Conversations With A Friend

My friend Marlene Kern Fischer and I were having a little fun one day and wrote this in tandem.

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We met in college and became friends but not the best of friends. Years later we reconnected over the loss of an infant. A condolence call was placed and so began a dialogue that has continued for twenty-six years, through landlines, portable phones with telescoping antennae, nascent car phones and BlackBerrys to our current smart phones. Neither one of us remembers much of the substance of that first conversation, but we do remember that we laughed.

Over the years the topics we have beaten to death could fill volumes but as we often acknowledge to each other, the highest and best use of our conversations would be to put people to sleep. If the CIA perchance tapped our phones, we offer our sincerest apologies to whomever had to do the listening. Our discussions were repetitive, grandiose, mundane and largely trite, but occasionally insightful. Most importantly we always made each other chuckle and those chats sometimes made the difference between losing our minds and hanging on by the slimmest of threads.

As our lives evolved so did our conversations:

Husbands Then

“Hubby is traveling this week. He’s going for three nights. I can’t do this by myself. I’m going to die.

“Maybe if you hang on to his leg, he won’t go.”

“It’s worth a try.”

Husbands Now

“Hubby is traveling this week. Wooo hooo. He’s gone for three nights-YES.”

“OMG-you’re sooooo lucky, no laundry, no meals, no snoring.”

 

Children Then

“These little ‘angels’ don’t listen to a thing I say. I can’t take it.”

Children Now

“These big ‘angels’ don’t listen to a thing I say. I can’t take it.”

 

Fertility Then

“When are you going to start trying for number two?”

“You?”

“Soon, I’m dying to have another one and I want them close in age.”

“What do you think the perfect age gap is?”

“Holy hell, hubby has the chicken pox and a fever, no baby this month.”

“Yikes, sorry. There’s always next month.”

Fertility Now

“I had a nightmare that I had a baby.”

“Oh my God, Nooooo. That’s not just a nightmare, that’s actually the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Could you imagine?”

“NO, and please don’t make me try.”

 

Toys Then

“So excited, going to the toy store this weekend to pick up a plastic kitchen, plastic car, plastic slide, plastic activity garden, plastic pool, plastic basketball hoop, plastic workshop, Beanie Babies, Beyblades, video games, DVDs, Webkinz and maybe some Legos to keep the kids entertained. I hear there may be a snow day next week.”

“Nice. Let me know what you think of the activity garden. We’re thinking of getting one as soon as we can get the plastic play house and ride-on toys out of the family room.”

Toys Now

“So excited, getting a dumpster this weekend to get rid of all the crap we have accumulated because it no longer brings us joy.”

“I don’t understand that joy thing but I’m jealous. I can’t wait until we get our very own dumpster.”

 

Moving Then

“Our apartment is getting tight.”

“Where are you moving to? Westchester? Long Island? New Jersey?”

“Not sure. We’re going to look at all those places.”

“I guess we should pick the best spot for the kids.”

Moving Now

“I can’t take the cold anymore. I am afraid of falling on black ice.”

“Where are you moving to? Boca? Arizona? California?”

“Not sure. We’re going to look at all those places.”

“I guess we should try to find a place close to the kids.”

 

Sleep Then

“Baby kept me up last night. Slept for maybe a total of two hours. I’m so tired.”

“Same, he got up every hour on the hour. I won’t survive this.”

Sleep Now

“Sweated all night. Slept for maybe a total of two hours. I’m soooooo tired.”

“Same. I thought the heat was on 110 degrees but I checked and it was at 62. I won’t survive this.”

 

School Then/First Child

“What do you need to get into the Ivy League?”

“Grades, scores and tons of extracurricular activities. You better get on it girlfriend.”

School Now/Third Child

“Have you figured out the new PSAT?”

“No, I haven’t had a chance to look. He’ll figure it out. He can always get an online degree.”

 

Over the years, we’ve argued, we’ve agreed, and we’ve agreed to disagree. Now, as the substance of our chatter shifts to aging parents, parenting older children and an impending empty nest we realize that the thing that has always mattered most was not the topic, but the conversation.

“Dear Freshman Parent,” You Need to Know THIS About Your Student

As winter break comes to a close and second semester opens, we wish you safe travels, engaging classes, healthy choices and rewarding friendships. 

This is how we started winter break five short weeks ago:

A form letter came today from the Dean for Freshman at the university where my son just completed his first semester, and I have to admit that although, at first glance, the letter appeared to be written in my native tongue, it took several readings for me to get to the bottom of what they were trying to tell me (and all the other parents).

The opening salvo:

Reading between the lines in a dean's holiday letter to freshman parents

The end of the semester is almost here and your students will be returning home for the semester break shortly. It is natural for you to want to know what grades to expect for the courses taken this semester. Although overall grades may be fine, do not be surprised to learn, that despite much effort, some grades may be lower than those received in high school.

Translation-We know that you think your child is a genius and should be earning all A’s but not so fast, because as it turns out, the world is an enormously competitive place and when you’re running with greyhounds, you may no longer be the fastest dog in the pack. So, if your child got B’s and C’s instead of A’s don’t sweat it.

Moreover, initial academic and or career choices may be changing due to newly discovered interests and a better understanding of your students’ strengths. This semester has been a time of growth, change and learning for your student.

Translation-It has come to your freshman’s attention that partying, carousing and staying up till the wee hours of the morning turn out to be much more engaging and entertaining than actually going to the library and studying. Also, it’s hard to get up for classes when you’re out all night. Your child’s freshman year dream of becoming a doctor-well it may be time to rethink that whole situation. Shockingly, it turns out that chemistry is actually really, really hard.

Your students may appear to be different people from the ones you sent off to college. You may notice them questioning and even challenging many traditional values, cherished family beliefs, parental expectations and rules once easily accepted.

Translation-Your child is probably going to be a class-A jerk when he gets home. He thinks that because he is “independent” at school he no longer needs to follow house rules. Do not expect “traditional values” such as thoughtfulness, obedience or respect to have a major impact on your freshman’s behavior.

The closing salutation:

I would like to wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.

