Bad mother buys daughter a laptop

Butterfly imageNot everyone wants the latest and the greatest. I dare say many of us would like to put a hold on technology; would be happy to think that our computers and phones have arrived to their fullest magnificence and won’t ever need to be replaced.

My daughter loves her old laptop. It used to be mine, then my son’s, and finally hers. It gets incredibly hot within minutes, but she claims it warms up her bed and she likes it that way. A few keys don’t work—including the critical Command key—but she gets around it somehow. When sparks started flying out of her charger, threatening to burn the house down, I warned her that the days were numbered on that thing. She bought a cheap replacement charger online, but then came another problem: the screen went wiggy—there are red lines through everything—and there are no cheap fixes for a wiggy screen. No matter, she says; she is using it for homework, not watching videos.

But her birthday was around the corner. Surely, I thought, a new laptop should be the big ticket item. This is a no-brainer and a necessity, given all her college-level classes. I strategically wrapped up an artsy little chatska for her to open first. It read, “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” After unwrapping it, she asked if “Anon” meant “Anonymous,” and seemed somewhat happy. Then she opened her big present.

“I didn’t want a laptop,” she reminded me. “Yes,” I responded, “I know what you really wanted is a bunny rabbit, but you don’t need a bunny, you need a laptop.”

I’m not the kind of parent that strives to get everything on my kids’ wish lists for their birthdays. I’d rather prepare them for real life. But I’ve never been this far off. Fortunately, her brother bought her a Snuggie, which is almost as cozy as a bunny rabbit. She quickly took it out of its box, put it on, and wore it for hours even though the weather is still warm.

But the laptop remains in its box. I’m hoping today will be the day that she starts it up. I’m hoping she is so impressed with its speed and clarity, that she considers realigning her loyalties—and letting loose the butterflies.

One white shirt

T-shirtMy first college roommate wore a man’s plain, white T-shirt every single day during the warm months in North Carolina where we attended ECU. In the winter, she wore a long-sleeved, button-down white shirt. She told me that she wore something different for church, but I never saw her on Sundays. She spent weekends at her family’s pig farm. Going to college was the furthest she had ever ventured from home and she was the first in her family to do so. It became clear that her family was financially poor, but I never heard her complain about it. If I found her unusual, she found me more so, as she intently watched me curl my hair and put on makeup. We had no interest in changing each other, merely a kind curiosity about our different ways. I was glad the college had placed us together.

Four years later, I was again in a situation where my roommate was chosen for me. I had won a competition, granting me an internship in a big New York City advertising agency. The agency set me up in a dorm room with a student from NYU. Interestingly, my new roommate wore a white shirt every day too. But it wasn’t a T-shirt; it was a beautiful, feminine linen shirt from Italy, as she was from Italy herself. Every night, she would wash the shirt in our little sink, let it air dry and iron it first thing in the morning. She never stopped looking stunning in that crisp, white shirt. It had a few collar accents and maybe a subtle ruffle alongside the buttons. I think it was her only shirt for a two-month stay in Manhattan. And it was all she needed.

When I shop at our sprawling mall, I see a lot of people haphazardly dressed while buying more clothes, shoes, and accessories to further confuse their wardrobes. Maybe if our closets were less packed, we’d be able to see what works nicely together and be better dressed. This is just a theory; my closet is pretty messy! But I can say that I am not ashamed to wear the same outfit more than once in the same week. Why do we, women in particular, have to look different every day? Let’s find what works—with our budget and our tastes—and wear it well, as often as we like.

All in a ham sandwich

Family sandwichWhen my daughter was a tiny tot, she had trouble pronouncing consonants. If she wanted to say, “family,” she would say, “hamly.” This would make my husband think of a ham sandwich, and he would announce: “We’re all in a ham sandwich!” The connection was a stretch, but it became a familiar line around the house.

