You’ve Got Plenty of Sympathy

liliesToday in Target I saw something that I thought I would never see: a six-pack of sympathy cards.

I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!

You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?

A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.

Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support:  don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.

Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.

One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.


Little Bro Crosses Over

John through the ages.

John through the ages.

When your youngest child is born long after the others, he or she often spends an inordinate amount of time being “the baby.” These bumper crop kids are fussed over, cooed at and petted far longer than the others. When the adult siblings visit, the youngest often enjoys a short time playing piggyback or Mario Kart, then goes back to the safe spot under mom or dad’s wing while the adult kids talk about music, relationships and Breaking Bad.

But at some point, and sometimes it’s hard to pin down, the relationship changes. The youngest goes from being a pet to a peer, and for their parents this transition is bittersweet. We watch with love, pride and a little regret as the bonds strengthen between our little one and our older ones; as their universe of shared interests grows larger; as the conversations between them become more easygoing and filled with cultural references that we don’t understand.

Our son John recently celebrated his 16th birthday. As our youngest child – with a full 10-year point spread from our second youngest – John was the baby for far too long. We fretted over him, protected him, did far too much for him at times. He looked to us constantly for reassurance. But little by little something happened, and we can’t pinpoint exactly when it began, no more than we could have predicted the onset of adolescence through the gradual emergence of downy facial hair. He quietly migrated from our orbit to his siblings’.

Aiding that process is John’s maturing personality, which is delightful. Not that it wasn’t wonderful before now, but it is less childlike and more adult-like and appealing to older people every day. He has a wry way of looking at the world, an ability to detect subtle humor, a keen appreciation of rock and roll from all eras, and a fascination with fast cars (also from all eras). He appreciates Pawn Stars, Pokemon and Monty Python. He sets the table without being asked and clears the table cheerfully. While he once clung to us, he is also far more at ease going off on his own with people closer to his own age.

John marked his 16th birthday relaxing by the pool with some of his closest guy friends. Bob and I could not be there for the entire party so his 27-year-old brother Ben served as “the chaperone” until we got home. But as I watched the guys banter, talk and play video games, I realized that the relationship was more peer than parent. It doesn’t seem a whole 16 years ago that Ben and our other four children were in the hospital delivery room, only 15 minutes after John was born. They held their infant brother carefully, like a piece of crystal that they were afraid they would break. A few months later, during a beautiful fall afternoon at a local country fair, our son Jesse, then the age John is now, asked if he could carry around his baby brother because he would be a “chick magnet,” a hunch that proved correct.

John, often in his car seat, was a frequent fixture at my daughter Rachel’s hockey and softball games. When John was 3, Ben would carry him around on his back and pantomime his favorite TV wrestlers’ best moves. John would squeal with delight when Ben pretended to “finish” him through such medieval-sounding moves as the “tomb stone pile driver” or the “suplex.” We have videos from that time, trapped on mini cassette tapes from a broken video cam and now unplayable on DVD, Blu-ray or any of our other devices.

Over the past few months I’ve had to realize that John is growing up and I need to begin bowing out. I have hung back and let him have his private time with his siblings. I stayed out of earshot and watched John deep in conversation with his brother Ryan and Ryan’s friend David, both visiting from England. I stayed in the kitchen while John watched the latest wrestling pay-per-view with Ben and his friend Tom, when they talked animatedly and knowledgebly about the wrestlers’ colorful backstories and signature moves. The former “chick magnet” now enjoys talking about cars with fellow motor-head Jesse. A few months ago, when we visited Bob’s family and Rachel in California, I hung back while Rachel took John to the beach for surfing lessons and on a tour of Los Angeles, Venice Beach and Hollywood. He came back sunburnt but happy, proud that he finally stood up on a surfboard and filled with memories of special times with his sister.

Parents make a child’s earliest memories, and if we have done our job right the good times will burn more brightly than our inevitable mistakes. But at some point children begin making their own memories, and we are no longer the director or the lead characters. A key breakout for kids like John is transitioning from the role of “little brother” to simply “brother.” For a parent, it is beautiful as well as difficult to watch.

Where’s My Magic, Dammit?

Sometimes a day hands you a magical moment, the kind that friends tap you to write about in one of those many viral campaigns on Facebook this summer. This is not one of those days. This means that for the third day in a row I will be disappointing my daughter, who has agreed to post her own magic moments on Facebook and three days ago tapped me to do the same.

