Friday, September 28, 2012

Sobering contrasts

It was the strangest and most unsettling coincidental juxtaposition of events, and yet hundreds of parents in our community experienced it this week: transitioning in the course of twenty-four hours from a wake to a funeral to Parents’ Night at school.
In a matter of hours, we moved ourselves from something none of us could have imagined we’d be doing to something all of us take for granted as we proceeded from the service for a 43-year-old father who died suddenly over the weekend to a conversation about math concepts and reading groups.

And yet as sad as we are all feeling, there was something profound about the inadvertent timing of events. It reminded us of the extremes that can affect our children’s lives. The death of a parent: just about the worst thing imaginable to happen to a ten-year-old. A new year of school: stimulating, exciting, full of possibilities and new things to learn.

For those of us who had gone from the wake on Wednesday to the funeral on Thursday to Parents’ Night on Thursday evening – and it appeared to me that there were hundreds in that category – it was a matter of doing what needed to be done: paying tribute to a friend with crushing sorrow, and then sitting down in our kids’ classrooms to hear about what lies ahead for them this year.

Our school takes good care of its kids, intellectually but also socially and emotionally. At Parents’ Night, the focus was exclusively on middle school curriculum. But earlier in the week, there were emails and articles from the school to help us talk to our children about grief. There were opportunities for the kids to talk to guidance counselors. There were school psychologists visiting the classrooms to help the kids try to understand tragedy.

Both experiences – the school’s emergency response and the calm familiarity of Parents’ Night – reminded me that overseeing children’s well-being is a complicated responsibility, for parents and schools alike. We do our best, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances and sometimes, as in the case of teachers who welcome parents to their annual presentation year after year, under the most familiar circumstances. It’s been a painful week for many of us, but Parents’ Night was a soothing reminder that almost without exception, we send our children off every day to a safe, stimulating and nurturing place.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bragging? No, celebrating.

This column in the Wall Street Journal last month by Elizabeth Bernstein, “Are We All Braggarts Now?”,  has generated a lot of discussion. Bernstein posits that Facebook is like holiday newsletters on steroids. Whereas in the recent past, people boasted about their wonderful vacations, magnificent home renovations, and remarkably talented children just once a year by sending out holiday updates, now they do it every day via Facebook updates.
I disagree with her premise, though. The updates my Facebook friends post don’t sound to me like bragging at all. They sound like… well, gratitude. When a high school friend posts a photo of a beautiful fruit pie she made, I don’t take it as boasting about her culinary talents – I see it as celebrating the simple pleasures of a delicious dessert. When mothers repeat their young children’s clever comments, I don’t find it irritating; I see it as trying to capture the funny moments of childhood that otherwise are all too easy to forget. Relaxing on a gorgeous beach? Training for a triathlon? Having a cozy afternoon by the fire? I think it’s all wonderful, and I’m happy to witness people’s celebrations of these small moments.

Recently there’s been what feels like a spate of personal tragedy in our community, but none of it has come through on Facebook. As hard as it is to hear bad news by phone call, email or face-to-face encounter, it conversely reminds me that the admittedly frivolous pleasure of checking in on Facebook come from the very fact that, most of the time, it is an arena for good cheer. Other people’s experiences no doubt differ, but the vast majority of the time, my friends don’t post bad news or worries on Facebook. They use it mainly to express happiness. It’s not bragging so much as an overt display of gratitude and appreciation for anything pleasurable in life: a child’s drawing, a great concert, a memorable meal, a satisfying run.

Contrary to Elizabeth Bernstein’s implications in the Wall Street Journal essay, my friends’ upbeat posts make me neither envious nor resentful. I’m happy for their happiness. Expressing gratitude is not the same as bragging. Not at all. Expressing happiness for good things is a wonderful habit, and if Facebook is inspiring more people to do that, I don’t find it troublesome in the least.


