visit road trip with my daughter.  We visited The University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence (also with Anna) last spring, and had a ball.  Sophie has already been accepted to KU, loved it, and will likely end up there (with Anna).  Again, if KU was a four-hour drive (like Madison) instead of a seven-hour drive, if it offered tuition reciprocity, and if it was ranked in the top half of national universities, I don’t think I’d have any issues with it.

Or would I?  It still feels like there are answers to the question, Why drag Sophie back to Madison when she didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped she would the first time around?, that are harder to get at and are bothering me.

Allowing children to grow up and be themselves (as opposed to being extensions of ourselves) and ultimately leave us means not only letting go of them physically, but also letting go of certain dreams we may have for and about them.  I dreamed that at least one of my kids would go to my alma mater.  Our boys have both stayed in town–which I’m thrilled about, don’t get me wrong–graduating (Nate will graduate) from Howie’s alma-mater, the U of M.  Am I being selfish wishing that one of the three would have ended up at Madison?

And on a related wish, I dreamed of children who would love school as much as I did.  I transferred from public to private school in high school, just because I wasn’t being challenged enough at my neighborhood high school.  Heck, I’m still in school now so as nerdy as that sounds, I was hoping for at least one child who shared my passion for higher education.

All whining aside, I still feel there is something deeper going on with me than just letting go of my fantasy that Sophie would finally be the one to spend her college years in the Mad Town.  Am I making the pilgrimage to Madison this weekend in order to say goodbye, once and for all, to a place that figured so prominently into my own growing up over 30 years ago?

“Didn’t you say goodbye to that place a long time ago?” my mother asked me, when I shared this thinking with her.

What happened for me at Madison that keeps it in a special place in my heart to this day?  Is it all just nostalgia?  And do I really need one of my kids to go there in order to keep this connection?

Beyond just growing more independent, as any kid does when they leave home, I had my eyes opened to all kinds of things in the Mad City.  In 1977, Going My Way was a gay bar on the Capitol square. I went there with some of my new, openly gay friends from the dorm and saw two men kissing, for the first time. At that time, Minneapolis was still pretty closeted.  Madison felt so progressive.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

When my boys were teenagers, and they would ask me about my recreational drug history, I would answer,

“I went Madison in the ’70’s”, which was my way of answering without really answering.

Madison has always had the reputation of being a party school, and there was plenty of drinking and drug use on campus, but this was neither all that new or interesting to me.

There was legendary madness associated with the school in the late ’70’s, including the antics of the infamous Pail and Shovel Party.  On the first day of classes in 1979, students woke to 1,008 pink, plastic flamingos covering Bascom Hill, the heart of the campus.  This was just one more outrageous display by Pail and Shovel, which according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, was celebrating that they,

“…had won reelection to head the Wisconsin Student Association, the official student governing body. This admittedly absurdist party had formed primarily as a joke, campaigning in the spring 1978 student elections to convert the school budget into pennies to be dumped on the UW’s Library Mall where students could use pails and shovels to take what they wished. The Party also promised to flood Camp Randall Stadium for mock naval battles, buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Wisconsin, and change every student’s name to Joe Smith, “so that professors in large lecture courses would know everyone by name.”

Who among us alums can forget the sight of the top half of the Statue’s head next to her hand holding the torch, both sitting out on the ice, looking as if Lady Liberty had sunk up to her eyeballs in Lake Mendota?

But the craziest story I heard while at Madison occurred in the spring of 1979.  A student had reportedly performed surgery on himself in his dorm room very late one night.  I was able to trace one reference to this case in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  Word at that time was that this young man was having uncontrollable, bothersome urges that he hoped to stem by performing surgery on certain parts of his anatomy.  The student survived his ordeal, and according to the one source I found, received remedial medical and psychiatric care following this desperate attempt to excise his overwhelming and disturbing urges.

Why do I bring up such a gruesome story?  Because I, too, have been experiencing certain uncontrollable and bothersome urges.  My urge to hold on to my daughter, to influence her to be a certain kind of student or person, or to make certain decisions, is bothersome not only to me but to her as well.  And my desire to dissect what is underlying these urges, both through thinking and writing about them, sometimes feels like I’m trying to perform an intricate surgical procedure on myself.  I don’t have to scrub or sterilize anything, but I still am looking at my own feelings and behavior under a microscope, trying to remove that which is causing me pain, and sending samples to the pathology lab for testing.

The tension that all this expectation creates is not pleasant for me, and is not healthy for Sophie either.  I don’t want either of us to end up needing medical or psychiatric care.  I know she feels she’s disappointed me on some level, and I never want her to feel that way. She is the student that she is and I am proud of her for that.  She may put less pressure on herself to perform in school or on tests than I did, but she lives in this world in a way that could teach me a thing or two.  Today at school, she is donating blood; she says she has always wanted to donate because she is healthy enough to do so and she has a compassionate and generous heart.  I, on the other hand, feel in need of a transfusion.

So, another reason I’m going to Madison this weekend,

5.  Apparently, I still have things I need to learn there.

If I do, I will file a report  when we   get back.