Archive for the 'Family' Category

The New Economy: Warehousing lives

February 6, 2009

images1Of all the words and images that have been used to describe the economic downturn, this video on the LATimes Website has touched me the most: A woman, long abandoned by her husband, and her three children are living on the street, storing their belongings in what passes in my neighborhood as garbage cans housed by the hundreds in an area warehouse.

In 2002, the warehouse was born of tension on the streets, when merchants became concerned about homeless people leaving bedrolls and shopping carts in front of their businesses.

Krystle Marage and her children, along with a lot of other every-day people, visit the warehouse daily to retrieve and exchange what they need to go on living. So many come daily to sort through their remaining belongings that the warehouse is considering putting in a dressing room so children can get ready for school and folks can gear up for the daily job hunt. It occurred to me that, in this scenario, their belongings are more secure than they are.

Many are new to homelessness. Some are educated professionals — a few still carry briefcases — and one, a few weeks back, was so confident that he was but a temporary visitor that he arrived clutching a pair of unused golf cleats. Long after it became city policy that skid row is no place for children, a jarring number of the newcomers are mothers and their children.

Along with the fear and the fatigue of living on the streets, I think the utter indignity of having so little to claim as your own is what haunts me about these stories. Most people have had something in their lives before this, if not a home, then at least an apartment and the appearance of a normal life, with work, recreation and a network of friends and family. Now, so little. After a time, would the realities of surviving overcome the sense of loss and indignation, or just feed it?

I keep making my charitable donations in money and in kind, giving my unused stuff not to the larger, more expensive thrift shop but to the one that has lower prices and weekly specials, looking forward to the local Boy Scout food drives. But it all seems so lame.

Why are we so obsessed with limiting executive pay to $500K when a few hundred dollars and a job would transform these peoples’ lives? I really like reading the NYTimes Neediest Cases series, where public and private agencies do just that, transforming individual lives with relatively small acts of charity.

Congress and the President need to look beyond Wall Street to the Mean Streets to really comprehend and deal with the misery that is defining America right now.


Back to school

August 27, 2008

The intersection leading from my little road onto one of the main city streets was stacked up this morning as school buses and minivans dropped children off at the neighborhood elementary school. While I waited for my turn, I watched my neighbor Ronda walk the last of her six children to the safe corner with the crossing guard.

Cammi has grown tall — she must be in sixth grade now, one of the big kids, almost ready for junior high — and the once-shy little girl will now chat with me with all the confidence and maturity of her older brothers. There are some benefits to being the youngest. And the older Cammi gets, the more gray I see in her mother’s hair.

It’s almost over for her, I thought.

As I sat there, a captive audience to this back-to-school pageantry, I envied them all. My youngest is also starting his last year of school, but he’s more than a thousand miles away. And the weight and portent of law school can’t compare with the sweet sights, sounds and smells of a public school childhood.

Notes from the teacher pinned to a shirt. Lunch money. School pictures featuring crooked teeth and morning hair. After-school soccer/football/basketball practices. Spelling lists. Birthday treats. PTA meetings, mostly missed. Book reports. Science fair projects. School plays. Christmas programs.

Band concerts, full of squeaks and clams. Sports days. Report cards. Parent-teacher conferences. Smelly gym clothes, washed at the last minute. So many lost jackets that I finally decided to let the Firstborn freeze if that’s what he wanted. Shorts in the middle of winter. The perfect shoes. Swooshes.

The slightly antiseptic smell of a school hallway, or the sweet odor of a bottle of paste. Rounded-tip scissors. Autumn leaves and Indians. Lacy cut-out snowflakes. Michael Jordan valentines. Colored-paper tulips and daffodils made of Dixie cups. Thousands of days entrusting my children to the whims of their classmates and the temperament of their teachers to try to fit them for the world.

Don’t be sorry that it’s over, I reminded myself. Be glad that it happened, and that you were blessed to be a part of it.

I let it all wash over me, and then turned the corner and headed for work, filled with grace.

About Blogging: Finding a voice, chapter 2

August 11, 2008

Hel-lo! I was very surprised at the response to my last post about finding a voice. It actually sat in my file for several days after I first wrote it, and I almost didn’t post it. I thought it sounded a little whiny, and I didn’t think anybody had such issues but me. Not so. It was one of my most-viewed posts ever, so finding a voice is a topic of concern for a lot of bloggers.

I still think that list by Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start, and I was particularly taken by two of his points. I’ll expand on them in two posts. The first:

Sound like yourself. “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.”