Translation-Oh my God these kids are insane. Thank goodness a million times that they are YOUR problem for the next month. I seriously need this break.

There is an addendum I would make to the Dean’s letter, if I may, and this is directed to the students who are soon to be homeward bound:

Dear College Freshman:

The home you are returning to is not the home you left three months ago and the parents and siblings who wept as they hugged you goodbye are not the same family you left behind. In your absence, they too have had a period of growth and change and they may chafe at your presence a bit because when you gained your independence, it turns out they did as well. For three months, there has been a certain peacefulness in their homes and from that blessed hush emerged quiet voices, those of your younger siblings who used this opening to declare themselves.

Translation-It may astonish you that even parents can evolve. You may not be the child we sent away, but neither are we the parents who sent you away. Although, he rarely had an opportunity to demonstrate it before you left, it turns out that your little brother is a delightful child with a strong, smart and interesting voice and it’s a pleasure to hear and see him blossom.

If we respect each other’s evolution we will all get along just fine.

We love you and can’t wait to see you.

“This originally appeared on Grown and Flown” http://grownandflown.com  

They also have a Facebook page you can follow.

 

Can You Hear Me Now?

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Today I watched my mother’s world narrow or perhaps I just finally realized how narrow her world had already become.

I took my mother to an audiologist and an ear, nose and throat doctor. Her hearing has been failing for years but today she’s having the first hearing test she’s had in about five years. Unfortunately, the test confirms my fear that her hearing loss has fallen off the proverbial cliff. She’s gone from a moderate hearing loss to a profound hearing loss. It’s a big leap descending into a free fall of hearing deficit.

Seated in the testing booth she’s asked over and over to repeat the words the audiologist says to her. She tries, oh how she tries, but she can’t seem to come up with the correct answers. The audiologist tells her to guess the words, so she guesses and she’s mostly wrong and worse than simply being wrong she knows that her guesses are long shots and that she’s doing badly and her face is a mask of effort, frustration and resigned dejection.

But, she’s a compliant and polite patient so she smiles and she nods pleasantly, but she doesn’t have a clue what they are saying to her. She’s always been a pleaser; she wants you to think that your speaking effort has not gone unrewarded and that she understands what you’re saying. “Look, if I talk to her like this, she’ll understand every word I say,” says the kindly doctor, speaking loudly and slowly, carefully enunciating each word as he squats directly in front of her so that they are face to face. “Why did he talk to me like I’m a dummy?” she asks me later.

I’ve been to a lot of doctors with mom over the years and there’s been bad medical news before, but I haven’t had this much angst in a while. I know she wants to “do well” on this test. It’s important for her to do well, but this time she just can’t because although she hears the sounds, the words have become inaccessible to her. The professionals explain that it’s like tuning a radio, you can raise the volume but if the reception is fuzzy, you still won’t know what the broadcaster is saying. A new hearing aid may help, but not a lot.

Words are who we are. Language is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have the ability to shape thoughts and sounds in a way that informs, inspires, entertains or motivates others. How much of ourselves do we lose when we can no longer hear and appropriately respond to what someone says to us?

And when the appointment ends, as we walk toward the car she says optimistically, “You don’t need to hear to watch ‘Dancing With The Stars.’” “Yes, that’s true,” I am about to reply but instead I turn, look her full in the face, smile and nod.

The Blessings of Today

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Yesterday I watched the live stream of the funeral of an eighteen-year old boy named Ezra Schwartz, son of Ari and Ruth Schwartz. Ezra was studying in Israel for the year and was returning from working on beautifying a natural reserve dedicated to three teens kidnapped and killed by terrorists last year, when a terrorist gunned him down. It’s a tragedy that hits very close to home because I too have an eighteen-year old son who spent three months in Israel last spring. Additionally, I was born and raised in a community only twenty minutes from Ezra’s and I have spent time in Ezra’s community which in so many ways is a replica of the community in which I currently live.

During the funeral, some of the eulogists touched on the milestone events that Ezra’s parents will miss, the wedding that Ezra will never have, the family that he will never father. There are no words for how gut wrenching it was to hear those speakers.

Last night my eighteen year old came home from college after being away for three months and today we spent much of the day together and as the day wore on, I found myself thinking, with an ache in my heart, of all the things Ruth Schwartz will miss; not the big things like weddings and births but just the simple delight of being reunited with an eighteen year old son.

She will miss the unique joy of an eighteen-year old boy, as I have for the last three months. I missed the evolution of my son’s facial hair of which he is so proud, brought to us courtesy of No-Shave November, the sort of facial hair, which more closely resembles dirt than it does a beard. I have missed finding empty drinking glasses all over the house because each time an eighteen-year old boy is thirsty, he takes out a fresh glass and leaves it precisely where his thirst has been slaked. I have missed the dirty clothes squirrelled in a corner of the room, oh so close to the hamper, but just NOT in it.

I missed the bald faced statements that epitomize this arrogantly sure, yet fiercely uncertain time of life when one day they know exactly what they are about and the next day they have not a clue. I missed the “on demand” feedings of a young body that needs to be fuelled often and copiously. I missed the daily comings and goings; the breezing in and out of the house with, “I’m meeting X here and Y there.” I missed looking across the table and feeling love wash over me for this creature solidly caught somewhere between a boy and a man.

And because in my son’s temporary and short-term absence, I missed all these things, I know that Ruth Schwartz does as well and from one mother to another- I can only say how deeply sorry I am for her pain. On this Thanksgiving eve I am as grateful as I’ve always been for all the blessings of life, but this year I will count my blessings more carefully and hold them more tightly.

If this tragedy teaches us anything, it is, that all any of us really have is today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 9.40.27 PMI’m not going to mince words; it makes me irrationally joyful to get birthday greetings via Facebook.

As far as I can tell there are at least five categories of birthday greetings/greeters on Facebook. The first birthday salutation, which I call the “bare basics birthday greeting”  is the most rudimentary of the lot. It is a simple and unvarnished, “Happy Birthday.” It’s almost transferable in its anonymity except for the fact that it’s written on your wall, on your birthday. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of thought, but it’s still lovely that someone took a moment out of his/her day to say happy birthday to you.