This summer, with our kids now teenagers, we went on a family hike through the woods and analyzed the silly saying. If our family is a ham sandwich, than I would be the bread, holding us together—as in making dinner every night and insisting everyone come to the table to eat it. I’m also a pretty good breadwinner, advancing the analogy. Daughter would be the ham since she shines on stage and the camera loves her. Her brother would be the condiments because he is truly the salt of the earth and makes everything better with his presence. Dad would be the big cheese, which needs no further explanation.

What’s most interesting here is that the ham sandwich is still intact. My husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this month. We are happy about this milestone, but not proud. The sandwich has gotten pretty messy sometimes. We’ve been juveniles for much of the marriage and feel like we’re just beginning to grow up.

Today is my daughter’s 17th birthday. Over a Dutch Baby Pancake, my husband said another silly thing he has repeated since she was two: “You’re big and you’re little!” It’s true. She is taller than I am and has a firm grasp on who she is. With Calculus under her belt and four AP classes this year, her knowledge is impressive. But she is still young at heart and playful (may it always be so). And, sadly, she has countless challenges and trials yet to come. But this can be said of all of us. We’re big…we’re little…and we’re doing our best to hold our ham sandwiches together.

Why I run: A reason for every decade

License plateDECADE ONE: In the first decade of my life, I exercised unintentionally, primarily by running away from a little boy named Scott at recess. He was so cute, much shorter than I, and could easily be outrun. On two occasions, he employed his taller, not-so-cute friend named Raymond to catch me. While Raymond held me still, little Scott would jump up and kiss me. Ever since, I’ve loved the name Scott (and eventually married one), but at seven years old, the running was what I loved most. Tearing through the huge grassy field every day was bliss. I hear that kids don’t get to run willy nilly at recess anymore. This is a travesty, and I hope concerned parents everywhere will make enough fuss to return recess to its rightful place.

TEEN DECADE: In the second decade of my life, my teen years, I ran to lose weight. This was entirely unnecessary, but I did not know that then. The more I ran, the bulkier my legs got and the more I ran to trim them down. My legs were monsters. Not really, but with my teenager brain, I thought they were. At least my misperception kept me running, something I enjoyed, whether it was hot and humid or bitter cold. Running was a part of experiencing the world in a newly independent way, breezing down the trail of the old railroad tracks with no one to answer to but myself.

TWENTIES: In the next decade, my twenties, I ran for social reasons. My dad would say, “Gail doesn’t date anyone who won’t run with her.” This was true. My husband ran with me on our first date. Running with me and being named Scott kind of sealed the deal with him, that lucky guy. Unfortunately, he stopped running with me after we got serious. This is another travesty, but a very personal one, so only I need to fuss about it.

When I was 28, on two occasions, I ran with Robin Williams through the streets of San Francisco. We were part of a casual running group that gathered at Fleet Feet Sports on Tuesday nights. When I hear the slogan, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” I think of those early evening runs, along the Embarcadero and up and down the hilly streets.

THIRTIES: Then came the thirties, the years of running to escape. There’s nothing like running after a long day when it seems like everyone wants a piece of you. Responsibilities at work and home escalate like crazy in the thirties and running brings release. But it’s harder than ever to fit it in.

One night, I ran out of the house when my kids needed me. Their father (Scott) was working in his home office, so I was essentially on duty. We lived on a country street and it was dark outside, really dark. Coming out of our long, graveled driveway—running fast—I stumbled into a huge dead deer that had been hit by a car and pulled off to the side of the road. This spooked me silly, calling me to my senses. I turned and headed back home to the kids. Running, as much as I love it, should not come first.

FORTIES: In my forties, I started running for health and preservation: preservation of muscle tone, skin elasticity, energy, and the ability to sleep through the night. At one point, however, I started wondering. The medical community was babblying about running being bad for your knees. We NOW know that weight bearing exercise strengthens your knees, but the studies weren’t out at the time. I was worried because walking tends to bore me; it depressed me just thinking about it. So I put the question into a prayer—like I do with every troublesome issue—sincerely seeking direction. That week, license plates arrived for my new car and the first four characters were: 1RUN. In California, plates start with a number, so the “1” was as close as you could get to an “i”. But I had not asked for vanity plates! This was the result of uncanny coincidence or divine providence. I believed in the later and joyfully went running as soon as I put the plates on my car.

