Sunday, November 23, 2008

All the right moves don't always feel alright.

For more than ten years, our boys were “the babies” of the family. But that ended a while ago: our extended family includes nine children, ages three months to seven years, and they’re truly a gift to all of us.

Last week, one of my nieces emailed everyone a video clip of her nine-month-old baby and somewhere between listening to Ryan’s laughter and noticing the look on Heather’s face; something became crystal clear to me. The video showed him pushing a ‘learn-to-walk’ toy in front of him as he practiced his very first independent steps. It also showed his mother watching him closely, in case he stumbled. As he struck out on his own, the look on his face and his cheerful cooing noises told me he had figured out that this walking thing was kind of fun. And that it promised to bring him a lifetime of adventure.

I watched the video in a kind of bittersweet fog. It’s been many years since I positioned one of my boys behind the little “learn to walk” truck each of them used for balance as he learned to stand on his own and then take a step. Many years since I watched and worried about unsteady toddlers trying out their new found freedom. And although I remember watching each of them get ready and then take off, so proud, so excited, now so long ago, I don’t remember noticing the direction every one of them took.

It wasn’t realizing how many years had passed since my boys were toddlers that made my niece’s video so poignant. No, watching Ryan cross the room reminded me of something I’d heard or read somewhere not too long ago: the first steps our children take are away from us. That simple and profound truth startled me.

Think about the strolls you took with your own children as they learned to walk. You leaned over to hold their hands, probably above their heads, and walked behind them and they stepped out in front of you. Think about babies like my niece’s son, who grab hold of a toy to steady themselves as they push it along. In the very first stages of walking, children travel toward independence, into a place they want to claim as their own, not back toward mommy or daddy.

The video was an affecting reminder that children choose to walk away; even as very young children they make that choice. It also reminded me of another profound truth, and maybe the only bit of comfort I could take away from this: they can’t come back unless they walk away.

It’s only after children have practiced those first steps, after they’ve learned to toddle with some confidence, that parents position themselves in the “come to Mommy” or “come to Daddy” pose, asking their little boy or girl to return. We wait with open arms, and although we may celebrate this milestone on some level, we don’t quite relax until they’re safe and secure with us.

Which brings me to Thanksgiving. This year, my two youngest boys are high school seniors, and my oldest will be “coming home” from college for the holiday. This year, those two seniors are now only months away from taking thousands of steps away from me. My oldest will be on a break from his new life and walk back toward my (figuratively and literally) open arms.

I conjure up my own video, that begins with a toddler ambling across a room and then fades into a boy racing down the street or across a field, and before you know it, he’s on a bike or a skateboard or a scooter or rollerblades and he continues along, right out the door. Then, just when you think he can’t go much further, he walks out the door one night, swinging the car keys, to spend the evening with friends.

I’ve quietly watched all of this unfold – maybe hundreds of times by now. I remind myself: moving away seems like every child’s destiny; coming back feels like a choice. And unless I watch them leave, I won’t be able to welcome them home.

If you wire it, will they buy??

I guess that's the question being posed by a coffee house in Amsterdam, called The Coffee Company.

In order to attract the students that surround their university neighborhood location, they've added Wi-Fi to their store. Predictably, the Internet access did attract students but unfortunately, it didn't attract much in the way of actual cash-register ringing purchases(assuming anyone remembers what a ringing cash register sounds like). The good news is that the students come to The Coffee Company to go online. The bad news is they just don't seem to buy a cup of coffee or a snack while they do.

The Coffee Company decided to use the Wi-Fi to their fiscal and marketing advantage. They added their food and drink menu to the Wi-Fi menu that opens on a user's screen. So in addition to the regular links students found once they were online, students can find the menu of the restaurant they were sitting in right that moment.

In another stroke of genius, The Coffee Company decided to change the wireless network name from time to time, and were rather playful about it. Students would regularly have to check with the staff to discover the wireless network name. Give the Coffee Company credit for creativity. Some of the names they used were: "ByCoffeeForCuteGirlOverThere," "BuyAnotherCupYouCheapskate," "HaveYouTriedTheCarrotCake," "OrderAnotherCoffeeAlready" and "BuyALargeLatteGetBrownieForFree."

I'm not sure if it's working - the article I read didn't talk much about the results of their marketing efforts toward the students. Personally, it would work for me. If I had to type BuyALargeLatteGetBrownieForFree to logon, especially every day for a week whenever I visited the coffee shop, I'd buy a large latte.