The next level of greeting is, “Happy Birthday, Helene (substitute your name here).” This type of post is a step up from the bare basics birthday greeting because the use of your name clearly indicates that this greeter has definitely thought about you as they had to figure out your name before posting.

Next up is what we’ll call the “additional sentence” poster. These posts say, “Happy birthday (your name)” and then an additional sentence follows that salutation. The follow-up sentence generally says, “Have a nice day.” or “Have a great day.” or “I hope it’s a good one.” Now these posters deserve a bit more praise than category one and two posters because they have gone the extra mile in wishing upon you not only a happy birthday but also a great or happy day.

As an aside, I think this is the perfect spot to mention a subcategory of the “additional sentence” poster, those who wish you a “Happy, happy birthday or just “Happy day” or Happy, happy, happy.” It seems to me that these posters also deserve a tad more credit because they took the time to wish you that extra modicum of happiness.

At the top of the birthday greeter’s pyramid are those of your friends who mention something that is personal to you, post a picture with you in it, mention that they love you or use an exclamation point or any other punctuation in their post. I call these posters the “whole enchilada” posters. You should expect this type of greeting from people with whom you have an intimate relationship, but be forgiving of those close to you who struggle with this kind of Facebook intimacy especially if they are over 45. Kids these days seem to have endless pictures of their friends and are rarely self-conscious about expressions of love. They are also free with the use of superlatives so that every friend is the best and the prettiest. We older folks just are not as good with that kind of thing.

Let’s not even get to the etiquette of how to appropriately respond to Facebook birthday greetings. My 18-year-old son says there is a simple rule, everyone or no one. In my case if you have jumped the gun and began the day by liking the first few posts individually, you can really get yourself into heaps of trouble because when the greetings start pouring in you just can’t continue “liking” them all.

So my answer is a large thank you to everyone because I truly, truly loved each and every greeting. From the bare basics posters to the whole enchilada posters-I love you all and appreciate your good wishes.

Oh, and one more thing, if you forgot to post, no worries, there’s always next year.

The Next Chapter

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This weekend we dropped number two son off at college. This is not my first rodeo so I was somewhat prepared for the flood of emotion that comes with this process. Despite the fact that I’ve been feeling weepy for the last week or two, the actual separation went surprisingly well, even though I did feel that familiar lump rise in my throat as we watched him walk away.

If we moms had to explain to our kids why we get misty-eyed, we’d say, or as I can only speak for myself, I’d say:

My heart is so full of love for you that it aches like a physical pain and it’s that almost unbearable fullness that brings tears to my eyes.

I will miss you and almost everything about you, your sense of humor, your long, rambling convoluted diatribes, even your closed bedroom door. But it’s not just you I’ll miss, it’s the light and life you brought into this home and your friends who also became dear to me over the years.

I will miss the way we were. Things will change between us now. We will always be mother and son but I will become an increasingly less important person to you, as it should be.

I will worry about you because I desperately don’t want you to ever feel lost or alone but I am certain that you will experience those “lost and alone” days. Everyone has them. Thinking about the times that you will not be okay and the fact that I can’t make you okay makes me terribly sad.

I am not worried that you will not succeed. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I have no doubt that you will succeed and that success will lead you further from me. Again, it is as it should be, but sad, nonetheless.

That moment when you walked away from us, we went one way and you went the other. You walked into a bright new chapter of your life where the possibilities are almost endless. I was walking away from a piece of my heart and the poignancy of that moment is not lost on me.

I know that we will all soon adjust and I will be able to see this more clearly as a beginning for both of us and not as an end and, as we drive away I look back and hope that I’ve done most things right or right enough, that you make wise choices and that fortune goes your way more often than not.

What I Wish I Had Known

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With high school in the rear view mirror, my middle son prepares to embark on a three month pre-graduation trip, and as he gets set to fly the coop, here are five things I wish I had known as I held that six and half pound bundle in my arms eighteen years ago:

1) The child they hand you in the hospital is not a blank slate.
Not by a long shot. That infant you take home has all the trappings and qualities of the adult he will one day become. You cannot make them in your own image. My children were uniquely themselves, in a way I couldn’t even fathom, on the day they were born. All you can do is help them become their best selves and embrace them as they are.

2) This parenting gig is not a sprint, it is, most definitely, a marathon.
You are going to be parenting for a long, long time. If you enjoy it, it’s a journey and if you detest it, it’s a very long haul but either way you need to preserve your stamina and your children’s stamina, so don’t talk to your first grader about college and don’t worry about it either. Believe me, you’ll be jumping off that bridge sooner than you think.

3) It’s hard to screw this up. By the time I had my kids the word “parent” (to parent) had morphed into a verb. We were all “parenting” rather than just being parents. When I was growing up, “parent” was solidly a noun, as in what you become when you raise a child. And then it got so complicated with attachment parenting, helicopter parenting, no-rescue parenting. The battles raged on about breast versus bottle, co-sleeping versus not, potty issues, working versus stay at home parent issues. There was so much external noise that I almost missed the inner voice, the one that really mattered, the one that whispered, “He’s yours and you know what’s right for him.” Listen to your gut.

4) Define the qualities that are most important to you. It’s easier to look backward than forward. Try looking forward and thinking about the qualities you want the eighteen-year old version of your baby to possess. These qualities will be different for everyone, so try not to judge others. Some people feel that learning a musical instrument is critical, and others place a premium on sports or religion. Don’t try to convince someone else that your ideas are the only ones or the best ones. If something is important to you, insist that your child puts quality effort into it.

5) It takes a village or at least a few other mothers. In each of my children’s lives, I’ve been truly blessed with fellow moms who have literally saved me. From my first bout with post natal depression to the strangling fatigue of sleepless nights-I couldn’t have done this alone. With my first child, we moms pretended that the playgroup we organized when they were three weeks old, was for the babies, even as we lay them drooling on the floor barely able to hold up their heads. At the end of the day, that group was about the moms more than the kids. You need a lifeline, reach for it and you will be enriched beyond measure.

The New Normal

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My son forwarded an email to me the other day. It read,

“Dear Andrew and Roommate,

Congratulations, your applications for rental have been approved.  Thank you for choosing XXX for your new home!”

