Sunday, November 6, 2011

Empty Nest...



The first one was the worst.  Shabbat dinner with no children.  Child One was at college.  Child Two was in his first week of the new custody arrangement – a 50/50 split which gives him more overall time with us but only every other weekend.  So Shabbat rolled around and rather than race home to make dinner for anywhere from four to fourteen people which often included friends of Child One, I came home to an almost empty house.  Sig Other lay on the couch.  I came in, put down my bags, took off my shoes and sat down next to him.  “Should we land candles?” I asked.  “No,” he replied.  “Do you want dinner?” “I’m not hungry.  You?”  “Not really,” I replied.  And I meant it.   And so our first Shabbat without children passed with no blessings, no candles, no singing, no shared stories of the week.  We sat on the sofa, in the dark, catching up on reality television and eating leftover crudités from a plastic container.  By 9pm, we were asleep.

The second Shabbat on our own was almost worse.  I decided we could not simply ignore the Sabbath, could not simply sit like tragic zombies worshipping our apple TV, picking through the Friday night dregs of the refrigerator and waiting desperately for the empty weekend to pass.  I decided we would have Shabbat with or without children.  And so I came home, laid a proper table, opened a bottle of wine and set out the candles.  If anything, the mere process of going through the ritual for just the two of us was an even lonelier experience than not going through it at all.  It turns out that ignoring Shabbat is far less sad than observing in the absence of those who make observation relevant.

Let me explain.  When Sig Other and I became a couple, we discussed the ritual of Shabbat.  It was important to me because I felt I could finally honor the age-old tradition of my ancestors.  It was important to Sig Other because he could, as he put it, teach the children about their religion so they knew what it was they were rejecting when it came time to reject it.    And Shabbat became important to all of us as our Friday nights truly represent what is most meaningful about the ritual – coming together as a family, taking time to honor one another and to honor the demarcation of the end of the work week and the beginning of the time we have, however short, to renew our selves, our bodies and spirits, to prepare for the next week ahead. 

Shabbat dinners, though, are both a blessing and a burden.  Friday night is not just any other night of the week.  The food should be special, the table beautifully set, the mood a little different from every other night of the week.  And this creation of a family setting has been foremost for me for the past almost eight years.  But the creation of a family environment is not without a price tag.  Periodically, whene the week had been particularly cruel and I particularly tired, I would have pangs of resentment about being SuperStep and pangs of longing for a honeymoon with my husband I never had.  We never had time to be a young couple, never had periods of romantic Friday night dates and weekends away.  We had children.  We had family.  And integrating the children into our lives, making the “step-ness” of our lives a perfectly normal thing, was more important than any walk on the beach, any quiet moment, any candlelit dinner a deux.

So you would think I would relish a Friday night alone, you’d think I’d be thrilled to not worry about what to cook, whether there are fresh flowers on the table, what time the kids will be home from school.  You’d think this would be an opportunity. Child One is 3000 miles away.  Child Two is on a regular schedule of back and forth that affords us two weeknights and every other weekend entirely on our own. Perfect, right?  Great opportunity for romance, for coupley solitude, for self-education, self-expansion, self-growth.  But really all we are is lonely.  Really all we do in our moments alone is think about how much we miss the children, how much we miss Child One and her friends and reminisce about days and dinners gone by.

I suppose it’s a victory in a way – I suppose missing the children this much means we managed to integrate them and ourselves into a semblance of perfectly conventional family life in spite of a perfectly unconventional setting.  But it doesn’t feel like a victory somehow.  It feels more like a weekend spent thinking about the next time we’ll all be together as one.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hospitality???