Friday, September 21, 2012


I didn’t intentionally hibernate this summer, but once the kids went back to school, I realized it had been months since I’d seen most of my local friends and acquaintances.

We live in a closeknit town, so that’s unusual. I typically run into people I know every time I go out to do errands. But over the summer, it’s different. People cycle in and out of vacation time and time at home during the summer; without the kids’ sports, I don’t run into their teammates’ parents at the field; and without school in session, we don’t run into each other at campus events the way we do during the school year.
Normally in September, it all changes. Sports seasons start up; bus stop conversations resume where they left off in the spring; and almost every year we attend a big annual party just after Labor Day at which I can count on seeing three hundred or so of my closest Carlisle acquaintances.

But now with both kids on the middle school schedule, I don’t have to stand in the pick-up area after school to retrieve them; nor do I stand at the bus stop with them in the morning. And I missed the big annual party because it coincided with Tim’s birthday celebration in Maine.

So by the time the third week of school began, I was feeling really out of the swing of things. I was starting to feel like I’d never catch up with everyone, never get through all the “Where did you go over the summer?” and “How did your kids like camp?” and “Who does your son have for kindergarten?” conversations.
Then it occurred to me that maybe it didn’t really matter that much. I do like catching up with people, but maybe it wasn’t as critical as I’d long assumed that I talk with three hundred of my closest friends about what they did over the summer and how their kids like school this year.

Once I realized that, it made me think about which friends I did most want to catch up with, and I acknowledged that there were several. So I started scheduling coffee dates. And dinner get-togethers. And weekend walks.
In the past five days I’ve had lunch with one friend, coffee with another and dinner with a third; this weekend we’re getting together with a family we all like, and on Sunday afternoon I’m going walking with another friend. Having to make the effort to reconnect with people has compelled me to prioritize a little bit, to recognize that while cocktail party chatter with three hundred people or so can certainly be fun, what’s really rewarding is to sit down over a meal or a cup of coffee with one friend and dig deep into what’s been going on.

So that seems to be the focus this fall: reconnecting with friends on a deeper level. Taking the time to find out what’s really happening in everyone’s lives. Not just “How was the trip to London?” but “What was the most surprising part of the trip?” Not just “Did your daughter have fun at camp?” but “How did you feel about seeing her leave home for the first time?”
I’m still hoping to catch up with lots of those other friends too, but I’m realizing there’s no rush. All the small talk and casual conversations will unfold over the course of another school year. At the moment, it’s more rewarding to find time for fewer people and longer conversations. It reminds me of why all these friendships matter so much to me in the first place.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Birthday Number Fourteen

“I just think of it as a birthday week,” said one friend, reflecting on the fact that there are some years when the kids’ birthdays seem to go on and on and on.
Tim’s birthday celebration this year extended more or less over a span of nine days. The weekend before his birthday, he and I along with his two best friends and their moms, went to Maine. Festivities that took place between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon included dinner at a European bistro where the boys ate French fries cooked in duck fat and dipped in garlic mustard; mackerel fishing (they averaged two catches each, as well as getting their lines tangled together several times and even hooking the chum bucket once – they were simply having too much fun together to entertain the concept of spreading out a little on the deck of the boat); football and ladderball on the beach; body surfing in the waves; and mint chocolate chip ice cream pie.

Then five days later it was his actual birthday; he played a double-header of baseball and then the four of us went to the dinner buffet at his favorite Chinese restaurant. The next day, his grandparents and some other relatives came to our house for lunch; I made fajitas and, yes, a second mint chocolate chip ice cream pie.

So I’m not sorry to see his birthday behind us for another year, or at least for another 51 weeks, if his fifteenth begins a week early just as his fourteenth did. Still, there’s something so delightful about celebrating kids’ birthdays at this age. He and his friends are so carefree and were so happy to spend the weekend together. Very little in life right now could make him happier than being out on a boat fishing, or loading up his plate at a Chinese buffet.