Your new home address is….”

Could the email be any clearer, putting into words what we already understood to be true? Our eldest son, soon to be a college graduate is moving on, not in a temporary, “I’ll be home for the summer” kind of way but in an “I no longer live in your house, and if all goes well, never will again,” kind of way. He’s moving to a new city in a new state to do exciting things with his life and this development, while joyful and thrilling is also a bit heart-stopping for me.

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It is not startling because our son is not ready to make his world debut. He is. He is as prepared for this transition as any young man his age can be. More prepared than many, I would even say. Often the most responsible person in the room, he is THAT kid, the one who at sixteen made copies of his teen tour itinerary for his group of friends before they set out on their journey. We moms laughingly reminisce that his friends had no worries as they fully expected Andrew to have copies available for everyone on the trip.

There is much written about the angst of sending your children off to college and indeed college is a huge step in a young adults first foray into independence but truth be told, when kids go off to college their home address is still your home address. Family vacations are planned around school breaks. Certainly college affords parents a break from daily hands-on parenting but in reality even though your children may be physically away from you they continue to be “all yours.” When someone asks a college student where he/she lives most will still give their parents’ address.

This post graduation move feels palpably different. It is different. This strikes me as a “Wonder Years” moment: a moment beyond which the new normal lies. The problem with all of these “milestone” moments is that while they happen bit by bit, they come upon you suddenly and leave you not knowing quite what to make of them.

When my son was barely bigger than a babe in arms we had a bedtime routine. I would place him in his crib and then I would sit in his rocking chair and I would prompt him, “Let’s talk about your day.” He would begin with, “I woke up this morning…” and often would get no further than that before he would digress and eventually chatter himself to sleep as I slipped away. As he got a little older, in a classic bedtime stalling tactic, he would beg, “Don’t go yet. Talk about my day.” He knew that I was a sucker for developing “communication skills” and his plea would always get me to stay at his bedside for just a little while longer.

I’m glad I stayed those extra moments. Perhaps he and I have always known that the hardest part of our relationship would be the letting go.

Public Enemy Number One-Not Me

About a month ago, with husband and kids in tow, I was returning to frigid New Jersey from balmy Palm Beach, Florida. I was already in a funk when a TSA agent pulled me out of an airport security line for “extra screening.” The agent pointed at me and said “palms up.” With my usual smooth eloquence I said, “huh” so the TSA agent repeated, “palms up,” at which point I complied and she swabbed my hands with some device and told me I needed to wait for the results before proceeding. It was neither humiliating nor terrifying but it was, and here’s the understatement of the decade, preposterous.

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Security is a serious business. I understand that sometimes it can be inconvenient, intrusive and seemingly arbitrary and really I’m down for all that. In light of the fact that TSA doesn’t know me I thought I should let them know that when it comes to extra screening they are not only barking up the wrong tree when it comes to me, they are not even in the right forest.

Here are the top five reasons why TSA need never again swab my hands for traces of explosives.

5) As a child I cried and begged for a chemistry set because I thought that they looked like such fun but when I got one as a gift I cried all over again because that chemistry set was, without exception, the most disappointing gift I’d ever gotten. It was not even a little fun. You see chemistry has never been my ish, leading inexorably to the conclusion that my fate as a person incapable of making a bomb was sealed long ago. 

4) I am a fifty-year old woman whose perpetual state of being is drop-dead exhaustion. Removing my shoes in a security line while standing and at the same time getting my coat off, my electronics out of their cases and onto the conveyer belt and my pockets emptied with people breathing down my neck is the stuff of my nightmares. By the time I’ve done all that, I’m all in. Doing all of the above whilst simultaneously master minding criminal activity…for goodness sake, I can’t even remember where I packed the toothpaste.

3) I can’t even maintain a lie about my Starbucks alias (see previous blog posts). If I were up to no good would I be waltzing through security without breaking a sweat? When the Israeli security agents for El Al Airlines ask me if I packed my own suitcases, even though I did I get so nervous I feel like I’m going to vomit.

2) I travel with my children, the very children whom I’ve spent the last 22 years cherishing and nurturing. I take care of every last detail of their lives. From years of sleepless nights, loose braces, badly broken out skin to hellish school projects, I have poured body and soul into these children. I have given them my life’s blood and I can assure the TSA I am most certainly not building explosives and stewarding my children onto an airplane with those explosives. When I decide to take these kids out they will know it. There will be no ambiguity and there will be no trace of explosives on my fingers because I will be ripping their hearts out, as any self-respecting Jewish mother would do, not blowing them up on an airplane. Common sense, people, common sense!!!

1) To be perfectly honest, loud noises followed by puffs of smoke terrify me.

TSA, you have my admiration, respect and thanks but you can just go ahead and cross me off the list of people you need to worry about because, trust me; you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

I am not now, nor will I ever be #publicenemynumberoneorevennumbertwo.

 

 

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To Blog or not to Blog

To those who think blogging is easy, I’m here to tell you it’s not.

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In blogging, as in life, I try to live by the adage “know your audience.” It’s never my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings but trying to get it right makes writing a tougher gig than I thought it would be.

There was the hilarious post I wrote about airport security. After being stopped by security I listed several cogent reasons why the TSA need never pull me aside for extra screening because I promised that I had no intention of ever skyjacking a jet or blowing one up mid-flight. Unfortunately, five minutes before I went to hit the “publish” button on that particular post, Malaysian Airlines 370 went missing rendering my post perfectly inappropriate. I mean the whole situation was probably a tad worse for the passengers of 370 than for me but you have to admit the timing was awful.

Then, there was the blog post about the sixth grade state report and that one had me chuckling the whole time I was writing it. But when I showed it to the hubby who likes to ask me questions he already knows the answers to, maybe because he thinks I’ll have an easier time answering them, he asked, “Are you on the Board of Trustees of the school?”  “Yes.” “Do you think it’s appropriate to mock the teachers who are trying to teach your child?” “Well, I guess not.” And then, the sad realization that, crap, another blog post bites the dust.

