Thursday, April 9, 2015

Conversations with your college freshmen that matter before they leave, and long after they've gone.

Me, with my unexpected pleasure of parenting
A while back, I was asked by Grown and Flown, a highly regarded parenting blog, to take part in a slideshow by expressing an unexpected pleasure of parenting. Mine was this:

I have loved and accepted my children every day of their lives. But who they have become on their own are four people I would love if I met them today.

More recently, I posted a piece about visiting our son at college. The afternoon we arrived, he told us he'd invited a "bunch of guys" over to meet us and suggested we come by at around ten for a few rounds of beer pong, then leave before the actual party started later. Ha ha.

We would use water, he added graciously.  "You don't have to actually drink beer."

It did not cross my mind to be horrified by the prospect of college juniors and seniors drinking beer at a party. It did cross my mind that we were being invited to glimpse the world he lives in now and who he is becoming.

The post was appreciated by many people who have kids in college, but not by everyone. One  reader suggested I might have used the moment as a jumping off point to talk about "drinking responsibly."

Well, that ship has sailed, but point taken. College drinking makes parents nervous, especially those about to launch first freshmen. 

Because I actually take the well being of college students (and their parents) very seriously, I will pass along a few "worked for me" tips in hopes that your own talk about drinking responsibly won't feel like one you're having with yourself.

From my own files of "wish I had," and "glad I did":

Dial down your fear and ASK.
We have launched four children, which means our first teenager, poor thing, got me at the ground floor of the learning curve where the motive for everything was to make sure nothing bad ever happened to our children. Here is where good discussions start with the words, "I just want to tell you a few things" and promptly die.

When our last child was getting ready for college, our conversations were more Q's from me, and A's from him. I had seen him affect his own success and failure in high school and knew he liked driving his own bus. We covered the gamut of college temptations but not without striking a deal: I could ask him anything. He would be honest. I could ask follow-ups. He would explain. I could not "freak out" over anything.
Be real.
Our kids stay on the rails in high school because they have seen more of their choices than they've told us about and have selected carefully.

The temptation to characterize the behavior that will surround our kids at college as foolish or stupid or beneath them is well-intentioned but guilt-producing. Teens – good ones – fall in love and have sex. Teens – good ones – get together at the beach and get drunk. Some become pregnant. Some become substance-addicted. Most do neither. Acknowledging that destructive behaviors are as much a choice of smart people as productive ones is honest. It is not giving them permission to be one of those bad teens at the beach.

Recognize who they already are 
By the time all of our kids left for school our discussions about drugs, birth control, and safety on the street were no longer about dire consequences. They were "if and when" conversations of how our kids might react in difficult situations, in context with who they were.

What might they do with the opportunities to cut loose once they didn't have to face parents in the kitchen the end of the night? What might they do to feel wanted and welcome instead of lonely and unsure? Could we agree on how they would stay safe? Would they tell me if they thought they were in trouble?" 

If early conversations are candid, they'll open the door to honest  dialog about how our kids' lives are really challenging them, so that we are not left searching their tone of voice or laugh for clues.

Do not overlook the bystander talk 
Thomas Vander Ven is the author of "Getting Wasted," which explores not if, but why kids drink to excess in college. In his interview with, he discusses the VERY important  role of "bystander," which  any college student should be prepared to assume.

A discussion with college freshmen about how they must look out for others is as important as those about how they will govern themselves. Not every female who drinks at a party will become a sexual victim. Not every male will become an alcoholic. But every college kid at a party is a bystander, and our kids should know when to intervene, to call 911 if someone is dangerously high, to notice when someone is alone and too drunk at a party. High school kids don't turn in their friends – let the parents deal with that – but in college, "telling" could save a life. 

Say that.

Recognize who they have become.
We know our new freshmen, and they know themselves, in context with a life that will change completely come fall. They will abandon some behaviors, experiment with others, and probably develop a hard-won appreciation for moderation.

As Vander Ven points out, when they're in their careers, and working late all the time, and coming home exhausted, they're probably not going to get together in someone's room to get hammered.