There's nothing I hate more than checking into a hotel I frequent as a business or personal guest to no amenities.  I like to know that loyalty is honored rather than familiarity breeding contempt.  A note, a flower arrangement, cookies for kids - all are greeted with great enthusiasm.  Fruit plates, on the other hand, can be a mixed bag.  Consider the grapefruit, for instance.  A grapefruit, in my mind, is perfect for squeezing fresh juice.  It may also be useful when sliced into supremes and put in a salad.  Less oft, though certainly admired, is the grapefruit halved and sectioned at the breakfast table.  But rarely, rarely does one think of the grapefruit as a delicious option for a fruit bowl.  Unlike the handy apple, the grapefruit cannot be picked up and walked away with.  Its peel is unwieldy, often thick and overly pithy.  Unlike the banana, the grapefruit has massive seeds one can't carry as one piece and deposit politely into nearby rubbish.  And unlike the fruit-bowl friendly grape, a grapefruit is drippy and messy even after peeled and pithed.  So why, I wonder, do hotels bother to put such a daunting fruit in a basket meant to serve as hospitality?  Well, is has great volume, I suppose.  It might take two apples, a trio of apricots and at least two dozen grapes to fill the space taken by one juicy grapefruit.  And unlike its soft-skinned cousins, the mighty citrus lasts (or at least gives the appearance of lasting) a good long time.  No mushy edges, no spoilt centers - the grapefruit can go on for weeks looking fresh as the day it was picked.

So a fruitbowl, I imagine, stands for hospitality in the modern age. Long gone are the days of truly personal touches - a favorite cookie or preferred flower.  To be honest, I'd even prefer a fresh fig or apricot or representation of anything seasonal in its stead.  But grapefruit we get and so grapefruit, it seems, we shall endure...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

WHAT ABOUT mini-ME???


Those of you familiar with Sig Other in worlds either virtual or real know that he is the true originator of the phrase, "What about me?"  It is the name of his future auto-biography.  And it is his daily credo.  But the apple, it turns out, doesn't fall far from the tree.  My return to the blogosphere after prolonged absence was greeted by a call from Child One who chided, "I saw you wrote on your blog today."  "Yes," I said, "how did you know?"  "I check it all the time," said she, and continued, "but I was surprised you didn't write about me.  I mean, its been a big year, with me going to college and all the change."  She paused then and continued, "Why didn't write about that?"

In truth, I've written a great deal about that - about how difficult her summer between highschool and college was, about the loss Sig Other and I feel with her absence, about the profound shift in all of our lives as she's transitioned, rather ungracefully, into adulthood.  But none of it felt appropriate for publication. None of it, that is, except this short piece written at the request of my friend Nicola who created the 10Q (www.doyou10Q.com).  So here it is (for you, my sweet Child One) - evidence that I really do think (and write) about you...


THINK ABOUT A MAJOR MILESTONE THAT AFFECTED YOUR FAMILY THIS YEAR…

It would be easiest, I suppose, to go straight to the obvious – the empty bedroom down the hall, the closet missing half its wardrobe, the usually messy bathroom now standing idle waiting to be made a mess again in a few months.  The easiest thing – the most obvious thing to point to, when asked to think about a major milestone, would be the matriculation of our daughter to college.  She is gone.  The house is emptier, the world a little quieter, the days a little less full, because K is 3000 miles away experiencing a whole new life without us.

But in fact, that monumental event is NOT the thing that comes to mind when I think about a major milestone of this year.  In fact, what I think about is the text I got from K one day this summer.  It read: “…how glad I am to have a stepmother who yells at me for parking her car badly.”  I am that stepmother.  And for years I worked at NOT yelling at anybody for anything.  For years I did what most steps do – I twisted myself into a pretzel to do the right thing, to cook the right thing, to say the right thing so the children would feel safe and comfortable and loved.  And I kept my mouth shut about things I felt were wrong for fear of being disliked.   

But as K neared college, I realized that her ability to cope in the adult world – in the world outside our home – was far more important than whether or not she liked me.  And I started telling her what to do.  I told her to pick up after herself, to knock before she entered rooms, to close the cabinets she left open and yes – to park her car straight in the driveway.  We spent a lot of time alone together, she and I, in the months leading up to her departure.  And those months were fraught for her – full of anxiety and fear and depression and angst.  We talked about more than just parking straight and separating whites from darks when doing laundry.  I said some tough things and had to hear some even tougher.  And in that time, I felt a shift in myself.  I felt as I stopped trying to win, stopped trying to be loved, stopped trying to be the coolest stepmom on the block. I felt as I stopped caring about me and started caring about her – what was best for her, what would serve her, what would help her cope in a world far less cozy than our home. 