The blog post burial ground is starting to look like a landfill in Staten Island without the seagulls.  Don’t be offended Staten Islanders. First there are the nascent ideas which I often get while driving or in the shower and those ideas are frequently brilliant. Yet as soon as my hair is dry or I reach my destination the kernel of brilliance has disappeared deep into the recesses of my fifty year old brain. There are the posts that tried to be funny and utterly failed, the ones that started off promisingly and two sentences in forgot where they were going and never found their way back.  Then there were those posts that even for an open person were a bit reminiscent of a gaping cesspool and were fortunately subject to the family veto for over sharing.

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And, while we’re on the subject, there are the friends and family who periodically read over a blog post for me. Thank you, I adore your feedback and I love you but sometimes…The feedback often goes like this, “I would flesh that out…” You would?” I ask.  “What would you write?” “I don’t know but I would just…you know…beef it up a little bit.” Hmmmm. Or my middle son shrugging his shoulders, “just not that good mom.” “What would you do?” I ask plaintively  “Make it better,” he says helpfully. The hubby’s feedback is often my favorite because of it’s startling lack of nuance and complexity and he can’t be bothered with the flesh it out concept…his response is often just “NO.” It’s hard to misunderstand that comment.

And, then there are the critics. It’s amazing how easy it is to be cruel on the Internet.  I wrote a post that if I had to raise my eldest child again I’d be less of a jerk. Someone commented something to the effect of you certainly seem like a jerk or once a jerk always a jerk. Was that really necessary? I’m actually surprised that there haven’t been more of those types of comments but I do wonder why people bother posting nasty comments. Seems somewhat pointless.

So during the weeks when it seems that there is no post, rest assured blog fans there really is one and it’s quite clever and ingenious but alas it did not pass the smell test.

It’s making friends in the landfill.

Slip of the Tongue

Kindness matters.

I’m not a huge Oscar fan but I was watching with half an eye on Sunday night when I heard Lupita Nyong’o’s brilliant acceptance speech and I was touched when Jared Leto looked directly at his mom and spoke about her struggles as a single mother in his acceptance speech. A little later I squirmed in my seat when John Travolta mangled Idina Menzel’s name. Correction, he didn’t just mangle it he chewed it up and spit it out, rendering it unrecognizable. It was a cringe worthy moment.  I’ve never liked slapstick comedy and this reminded me of slapstick, watching people humiliate themselves has never struck me as entertaining or funny. It was an unpleasant moment which should have been allowed to pass into history, but never in my wildest imagination did I think that that moment would become the most talked about moment of the evening.

The following day I woke to a Facebook wall with a smattering of people wanting to know what their names would sound like if John Travolta had an opportunity to mutilate them. Use this widget “to Travoltify your name,” was the line used to encourage others to participate.  And as the day wore on more and more people hopped on board that bandwagon. Isn’t it everyone’s worst nightmare to be onstage with a billion people watching and you flub your line?  Have we no compassion?

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That night on the national news they showed a clip of Travolta’s error.  Was it really national newsworthy? With everything going on in the Ukraine it hardly seemed worth a mention that John Travolta screwed up his line on the Oscars.

Granted Travolta is no ordinary humanoid.  And I know there are those who will argue that he’s a highly paid professional who has put himself out there but that doesn’t mean he’s not a person and I’m less concerned about Travolta than I am with the lesson we are teaching our children.  From a very young age we teach our children not to make fun of each other.  We tell them it’s wrong to mock other children.  Can you imagine if we told our kids it’s okay to make fun of children with speech impediments? If we truly believe that it’s not okay to mock others, how can we, as adults, be okay with this?

It hardly matters whether or not Travolta has Dyslexia, what matters is that we, as a collective are being cruel and we are being cruel for shits and gigs and because it’s easy. We can be cruel without seeing the hurt we’re causing which doesn’t make it any less hurtful. Come on, we are better than this.

Kindness matters.

What’s In A Name?

ImageMy name is Helene.

Once upon a time I lived in a nice little town with a Starbucks. I visited almost every day and ordered my usual. They knew me so well that after I gave birth to my third child my husband went in and ordered my drink and based solely on what he ordered they asked, “Did Helene have the baby? How is she?” They cared or I thought they did. Then in an ironic twist, one day they began to ask customers for their names to put on their coffee orders. It was ostensibly a move that would help the baristas get to know their customers better and distribute the drinks more efficiently but in fact the new methods proved to me that they didn’t know me at all. It was a new company policy they said. Well, none of us liked the new policy but what were we at the store level, consumer or employee to do? In the words of Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh, “so it is written, so it shall be done.”

The first time they butchered my name on a cup I was deeply disappointed but not enough to correct the barista. They had enough problems keeping up with the drink orders, didn’t they? Deeply disappointed, you ask? Over a misspelled name?  What, after all, is in a name? Just everything; identity, belonging, all that you are.  It’s the first thing your parents do, they name you. And, as it turns out the number of ways you can misspell Helene are as limitless as the stars in the sky and many of the ways were so creative that I wish I had kept all of the cups with my misspelled name just for a hoot.

Time moved on and so did we, to a new town and a new Starbucks and I had the opportunity for a clean slate. So at the new Starbucks when they asked for my name, before I could stop myself I said, Pam. You can’t get Pam wrong. It just can’t be done. And, each time thereafter when they asked for my name I said Pam because once you’ve fallen into a hole unless someone hands you a ladder it’s hard to climb out. They never ever misspelled Pam but I never for one second felt good about this foolish, petty deception. A friend saw Pam on my cup and asked why my coffee cup said Pam? And I was compelled to launch into the whole asinine explanation of my Starbucks alias and then in yoga class they saw my cup and begin to call me Pam. The effort to avoid spelling H E L E N E has ended in long explanations of why my coffee cup said Pam. What in the end have I gained?

Then after three years of frequenting this new Starbucks the workers there start to become familiar with me and after a three-day absence the barista says, “I’ve missed you Pam.”  That’s when I crack. I’ve never been a good liar so I lean across the counter, “My name is really Helene I whisper. “What?” she asks. “My name is not Pam,” I say a little louder this time, “Pam is my Starbucks alias. My real name is Helene.” Oh she says looking at me oddly.