Maybe some of the more magnanimous Wi-Fi spots around the country could try this technique too, with a more subliminal but uplifting result in mind. They could change the name of their networks regularly in an effort to engender kindness or generosity. Suggestions: "SayHelloToAStrangerToday," "WaitToHoldTheDoorToday," "LetSomeoneMergeOnto22Today," "ListenMoreThanYouTalkToday." The resulting behavior could astonish us all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

There is something seriously wrong with me...

I have some kind of extra sentimental gene or something.

Which, in some ways, is completely antithetical to how I behave on a daily basis. I am not a gushy, excitable, over-the-top emotional kind of person. I sometimes see people - women especially - who seem to wear their emotions on their sleeves and they seem pretty emotionally healthy to me. At the very least, they're being emotionally genuine.

I'm too reserved to behave the same way. I just don't know when was the last time I displayed exuberance over anything. Is there something wrong with that? Shouldn't we all feel amazing and astonished and excited beyond belief at least every once in a while? The question is: Is "even" the best way to live your life?

Before this gets too maudlin, my life is filled with people I love, including an amazing husband and children I adore. And we don't live a life of austerity and glass-half-empty attitudes. It's just that I always feel a little 'controlled' about the people and events around me.

I have a Roz Chast cartoon in our refrigerator that mostly sums up my world view: "Rational Exuberance." It's hilarious. The people depicted are excited about mostly mundane things because that's about all the excitement they'll allow themselves. Feels very true to me.

So here I am, living my rationally exuberant, semi-guarded and safe existence, watching my reactions and appearance and speech. Remaining steady, reliable, dependable. Except for this: along comes the animated Christmas show, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" on television. (Yes, I know its early for Christmas specials to be scheduled on TV by almost anyone's standards, except mine. Christmas is too wonderful a feeling to be relegated to three weeks a year as far as I'm concerned.)

And what happens? I watch what had to be the final 8 minutes of the show and tear up when the Grinch "stood puzzling and puzzling" about the meaning of Christmas. Then - forget it - when the dawn breaks, the Whos down in Whoville gather and start singing the Christmas song, I'm over. I'm a wreck. Is this normal?

I'm teary. I am overcome with the feeling that humanity isn't doomed. Enormously grateful for people like Ted Giesel and Chuck Jones who created this television classic and shared their own exuberance for this message with the rest of us. Thankful for the notion that even the most unlovable among us have some good inside.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

a near obsession - explained

I am not sure why this happens to me but every once in a while, I'll come across a movie that I simply cannot stop watching. The latest in this list of always watchable films: The Holiday. My husband and my boys make fun of me for this but then again, they will almost always stop on Gladiator and watch that movie whenever its on cable so I think we're even.

In case you don't know the movie, you probably don't need to know much more than this: Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Two broken hearts, Cameron and Kate, find each other online, trade houses for Christmas, and travel across the world to spend time alone, get out of their typical surroundings, and heal themselves. Cameron finds herself in Surrey, England while Kate gets dropped off in front of Cameron's amazing home in what has to Beverly Hills.

Surprise! They each find a new (true) love waiting in that whole new world. (Okay. Yes, a chick flick for lack of a better term, although I think that sells movies like this short. I'm sure men like at least a few of them, too, but are reluctant to admit it for fear of a sensitivity or 'soft side' alarm going off.)

So why the obsession? As I said, I haven't quite figured this out but here's my theory: there is something extremely attractive and sort of seductive about the concept of abandoning your own semi-troubled life, taking up somewhere new, and trying on a whole new person in the process. Not forever and not in a scary kind of place. Someplace where you can settle in fairly easily but be open to new experiences. Not one of us can really do this - not really, not matter how often women's magazines tell us to reinvent our lives - but it feels almost like you can trade your life for another when you watch this movie. I can't spend Christmas in Surrey but I can watch Cameron's character do it and pretend her experiences are my own.

For me, this movie holds another magic moment beyond the actual 'escape from your life' scenario: Kate's cottage in the lovely, winter-kissed countryside, complete with gate that opens onto the walkway, that leads into a living room complete with a cracking fireplace, overstuffed furniture and a comfy looking bed.

I must have spent time in England in another life because I'm a sucker for almost anything having to do with English charm. And Kate's cottage oozes quaint, cozy charm. It's adorable and it certainly doesn't hurt that Jude Law shows up at the door in the middle of the night.

But honestly, there is almost nothing all that surprising in this movie so how can it continue to draw me in time after time? (And by the way, not just me. I know at least two other women who feel the same way about this movie.)

It has to be the vicarious mood this picture creates, that feeling it creates within viewers like me that even if I'm only just watching someone on an adventure like this, it's almost like having it yourself. This idea basically builds on a previous post of mine, where I discussed the oft-mentioned "luxury" wish most women have about spending time on their own, away from their everyday lives. In this case, they get away, they reinvent themselves a tiny little bit, and happen to also find the men of their dreams along the way.