FIFTIES: Now in my early fifties, I run to help me think. For example, I’ve never suffered from Writer’s Block, but I do get Writer’s Sinkhole. Once I spent six hours trying to write one sentence. Well, maybe it wasn’t that long, but I don’t really know because I got lost in the effort, sinking deeper and deeper into this muddy place where I don’t want to give up because I almost have it, but it’s not quite right so I keep up the good fight while my brain gets more and more muddled. The best remedy, I have found, is to run—one mile will do it. My head clears, and when I return to my desk, the writing flows. Other exercise will work, too, as my almost-famous Jazzercise post explains.

BayToBreakersI would be amiss in this personal discourse on running if I failed to mention the Bay to Breakers. There are many races throughout the world that inspire people everywhere to keep on running, but the annual Bay to Breakers is the one for me, year after year, decade after decade. Last spring, I signed my son up to join me. He worried, “Mom, I haven’t been running for awhile,” but I told him that he was eighteen, a picture of health and had nothing to worry about. Sure enough, the photographers for the event captured my son prancing effortlessly in his minimalist shoes across the finish line (while my pained face tells a slightly different story). And do you see the near perfect number—11110—on his running bib? Like my license, it must be a good sign.

Inventory to invention

I am excited to share what I read last night in the Jobs section of the New York Times. Peggy Klaus states: “Contrary to popular lore that innovative ideas spring only from fresh, young minds in dorm rooms, a Northwestern University study found that people who are 55 and even 65 have more innovation potential than 25-year-olds.” Thank you, dear Ms. Klaus and Northwestern University. I am not surprised, as I’ve crossed over 50 and feel no shortage of creativity.

In fact, I have more creative tops spinning than ever. This must be due to my extensive inventory. A person’s ability to invent, you see, is linked to his or her inventory. Joshua Foer explains this in his bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein. The Latin root inventio is the basis of both words: inventory and invention, pointing to the notion that an inventive idea is derived from a person’s inventory. In order to invent, Foer suggests, a person first needs “a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on.” Naturally, the older one is, the bigger the inventory and potential for inventing!

Inspiring examples of elderly creativity include an 80-year-old who just invented the “Safety Bubble” to prevent texting when driving and an 84-year-old who came up with “Dabble,” which won the 2011 Game of the Year Award from Creative Child Magazine. And so on.

Last month my husband, portrait artist Scott Johnston, visited the amazing John Howard Sanden who has been, for over thirty years, one of America’s best known portrait artists. Mr. Sanden referred my husband as a young man. He wasn’t just being nice; he knows how many productive years my husband is likely to have ahead of him, and that makes him young, relatively speaking.

ClassicAge doesn’t mean much when it comes to technology, either. My son, a sophomore at Cornell whose student job is computer science consulting, tells me that those who grew up with the development of the personal computer may have a deeper knowledge of technology than the generation that followed. Speaking for myself, when I first bought a Macintosh in 1991, I studied everything about it. I had a basic understanding of every single file and application on there. I had no patience for mysterious files; how could I fix my computer if I didn’t know what the general purpose of each file was? Today, however, many files are actually hidden on the Mac and people don’t even know they are there! This is shocking to me. But it does make sense since technology has increased at such a pace, no normal person can know everything that lurks on their computer. Over the years, I have had to relinquish control.

But I do not have to relinquish creativity. Never. That is the part of us that only gets better with age.

Jazzercise gets me thinking

Jazzercise-classI missed out on Jazzercise when it was first trendy, years ago, although it still ranks as the number one fitness franchise. I had been busy biking, running, rollerblading, hiking, anything outdoors. For a phase, while I lived in Manhattan, I rollerbladed to work; that is, until a tall, burly man standing beside me at a street corner said, “You’ve got guts,” as I pushed off the curb to cross the intersection of impatient taxis. That’s when I realized I should probably opt for a safer form of exercise.