But, no matter, because I feel lighter, no longer burdened by my alias.

Make that a tall, skim mocha, no whip for H E L E N E

Let P A M  get her own damn drink.

My Facebook Montage

imagesA few days ago I started seeing Facebook posts that said, “Here’s my Facebook movie. Find yours at…” followed by a hot link. And I was determined to just ignore the whole thing and not be a lemming. But by yesterday almost my entire Facebook wall was filled with peoples’ movies.

Let me just put it out there that I am the original bar/bat mitzvah montage curmudgeon. I think generally that the photomontages shown at bar mitzvahs are way too long, too personal (too many pictures of just the child and their immediate family) and hence painfully dull for anyone not in the celebrant’s immediate circle. So, my first reaction to the Facebook movies was I don’t need to watch another photomontage, even if it’s about me, or especially if it’s about me.

Alas, I couldn’t hold out so I clicked on my movie and I have to say Facebook’s sixty-two second wrap up of our relationship had a surprisingly strong emotional impact. From the melodic music and my beginning to my most liked posts and finally to the iconic Facebook final thumbs up…well done, Facebook. Well done.

How did they know how to hit me directly in the kishkas? It’s all an algorithm I’ve been told. But, tell that to my heart and my eyes which are suspiciously damp. Are we really the sum of our likes, others say and I don’t necessarily disagree with them.  It’s a good point. If I post something and not a lot of people “liked” it, but it mattered greatly to me, doesn’t it still belong in my narrative? Maybe, but we’ve only got sixty-two seconds folks. Something had to wind up on the cutting floor.

And to Facebook, I say, “It doesn’t change a thing but even so after 6 years it’s nice to know…”

Bar Mitzvah Boy

DHW_Party_Share-5On the Gregorian calendar tomorrow is my youngest son’s thirteenth birthday.

Three weeks ago according to the Hebrew calendar my son became a man but two days after becoming a man he returned to seventh grade and took up largely where he left off. At dinner last week to a chorus of groans he announced that we should reinstitute family game night. Two nights ago he announced that he was quitting piano. And, last night he wandered the house looking for a willing victim for some card trick he was attempting to learn as I tried without success to work my own magic by disappearing beneath an avalanche of covers. It’s not really fair to him.  I know that but I’m fifty and I’m done with unilateral pronouncements, board games and card tricks.

I had to chuckle as David rose to lead us in prayer on the day of his bar mitzvah.  The cantor pulled out a stool for him to stand on so that he could reach the lectern.  I kept thinking about the phrase from Isaiah,  “…and a little child shall lead them.”  I have no idea what the theological underpinnings of that phrase are but nonetheless it kept rolling around in my brain. And there is wisdom in the old customs because within the child who rose to lead his congregation that day I saw a glimpse of the man he will, God willing, someday become, not today, not tomorrow but someday. Through all the lessons and the practicing and the run-throughs I worried because your baby is always your baby and you wonder what they are really made of. And, then on that day for a moment you see something that you’ve never seen before. You see potential and maturity and the ability to rise to the occasion.

And last night as I gazed upon his baby soft, whiskerless face I knew that these days of high voices and smooth faces are fleeting and we are on the cusp of something big.  Before the bar mitzvah album is complete he will morph into something between a boy and a man, awkward and incomplete but on a trajectory toward manhood that cannot be stopped.

And so, I pull the covers off my head, beckon him and pull a card from the deck he holds in fanned out fashion.

Happy Birthday my beautiful bar mitzvah boy.

Performance Review-For Your Spouse

4f9371e19e21e7fb8250afbd2dc53058ba27ed77_large-1On Friday morning I read Give Your Husband a Performance Review

Why limit year-end progress reports to the workplace?  in the Wall Street Journal (link below) with mild interest but I didn’t give it too much thought until later that day when my husband emailed me a copy of the article. “Well,” I thought, if he wants a performance review maybe I should give him one. There are certainly a host of things that came to mind when I started to think of behaviors that could use a little bit of fixing but hey, if I gave him a performance review does that mean he would be entitled to give me one? And, that’s when my thinking about this whole performance review started to shift.

My husband gets reviewed at work when a consultant might speak with people who work with him and then give him a written and/or a verbal report of those conversations.  I sometimes joke that I am the only one who is not given an opportunity to give the consultant feedback. In light of those conversations, when my husband saw this article he sent it to me because he thought I might be interested. As we started to discuss whether or not we should do “personal reviews” my first inclination was to say yes. The family started to warm to the idea.  “We’ll make a list of mom’s core competencies,” dad said and then we can review them. We can do reviews for the whole family came another idea. We should do three strengths and three “areas of improvement” for everyone was yet another idea.

The more the discussion continued the more I began to sour on the idea. I began to wonder, “Is there no safe haven anymore? Is there nowhere to go where in the words of the song, “everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came…”’ Isn’t this the very reason spouses are allowed to invoke privilege and not testify against each other in a court of law, because ultimately you want to know that someone’s got your back and that your dirty, ugly secrets are safe with someone; that within your marriage lies a small bastion of judgment free safety.

Home should be a place of affirmation where you can compose your narrative from a place of nurturing and understanding not a place of anticipated criticism. Life just shouldn’t be that much work. Do you think I don’t know I should do more of some things and less of others, more cooking, less Facebook perhaps…but I want to be with someone who loves me in spite of my million and one quirky, annoying characteristics and vice versa.

So, here’s our performance review honey: this is our home, a place where we both feel secure enough to be our truest selves, a place where some days there is too much bickering and too much sweating the small stuff but where most days there is love, support, shared wisdom, understanding and laughter.

So let’s do each other a favor and leave the real performance reviews where they belong.

At the office

http://online.wsj.com/news/article_email/SB10001424052702304744304579250110157147496-lMyQjAxMTAzMDEwMzExNDMyWj

If I Had To Do It Over Again I’d Be Less of A Jerk

get-attachment-8.aspxIf I had to parent my oldest son over again I’d be less of a jerk.