For me, meeting another man isn't part of the "getting away from it all" fantasy. But being somewhere unfamiliar but comfortable, spending time alone, finding some days or weeks just be and do and think and dream and wonder - that would be a dream come true.

Friday, November 07, 2008

worst moment of motherhood

I read an article this week that educated me about something: the worst moment of anyone's parenthood experience is relative. Relative to your own experience, how yo lived and what you learned while growing up with your own parents, your daily life experience as an adult and a young parent, your understanding of what makes an acceptable choice and what makes an unacceptable choice, and your own unique view of the world at large and your place in it.

The story I read described what I hope is, in fact, the worst moment in the mother's life, and her daughter's for that matter. (But somehow, I don't think either one of them is thinking about it quite like that.) The daughter and one of her school mates (another teenage girl) were arguing at Allen High School and decided to shelve the disagreement until after school hours and settle it with a fight in West Park.

Somehow, the mother of one of the girls heard of the plans to fight, and met her daughter after school. Thank God. Except she didn't take her home, which would have been the acceptable choice. Instead, she accompanied her, and a large group of students, to West Park to meet the other girl for the fight.

Got that? The mom heard about the fight, met up with her daughter, and instead of intervening and stopping it before it started, she walked her to the fight. Just like some moms walk their children to the school bus, or the library, or the park - (the one without the fight going on.)

Once they were at the park, the adult - the mother - told her to "hurry up and hit her." And then, once the fight was underway, the mother herself joined in and punched the other girl in the face and kicked her at least twice.

People watching the fight pulled the mother away; both girls sustained injuries, and the mother was sent to Lehigh County prison under $10,000 bail.

I don't know quite what to make of all this. I keep coming back to the idea that all the choices we make are relative. I don't understand any of the choices that went into how this story unfolded. Not one of them. Relative to my own life experience, it's completely foreign.

But regardless, can we agree that any mother who encourages a fight, then jumps in to "help" while the fists are flying isn't raising her daughter to be a compassionate mother? My instinct is yes but maybe I'm wrong - at least from her point of view. Maybe she thinks she was being compassionate. And helping her daughter solve a problem. Maybe I have no idea what it's like to raise a daughter who fights other girls.

And that's really what's on my mind I guess. If this is seen as "normal" and "expected" and "understood" by any part of our community, and written off as just the way things are done, I fear for that mother, her child and her grandchildren to come. And honestly, for the rest of us who will never understand it.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I'll take my comfort wherever I can get it....

...which basically means, I'm not picky about where I find some sort of validation for my life.

As the mother of an eighteen-year-old and two seventeen-year-old boys, I take almost daily comfort in a comic strip titled Zits. A few of them have decorated our refrigerator from time to time. (I've also accused my boys of secretly drawing the comic - the stories are that familiar.)

The situations in the strip are nearly always exactly on target, but last week, the Sunday comic helped me more than normal, in my daily search for confirmation that I'm not quite losing my mind or about to fall over the edge. I've often suspected that I must be the only mother of nearly grown boys that asks questions as mundane - possibly even embarrassingly so - as this: brush your teeth? Use deodorant? Homework? Backpack? Lunch? ipod? Cell phone? I mean, how clueless can teenagers be? Isn't all of this automatic by now?

[Here's a real life example: The boys once spent months going to classes and then a day or two in rehearsals for their Confirmation ceremony, and were well aware that we were planning a lovely dinner for family and friends to celebrate this milestone. One the appointed day, the boys arrived home from school, and found my mother waiting for them, plus my husband and I getting ready, dressed in fairly formal clothing...and I asked them to head upstairs to change into their new suits because we would be leaving shortly....and they asked - honestly, they asked me - "Leaving for what??" I'm not making that up. ]

Turns out, almost nothing is automatic with teenagers, except perhaps text messaging and changing a profile description on Facebook. The mom in the strip asked every single one of these inane questions of her son, Jeremy. In an increasingly exasperated way only teenagers can master, he answers yes to every question. Then he steps out of the car at school and realizes he isn't wearing shoes. To his mom's credit, she zooms away in the car, leaving him in his socks.

The best part is that Jeremy complains to his friend, Pierce, about his mother's forgetfulness. Pierce, who happens to not be wearing any pants that day, agrees.

Thank you Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. You and your cartoon family furnish much of the validation I need to keep trying, day after day, to enjoy the ride, take a breath, and enjoy every single moment with my children. Exasperation aside, they are amazing. Yes, they appear to be unconscious about many, many things. But at this point, once I get past the frustrations of living with boys who seem to have the short term memories of fireflies, I remind myself that it's all too fleeting.