Now I do Jazzercise. I’m on the once-a-week plan because I still like the outdoors and because that is all I need to keep away the aches and pains from everything else I do. It amazes me how I have zero neck pain—even after working ten hours at the computer—due to the incredible variety of movement and strengthening this one class provides.

Jazzercise also gets me thinking. Any kind of exercise does, but the dance steps seem to be particularly conducive to mental activity. I’m the one in class who runs to my notepad between songs to jot down an idea. Why other people don’t do this, I do not know.

There was a man in class today, a novelty for our group. He took a position in the center of the room, in the middle of about thirty women. He managed the steps well. I have a secret fantasy that my husband will sign up one day. It’s not just that I want to giggle as he tries his first sashay, but I’m tired of hearing about the shoulder he hurt while weightlifting or the muscle he pulled when he kicked a ball. I’m quite convinced the comprehensive stretching and twisting of Jazzercise will stop him from hurting himself elsewhere. Unfortunately, he’s not showing any signs of interest at this time.

I also noticed a mother and daughter in class today, jazzercising side by side. It was clear they were mother and daughter because they were both strikingly beautiful, just one had long bouncy hair in a ponytail and looked a lot younger than the rest of us.

Of course, the other ladies, the ones I see regularly, are beautiful, too. Especially the one who came to class even when she had no hair. Especially the one who came to class the day after half her house burned down. And especially the one who didn’t come to class when her teenage son went missing…though she did keep in touch through facebook so we could pray, post photos of him, and help search. It was a happy day when she came back to us, all smiles because her son had been found and he was unharmed.

Jazzercise, you see, is moving in more ways than one.

Addendum to “A dog to hug”

Dog walkingOn the morning of Sherlock’s last day of life, the family took him on his usual walk, although they didn’t think he would go far because he was clearly in pain. They left the leash at home.

In Sherlock’s wild, crazy youth, he needed a leash, but after a few years, he learned his boundaries. Once the family built a fenced area in the backyard to keep him away from the construction crew during the remodel of their home. On the first day of the remodel, a worker opened the gate, let Sherlock out, and played a romping game of Frisbee with him. From then on, Sherlock patiently waited on the sidelines until someone was ready to play. He never returned to the fenced area and the family joked about the money they wasted on it.

That last morning, without a leash, my sister and her family let Sherlock lead as they held back to see what he would do. They wanted him to lead so he could walk within his pain tolerance. Sherlock chose to walk right down the center of the street, something he had never done before. There were no cars that late morning, so Sherlock could take his thoughtful time. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Sherlock was taking it all in, saying his goodbyes, and getting a little taste of the freedom he would soon have.

In A Rumor of Angels, there’s a quote from a letter written to Theodore Roosevelt that reads: “God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.” Today, many of us would make that same statement in reference to dogs.

A dog to hug

When hugging parents isn’t an option

dog photoThe late and loving Sherlock, an Australian cattle dog mix, gave at least two big gifts to Bryce, my nephew, the son of my sister.

First, Sherlock gave Bryce the love of walking. Every day after school, while his parents were still at work, it was Bryce’s job to walk the dog. A chore became a habit. A good habit. Now at college, Bryce keeps it up. He walks for exercise, to clear his mind, to explore, to get somewhere. Walking fills a myriad of needs.

Secondly, Sherlock gave Bryce someone to hug when hugging his parents didn’t cut it. This is one of those gifts that can’t be underestimated. In fact, someone has probably done a study on the matter: “Teenagers who have a dog to hug are less likely to run away.” Maybe I should do this study and make a name for myself.

When Bryce left for college, Sherlock’s health took a turn for the worse. Sherlock was aptly named; he was smart and probably knew that his main calling in life had been fulfilled. In any event, my sister’s family was advised to let him go.

The last night of Sherlock’s life, the family slept together on the floor beside the dog. Sherlock was in pain and could not sleep unless they were all there, literally lying on a thin carpet on the hard floor, on all sides of him. If someone got up to use the bathroom, Sherlock raised his head and wouldn’t lower it until all were close by again.