If you are reading this it means you have not deserted my blog, despite its inexcusably long absence. And here I am on your doorstep — feeling sheepish and apprehensive but hopeful you will show me to my old bedroom in your blogging home once more. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you had assumed me dead (or worse still, a lightweight) or if you shut the door in my face.

But first let me explain. I have a long list of excuses reasons for not blogging. I got busy professionally. We were traveling. It’s been gardening season and I go into a zen-like, mindless trance while pulling weeds and drowning Japanese beetles with Dead-Bug. For the past few months I have even given up newspapers and most television to spend my limited free time binge-reading all five “Game of Thrones” novels. Most seriously, my mother has come to live with us and we have devoted ourselves to helping her get adjusted…a job we are honestly happy to do for a woman who gave so much to me when I was an angst-ridden 13-year-old. All of these have totally cut into the time I have for the introspection that a blog requires. But part of me still believes in magic, and hopes that by some miracle you have not un-followed me.

Still with me? Good, because I want to tell you the closest thing I had to a magical moment today. I’m sure many of you have been asked on Facebook this summer to sign up for a multi-week marathon of posting your blessings, reasons to be grateful, 25 things people don’t know about you, etc. These have been making the rounds on social media these days, and I frankly have found them tiresome. Usually I just read my friends’ postings while feeling a little smug that I’ve eluded the trap. I’ve even resisted the ever-growing conga line of people who’ve embraced the ALS ice bucket challenge, a group that now includes the New England Patriots, many celebrities, Ethel Kennedy and most surprisingly, even some of my most cynical friends. I think my sister and I have been the only ones who haven’t posted videos of ourselves dumping ice on our heads. We both agreed that writing a nice check to the ALS Foundation was far preferable than getting our naturally curly hair wet and having to spend an hour blowing it out all over again. (I know that many of those who donated also were game enough to ice themselves down, but I have no sense of fun. Just ask my kids.)

But as I mentioned earlier, three days ago my daughter Rachel asked me to look for magic in each day and write about it. I thought about it this morning but once again was too busy to slow down and look for any magic. We have been enjoying a visit from son Ryan and his friend, David, both visiting from England, and it has been wonderful but not magical. We also hosted our son Ben, his friend Tom, and some of my son John’s teenaged friends over the past two days for swimming and watching a wrestling pay-per-view. I’ve been frantically defrosting hotdogs, drying wet towels and blowing up air mattresses. Just as the last teens left today, my husband Bob hosted some business associates at our home, and lunch had to be made. Horror of horrors, for the first time in memory, we had no beer in the house.

And of course, there were our dogs Gus and Rita to attend to, and they have been work recently. We have had a few challenging weeks with Rita, who did not take it well when we left her in a kennel while on vacation (even though she looked happy on the kennel’s streaming video). We arranged for them to be bathed and groomed before we picked them up, and Rita arrived home with gleaming gold fur, a pink bow, an attitude and some bad habits we thought she had outgrown. She started having the occasional accident on the floor, and my olfactory sense developed a raging paranoia, smelling plots everywhere. And I smelled one in the house today, right after I had brought Rita outside to do her business in an “authorized” location, and just as Bob’s business associates were arriving for lunch.

Armed with paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, I went on the hunt. But where was it? I checked all the spots in the house where she had offended before, but could not find anything. I smelled it most strongly in our small laundry area, and crawled along the floor there without any luck. I was equally unlucky in the kitchen, with its dark floor that hid a multitude of dark deeds. I crouched down and eyeballed the surface of the floor like a golfer eyeing his shot at ground level. Luckily, Bob’s business guests had retreated to the open-air porch and its forgiving breezes.

Then I spied it. Not on the floor, but on the bottom of my shoe. I pulled off the shoe and brought it just close enough to my nose to confirm it. And then I laughed, so hard I was afraid I’d be the next offender. I shared the story with John and he laughed just as hard. And I realized that sometimes a day just hands you magic, but other days you step in it.

Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

Yesterday I had one of those moments that would have caused a Catholic school nun to pull me by the ear or a priest to demand a dozen Hail Marys. I faced a moral curve ball, swung lamely and missed.

It was just a venial sin, but it happened in front of someone who deserved a better example. So like all good (albeit lapsed) Catholics, I’m confessing it — and looking not for sympathy, but a conversation with those of who who’ve faced similar dilemmas.

