Monday, October 29, 2012

The dinner party vote - part II

One of our local columnists published a piece recently in which she complained about the "undecided" voter. With all the information available, with such starkly different candidates, she snarked postured, the choice of a thinking person could  make itself by now.

It was suggested that undecided, less informed and probably attention-seeking voters at this stage just do the rest of us a favor and stay home. 

Well, frustrated-columnist-who-would-like-better-polling-stats, until recently I was one of the undecided and a few things about this are worth mentioning:

First, I'm not the only one who views this election as a dilemma-fest. I want welfare reform, I want job growth, I want strong economy, I want liberal judges, planned parenthood and states' rights.  But there is no one-stop shopping with Obama or Romney.  In some way, we'll be punished for helping to elect either one. 

Second, using the terms "uninformed" and "undecided" interchangeably is sloppy. Had I been party-loyal and voted as I have historically, I would have been "decided" long ago but not necessarily informed.  This time, I wanted to shore up my decision intellectually or be pushed from it. 

Third, people say they're undecided when they really aren't because they just don't want to hear this:

You're a woman with daughters and you're more concerned with the state of the economy and job growth than women's rights?

You're the parent of college graduates and you're more concerned with women's rights than the state of the economy and job growth?

But, frustrated-columnist-who-would-like-better-polling-stats, while we undecided may represent an annoying, yet powerful "missing" percentage,  we are not insidious.  We're just cautious.

What's insidious, are closet voters. 

I met one back in  2000  when Al Gore was positioning himself to defeat  "that idiot, Bush." Gore had platform, but George Bush was waving his  3 - 5% tax cut flag around. As election day loomed, I  went to an out-of- town dinner party attended by democrats and republicans both.  Some of us hadn't met before that evening, but all of us had one thing in common besides a friendship with the hosts and  it was a high income bracket. 

Before dinner, the arguments, as they would now, dealt with social and fiscal policies, gay rights, women's rights, scope of government, taxes, spending, and of course, the always and forever-economy. At that point people were sick, sick, sick of being slammed with taxes under Clinton's administration. And yet, at the table, before all of us were seated, the idiot-Bush sentiment began to fly...

"He can't put a sentence together."
"He's a frat boy."
"He's inexperienced." 

Other shallow, empty observations followed: Gore was pasty and boring and  intelligent, Bush was naive and charming and dumb. The implication: You're an intelligent person, and you're voting for Bush?  

Later on, in our travel from the table to the kitchen to clear dishes one of the guests, a Gore supporter, said to me, "I can't say this out there of course, but are you kidding me? Cut my taxes 3-5%?  Hell, yeah. I want that." 
Then  he went back to the table and picked up where he'd left off, trash-talking "that idiot Bush" as well as all the idiots who'd vote for him. 

A lot of people wanted what he did,  it turned out.

The undecided certainly include people who can't make up their mind, and they include people who will vote if there's nothing good on television. But the undecided don't include people who very convincingly malign a candidate, then stroll into the booth on election day to vote them in as  soon as that little striped curtain is drawn closed.   

There's your poll-buster.

In the end, my process came down to locating which of my interests in the election  outsize the others and I did reach a decision. It is a decision I consider as personal as the process was private.  So that my friendships and marriage don't suffer from a gigantic election hangover,  it will stay that way.

And, if someone asks me next week who I voted for, I will have no trouble telling the truth:

I'd rather not say. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

The art of shutting up

Mother not minding her business
 but in a nice,supportive way

I got some conflicting feedback recently on this blog:

This: "I love when you write about your kids."
And this: "You might want to write about things other than your kids."

So today, I flipped a coin: 
Heads:  Benghazi
Tails: Changes in communication with adult children


Two things happened (that I want to know about) after Sam turned eighteen in his first week at Elon. He became an adult, and he developed a bad cough.  Last weekend,  bright-eyed and fresh-faced after a month and a half on his own, exhilarated by a successful round of midterms, and full of stories about friends and campus antics,  he arrived home for the fall break, barking like a seal.

"Still? I asked.
"It's okay," he said. "I sound worse than I am. I'm not sick."

His dance card, as my father would call it, was full for the weekend: rounds of visits with old friends, an overnight in Boston, a day of football with his brother, and more. 

Six months ago, Sam developed pneumonia. The onset was sudden, it had been no more  than a bad cough for a few days.  Then his fever soared into the seizure zone, he was unable to stay hydrated, and he was hospitalized. It scared me to see him that sick, it scared  him to see them coming at him with an IV bag.

But teenagers have short memories after they realize they're going to live through something.