Admittedly, it’s a little bit astounding to me to realize he’s just four years from turning eighteen. He’s hardly a kid anymore, even now; there are only three more birthdays to celebrate in which he’ll be even nominally a kid. That doesn’t seem like much.

But throughout the festivities, I kept thinking back to when he was born. People so often say that the day your children are born are the happiest days of your life. On the day Tim was born, I was grateful and ecstatic and relieved. But also, I spent the day in a hospital bed wondering if Rick and I were up to the task that lay ahead: raising a child.

Yes, I was overjoyed to hold him and to know that he had safely arrived on earth. It’s a different kind of happiness when they’re fourteen, though. Football on the beach? Fishing at dusk? Watching him pitch a (losing) double-header? That, to me, carries a lot of happiness.

Birth days are wonderful. But birthdays are pretty great too. Even though it was a safe and easy delivery, I’d have to say I enjoyed his fourteenth even more than the day on which he arrived. That particular celebration is over for another year, but we still have mint chocolate chip ice cream pie in the freezer, so I suppose there’s no reason to cut the fun short just yet. I’ll consider myself celebrating Tim’s birthday until the last bite of pie is gone.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The kids are back to school -- so where's my productivity?

It’s bothering me that I’m not getting more done.
The days just after the kids go back to school should be full of quiet, uninterrupted work hours. My productivity should soar in the weeks that follow Labor Day.
But of course, school isn’t the only endeavor that gets under way in early September. There are new community projects being launched, new writing assignments to attack, new clients to cultivate, and all the local friends I didn’t see all summer to catch up with.

Plus the house is kind of a mess, post-summer vacation, and I’d love to do a serious fall cleaning.

So I wake up too early in the morning – or in the middle of the night – thinking about all I’m not getting done: thinking about upcoming deadlines and unanswered correspondences.
Yesterday, for example, I seemed to get nothing done at all. There were just too many distractions. I called the plumber to fix a leak, chopped potatoes to make clam chowder for dinner, went for a run, picked up the mail, finished organizing the school library volunteer schedule, researched some information related to our insurance policies, did a phone interview for an upcoming column, and pitched a story.

And all the while I felt frustrated that I wasn’t getting anything done. Not anything I’d lain awake at night thinking about, at least.
But then I realized what I had in fact gotten done: all of the above. It was one of those times that I needed to turn my focus from my To Do list to my Did list. Yes, there were a bunch of items I didn’t get to, but everything I had managed to address surely didn’t count as nothing, did it?

Sometimes I think I need to get more organized and other times I think I just need to be more realistic about what I can do. Everything I accomplished yesterday needed to be done. To my mind, so did a lot of other things that didn’t get done.

But somehow it all works out, and when I get too frazzled, I just remind myself that by some standards, I’m actually keeping up just fine.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Talking about it

Late last week, I read a short newspaper piece about author Judy Blume’s recent bout with breast cancer and the current status of her recovery.
Meanwhile, a friend whom I drove weekly last summer to radiation appointments in Boston wrote to say she was leaving her current job – not for health reasons, she emphasized, but because a better job opportunity had come along.

On my run this morning, I saw my neighbor, who lost his wife just a little less than a month ago to cancer, driving his 12-year-old daughter to her new school.

And earlier today as I was preparing to interview a local sculptor for a story about a current exhibit of her work, I remembered that a year ago I had talked to her about a different show she was in, and she mentioned that she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“How are you these days?” I asked at the beginning of today’s interview.

“I’m doing great!” she answered. “I don’t know if you remember, but a year ago I was undergoing cancer treatment. The treatment is behind me and I’m in great health now!”

That fact had nothing to do with the exhibit I was writing about, but an hour later I sent her an e-mail. “Is it okay if I mention that you were treated for breast cancer a year ago?” I wrote. “Some people in the arts community will know you were undergoing treatment and will be happy to hear that you’re doing so much better.”