So here is what happened. I took our 16-year-old German exchange student, Antonia, to our local mall to shop for a dress for her swim team banquet Sunday. She decided she wanted to poke around the shops by herself so we parted ways and she headed for Forever 21, the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous. We met up an hour later.

On our way back to the car Antonia talked excitedly about her bargains, which didn’t surprise me at first because Forever 21 is known for their $7 jeans and $5.50 tops, prices unseen since my E.J. Korvette’s days in the 1960s. Three items – a flowered dress, yellow cardigan and jeans – cost Antonia just $17. We quickly came to the conclusion that this must be a mistake; a check of the receipt confirmed this. The sales clerk had forgotten to add the dress to the tally. The bill would have been twice as high without the mistake.

Antonia had spent her own scarce money on this, so part of her was glad. I could sense, though, that it was nagging her a little bit. It was nagging me too. The right thing to do would have been to return immediately to Forever 21, point out the mistake and offer to pay for the dress. But we were in a hurry to get home because we had dinner to make and things to do that evening, so I used that excuse for taking the easy way out. I’m sure the markup on their clothes is big enough that they won’t care, I told myself. Maybe there was a sale that we didn’t know about. And hey, how many times does a mistake in your favor get made? How many mistakes have you missed that were not in your favor? We packed our shopping bags and our guilt in the back seat and tried not to think about it.

On the way home we talked about the cheap labor that must make the clothing sold at Forever 21, and whether their minions at the sewing machines earn a living wage. Antonia said when she got older and had more money she’d gladly spend more on garments made by better-paid workers. I told her that she was young and didn’t have much money, and not to think about that yet…and that even higher-priced clothing sometimes did not come with a guarantee that the workers were better compensated.

But while we talked passionately about the issue of fairly treated workers, we danced around the moral dilemma of the innocently purloined dress. Antonia noted that the clerk at Forever 21 had remarked that the dress was a hot seller; so surely he should have noticed it as he rang her up, we both agreed. I can’t remember everything that I said about the matter, except that it was pretty lame. It would have been better for Antonia if I had demanded that we turn around and pay what we really owed, even if it meant dinner would be late. But I didn’t.

Now don’t get the idea that I make a habit of stiffing people. Many times, Bob and I have pointed out mistakes that were in our favor; we didn’t want a waiter to make up the difference out of his own money or the store clerk to get a lashing from the manager when accounts were tallied at the end of the day.

But sometimes doing the right thing is a pain in the ass, especially when it is inconvenient, like yesterday. And other times, sad to say, it is not your first instinct. Like the time 17 years ago when I was  out shopping with my children, Rachel and Ryan (then 11 and 8), and we parked head-in right next to a brand new Toyota that was parked head-out. One of the kids opened the back door right into the Toyota’s left headlight, smashing it to pieces. The first words out of my mouth were — in front of the kids — “Maybe we should move the car.”

Five minutes later, our shopping already underway, I turned to the kids and said, “You know, this isn’t right. We really need to write a note to the owner of that other car.” So we returned to the scene of the crime and did just that. When we got home I researched the cost of a genuine Toyota headlight and discovered to my dismay that it would be about $230 plus labor. Fortunately the Toyota owner, who called that night, was grateful, gracious and practical. She had her local mechanic do the job and it cost just $60. So it was a cheap lesson to learn.

Still, I felt guilty that I talked about moving the car in front of Rachel and Ryan. But now, 17 years later, I look at it another way: when you are scared or rushed the right thing isn’t as clear-cut as the Baltimore Catechism would have you believe. Is it OK for kids to see their parents struggle out loud with a moral decision and be seriously tempted to take advantage of a situation when the odds are in their favor? I think it is. It shows that we are human, doing our best when things are not always black and white.

So that is why, despite having many other things to do, today Antonia and I will do what it would have been far less time-consuming to do yesterday: we will head back to the mall with our sales receipt and the tag from the dress, and settle up with Forever 21.

Sometimes when we’re facing a moral curve ball, we swing and miss before we connect. Have any of you ever felt this way?

The Less Said, the Better

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Do we talk too much? Maybe it’s the winter, or maybe it’s that I’m getting older and running out of earth-shattering experiences to talk about, but over the past few months I haven’t felt like talking very much.  Memo to my loved ones and friends: it’s me, not you.