Those who are still on the rails three years after leaving home are there because they've continued to assess their choices in the quiet of their own minds. They have earned their own respect. And self-respect is delicious and habit-forming.

Never turn down an invitation to visit their world.
Accept. If you are lucky enough to have been invited to a water-pong party, go. You may be impressed to discover that your child and his friends have become their own family with assignments for clean-up duty, and house rules about how to host others safely and behave themselves. 

If you are, say so. It means a lot to them, and is the best report card you can hope for.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Twenty-somethings, you have my heart

The twenties: chaotic, thrilling, exhausting, delicious
-- and short.
I'm writing about twenty-somethings today, not because I have four of them, but because I respect and enjoy them and have four of them. I'll have to generalize, something twenty-somethings hate, but we're all busy and it will save time.   

I love a few things in particular about twenty-somethings.

I love their sense of humor which is wry and casual and irresistible. 
I love their open caring for one another because that is one huggy generation. 
I love that they fit career goals to who they are, rather than the other way around. This generation lives mindfully, with balance and awareness of how they spend time, and 
with whom, and on what.  Because  twenty-somethings are comfortable with who they are.



Of the things that don't change from generation to generation, one is this: the twenties can be one mind-stretching decade.

In a quiet restaurant the other night I listened to a couple of twenty-something women behind me discuss a work problem that one of them was having. She had committed some error after being given unclear instructions. First she didn't want to appear inexperienced by asking for clarification. Then she was corrected, and corrected publicly. From the content (they were sitting right there) I guessed she was a young attorney working among more established people, possibly in her first job, eager to please, or, at least, eager not to make a mistake. The correction had really gotten to her.

But worse, she talked about how this must have made her look to them when she was doing what she thought was the right thing.

I encounter such worry a lot in my eavesdropping. I wanted to slide my chair over and tell her, "It gets easier."

I too, encounter people my age (which I refer to as not-forty) who see twenty-
Example of a not-forty person
who was probably never young
even in his own mind
somethings as self-involved, unmotivated and aimless. It would be more helpful if such not-forty people who regard twenty-somethings that way would recall the same "who am I and what do I want now?" questions they tussled with after the kids left. Not to mention their own twenties-angst as they shifted from following rules to writing them.   

As my experience and restaurant research has shown, the twenties is a time when one must deal with self-doubt in everything from work suitability to the personal lives they've crafted, and here is why in my opinion:

To start with, the state of being completely secure and self-assured is not aged into, but reached, and not without some travel through the former state of being, well, angsty, as you kids call it.  I also think there is a here-and-now mindset in the twenties, when it seems that what it is, is what will always be. Time's gifts of perspective, which include proof that we can change as we see fit, can't be realized yet. Thus, the pressure to get it right, right now.

Choice-anxiety is an old problem with a new acronym - FOMO - or, fear of missing out.

We had that FOMO thing in our twenties, but we took Cosmo quizzes for it. Because, no magazine was more eager to exploit – oh, I'm sorry, I meant "explain" – the anxiety of twenties-in-flux than Cosmopolitan Magazine with it's holy crap cover teasers:  Who are you really? How sexy are you really? What do people think of you really? And so on.

Me, I found nothing in my twenties more daunting than those "really" questions. Did I really know myself? Was I really happy? Questions which only launched we innocent twenty-somethings into binge-worrying about everything from what our co-workers thought of us, to whether we had the right linen to invite the boss for dinner.

It was enough to suffer the squirmy feeling that everyone else, Cosmo for example,  knew me better than I knew myself without a quiz result that said, "You need more confidence!"

For fun, while I was writing this, I peeked at the Cosmo site and they're still at it: Are you really in love or forcing it?  And this: Are you really a secret bitch?

Sigh. It's all fun and games until you wind up with answers you don't like and sit moody and glaring at your not-really lover across the table because he probably thinks you're really a bitch.

Something else I came across while I was reading up on twenty-somethings I don't actually know, was, a site created by Paul Angone who specializes in the being of twenties. Mr. Angone makes the elegant suggestion of discovering happiness by first discovering and pursuing your passion.