Had Sam still been seventeen last weekend,  and therefore, had I still been the boss of him,  I would have made an appointment for him, made him cancel those weekend plans, made him go to the doctor. But now, as I listened to him cough, I considered:  how to make this happen while respecting his new right to make such calls on his own? How to sway things  now, if, as an adult he places the priority of his social calendar above his health? And not at home anymore, where I can sit and plan an ambush, but at school where he says he will, but I think he won't, take the time to put a little hat on the Thermoscan, touch it to his ear, and wait those long 3 seconds for a read?

In other words, how to assure he handles these and other priorities my way, his way?

All too aware am I of the line that can be crossed by the over-mommy, and like most lessons, I learned this one the hard way, through an experience with Sam's older sister.

Jacqueline took a summer job between her  junior and senior year  in college. Anticipating the tight rental market in Boston, she enlisted the help of friends to rent an apartment while she was abroad - sight unseen. When she returned from Australia, she found a job. She put the whole thing together without so much as a request for "T" fare.

We saw it together for the first time. It was smaller than our front hall, it was filthy,  and it was unsafe. The locks on the back windows would not secure properly and the wiring in the bathroom needed repair. Light fixtures in another room wouldn't work properly and the short-term rental was contingent  upon her allowing the rental company to show the place to prospective fall tenants whenever they wanted to.

I was able to exert my "influence" enough to be sure the locks got fixed. But she had her own way of negotiating with the rental company which, when she shared it with me, struck me as passive. "You're out in the world now. You need to advocate for yourself really assertively," I said, only failing to tell her exactly how to do that to make it completely ironic.

Of course, this well-intentioned but insensitive statement made her angry - very angry -  and so she did what many adults would do whose choices and decisions were being second guessed, which was to stop  talking to me for a while.

It confused me.  Why wouldn't anyone want an experienced resource like me at their disposal? And not only someone who had dealt with her share of bombastic, uncooperative landlords, but a mommy, who, if necessary, could make that bad landlord very, very unhappy and guilt him into behaving properly?

Nothing makes you reflect  faster and more effectively on your behavior than when your child elects to stop sharing their decisions - any decisions - with you because of "how you get."  Very quickly, you learn to stop elbowing your way into a problem and wait, instead, for an invitation.

I shared this reflection with Sam over lunch  on that Saturday.  I told him that it's hard to know after so many years of being in charge, where the line lies between responsibility for our children and respect for their privacy. I told him that mothers are at their best when they exert what they believe, in their own minds anyway, is their power to keep their children safe. I explained that he should feel free to point it out if I miss the line while we both adjust to his now-adult status.  And, I told him that we can both look forward to an even nicer relationship based on relating to each other as adults. And then I asked him  if he thought it might be a good idea to consider stopping at the walk in clinic after lunch.

"Absolutely. Great idea," he said. "Let's do it."

My way, his way. All is well.

Next on Worth Mentioning:  Maybe something about the debate tonight, maybe something about other people's adult children and their life choices, I don't know.  I have my coin ready.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Take care of me

In the news this past week were three stories concerning young life and death. The 24 year-old from a neighboring town who died during his pre-dawn commute when he drove into a tree to avoid hitting an already dead bear. The 23 year-old graduate student in Boston who vanished and was pulled from a river seven days later. The UNH sophomore who went missing a week ago and was confirmed dead over the weekend.

No doubt, the vicarious grief I feel over stories like these has some connection to having just seen the last of our four children to the threshold of "out there." Past a point that I want to, I can imagine the grief of a family who survives a young member. In the same vicarious way, I grieve to think of what will become of them every year when the leaves fly.

It's not often that I text my children with a gentle but urgent plea to contact me immediately and assure me of their well being, but that is what I did last week:

 Please, take care of yourself.

In minutes, I heard back:

"I'm fine."
"I'm okay."
"Don't worry."

In stark juxtaposition, over the same seven day period, but closer to the bottom of the page, where sad but usual parents-in-custody stories appear, were tales of punitive behaviors that ranged from stupid to unfathomable. Stories which bring out my very efficient idea of justice, but which then linger in my conscience as I consider what will become of a child, whose biggest job on the planet is not to learn to tell time or tie her shoes, but survive her own parents. I have never seen the children who don't. But I have seen the children who do.

There is not a greater, more preventable, more wasteful and contemptuous act than to fail a child.

They don't arrive without an invitation. They don't crash the party, we bring them here. And not gently. Quite literally, we push them into our world from an inner world of sure and greater comfort.