Seems I am in good company. The New York Times last weekend did a great story about how freelancers and sole-proprietor business owners often forget how to hold a phone conversation, since much of their communication is via email and text. And a new book on the best-seller list, “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, talks about how introverted people are less valued than the dynamic fast-talking extroverts, and automatically presumed to be less capable leaders. The adoration of extroverts came about when the U.S. switched from an agrarian society to one based on manufacturing, creating more goods to be sold — and hence, a need for more smooth-talking extroverts to sell them. Cain points out that today Harvard Business School encourages its students to be confident extroverts and persuasive talkers, even if the ideas they are promoting are only 55 percent developed. She also says that some of history’s most dynamic business leaders have been introverts rather than extroverts, but skilled at bringing out the best in others. And she says that introverts can still be sociable and have great conversations, but they just need lots of time to decompress afterwards. I’m reading that book now and it has been a revelation. I am starting to understand those friends and family members who just don’t like talking on the phone.

Have any of you ever wished that you didn’t have to talk so much? When I was growing up, quiet people were considered weird, depressed or difficult. It was difficult to row the boat the whole time with them. It was much cooler to be a good talker, to be spontaneous and “outgoing.” I think I knew in my heart that I was quiet and thoughtful but felt I needed to talk to have friends. And if I was around someone who didn’t want to talk – either because they were naturally shy or reserved, didn’t know me or didn’t want to know me – I’d feel panic. My response was to talk more to fill the void, often with bad results. I also talked because I felt that being vivacious and a “people person” would make me more lovable. The real me is actually more introspective and better at having a quiet and meaningful discussion with one good friend than a roomful of strangers.

Having to shift gears quickly from focusing on one person to focusing on another is challenging. This compulsive need to talk when I didn’t feel like it has led to much foot chewing after I  invariably say the wrong thing. I think that is why I like to disappear into the kitchen or take pictures when at parties; it’s easier for me when I don’t have to talk. It is also why I went into writing, a profession that requires more listening and note-taking, and some thought before one communicates through the written rather than spoken word.

Maybe it’s OK to be a man, or woman, of fewer words. Just ask New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, master of the one-word answer. Or Bartleby the Scrivener, whose only conversation was “I prefer not to.” Or plenty of other legendary and literary figures who were the strong and silent type.

Still, I worry that a quieter me won’t have as many friends. Will my loved ones will be upset or think that I love them less if I don’t talk as much, when nothing could be farther from the truth? I also worry that being more introspective will cause me to brood too much; that maybe it’s healthier to get out there and engage with other people and put my inner life on the shelf.

Can one be silent and strong?

Can one be silent and strong?

A few weeks ago when my grown children were visiting for Christmas, we had some times when we would just sit silently on the couch and disappear into our Iphones. I felt bereft during those times and responsibility to fill the void. Had I lost my connection with them? Did their lives on the other side of the country and on another continent have a stronger gravitational pull on them? But the funny thing is…those connections crackled to life when we just went out and did something, without a need for constant talk. My daughter Rachel and I took a nine-mile hike around a nearby lake, and sometimes we talked and other times we didn’t. The I-Phone that drew much of her attention in the house became a GPS for helping us find our way around the trail. We had some great conversations when we were not busy concentrating on the trail and the scenery. I felt proud to be able to share this hike with her.

Maybe, whether one is an extrovert or an introvert, the key is less talking and more doing.  What do you think?

Time to Enjoy the Gifts that Matter

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas has come and gone, and it was among the most easygoing holidays that I have remembered in recent years, because we did four things differently.

1. Our family, which includes five adult children and one teenager, decided to do a “secret Santa” instead of scrambling to buy gifts for everyone. That meant each of us was on the hook for one or two reasonably priced gifts for just one other person. Most were ordered online. We exchanged these gifts on Christmas Eve, and followed with a festive dinner and British-style “crackers” that dispensed small trinkets and silly paper crowns, which we wore with unabashed gusto.

2. We skipped writing out Christmas cards, sending out e-cards instead. I think I sent one to everybody, but I may have missed someone and if it was you I apologize. Some might call e-cards tacky and lazy, and yet another sign that technology is like General Sherman for thoughtful customs, and they are probably right. But what was interesting is that in years past we would always get a flood of paper cards about a week after we sent out ours. The flood did not happen this year, so now I know who has us on their B list! And that’s perfectly OK.

3. I baked only one batch each of two types of cookies. Neither required rolled dough or intense decorating involving tweezers or piped-on icing. The dough was just plopped onto a baking sheet, and finished result did not look like a holiday catalog from Williams Sonoma. Lightning didn’t strike. And fortunately, we received many fine-looking cookies as gifts from cooks with more patience and steadier hands. We proudly served these to visitors, and I beamed graciously when complimented.