By “all,” I mean my sister, her husband, and their daughter. Bryce was still at college, a ten hour drive away. My sister grieved that he could not be there. In his absence, she found a framed photo of Bryce to take on their sad trip to the veterinarian.

At the vet’s, they made a circle around Sherlock with a space allotted for Bryce’s photo. Amazingly, lovingly, Sherlock approached each one of them in turn. He kissed (licked for those not accustomed) my sister first. Then he kissed her husband. Then their daughter. And then, without hesitation, though slowly since he was in pain, he turned to Bryce’s photo and gave it a big lick. That is all he could do to say goodbye and it was enough. It was brilliant.

Lastly, Sherlock growled at the vet. It was not a vicious growl, but a knowing one. He knew what had to be done and he wasn’t particularly happy about it. I don’t mean to go over the top here, but his actions can’t help but remind me of Jesus when he asked for the cup to pass him by and yet knew he had to drink it.

But Sherlock is only human…err, I mean canine. And I want to get back to the topic of hugs. Upon a little reading of Dogstar Daily, I learned that dogs are not, by nature, huggers. I suppose this is true because I don’t see dogs hugging each other in the park. But they can learn, if you start hugging them early enough, that it is an affectionate thing for us humans. And in some cases, as in Sherlock’s, the dog will come to enjoy being the recipient of a nice long hug, and everyone is healthier for it.

If Sherlock was just pretending to like the hugs of my nephew, well, I’m even more impressed.

When grief begets grief

photo of griefGrief needs time, but if you were to give it, say, the whole house to reside in, instead of just a room or two, then your grief becomes more than a necessary part of the healing process. It becomes, instead, a source of more problems. I will try to explain.

Sticking with the house analogy, if every room in the house becomes a complete mess (use your imagination here), then the house’s disorder becomes a new thing to grieve. Eventually, your grief may have little to do with its original source. Basically, you start grieving new misfortunes and painful experiences that are the fallout from your initial grief.

The poignant scene in the Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows two extremes in regards to handling grief. The president tells his wife that he cannot allow himself to indulge in the pain of their son’s death. He resists the pain so he can uphold his commitment to the country, something greater than himself. His wife, on the other hand, shows the devastating impact of grief and possibly wallows in it. Who can say how much control either of them had in their situation? No one really knows, but we can still listen, learn and consider what applies to our own lives.

I believe God has given each of us the strength of a will; that is, the ability to make a decision regardless of our emotional state. But there is a range here: people have feelings in different intensities and some have a stronger will than others.

I am grateful President Lincoln was able to use his strong will to section off his grief so he could help bring an end to the pain of many others. I am also grateful for his wife’s demonstration of how tormenting grief can be. She too, come to think of it, had a strong will, one which was influenced by her intense grief. In fact, her grief, in part, became her resolve that the amendment be passed so she wouldn’t lose a second son. This resolve, no doubt, helped her carry on.

Sooner or later, this is what we do: carry on. When grief is allowed to grow to the point of filling every nook and cranny of a house, it is hard to even move, and the carrying on is similar to trekking through waist-high mud, or worse. But even then, when grief begets more grief, healing can still happen. The house can be brought back into shape. Things can be picked up. Especially if friends and a cleaning team (grief professionals) come over and help.

Whether you handle grief like Lincoln, his wife or somewhere in between, I wish for you at least one clean room in the house. Spend time there, as much as you can muster, breathing deeply and sipping from the cup of blessings, however small, that is sure to be present on the table.

Media violence: A home study

Tom_and_JerryA recent New York Times article by Vasilis Z. Pozios explains that exposure to TV and movie violence is like exposure to secondhand smoke. Not everyone who smokes or is exposed to smoke gets lung cancer, yet no one would refute that there is a clear connection. Research, as explained in this article, is making a clear connection between exposure to media carnage when young and antisocial behavior later.

I like research like this, but I don’t have to have it. My own homespun study gives me all I need to know on the matter. My son, Luke, was almost three when I turned on the TV one morning. Previously, as far as he knew, the TV did not exist that early in the morning. My husband and I had established the practice of turning it on for a few shows here and there, but our kids were not given the keys, so to speak, so they didn’t know what they were missing.