We were working on the all important photo montage for my youngest son’s bar mitzvah and in the process we looked at hundreds of baby pictures and in still life we look like the model family. There is so much cuteness there that it’s hard to winnow the pile of photos down to the requisite hundred images needed for the montage. And then another thought occurs to us; perhaps we should include a few minutes of video footage in the montage. So we decide to watch some video footage of my youngest son’s circumcision ceremony/party.

At the very end of the footage there is what appears to be a very short addendum in which the venue has changed, the party has ended and we are home. The infant child is cradled in my arms feeding and my nine-year old son is in his Hannah Anderson cotton matching PJs. If we had a still picture of this, I would have melted, smiled knowingly and pronounced it to be, “precious.” But, unfortunately this is the age of video. My husband’s disembodied voice can be heard in the background asking, “Andrew what did you think of your brother’s “bris?”  “I don’t know” the child replies in a whiny, reedy voice. My husband can be heard groaning disappointedly on the sound track while I launch into a diatribe on the order of, “Answer daddy, speak up, ‘I don’t know’ is your answer to everything, tell us what you thought of the bris,” blah, blah, blah. I silently implore my video image to stop haranguing that poor, clearly exhausted child.

And then it strikes me; we were such jerks. What did we want from this child who with the clarity of thirteen years of hindsight and several years’ worth of sleep filled nights looks almost as much like a baby as his eight-day old brother. But at the time with a three-year old and an infant we looked to the nine-year old as if he would shortly be donning a business suit and going off to work.

I’m actually surprised we didn’t ask him to write a dissertation about his brother’s “bris.” So, MARK MY WORDS younger parents and mark them well, when your infant arrives that does not make your older child older than he actually is. Don’t fall into that trap because someday you might just watch some video footage of yourself and wish for a do over.

And to my oldest son, please accept my sincere apology. If we screwed you up, it was wholly unintentional. In my defense, birth order is destiny. Now get over it. By the way what do you think of David’s bar mitzvah speech? And, let me just put it out there, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. I’ll be expecting some lucid, non-whiny commentary by this evening.

Remembering My Mother-In-Law

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It’s been two years on the Jewish calendar since I delivered this eulogy.

I met Edith Wingens some twenty-seven years ago. If I said it was love at first sight for either one of us, I’d be lying. After all, I had come to take her son and she was, naturally, wary. I understood that then and being the mother of three sons, I understand it even better now.

But, there we were.

So, when Gary told his mother that I was the one, she said the three words that every young man wants to hear from his mother upon imparting such news, and they were, “Are you sure????”

But Edith was nothing if not an adaptable. And, we found our way. She was a force of nature, a whirling dervish, a person who made an entrance. I am a bit more reserved, laid back, a person who prefers to slip into a room unnoticed. She was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and I am slightly more monochromatic. As it turned out we were perfect foils. We didn’t clash but we sometimes collided. Gently.

When Gary and I were first married Edith said, “Helene, let me show you how to iron Gary’s shirts” to which I responded, “let’s show Gary how to iron his own shirts.” Edith replied, “I did NOT send my son to Harvard Law School to learn to iron shirts.” Well, I had also gone to law school and although the comment rankled, I smiled, watched the ironing demonstration with great enthusiasm and took Gary’s shirts to the dry cleaner the next day.

Edith asked me to refer to her as “mom.” I said I would love to but two years later –after Edith realized I hadn’t called her anything in two years– she said, “You don’t need to call me mom, just PLEASE call me something….”

Twenty six years later sitting across from me at my table after I had once again smiled and agreed to something I had no intention of doing, to all of our surprise Edith remarked, “From now on I’m going to be more like Helene. WOW I thought now we’re getting somewhere. “In what way?” I asked. She answered, “Well, when someone asks me to do something I’m going to smile, say yes and then do whatever I want to do.” It had only taken 26 years but I’d finally been snagged.

As the years went by Edith and I found common ground. Frankly, when I was 23 I thought a lot of what she said was foolish but as I aged, a lot of it began to have the ring of truth. And, there is no better common ground than grandchildren.

She began to tell me that I was a good mother, a more patient mother than she’d been and her praise meant a lot to me. I began to understand that having 20 people for dinner, which she did often, was no small feat. I became a better cook. She became freer with her compliments. And, when Edith compliments your food, you know you’ve arrived. I began to appreciate the strength of her character, her optimism, her iron will and her enduring friendships.

Often when I visited her in the hospital or rehab she would insist on proudly telling all who dared enter, “This is my daughter in law.” She would clutch my hand and tell me how happy she was that I had come and how did I know to come just when she needed me to?

One of our last interactions was at rehab. Talking had become difficult for her. We sat, mostly in silence, and then she said, “You have three wonderful sons.” “Yes, and you have a wonderful son also” I quipped. “As good as gold” she answered. But, I would argue better than gold because gold cannot buy the kind of devotion you have shown your parents, Gary. That can only come from the heart. Many sons have done well but you, Gary, surpass them all. From the moment your mother perceived your presence in her womb as a craving for herring you gave your parents such joy, such enormous joy. At the end, you doggedly pursued their comfort and dignity with tremendous compassion even when you were so tired you could barely hold your head up. You felt their pain and did everything in your power to ease it. I can only hope our sons have been watching…

Today, legally I am not a mourner but still I mourn. Edith, Omi, Mom, I will miss you.

As I said, two years have passed since I delivered this eulogy and I miss her.

I really do.

The Old College Tour

images-3We happened to be in the Boston area for the weekend so I decided that while we were there I would take my son who is a high school junior to look at two area colleges.

We sat through two information sessions and went on two student-guided tours. It had been a while since I had visited colleges as my oldest son is now a senior in college and, truthfully my husband did most of the college visits back then.

The first information session we went to was an hour’s worth of torture so I started to ponder what improvements I would suggest to an admissions officer if I were given that chance. It was either that or pass out where I sat and I didn’t think either my son or the admissions officer would appreciate that very appealing option. What follows are my personal thoughts and do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of anyone else in my family.

First, contrary to Mr. admissions officer’s misguided observation I did want to hear statistics even though I could easily read them in the barrage of paper paraphernalia scattered about the admissions office. Honestly, I came to visit your campus because I wanted to be spoon-fed the salient statistics. What I didn’t want to hear was every interesting experiment that your professors are working on. Yes, many of them are intriguing but some of them aren’t and that’s not really what I came to hear.  And, FYI an hour is just too long.  No information session needs to be longer than half an hour.