4. We posted only half the photos to Facebook that we’d normally post, after a very candid conversation with our kids about how a focus on capturing the moment prevents us from enjoying the moment. Next year, I hope to post only one photo, or maybe even none. We don’t need Facebook to show ourselves or others that we are having a great time, but I did include two of the photos here.

Christmas is receding as swiftly as a port viewed from a catamaran, and pretty soon it will be a mere speck on our consciousness before it disappears. Like everyone else, we feel that having our children at home with us was the best gift of the season. Keeping the rest simple helped us do this. It was not easy to avoid falling into the trap of frantic, guilty shopping; of writing out scores of cards and baking dozens of elaborate cookies; of over-sharing on Facebook because “that’s what people do” at Christmas. The result is that the good feelings from the past holiday, the pleasure we had from being together, will linger long after the last of the decorations are put away.

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Written Out of the Script

Most parents who’ve been tireless school volunteers eventually confront an uncomfortable truth when their child starts high school: their services are no longer required. This is as it should be, since by that time kids are ready to take on more responsibility. Still it’s hard not to feel a little bereft.

This past weekend John was onstage for the first musical production of his high school career,“Bye Bye Birdie,” and for the first time in two years I was not working backstage. Throughout his middle school years I served as a “costume mom,” helping to sew and fit outfits for dozens of preteen actors, then hanging around during dress rehearsals and performances to zip, mend, primp and supervise. We costume moms have dressed workhouse orphans, Scottish thanes, seven brides and seven brothers, various human fauna and flora, and hundreds of other characters. I spent many hours in our spare room, sewing machine and iTunes playlist at the ready, stitching dozens of costumes and hundreds of yards of fabric. We altered prairie dresses from a size 16 to a size 2, and vice versa. We worked with costumes that had been used in so many productions that they were nearly disintegrating, working magic with fusible fabric and thread, like fairy godmothers in sweats.

But by high school the drama troupe is much smaller, tighter and more experienced onstage than the middle schoolers. Their hormones are calming down; they know how to get dressed all by themselves; and they no longer need parents to tell them to behave and keep their hands to themselves. Unlike with middle schoolers, managing them is no longer like herding cats. In fact, they don’t need to be managed at all. As in so many other realms, high schoolers no longer want or need their moms hovering backstage or anywhere else.

And if I think about it, that’s a key reason why I volunteered, along with the official reason of wanting to help out. It was my excuse to hover, to keep an eye on my youngest child — who has always been like an only child because his five siblings are much older – and make sure that he would be okay. While he dabbled in soccer and Scouting, John was always happiest playing with a buddy or two in our family room. We always had to import friends because our neighborhood was so isolated; he had no neighborhood kids to teach him how to roll with the punches and hold his own in a pack. Drama was his first opportunity to work collaboratively and create something with dozens of other kids his age.

In the beginning, I worried about my new thespian. Middle school children have different levels of maturity and precocity, and backstage we saw everything: a seventh grader who couldn’t keep his hands off his “girlfriend,” an eighth grader who stripped down to her pink Victoria’s Secret underwear in front of the boys, pre-teens who already elevated flirting to a fine art. Just a few feet away from them were pre-pubescent kids still hanging on to their soprano voices and Pokemon cards. John seemed to be part of neither world at times; he was happy to retreat silently into a book when he was not onstage. He didn’t flirt, banter or swagger.

Over the past few years we’ve watched our quiet and introspective boy blossom a lot more, both onstage and with his peers. He does not have the swashbuckling presence of a leading man but thrives best in a “character actor” part. He played a Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, a Shark in West Side Story, an old man in Walden, a British policeman in Oliver, the evil henchman Seyton in MacBeth, the preacher in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a reporter and dad in Bye Bye Birdie. We documented every performance in video; with each production his voice has grown deeper and his presence onstage more imposing. He’s learned to regroup when things don’t go according to the script, and even improvised a brilliant and funny monologue on the spot during comedy night, something I thought only Robin Williams could do. And through drama he has developed friendships with some terrific kids who appreciate his kindness and quirky sense of humor. He is still quiet and introspective, but he is more engaged with others.

So it’s time for mom to exit stage left, knowing that John Barrymore can take it from here. Our role now is to ferry him to and from rehearsals and performances, not to hover and fret backstage. What goes on behind the curtain is now a mystery, but not a scary one.