And that like fireflies, they're brightening my life, if only for a relatively short time, before the seasons change and they move on.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So why don't I feel bad???

He wasn't my candidate but he is my president.

I watched the election returns until after 11 pm Tuesday night. I didn't listen to concession speeches or victory speeches. I went to sleep, well aware of the fact that the morning would bring headline after headline about President-elect Barack Obama.

And I wasn't quite sure how I felt about that.

Obama's politics, as closely as I can tell, appear far too liberal for me. I don't know if that's absolutely true but throughout the campaign, based on everything I read and heard, it felt true to me. I didn't vote for him for that reason.

But my guy lost. John McCain was the inevitable victim of our current president's abysmal reputation and non-popularity. He was the fall guy for a tanking economy, despite the fact that this financial crisis is a bi-partisan travesty. No matter - those two strikes counted for three and he was out.

But here's the thing. Tuesday night, before I went to sleep, I discussed with my teenage sons that the election was heading very strongly toward the democratic ticket and our nation was about to greet President Obama in the morning. Somewhere very deep inside, I felt a sense of - I'm not sure what - anticipation, comfort, resolution - for them and people in their generation. Maybe in their lifetimes, this historic election would become a footnote, and many years from tonight, they would tell their grandchildren how unusual this was; how much of big deal this was when the first black guy was elected president.

I had a moment late that night, and even more strongly in the morning, where I felt if not comfortable, then at least anticipatory about what was to come with an Obama presidency. Political inclinations aside, here's what I think I know about Obama: he's intelligent, appears to be someone who wants to be around other smart people, particularly if they challenge him, and he knows how to communicate, especially when he's addressing a crowd to deliver a message.

For me, the election ended in a heartbeat and all of the partisan politics felt like yesterday's news. It's time for our nation to support this man, about to take on an always challenging job in an extremely challenging time. Is he going to do an amazing job? A horrifying one? It's unanswerable. To Obama and the people who serve the country alongside him I say good luck and God bless.

He wasn't my candidate, but he is my president.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

NOT politics - sort of.

I just spent a weekend mostly on my own - husband away and two teenagers occupied each night with friends. Between loads of laundry on Saturday - including two exploding pillows that basically disintegrated in the washer and/or dryer and resulted in thousands of little cotton puffs that were either stuck in our drain or in the lint trap in our dryer - I watched WAY TOO MUCH HGTV. I know - the excitement nearly killed me as well.

I've written about HGTV before and the rather incredible way they present home improvements. My perspective - then and now - was mostly one of harmless wonder, knowing that little if any of the designer magic I witnessed on the network could truly be replicated in my home, no matter how many hours I logged watching "Design on a Dime."

But on the edge of an election, and in light of the home despair news around the country, I started thinking about HGTV in a different way. (That's almost all the politics I'll inject into this, I promise.) This isn't as out there as it sounds. Think about it: lots of disparate elements contribute to ill-advised buying decisions like a spending too much on a skirt that turns out to be just a little too tight around your hips but was the perfect color and the perfect length with the perfect pleats you wanted, or paying more than a few bucks for a shade of lipstick that will fade off your lips after just one cup of coffee, not hours later, no matter what the commercials tell you. But it's unlikely either of those decisions, or similar ones, will lead to your fiscal doom.

Because the truth is, lots of things contribute to when and how people buy a house, and many of them may convince you that you can afford a home WAY out of your price range. (These include unethical agents, lenders or other real estate predators but the list is much longer and more personal that those obvious factors.) In a way, I blame HGTV.

We all tend to believe what we see on TV. We see homes that go from drab to divine in just 30 minutes and believe it can happen. We watch color on walls transform ordinary to glamorous and never doubt that we can achieve the same effect. Thousands of dollars later, we see landscaping turn a home from an eyesore to a showplace, and treat this as some kind of miracle. Rarely do we see the price tags attached to these transformations and even when we do,they never seem to include labor costs or the timing and the expertise of the staff involved.

Why are we mystified about how many people made poor choices about buying a home? We've all been fed this "you can do it" mantra for years now from shows on HGTV and other similar programs. We've gone way beyond thinking about painting walls to buying them with money we don't have. Unfortunately, we're buying too many walls that are too big for our wallets.

In many ways, fantasy has become the new reality. Fantasy life, looks, homes, vacations, food, parenting skills, marriages. That's how you can explain any number of programs on television these days.

But reality is still reality, no matter how it's presented by producers and experts.