When I am writing or even speaking comfortably, I know I sound like my father. He was 49 years old when I was born (a fact that I only began to appreciate when I turned 49) and lived a very colorful, although not entirely successful, life. He was, at various times, a tramp, a bootlegger, a businessman, a municipal judge, a rockhound, and an amateur archeologist/geologist/theologian. (The tension created by that last combination was particularly interesting.)

The youngest of eight children of a itinerant politician and his long-suffering wife, Dad was on his own by the time he was 15, riding the rails with hundreds of other men, looking anywhere for work and being taken advantage of in ways that I can’t begin to imagine.

He wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, but that simply wasn’t possible, so he scraped together the means to attend pharmacy school, where he learned Latin. He would recite to me dirty limericks in Latin, laugh uproariously and then refuse to tell me what they meant, although I did finally learn the meaning of one of his favorite phrases, “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

His speech was anything but ordinary. People weren’t poor, they were “impecunious.” Couples didn’t shack up, they “lived together without benefit of clergy.” I wasn’t picky, I was “persnickety.” Occasionally I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll give me a curious look, and I’ll realize I’ve just used one of my father’s words or phrases.

He came to religion late in his life, as much to please my mother as anything, and taught Sunday School classes to those even less churched than he. But his background as a scientist never left him. My older brother always called him “the Old Skeptic.” He had a prominent gap between his front teeth, like the Wife of Bath, and his favorite contemplative pose was leaning on his arm, a thumbnail wedged between those teeth.

He was proud of the small business he built and where we all worked to help out, but the invasion of the big chain stores ultimately forced him to close his doors. A childhood of neglect and poor nutrition plagued him all his life and finally caught up with him in his sixties. He died in pain and afraid, not certain of what was going to happen to him. I saw it in his eyes.

He encouraged his children to think for themselves, and insisted we not expect anyone to take care of us, not even him. In an area and an era that offered young women limited acceptable choices, he made me feel like I could do anything.

Mother’s voice? I seem to remember endless variations of NO, usually delivered in a way to make us feel guilty and ungrateful for asking in the first place.

“Why do you always tell the kids no?” my father asked her once.

“Because I want them to stay little,” she replied. (I think that answer alone could account for at least one of my years of psychotherapy.) My two older brothers had blown her off by the time they were teenagers, which left me as her chief object of disappointment.

So the two major voices of my childhood were a tug-of-war of “Yes, You Can” and “No, You Shouldn’t.” I feel that tension still, every day, and managing tension can be the bedrock of good writing. So I suppose I should be grateful for that tension, and exploit it in my writing whenever and wherever I can.

What childhood voices are in your head?

Adventures at Midlife: Did feminism help?

July 17, 2008

How can you NOT want to read an article that begins: “As you may have heard, some 50 years after Betty Friedan sprang us from domestic jail, we women … seem to have made a mess of it.” Says Sandra Tsing Lo, a regular contributor to the Atlantic, the fruits of the feminist revolution appear to be sisterhood, empowerment — and eight hours a day in a cubicle.

(Her latest article is actually a commentary based around a couple of new women’s books, Linda Hirshman’s funny Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late and Neil Gilbert’s more scholarly A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life.)

After wittily dissecting some of the feminist missteps over the last several decades, Lo ultimately admits to having escaped cubicle hell:

Work … family—I’m doing it all. But here’s the secret I share with so many other nanny- and housekeeper-less mothers I see working the same balance: my house is trashed. It is strewn with socks and tutus. My minivan is awash in paper wrappers (I can’t lie—several are evidence of our visits to McDonald’s Playland, otherwise known as “my second office”). My girls went to school today in the T-shirts they slept in. But so what? My children and I spend 70 hours a week of high-to-poor quality time together. We enjoy ourselves.

Oh, good for YOU, girl, although I would bet she earned her current life by spending several years in the trenches with the rest of us. I considered myself lucky to be able to work part-time and even spend a couple of years at home freelancing when my sons were small. That might be why I now have an office with A DOOR I CAN SHUT and not some cubby hole or other shared space. I didn’t seem to lose momentum.

Although I identify with the feminist camp, I sort of stopped checking in regularly on the women’s movement after Gloria Steinem. For some reason, her blonde good looks, Smith education and smooth delivery made her just another beautiful female I couldn’t compete with, so I sort of opted out of the fight — which, come to think of it, is what I usually do when looks or status factor into any social or business equation. I’ve shed enough blood — and tears — in those arenas to willingly go into combat again.