Raise your hand if you are a twenty-something saying, "I don't have one of those yet."

It's okay. In his piece called "The unsexy truth to finding your passion," Mr. Angone offers a nice homing device:  

Through my 20’s, many of my “great ideas” and passionate pursuits have gone straight to the trash, except for one thing.


And I haven’t kept writing because I’ve been pinch-me-I’m-dreaming “successful.” I’ve kept writing because I can not, NOT do it.

If you are a twenty-something grappling with questions of who you  are and what you want now, take heart:

You probably have the answers to the questions now, just not on demand. Instead, they may be covertly toiling to drive you from the plan which blocks your passion, and toward the place where you come alive. You may only know it when you no longer have questions. You will definitely know it when you regard yourself as the true authority on what's good for you.

Many of us who are not-forty respect and cheer you twenty-somethings. 


We know that while some things will come more easily to you now than at any other time, some things will never be harder to figure out than they are right now,  which means one good thing – it only gets easier.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Age is a requirement. Old is an elective. And other things I learned at college last week.

Who can see the metaphor in this photo?
In a phone conversation with my college junior recently, I reported that he was over budget and asked what was going on. He reported that it had just snowed an inch on his North Carolina campus and because the administration had "freaked out over the snow," they'd cancelled classes, and so he and his friends threw a "snowpocalypse" party. 
And so he had to spend a little more on that. 
I'll bet all those morning commuters in NC who slid into each other on the way to work didn't  throw a party. 
Ah. Youth. 
A while back, someone in my writer group posted a question: when are we "old?" I thought about that, but not because age is troubling in my view. It is just unanswerable in my view, an issue of attitude more than years. 
I know everyone says that, but I mean it. I've known humorless thirty-year-olds who are older than whimsical sixty-year-olds. And while it's hard to describe the difference between an old and a young attitude, it's easy to observe if your four millennials range in age from snowpocalyse to married-with-a-masters.   
First, what youth isn't, is fewer years, or lines, or aches and pains, or better memory and vision. We aren't old if these things are going on. We're old if we complain about them, because nothing is more tedious.

And, we aren't "old" if we are no longer young. We're old when we feel we've seen the best of life already and don't bother to grow. 
Better to ask, what is "young?" Well, sometimes it's just offering a not-old response to a spontaneous opportunity for fun. 
It's this: 
We'd risen at four-thirty a.m. to catch an early flight from Boston to North Carolina to visit our snowpocalypse-throwing son, wishing to spend as much of our arrival day with him as we could.  We met him for lunch, and again for dinner at a "nice restaurant," after which, we planned, he would head to whatever-he-does, and we would head back to the hotel. 
But our son was eager to introduce us to his buddies, and had already invited them, and they'd already said "Sure!" and so he asked us to "come by at around ten" for a couple of rounds of beer pong before their actual party started at twelve. 

We would use water, he added graciously. "You don't have to actually drink beer." 

This could not have been less like whatever-we-do. We could have passed, we almost did. 
"We'll be there," I said. 
We went.
We stayed.
We played. 
The guys whooped and yelled when my husband got the ball in the cup and there was high-fiving when he and our son won, and then there was another round, and then I started asking questions about this and that, and then I said, "Can I try?" and five guys jumped in to advise me to "float, not toss" the little ball and use more wrist than arm, and so on. 
A little before eleven, we cleared out well in advance of actual party-goers who probably didn't want to see their own parents that night or anyone else's.
My notes from the plane:
Young is taking part in something fun even if it's hard.
Old is taking part in something fun if it's easy.
Young is looking forward to something that's even better.
Old is looking back on everything that's already happened as better.
Young isn't immature, young is energetic.
Old isn't tired, old is cautious.
Old cancels classes.
Young has a snowpocalypse party. 
The experience of hanging out with my son and his respectable (and authentic –  no pressure there to dial down the language in our presence) friends left us feeling lighter for having shed the parent cloak for a brief time, but mostly it left us feeling included in something spontaneous and happy and fun which, yes, felt like youth. 
What I learned at college last week is this: age is a required course.  But "old" is an elective.
Now go and organize a wine-pong party and act your age.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everyone was once a five-year-old

Years ago, my very kind sister-in-law, Christine, taught third grade in a bad part of town. Many of the kids lived in poverty, some ran loose after school, a few had parents in jail. At one parent-teacher conference,  the father of one student showed up and demanded to know when his kid was going to be taught some f****** manners.  