For the record, I have never yelled at either of my stepchildren.  And in this particular case, I’m quite certain I didn’t even raise my voice.  But I did give a sharp directive. And K has never parked sideways in the driveway again.  And THAT may be the major milestone of our year.




Sunday, October 2, 2011

Take that, Bill Maher!


Pardon my absence from the blogosphere but I’m slightly superstitious.  The world being what it was in the final weeks of summer – financial disaster in the US, riots in the UK, protests in the Israel and various domestic unrest in households near and far – it seemed best to keep my head down and forge quietly ahead.  LBJ famously said, “Being President is like being a jackass in a hailstorm.  There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”  My friend’s father, a colleague of LBJ, had his own Texan take on the phrase and would say to his little girl, “Sweetheart, sometimes you have to be like a jackass in a hailstorm – put your down and wait for the storm to pass.”  I’ve been waiting for the storms to pass and keep looking for blooming flowers amidst the burning ash. 

But the other night, I couldn’t find a flower anywhere.  I was home watching Bill Maher and feeling useless.  There was Bill, all witty and fabulous, interviewing intelligent people who had written books or started life-changing organizations.  His guests included a former governor, a civil rights activist and a world famous author.  And there was me, sitting on the couch with a bowl of pasta after a week of work at a job where I save no lives, change no political policy, influence no major governments.  Useless.   

I spiraled then, and thought about all I hadn’t done.  The world is on a scary path: economic disaster, failed education systems, escalating worldwide racism, sexism, anti-semitism.  There is spring during autumn all over the Middle East, the behemoth that is China is lumbering out of its deep sleep and toward epic change and our own country teeters on the edge of insanity steeped in dark crazy tea.  And I’m sitting on my couch doing nothing.

I told myself I do nothing because I'm not smart enough, didn't major in the right thing, haven't focused my energy in the right places these past several decades. And for the most part that is true. I didn’t invent a computer chip that changed the world. I have not written a book on world politics. I am not clever enough to be invited as a guest on Bill Maher and hold my own.  The truth is my knowledge of world events is limited to what media I consume in the pre-dawn moments before my day jolts into full swing or the bits and pieces I catch after hours.  And while I’m not the least informed of my circle, I’m hardly the most.  

But today I got jolted out of my useless blues.  Today I did the thing that still gives me joy, despite the fact that its part of my job and I do it time and time again.  Today, I went to the movies.  It seems a trivial thing really – two hours in a dark box with a big screen shouldn’t really change your mood.  But it can.  And today it did.  This thing we do – this magical, wonderful and terribly ethereal business of making movies – this world that can be so frustrating, can seem so ludicrous at times, can also be profoundly affecting.  True – its rare.  And most movies are crap.  I’ve worked on as many bad movies as good ones (ok – more).  And truly great movies are a scarcity beyond comprehension.  But they happen.  And when they do, when a movie can make you laugh and cry and feel and go on a ride that feels like fifteen minutes even if its been three hours – THAT is when being in the movie business feels like something substantial. 

I chose this job – this career in movies - in part because the idea of pursuing a PhD in political science seemed really exhausting 25 years ago.  But in part I chose it because I love it.   I love that I interact with some of the most talented, most inspiring artists alive today.  I love that these artists work in a medium that has the potential to have a reach far greater than paint or ceramic or even words on a page.  And I love that every experience with every artist is unique and a true education all its own. 