So what did we win from our feminist ways? Employers now at least have to pay lip service to equality in the workplace, although privately held companies, which don’t have to publish salary scales, are likely still favoring men. Women seem to be more visible in top-tier positions, but there’s a definite lag, particularly considering that in some spheres we make up at least — if not more than — 50 percent of the workforce. And the wage gap remains firmly in place.

In my darker moments, I sometimes think that equality has heaved on me just one more area where I don’t seem to measure up. Society now expects women to make a quantifiable contribution, and my 30-odd years (most of them WERE odd) in the workforce find me still entrenched in middle management — by choice, I must say, to accommodate all the other things I wanted to do. Moving up always meant staying longer and later, and I just didn’t want to. (Admission: Being part of a two-career family made that possible.) At 55+, I’m not enthusiastic about my prospects of moving much further.

SO WHY AM I APOLOGIZING FOR ALL THIS?! Wasn’t it all about choice in the first place? Says Lo of the current flight of advanced-degree-holding women back to Betty Friedan‘s suburban nightmare:

And what are our fallen M.B.A. sisters of [Harvard] doing? Kvells one Harvard-grad-turned-stay-at-home-mom, on the subject of her days:

I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.

Wow. Sounds good to me — if you can afford it. It just never seemed like an option for me.

Adventures at Midlife: End-of-life anguish

July 8, 2008

One of the darker tasks associated with the midlife years is coping with aging parents. I know my siblings and I were not as well prepared as we thought we were when faced with Mother’s two-year decline and death several years ago. Fortunately we had a sympathetic home health and hospice organization that provided some splendid care for her and some much-appreciated counsel for us when it came time to make the hard decisions.

For those of us in such straits, the NYTimes has just launched an excellent and well-received blog, The New Old Age, featuring writer Jane Gross, who recently experienced the death of her elderly mother and who writes on a variety of eldercare issues, including a recent post on what she’d do differently. Read the rest of this entry »

Adventures at Midlife: The rich are different

July 3, 2008

Liz Smith maintains that the only way to get old or sick or to retire is to have money. “I don’t think anybody can retire without money anymore, and it’s going to be proven now, in spades, with all of these people retiring,” says the legendary New York Post entertainment columnist in a group interview on wowowow.

The discussion itself is a trip, with Smith and fellow A-list (and aging) media mavens Jane Wagner, Judith Martin and Mary Wells discussing the possibilities of going to Germany for stem cell treatments, taking 200 “life-extension” vitamins a day and outliving their retirement incomes. I’d like to believe it was all tongue-in-cheek, but considering these women’s portfolios, I’m not convinced. They make bigger salaries, and likely pay less taxes, than anyone in my social set. (This type of post may be why I took wowowow off my blogroll. I just couldn’t relate.) Read the rest of this entry »


June 22, 2008

This past weekend, my son married into a big Midwestern Family of Women. Oh, the grandfather is still the patriarch, and the men are kindly and have their uses. But the women seriously outnumber the men, and they are the gracious glue that holds everything — and everyone — together. My daughter-in-law grew up as much in her aunts’ and grandmother’s homes as her own, and there are cousins and sisters and nieces aplenty, with an abundance of hilarious stories of their growing-up adventures.

We had a ladies lunch at an adorable tearoom-restaurant on Friday, where even the littlest girls were welcomed and drank fruit punch out of their china teacups. There was much laughter and teasing and teary testimonials of the great love these women have for my son’s lively and fun-loving new wife, who is clearly a favorite daughter, sister, cousin and aunt.

I watched all this with great joy — and some sadness. I am sisterless, the youngest child and only daughter in a family of four children, three older brothers and me. Mother had twin girls who died at birth and another stillborn daughter. I alone survived, and that pretty well sums it up. Read the rest of this entry »

Adventures at Midlife: Three decades

May 30, 2008

It’s true: The Spouse and I will be celebrating three decades of wedded bliss — or mutual tolerance — on June 1. Included in that number are one grandchild, two kids, three sets of washers and dryers, four homes, five refrigerators, nine surgeries, about ten cars, at least a dozen job changes between us and I’ve lost track of how many mortgages and refinances.

We’ve gone from a king-sized water bed to twin beds back to a king-sized mattress (he can’t sleep with or without me). Other than a three-year stint in Chicago, we’ve lived in the same little town we grew up in that, thanks to urban sprawl, isn’t a little town anymore.