I asked how she could tolerate people like this without getting angry or crying. She told me this:

"I picture them as a five-year-old."

What a simple and easy thing to forget. That, when the field of years beyond the very young ones still stretched ahead, whether we were privileged or disadvantaged, rich or poor, loved or neglected we were probably, still, universally compassionate.  

What happens to people?

A while back, I hurried to meet my mother for lunch. I was late, I was frustrated, I'd already texted her to change the time twice.

I found a space in front of the restaurant, opened the door and stepped into the path of a man walking by.  I didn't really apologize, I just rushed to the meter to pay. It was cold, I wasn't wearing gloves, and so on. The man  came up behind me. "Excuse me," he said.

I turned to face him and he adjusted his glasses, the way I've seen people do when they're about to assert themselves. He was around my age, ruddy-faced, a little taller than I am, and  thin. He wore a knit cap, a thin canvas jacket and he carried a backpack big enough for a couple of books. I thought he might be a teacher until I noticed that  his hands were scarlet from the cold, and his sneakers were ripped. He wore no socks. 

Homeless, I thought.

"I wondered if there was any way you could possibly spare just fifty cents," he said. "I can get someplace warm if I buy something," he explained, looking over his shoulder.

Fifty cents, I thought,  who couldn't spare fifty cents?  He looked put together,  like someone I might know in my own  community. Bookish. Like a science teacher. He had his teeth, his eyes weren't bloodshot. He didn't smell. So why was he here,  calling me ma'am and asking for change when he looked like he belonged at Panera?

What happens to people?

Like many assume about panhandlers at on/off ramps, I thought he was probably lying about the warm shelter. Fifty cents, I suspected, was what he needed to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or waste my money in some other way. 

I pulled my parking receipt from the meter. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have it." I said. He watched me for a few seconds, then walked on.

Across the street, another man was hurrying in the cold.  His shoulders were hunched and he was smoking.

My homeless guy called out,  "Excuse  me."

Without breaking stride,  the smoking man looked over and my homeless guy said, "Is there any way I could trouble you for one of those cigarettes?"

"Pay for your own habits," said the man, "That's what I do." He added over his shoulder as he passed,  "Don't waste people's time."

The homeless guy continued up the sidewalk. The other guy continued in the other direction.

"Sir?" I called to the homeless guy. 
He didn't hear me.
I walked behind him, back up the hill.
"Sir?" I called.
He turned, and I asked him to wait. "Sometimes, I'm in too much of a hurry," I said when I reached him. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, well!  Oh! That's okay," he shrugged, "No harm done! I'm just sorry to have bothered you." His voice was soft, accentless.
 I put a twenty in his palm.
"Oh..." he said, "This is more than...Oh, thank you, Ma'am. I'm sorry. I just needed something to eat, someplace warm."
I  told him I hoped the day would be good to him. I let go of his hands, and went back down the hill.

On the way into the restaurant, I thought about the way he'd welled up and I wondered if that was part of the act. I believed it was not, and I believed it was irrelevant anyway. Before he wound up begging for change, and enduring the scorn of strangers, and putting his hands and dignity last, he was a five-year-old. 

Some of us are born fighting the odds. Some of us are born sheltered from them. But every life starts with potential. If we are in a position down the road to help a person who has fallen, shouldn't we reach across the circumstances which have differentiated us, and conjure the humanity that unites us? 

If you are lucky enough to live in a community where people are struggling to come with up with real solutions to housing and rehabilitating the homeless, support them. If there are meetings where you can offer input, go, and give it. 

You were a five-year-old too. Who knows what happened to that kid who helped you back up when someone else pushed you down?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Writers: know your comment-bully

A writer-friend of mine recently published an essay in a well known parenting forum. In it, she considered the challenges her non-competitive child might face in the big wide world as he faces off with kids who have been groomed to "win."