It's no bargain. We owe them a lot for making the trip. Comfort, love, guidance, shelter, food and clothing. And yet once here, they ask for one thing and one thing only, and it is as free as the air we breathe:

Take care of me.

But you see it, the failing in progress:

Angry adults,  who stalk through life and give off vibes of regret like heat waves, while their children hop and hum and behind them and wait for the climate above their heads to change... Shallow, self-absorbed parents who are more interested in being liked than mastering the hard and tiring work of saying no, of refusing unearned possessions, of turning off the television, of putting themselves second, third or last - all  things that make us very unpopular, very often, for a very long time... Substance-addicted parents who lack the awareness to rein in their children, until they abdicate the task altogether and leave them to raise themselves. And, as sad as any, the parents who believe it is beyond their control to get between an immature, defiant teenager and their decision to fail themselves by dropping out of school.

You see these failed children. They act too old, they act too sexual, they lack empathy and they hide their vulnerability with a too-tough swagger. They need love, they don't trust it, and they cope with the challenge of raising themselves by imitating older people they aren't ready to be yet.

Take care of me.

This outer world that we bring our children too,  as big as it is, as disorganized and massive as it will always be, begs to be explored. Adapting to such a place for a young child is a constant work in progress. Things happen that don't make sense. People behave in ways that are confusing. Values and rules contradict each other. They act out, reject us, and push back. They exhaust us and fight - hard - for the freedom to make bad decisions. And yet, as complicated as this adaptation is, as overwhelming as the outer world is, it is less confusing than the inner one.

When they are at their most unlikable, what they need to know we will do, even as they tempt us to give up, is steadfastly refuse to fail them.

On Saturday night, at dinner with our two grown children, I watched two couples, late thirties or so, who had taken their very young children with them to dinner. They laughed and talked, relaxed in the company of each other. While one man talked to his friend, the child to his left quietly sketched out images on an erasable tablet, then erased and started over, finally presenting the work to his dad who turned in his seat to face him.  "What have you got there?" For the next full minute or two, they traded images, the child's a scribble, the father's an image of letters spelling out "HENRY."  

The woman seated across from them behaved similarly, pausing the conversation with her friend to turn the pages of her child's picture book until they reached one that was special. I watched each adult give the child maybe only a minute or two of their full attention, enough to let them know they hadn't been forgotten. I could picture these parents with their children years from now, maybe at dinner the way we were; one expressing a thought, the other one listening, both attuned.  

Rare is the child who is born without the capacity to thrive in response to being cared for. In ways that require no words,  involve simple action, cost nothing, require no advanced education, we tell our children every day what they can expect from us. It should be one thing: 
I will take care of you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The way it really should be

Even I had to refill my water and take a snack break while I re-read this post.

But bear with me, because this is about marriage and there is a lot to say about that, if, like me, you've been married since Madonna first crawled around on a stage in fishnet stockings and messy hair.

In the seventies, Carly Simon produced a song called, "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" about a woman (actually about Carly) who is contemplating marriage (probably to James Taylor) but worries that she'll wind up like her father, smoking in the dark living room, or her mother, reading magazines alone in bed, or her friends from college (they're all married now) who are clinging and clawing and drowning  in love's debris. Like these people

She likens marriage to being caged on James Taylor's shelf. And yet, in the end she wraps up with this:

You want to marry. We'll marry.

Even as a kinda dumb and kinda smart teenager, I was puzzled by this.

Next March, I will have been married for twenty-eight years. I am thinking about marriage today for a few reasons:

Football Gus
First, our children are gone. We have time to nurture our communication now, and fill in the divets.  We notice each other again. We know each other again. If we remember the history we don't want to repeat, we cherish the history that has kept us together. We love more of the same things than we realized, and we have a kitten that we talk to like we talked to Courtney when she was small enough to be held like a football.

I also know that as resilient and enduring as our marriage turned out to be, it wasn't free. We've been challenged by different parenting styles, separation, and differences in opinion over everything from how to keep a house clean (answer: hire a housekeeper) to how to spend money (answer: take control of the finances and when the subject of money comes up, point at the window and say, "What the hell was that?").  Distance is inevitable and so is the fact that one will address it first and possibly have to describe/explain it to the other who doesn't want to talk about it. It can be lonely at the front, and there will always be someone who (in your imagination, where you are mesmerizing) would respect you more. There will always be someone who, (in his imagination where he is mesmerizing) would appreciate him more. There are indeed, silent noons, tearful nights and angry dawns, no matter how much you drink and laugh, close the wound and hide the scars.