She wrote back right away and said that it was fine to mention, and I was grateful for that. It somehow seemed important to include the detail of the sculptor’s recovery in my story. The article is not about cancer or recovery; it’s about an upcoming exhibit. But most of the people I know who have experienced cancer treatment want it discussed more, not less. Unhappily, it’s quickly becoming a mainstream factor in most of our lives.

“I’m just relieved that the day is gone when it was inappropriate to talk about breast cancer,” the sculptor wrote to me.

Or any kind of cancer, really. From my uneducated perspective, there’s such a wide spectrum right now. I know people who have made full recoveries and are cancer-free. People who are okay for now but expect a recurrence eventually. People still undergoing treatment. And people like my recently deceased neighbor who knew all along that they wouldn’t survive long.

It’s easy to feel helpless. But telling people’s stories is one thing I can do, and that’s why I included it in the sculptor’s story. “We need to talk about it more,” she said. If other recovering patients feel the way she does, we absolutely should. It may be just about all we can do, and it may not seem like much. But it may matter anyway.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Back-to-school, 2012

As I keep reminding myself, I’m not going back to school. They are.

And if they don’t seem concerned about it, I needn’t be either.

If they’re not lying awake at night thinking about it, there’s no reason for me to be.
My kids have never yet had a bad year of school, so on the face of it, there’s no reason for me to worry. But instead of thinking “Will this or that unpleasant thing happen to them again?”, it’s the opposite: I worry “Will this be the year? Other parents tell me of teachers their children didn’t get along with, terrible homework burdens, difficult relationships with other kids, unfair run-ins with the administration. I never have similar stories with which to counter. So I can’t help wondering: is our number up? Will this be the year?
But so far, no. Minor heartaches typical of preadolescence for Tim; minor inexplicable misunderstandings with friends for Holly, last year. But nothing so challenging that it kept any of us awake at night.
So I tell myself now is not the time to start worrying. The kids feel just fine about going off to school today. Yesterday they rummaged through their newly purchased school supplies to check off each item on the prescribed list and fit it into their backpacks (an old one for Tim, which he’s had – and loved – since fifth grade; a new one for Holly, brown with bright pink polka dots), and after dinner last night, at my insistence, they even packed up their own lunches: stuffing and leftover steak for Tim, yogurt and Pirate’s Bootie and cheese slices for Holly. Seltzer bottles for each.
Neither of them gave much thought about what to wear today. I remember tremendous excitement over first-day-of-school outfits from my own childhood, and judging from the photos my friends have been posting today, the tradition still holds true among many families, but my kids can’t be bothered. Holly chose a clean and neat but unspectacular outfit that she used to wear a lot last spring. Tim appeared in a familiar Hershey’s Park t-shirt that he wore more days than not last year. Long ago, we had a rule about no t-shirts with words on them for the first day of school, but it’s one of those things that just stopped seeming so important after a while.
This is Tim’s last year of middle school, and it’s also the last year he’ll attend a school with which I’m familiar. I attended his current school from kindergarten through eighth grade myself, just as he is; but next year he’ll go off to the public high school, whereas I attended private school after eighth grade. So next year I’ll be even more anxious about the unknowns, though Tim will probably once again be the picture of complacency.
I remind myself that they are in clean clothes, they know how to find their homerooms, they’ve packed nutritious lunches, and they have a full set of school supplies; there’s not much else I could have done this morning to send them off prepared. In an essay about parental involvement at schools in Sunday’s New York Times, Bruce Feiler attributed Dan Levin, a founder of a charter school network that runs 125 schools across the country, with saying, "If [a] kid is coming well rested to school, with his homework done on time, and is behaving well, the parents are doing their job."
Well, I know my kids are well-rested; they weren’t lying awake last night while I was. And they’re usually fairly reliable on the other two points as well. And so. Good for them not to be anxious, and silly for me to be. It’s a new school year, and I’ll just trust and hope that it will be as good as all the ones that preceded it.