I'll come back to that. But first, a word of support for parents of all children, new or grown:

Nothing makes parents fret like the big, wide world.

Our tiny people come into our little worlds and we fret. We fret about fretting. We fret about not fretting.We fret about projecting our fret. 

Then, they go to the elementary school world and we contain our fret. Maybe we stop fretting altogether. 

Then, they go to the high school world and we fret anew. Nails get bitten, faces get lined, tempers get tried, a good night's sleep is so elusive, we talk about it when it happens. 
But then...
Remember how masterfully you coped with labor, and how you felt when it was over and you discovered that in fact, you hadn't split in half? So too, will your children leave for the big wide college world and handle it so deftly you won't know if you fretted them into their successful transition or just fretted them away from disaster. Either way, you won't care because you'll be sleeping again and your face will look better. 
In the meantime, we have online parenting communities.
As published writers hope will happen, my writer-friend's thoughtful piece generated discussion, up and down.

And then... 
One called her a "navel-gazer," referred to her concerns as "comical" and  promised she'd screw up her child for life with her constant insecurity.  Another called her article a "fake mommy fail column" full of paragraphs of "meta-parenting self-righteousness." 
Not all comment-bullies are angry morons with limited vocabularies.  
The first time I was called out  by commenters like these, I had just published an agreeable little piece called "It's their nest too," discussing the differences in how men and women react to a last child's exit. It was not a divisive, provocative piece. It was as controversial as a weather report.
And then... 
In a couple of impressively worded, perfectly punctuated comments, I was accused of overstating the difficulty of the empty nest transition on purpose – for attention. It was suggested that I probably wasn't sensitive to my husband's experience at all, but resented him for not joining me in my "phony suffering." And, I was accused of wrongly speaking for the universe.That part was true.

Snarky as they were, these comments were polite compared to what many parent-writers experience. 
But these days, when it's not horrifying, I find the comment-think in these threads intriguing. I don't mean among  readers who disagree with a point,  or even those who get kind of hot when they make their own.  And I don't mean trolls who misspell their insults (which, trolls, game over). 
I mean the same, chronically fed-up readers who  appear in the same space, every day, as if by bus, who seem geographically mixed but advanced intellectually, and who revel in taking swings at the pinata-writer.
What do they want, I wonder, these articulate, often informed and mean-spirited people?  They don't want  normal intellectual discourse because they don't engage, they alienate. They aren't civil, they're hostile. They aren't  angry morons with the limited vocabularies, but they are troll-esque in their penchant for lobbing insults from behind obscure online identities that  in a million years, they wouldn't say to another parent IRL.
Some writers have learned not to take comments personally ( if they ever did), but it's counter-intuitive because they're meant to be personal.  And telling a writer, whose wish is to stimulate discussion, not to read the comments or be stung by a well-phrased insult is like telling a cook who has produced a grand meal not to be hurt when one guest says to another, "Well, that  really sucked."
Discussion is discussion. You want to be worth arguing with, even. But it's tiring to tease comment-bullies from the earnest, thoughtful ones. Much the way it was tiring to remember that your mother thought you were lovely when the mean kids were telling you that you were actually, well, other things. I feel for parent-writers in particular who are new to a national forum. They're harder on themselves than anyone and it's easier to believe wrong things before we choose not to.

Parent-writer friends, newly or oft-published, I offer this: when you get nicked, remember that we write because we have to and always will.  Comment-bullies don't care if we do or don't write, and never will.  They may not even read all the way through. What they want is a chance to push you from the swing, while their friends watch.
As my own comment-bully might suggest, they do it for attention. 
But whatever they do, and whatever you do, do not abandon that swing. Get right back on.