This particular morning, I put Luke in front of Tom-and-Jerry-type of cartoons while I worked in my home office. Now Tom and Jerry is considered innocent and I’m not proposing otherwise, but it is violent in its old fashioned way. Luke was delighted! And I got a lot of work done. But after two hours, Luke wandered into my office, took a piece of paper off the floor, wadded it up into a tight ball, and threw it at me. For a little kid, it was a hard throw! Never before had he thrown anything at me. How could I not draw an association between the violent cartoons and his antisocial behavior?

Don’t worry, I did not ban cartoons after that, but my husband and I continued to keep the keys for the different forms of media at our house. Our kids enjoyed plenty of freedoms in their growing years, but their media choices had to meet their parents’ approval.

I have no idea how to handle media violence on a national level. I’d like to ban it all, if I could, but I have friends, nephews, and plenty of respectable people who would be mad at me. So, I am merely offering my little story to encourage individuals, mostly parents I suppose, to be aware and thoughtful about the influences in your home. Or to at least limit the time spent with Tom and Jerry and their more sophisticated (and terrifying) successors.

Teenage ducks: A parent’s perspective

Teenage ducksMy two ducks have now reached their teenage years, and a few strong characteristics, similar to their human counterparts, have surfaced.

First of all, the ducks like to know you are there. Sometimes they even like to be watched. But they do not like to be followed—not at all, forget about it. If you try to follow them, they will pick up their pace. They may even flap, get some air, and try to escape. They will entirely forget that you are their greatest fan.

Secondly, they have started to produce amazing things. Well, for ducks, the eggs are it, but for teenage kids, their abilities are manifold and hold every bit of pleasure for their parents as the cream-colored egg miraculously produced every morning.

Similar to the first point, the ducks do not like to be threatened. They are aware, at this stage in their lives, just how threatening the world is, and they don’t need anyone making it worse. Take, for instance, the large feedbag I brought to the ducks today. The bag was almost empty, so rather than scoop out the food like I usually do, I brought the enormous bag into their pen and turned it upside down. This caused a great deal of squawking and fluttering about. Please, they were telling me, don’t upset us unnecessarily. You may be a nice human being, but you can still seem like a big scary person to us, so be more careful with what you throw around.

On a lighter note, teenage ducks want to be fed. And fed some more. Sadly, they forget to say thank you, but you love them anyway.

Lastly, ducks expect you to clean up after them, no matter how much mess they make. Actually, they don’t care about the mess. They figure if you care about it, you should take care of it. Thankfully, my teenagers are growing out of this phase, transitioning to true adulthood. My ducks, on the other hand, will duck responsibility indefinitely.

My daughter was a screamer

My daughter started walking at nine months. Then she started screaming. She would toddle into a room on her strong little legs and scream. Then she would go somewhere else in the house and scream. She wasn’t being belligerent or mean; she was screaming, that’s all.

Being a working mom with another toddler as well, I didn’t get a chance to research this. So many books for moms, but so little time when you’re just trying to survive.

The screaming started to get to me. Really started to get to me. One day—I remember it clearly—when I was standing by the kitchen counter, I stopped what I was doing and voiced a prayer. Although it was a statement, not a request, it had the humble sentiment, I suppose, of the first step of the AA program. It was simply this: Lord, I don’t know how much longer I can take the screaming.

The next day, my daughter started talking! As fast as she went from crawling to walking, she went from screaming to talking. That is when I learned that her screaming was her way of communicating before the words came. Oh, glorious words.

The timing, though, was also glorious. Right after my prayer. Such a simple prayer, but I knew immediately that it was heard. These very personal experiences may not mean much to others, but if faith were a muscle, mine got a little more sculpted after that.

Now my daughter is sixteen. And there’s a different kind of screaming in the house. Screaming by me, mostly. It’s not every day, but it’s often enough to wish for a better way to communicate. Time to invite God into the situation again and see what happens.