Second, I would appreciate a lot more honesty and a lot less pandering.  In both information sessions there was a long spiel given about “holistic” review of applications leading to what I think is a misleading assumption by some that no matter how low your GPA and SAT scores are you have a chance of getting into a school if your “softs” (i.e. recommendations, essays and extracurriculars) are good. Below a certain number it’s just not true.  I think they should discuss the elephant in the room.  Why can’t they JUST SAY IT? Being opaque led to a question and answer session at one school where parents spent twenty minutes asking about the alumni interview. Instead of saying it doesn’t really matter up front, the admissions person answered the questions until he finally had to admit that unless you murder the interviewer, the interview can’t hurt you and very rarely makes any difference at all. And, even if you do murder the interviewer, if you have a 2400 on your SAT, a 4.5 GPA, are a concert pianist, a talented artist, a ranked tennis player and have cured a rare disease you will be offered a spot in the class.

One information session was set up with a tag team of an admissions officer and a student. The admissions officer would ask the student if, for instance, she knew anyone who had gone abroad. “In fact I do” she would answer and then proceed to tell us about that “person.” The entire session continued in that vain. It was a veritable facsimile of Shakespearean theater, but poorly done.  It was so canned that my twelve year old bought it hook line and sinker.  Thanks, but next time I’ll go to Broadway if I want to see a show.

I just want brevity and honesty in a narrative style, with numbers.  What are you looking for in prospective students? And, why would a student want to come here?

Just the facts Ma’am,  but the honest to goodness facts.

Is that too much to ask?

It Goes On

David Hirsch PhotoAbout sixth months ago, soon after I began blogging my twelve- year old son came to me and said, “Mom, I have a quote for you to blog about. It’s by Robert Frost and this is it, ‘In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.’”

After I got past the initial surprise that my son had grasped that concept at such a young age and after I thought about Robert Frost and how brilliant he was I thought well, yes, it IS so true that life goes on but at least for me, there’s more to it than that.

Life goes on but the grief goes on as well, not in a debilitating, crawl into bed can’t move kind of way. Don’t start looking this up in the DSM-5. I’m not talking about extreme or extended grieving that rises to the level of pathology. I’m talking about the way some people leave us with a void that can never be filled, not by the child who looks like them or the one who was named for them, not by anybody. And yes, life certainly goes on, as it should, people re-marry, children are born, careers blossom and lives move on but when someone you really loved dies you never stop missing them and you never stop wishing you could have them back for one day, one hour, even one minute.

Every year on the anniversary of my mother in law’s mother’s death she would say it’s been X many years that my mother’s been gone.  The number was high.  She died in the early 70s. I remember thinking how can my mother in law possibly remember the date and why did she still mention it thirty years later?  I get it now.  Today marks fourteen years since my father died and I will never forget the date. It’s just one of those indelible dates seared into my brain forever. And, if I’m here in sixteen years I will say it’s been thirty years and I will miss him still. I know that now.

So yes David life goes on. The pain is pushed away, the smiles return and the fall colors are vibrant again. But, when you lose someone you love a lot, you carve out a place in your heart where you carry the joy of having loved them together with the pain of having lost them and those things must learn to coexist.

And they do.

The College Conundrum

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When my oldest son was applying to college my mother in law used to repeatedly ask where “A” was going to go to college. As I grew weary of the question I would flippantly reply, “Wherever they’ll take him.” Why wouldn’t X school take him?” she would ask incredulously “He’s such a nice boy.”

Now, I am launching a second son (a junior) into the college search process but since it’s not the first time I’ve done this, my vision is a bit clearer.

If you have a high school junior or senior you’re probably getting mail by the bucket load from colleges, some of which you’ve heard of and some of which are new to you.  The first time out, I was secretly awed by this flood of mail.  I tried to be cool about it but inside I was bursting. Wow, I thought, they really want HIM.  I wasn’t sure how they knew what a fabulous kid son number one was but I just figured someone had let them in on the secret.

Now I know that four years of college is a commodity and this detritus from the colleges is just a massive marketing blitz.  Colleges are trying to sell their schools.  What exactly are they trying to sell and, more importantly, what are we looking to buy? As I look at the brochures on my kitchen island certain phrases jump out at me. One college says they are, “Leading the way.”  Where exactly are we going?  Another college, Morris Catholic, tells my sixteen-year old son who has attended Jewish Day School for the last twelve years, “You are the future.”  I hope he’s someone’s future but I’m just not sure he’s their future.  Other schools are more creative: “Where leaders learn.” or “Arrive Realize Thrive” It’s a morass of pithy, pointless sayings which clarify nothing.

It’s seductive to believe that all these schools know and want your child but let me assure you that what the college actually wants is your child’s application. Think application fees and selectivity. Selectivity is a factor used to raise a school’s ranking so the more applicants, the more rejections, the more selective a school becomes and the school’s ranking rises.  It’s not personal. They don’t know your child and admissions is, after all, just a numbers game.

A friend who’s been down this road before likes to remind me of the course catalog as thick as two phone books that her son got from a top ten school along with many other pieces of mail from that school, only to later be rejected by said school. The rejection caused her son tremendous angst but at the end of the day he wound up at the right college for him and later at a terrific law school.  After all of the agita, ninety seven percent of my older son’s friends ended up at schools where they have flourished academically and socially.

So, what am I looking to buy for my number two son aside from the pithiest of sayings on the coolest brochure? First, these  are the things I know to be true; there is not only one right college for my child, there are many colleges that would serve him well. Second, it’s very hard to screw this up because most kids do really well at the schools where they end up.

The framework of what I’m looking for is a safe, nurturing place for my son to develop from an immature eighteen year old into a mature twenty-two year old, while he learns, decides what the next step will be and makes friends.  The details: big/small, sports/no sports, urban/rural, greek life/no greek life…that’s for him to flesh out.

Oh, and where is the line on the application where we tell them what a nice boy he is?