We’ve married off one son and will leave London in two weeks to fly to Columbus to marry off the other. I spend Christmas Eve every year with his close-knit family, he goes out to dinner occasionally with my rather dysfunctional siblings. We’ve buried his father and my mother, and if he turns into his father, or if I turn out like my mother, we’ve both vowed to divorce each other. So far, so good.

Read the rest of this entry »

What parents know

April 18, 2008

The terrific Tara Parker-Pope — whose writing alone would be worth a NYTimes subscription — has listed the winners of her Well blog’s “What Kids Need to Know” contest, a collection of advice from parents. They’re wonderful. A few of my favorites:

Do not sell any of your old rock concert T-shirts on eBay until you are over 40.

That should be the worst thing that ever happens to you.

Don’t put peas in your nose.

Life is not about surviving the storm, it is about dancing in the rain. (Okay, I admit that one’s a LITTLE gooey…)

Breathe deeply when it’s your turn at bat.

Be good. Remember your manners. And don’t let the silly boys bother you. (It’s my new mantra.)

I’ll let you discover the top five (at the end of her blog). They’re charming.

The Compleat Woman: Having it all in 2007

April 9, 2008

I just spotted this from the Brits:

If a woman has a serious career, how many children can she get away with? And how do women with large families manage their careers — and their marriages? These were the questions Valerie Grove set out to answer in 1987 in The Compleat Woman: Marriage, Motherhood, Career — Can She Have it All? Long out of print, the book gave an extraordinarily intimate insight into the home lives of 20 women…

To qualify as “compleat” (the title was a play on Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler), they had to have been married for more than 25 years, have had three or more children and a stellar career. In the late 1980s, with accelerating divorce rates, women secure in the workplace and the birth rate plummeting, Grove wondered whether these working mothers of three or more were an endangered species: “The kind of mothers I write about here may well prove to be the last of their kind.”

(Let’s see… Married 29 years. Check. Two kids. Oh, sorry, scratch that. Stellar career. Uh, could you define stellar?)

The more I think about Grove’s thesis, the more it sounds like 1987, not 2007. Even though she zeros in on three issues that have preoccupied many of us for years, her scale seems curiously out of date, which could be why the book is out of print.

The Guardian’s Viv Groskop observes that “[S]tatistically very few in the current generation are likely to achieve more than one of these, let alone all three.” Oh, forget the CURRENT generation, Viv. I don’t have many friends in MY generation who qualify on all three counts.

A slight digression: I subscribe to The Spouse’s Brass Ring Theory: Very few of us will rise to the pinnacles of our professions. Grabbing the brass ring takes a lot of talent, hard work, personality — and a certain elusive element, call it luck, chance, karma, Divine Providence, timing, what you will. Most of us, hopefully, will achieve some level of success in a pleasant environment with adequate and maybe even generous compensation, and will pick up some great stories, good colleagues and useful skills in the process (along with the workplace disasters, office creeps and inevitable scut-jobs, which I won’t dwell on).

So, stellar career? No, but I’ve been lucky, I have a few plaques hanging on my office wall attesting to my adequacy, and I’ve had a good time so far. The two sons, whose pictures also figure prominently in my office decor, have been a complete joy, and while I wouldn’t have minded a third (or fourth, even), it didn’t happen.

That my marriage has endured, even thrived may be the most interesting milestone. (Divine Providence, indeed!) I watched my two BFFs marriages of 30+ years fall apart within three years of each other. One has a career, one doesn’t, but both now take a large measure of satisfaction from their grown children and grandchildren. And they both have rich social and inner lives. Would they have any place in Grove’s 1987 notion of compleat-ness?

Grove even admits in the Guardian article that her thesis may have been flawed from the get-go, particularly in light of her sample group, which was a very British mix of titles, academics and free spirits:

It took months to get the interviewees to talk to her about the minutiae of their private lives and the results, Grove agrees, were mixed. Not one gave her the advice she craved: the secret of how to do it. There was no real consensus on how to make it work: all their lives were too different and, usually, quite odd.

“There is a sort of aura of strangeness about the whole book and I realised very quickly afterwards that I always felt more rooted in ordinary life than any of them. Initially the working title was Impossible Women because they really were so strange and unusual.” …For many, there was definitely an element of privilege in their situations.

Do we even talk about “having it all” anymore? If we do, I think the definition of “all” has become much, much more personal.