But mostly I love that today I went to a movie theater and for two magical hours got swept up in someone else’s life.  I entered someone else’s story – I saw what the director wanted me to see and heard what the director wanted me to hear.  But the experience was uniquely my own.  For the moments I laughed, as well as for those I cried, I was in the soothing hands of a master filmmaker and I went down the path he created for me – though I’m sure I saw the path slightly differently from the man on my right or the woman on my left.  This is the beauty of film.  This is the magic and strength and power of a well made movie.  And this is the world I have the great privilege to be part of. 

I am not a writer.  I do not direct movies.  But I do rely on a gut instinct to evaluate material and I do use that gut and a good bit of passion to push to make movies that make people laugh and cry and think and just get away for two magical hours in the special box we call the movie theater.  They may not always work – in fact, mostly they don’t.  Great film is harmonic convergence.  But when it works, when a movie is really firing on all cylinders - and you get that two hours of pure joy, of a story that makes you think about the world in a slightly different way - isn't that worth something?

I still wish I were clever enough and well-educated enough and worldly enough to have written a book, or run for office or created a policy that would make me fancy and cool and smart enough to be a guest on Bill Maher.  But I’m damn grateful for my two hours of bliss today.  And damn lucky to do what I do.

Friday, August 26, 2011

At last...


The summer night we've been waiting for.  Midnight.  80 degrees.  Noisy cicadas chirp madly in the dry grasses just now warming in belated summer air.  This is Child One's last Shabbat before leaving for school.  Hurricane Irene may disrupt our perfectly planned journey.  But weeks of planning and preparation will not stand in the way of Child One's future.  There may be tears and hesitation and a bumpy road of fear ahead.  And that's just for Sig Other and me.  What awaits Child One, no one can anticipate.   My friend Jess looked Child One in the eye the other night across a bottle of wine and a soggy pizza and said, "I want to Freaky Friday with you so bad I can't stand it."  That about sums it up.  Shabbat Shalom to all.  And a special prayer to the hope for the future we send out into the world in the next week - we wish you well and hope for the best.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pink, pink sheets...


There are brand new pink sheets in the wash right now.  One set of jersey, one of flannel.  Twin extra long as required by dormitory standards.  They are, of course, Child One’s sheets for college.  I’m washing them so they’ll be soft and smell of home when she puts them on her dorm room bed for the first time.  There’s no real need for me to wash them of course.  I have two housekeepers who could easily do the task and are expecting to fluff and fold in preparation for the packing and upcoming departure.  But I want to wash her sheets – want to feel the warmth as I fold them and smell what she’ll smell on her first night’s sleep at school. 

She is not excited to sleep on her new sheets – not excited to dive into the brand new shiny future that awaits her.  I find it hard to relate.  Like most 18 year olds of my generation, I couldn’t get out of the house fast enough – couldn’t wait to grow up – couldn’t wait to get away, to be an adult, to “start life” – that’s how I thought of it.   I could only dream of a fancy east coast school – could only dream of the world that eagerly awaits her.  But I never had to face the reality of what that meant.  Maybe I would have been scared – maybe I would have hesitated to fly across the country and dive into a world completely foreign.  I’ll never know.  It simply wasn’t an option.  But it is not only an option for Child One.  It is now her reality.

And Child One is nothing like me.  She does not want to leave the house, doesn’t want to grow up, has no interest in getting as fast and as far away as possible.  Its not that she isn’t excited about starting school – not that she isn’t looking forward to making new friends and tackling new academic challenges.  And it certainly isn’t as if she lacks gratitude or awareness.  She wants to embrace what lies ahead.  It’s just that she’d like us all to come along and embrace it with her.  But of course we can’t.  Of course she’ll have to take a deep breath and dive into the deep end on her own. And she’ll have pain and fear and anxiety as well as victory and great joy and success. 

Child One’s pre-college panic is not unlike Best Friend’s daughter N’s moment the other day.  Little N got an early lesson in charity as mother and daughter packed up binkies and a few infant toys and took them to a local hospital to share with children less fortunate.  N was cooperative and stoic during the packing and drop off but melted into a tortured tantrum later in the day.  She was having a hard time letting go, having a hard time moving beyond this phase of her life.  So, for her afternoon nap, her mother found an old binky in the back of a drawer – one that had escaped packing – and gave it to the hysterical child.  She calmed right away and fell quickly to sleep.