Second, football baby Courtney will be married next year and will begin a journey over and around roads I've already traveled; the nice, just-paved ones, and the ones with detours all over the place, manned by cranky workers who tell you to slow the hell down at one end, and speed the hell up at the other. 

I can talk about some of those construction sites.

First, a disclaimer: I can't speak for men, so I'll speak for myself and possibly many other women. Second, two observations: one is that  men are thoughtless, and unkind and stupid sometimes. The other is that women are thoughtless and unkind and stupid sometimes.

We project. Disagreements escalate fast and become ferocious when one, and not the other, is grappling with a larger worry at the core; usually something to do with respect or intelligence or power. Self-respecting, intelligent women who have opted to stay home and raise children for example, are not really fighting over who left the garage door open so that all the leaves could blow in, and they don't really care who notices, but ignores the full trash can. They do care - a lot -  about disappearing.
We fight to keep, and fight hardest when we think we're losing, respect for how we think. Strangely, I didn't struggle with self-respect issues when I was driving the kids to school in a bathrobe and sunglasses.  But I did struggle - a lot - when I was sure my husband believed, as I did, that I was withering intellectually. Today, of course, I know that if I lost my mind, Larry would miss it too.

We worry about losing who we were, sure. But we worry - a lot - about who we still are and could be.  Powerful still? Beautiful? Compelling? I can say, with all my  heart, that anyone I know who has stayed married past twenty years, unless they have been impersonating whole, thinking people, has had to figure this out: how to grow in the marriage and still be, in some way, the person they always were.  
 Courtney, with her
 and every-cat Daisy
Before I understood the sum-of-the-parts Gestalt of relationships, I wondered how it was possible to compromise, and negotiate, and give in, and sacrifice and take the high road and not feel you'd traveled too far from the home base to ever return? Today, I understand that one brings the self concept into a marriage they way they bring the cat they adopted before there was even a first date with James Taylor. It's easier to  keep and nurture self-concept than it is to go looking for it once it's slipped out through the door that James Taylor left open. (Maybe if Carly's friends from college had saved room in their lives for themselves, they wouldn't have been crowded out by their children who only wound up hating them for what they weren't.)

What a downer song.

But sometime in the eighties, Carly Simon produced another song called "Coming Around Again" . It's about a woman who is struggling with the demands of marriage and love and children. The lyrics are so romantic but also, so bewildering - there is the breaking of windows and the burning of souffl├ęs and the (creepy) screaming of lullabyes - but the tone is hopeful and  in the end she wraps up with this:

But what else can I do? I'm so in love with you.

The lovely thing about time is that it doesn't leave you behind, it brings you with it. Things get easier. You stop delegating the responsibility for your happiness and put it back in your own hands where it belongs. You stop asking your spouse to change into you so that you can get along. You're stunned to realize that if he's done a million things to bug you, he hasn't - ever - asked you to be someone else.

Finally, one day, you'll go for Mimosas and Christmas Tree shopping and you'll be making wry jokes about things that were not always funny. It will strike you that the things you don't like about each other are no longer grounds, but forgettable details. And what you do like about each other will seem familiar and precious because it is. It's the all-grown-up version of what made you fall in love and marry in the first place.

Happily, the only things Courtney and John have in common with Carly and James are their initials. Should they ever see themselves in one of Carly's songs, they will need to have faith, that as Carly discovered, although probably not with James Taylor, if they're willing to play the game, it will come around again. I know. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Erma Bombeck, blog-sitter

The following piece was written by Erma Bombeck, a queen among everyday people who knew more about living and parenting through humor than anyone I've read since she left us in the late nineties.

I think every mother I know has come across this timeless gem, "I Loved You Enough."  But I read it as a teenager and never forgot it.  And, if every near-adult child had a parent who was this much of a nuisance in their life, well...they'd be grateful someday.

Since I write now and then about parent relationships with grown children, it seemed a good placeholder while I finish taking care of non-bloggy business for the next couple of days. 

I Loved You Enough
Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I'll tell them:
I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home.
I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your hand-picked friend was a creep.

I loved you enough to make you return a Milky Way with a bite out of it to a drugstore and confess,  "I stole this."

I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your bedroom, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.
I loved you enough to not make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners.

I loved you enough to ignore  "what every other mother"  did.

I loved you enough to figure you would lie about the party being chaperoned but forgive you for it....after discovering I was right.

I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall and fail so that you could learn to stand alone.

I loved you enough to accept you for who you are, not what I wanted you to be.

But most of all, I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it.   That was the hardest part of all. 
                                                   ~ Erma Bombeck