And then...stay in the write. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An extra-small story

With effort, with effort,
 I will not buy this for Gus.
But I may need to buy an extra-small dog.
Here is an extra-small story that you'll like.
Occasionally, I go to Petco-Where-the-Pets-Go for the food that Gus, my writer-cat, likes as well as filters for his fountain which he doesn't like as much as the faucet.
Usually I pick up a toy or two because I imagine he will be checking for this when I come home. Actually, I know that's not really true, which is why I didn't buy him a Christmas cape in December. 
With effort. With effort, I didn't. 
At Petco, people are allowed to bring their dogs on leashes because, recall: 
Petco is where the pets go.
The dogs are usually well behaved enough, some are better behaved than the owners who don't pick up their excited dog's doodies left in the path of cat owners like me. But I ignore this because it's not: 
Petco, where the people go. 
The other day, a clutch of people stood with their leashed and sniffing dogs, while they chatted about God knows what, because I couldn't eavesdrop from the register. 
But nearby, closer to where I stood, a man the size of a shed crouched  on the floor before a display of glittery, bejeweled collars for "extra-small dogs." He frowned, chin in hand, picked up one collar after another, turned it over, tugged at it for give, put it back. It took a while (I let a couple of people go ahead of me), but finally, he chose a bracelet-sized, black velvet collar with pink sequins. 
With effort, he rose and headed to the register, still looking over his pick. He probably imagined his extra-small dog being excited about the purchase. Maybe he was recalling the dog's reaction to his or her extra-small Christmas cape. 

Even at Petco, where the pets go, people do little things worth mentioning. That one made my day.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wearing jeans to the symphony and other ways to live out loud.

No, I don't lay out my clothes like this
every day. I just didn't feel like buying a
graphic and Gus wouldn't pose. 

I once received a card from my sister-in-law Christine which praised me for "living out loud."  It was special to be regarded that way, but it was also special because Oprah Winfrey hadn't yet started using the phrase every time she spoke, nor had it started to appear on every other cover of O Magazine.
I do live out loud. I lived out loud in particular two years ago, when I trailed a stranger in Boston to get the name of her perfume. She wrote it down for me on the back of a restaurant tab. I went home, looked it up, gasped at the cost, and half-seriously (half), put it on my Christmas list. When I received it I almost dropped and shattered  it in my half-shock. 
It's light and beautiful like a fragrant cloud and when I wear it I remember rich things I encountered before I discovered it, and those I have encountered since. I wouldn't trail a stranger for less. Once, I wouldn't have trailed a stranger for any reason but at some point, it was worth appearing odd to have that perfume. 
Which brings me back to living out loud. I am a person who has always dressed up for the symphony:  black dress pants, black heels, nice top, nice jewelry and of course, more recently, expensive perfume. 
A while back I would nudged my husband at the sight of someone in jeans and boots at the symphony and  said, "Nobody dresses up anymore. Nothing is special." 
A while back, I would have responded to the phrase of "living out loud" with, "As opposed to what, living in silence?" Because, years before I chased that stranger, I was that person - kind of jaded, kind of cynical,  kind of dumb and kind of smart. All dressed up and greeting the truth of simple, honest living with a snide response. 
I can't believe that I once behaved this way and still expected to attract friends, but anyway.
Along the way, enough to have earned that card, I've thought about this living out loud business, what it means and what it doesn't. Living out loud, is not about dressing appropriately for an experience meant for the senses.  It is about trading drama for grace and allowing hard truths to pass, while greeting and urging the gentle ones to stay.  It isn't about hiding behind correct formalities, but letting formalities cook off  so that the essence of experience can reach the senses. With others, it is about showing your belly, because any connection lacking the trust to do that isn't, as my father would say, "the real deal." 
It is about honesty. 
And so, I'm wearing jeans and boots to the symphony tonight. I'll add the nice jewelry and perfume, but I'm wearing jeans to the symphony. I'm going to listen to Brahms in my warm sweater and silky scarf. I will hear Don Quixote in flat soles and soft jeans. I will not be aware of the temperature while wearing uncomfortable clothes, or my correct posture in a too-small seat, and most of all, I will not be aware of whether or not I've won the approval of complete strangers. 
Living out loud is about remembering the best experiences with more heart than mind because your heart has perfect vision while your buzzkill mind is a keeper of information.

And, of course, it is about finding a delicious fragrance to bring it all back on demand.