Child One is having just such a moment.  Child One would love nothing more than to keep all of her binkies – to hold on to this moment, to these friends, to this life of highschool relationships and dreams.  She does not want to pack it all up and move on to the next phase.  She knows she must – knows that she will forget about her binkies and begin to embrace a new life soon enough.

But tonight she is digging in.  And tonight I wash her sheets to make sure they smell like home.  I’ll stay up just a little late to fold them and pack them away so I know she has what she needs.  And maybe she’ll unpack them, two weeks and three thousand miles from here, and know that a little bit of home has followed her east and will always be with her wherever she goes.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The 168th Post in which Child One ACTUALLY turns 18 and Sig Other is inconsolable...


Raucous Bollywood celebrations aside, Child One’s actual birthday is today.  And notwithstanding her deeply held belief that the 4th of July is a national holiday held in anticipation of her date of birth, this is the day, eighteen years ago when the little rosy cheeked, tow-headed girl entered the world. I wasn’t there that day.  I didn’t come into her life for many years after.  I feel weirdly guilty about that - an irrational guilt to be sure. But I take joy in her 18th birthday nonetheless.

Sig Other, however, is inconsolable.  He moves from stoic lamentation to breast-beating sorrow with hummingbird-wing rapidity and desires only to stay at home and mope.  No celebration is appropriate, no declaration great enough, no gift big enough to express his feelings about his first born coming of age.  To watch him suffer, one would assume there was something terribly, terribly wrong. 

In fact, there is nothing terribly wrong at all.  Child One has done exactly as asked.  She has grown up quite beautifully.  She has, with the greatest of both hesitation and grace, transformed from scared little girl to forthcoming young woman.  If you asked her, four years ago, about future plans, she would not have known how to answer.  She could not imagine leaving home, couldn’t imagine going to school out of town much less across the country and would never have thought of traveling the world on her own in search of adventure, education and justice.  Sig Other used to sit at the dinner table and repeat over and over again that it was her great fortune, not to mention her responsibility and obligation, to take advantage of the opportunity in front of her – to grasp at what had eluded us and strive for the possibility of better education, greater horizons, deeper experience.  Tears would stream down her face as he would look deep in her eyes and say, “you will graduate and leave us – you will go to a great school on the east coast and get an amazing education and meet interesting people and form deep relationships that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”  And she would say no – she would never leave home, would never go far away, would never want to be a grown up.  Yet here she is, 18 years old, about to leave for a summer volunteering at a school in Israel before starting her future at a fancy east coast school.  She has become all Sig Other ever hoped.   And all he can do is lament. 

“This is what you raised her for,” I say to him.  “This is what you insisted she do.  You’ve done an amazing job.  She is fulfilling every dream you had for her.”  “I know,” he says, “but I didn’t really mean it. I didn’t really want her to leave.”  He says this as we drive home from her birthday dinner and I imagine the evening before us – Sig Other sitting on the floor going through albums of baby pictures and listening to a mix-tape of Rafi and Paul Simon.  He doesn’t do this, of course.  He tucks his pain away and rather stoically goes to his office to fiddle with a faulty computer program.  But I know he is suffering.  I know he is in pain.  I feel guilty that we can’t sit on the floor with a bottle of wine and reminisce about her colicky infancy and adorable toddlerhood.    I wasn’t there for those moments.  I missed her first words and first steps and first taste of delicious rice cereal.  I’ve been there for my share of tears and vomiting and runny noses and pain – been there enough for lots of anxiety and some pain, a few hurt feelings and a few misunderstandings.  And of course for lots of cuddling and laughs and more joy than I could ever have imagined before she or Child Two or Sig Other entered my life.  But now I must go and console Sig Other and pet his head as he mourns the loss of his job well done.