• I wish I had a photograph — or, better yet, a video clip — of Sam in the family van, heading out of our driveway this morning. I thought of running inside to get my  camera/phone. It just didn’t seem the right moment to impose my Smotheriness on Sam and his friend, both strapped in for their last trip from Boston to Ohio. So, I will conjure the image through words.

    A pale, winter sun had risen, revealing a clear sky. Far above the garage, a songbird perched on a bare branch. It wiggled and warbled. Nary a car passed on the street ahead. The mini-van — nominally “Silver Gray” — dented and dinged in its 13+ years of service — stood at the ready. Sam had commented as he’d lifted the hatchback that even it made a rasping sound these days. Sam turned the key in the ignition, causing his steed to cough to life, emitting more of a Lauren Bacall three-pack-a-day burr than an emphysemal wheeze.

    And then…they sat, these two young men, going nowhere. I stood in the drive, warm enough in my long underwear, Polar Fleece pants, ratty wool sweater, and down vest. I scanned the bare branches, the song bird, the plume of exhaust puffing out the back of the van. Then, like steam from a sauna, wafted a beat to put a shimmy into the Old Grey Mare’s hum.  Sam’s single upgrade when he inherited the O.G.M.: a first-rate sound system, which neither Mark nor I can figure out how to silence when we are infrequently behind its wheel. A minute more, and the guys were off.

    As the van’s wheels began to roll, I began to wave. “Winkie, Winkie!” I said to no one. My wave continued until the boys had turned from the driveway into the street. And I could see, through the O.G.M.’s tinted windows, the span of Sam’s long, drummer’s arm waving back.

    A family tradition, this Winkie, Winkie business. My in-laws would stand in their driveway, side by side, waving to Mark and me — and then, later, Mark, the kids, and me — until we were out of sight. “Winkie, Winkie!” they’d shout. A German tradition, Mark explained early on, coming through his father, embraced by his mom. A kitschy farewell. A magical gesture to ensure safe travel, safe return. Sometimes, after my mother-in-law would gaily shout and even giggle, she’d lower one hand to brush away tears.

    No tears for me this morning, though it is not always so.  The beat coming from the van’s speakers reminded me to smile way down deep.  What will Sam remember from his last semester of college? A particularly good lecture? A well-written essay? Late-night carousing with friends and flame? Balancing the heft of a dining hall tray loaded with limitless sweet cereal and milk? Long after graduation, he’ll savor vivid memories of these drives between Boston and Ohio, fueled by Red Bull and tunes. The journey not the destination, the wise ones say. Expectations and a twinge of anxiety on the trip out. Exhaustion and a twinge of anxiety on the leg home at semester’s end.  And surely Winkie, Winkie, a sacred rite passed from generation to generation.

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  • We meet every month or two.  We sit around a long table, sometimes in a dark-paneled room in the church downtown where my temple is located, sometimes in a brightly lit conference room in a neighborhood cultural center.  We are middle-aged, Reform Jews.  We are young, ritually observant, Turkish Muslims.  We kvell over babies and share baked treats.  Our conversations focus on favorite passages from our respective books of scripture, the role music plays in our worship services, the “bad women” in our faith traditions, and so on.  We volunteer a few times a year at a food bank or soup kitchen.  We call ourselves “Sisters in Spirit.”

    Our topic this past Sunday was Jewish and Muslim doctrine concerning the environment. Several Sisters had prepared to lead the discussion.  The ten of us never got anywhere near Muslim and Jewish perspectives on animal rights or ecological justice.

    In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris, at services and over email, we Jewish Sisters had been worrying about our Muslim Sisters.  At services and over email, we wondered if it would OK to open the meeting by asking “Are you OK?”  We didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. We needn’t have worried.  One after another, our Muslim Sisters told stories of verbal abuse and feelings ranging from isolation to fear.

    One Sister — dark, sweeping eyebrows punctuating a face encircled by a satiny, fuchsia head scarf — described sitting outside in the sun, eating lunch at a Whole Foods market Monday after the Paris attacks.  A man approached her.  He called her an “Arab,” then berated her loudly for covering her head and allying herself with terrorists.  His words, though offensive, didn’t really bother her, she said, since the man seemed “kinda crazy.”  It broke her heart, meanwhile, that her fellow sun seekers heard the words but said and did nothing.  She worried that she’ll be attacked if she drives badly or jaywalks.  She’d heard stories from other women in headscarves being shoved towards oncoming T trains.

    Another Sister — sparkly eyes behind rimless glasses, creamy scarf surrounding a delicate face — fed a toddler perched on her lap.  On Tuesday after the Paris attacks, she went to the weekly parent support group she’s been attending  for more than two years.  She is the only Muslim in the group.  She spoke at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing on behalf of all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a handful of terrorists, explaining that violence in the name of God has no part of the religion she practices.  She wanted someone to tell her that her apology was unnecessary.  She hoped someone might say that they all already knew this about her. But no one said a word. Worse, no one met her gaze.

    A third in the group spoke.  New to Boston and to our group, my Sister — a tall woman whose patterned scarf was pinned expertly to frame her even-featured face — talked about enrolling her daughter in first grade. The classroom teacher in her daughter’s public school is Jewish. She felt the teacher had been reluctant to engage with her, perhaps because of her head scarf. She worried about what this might mean for her daughter’s experiences in the class.  At back to school night, the teacher explained to parents that there would be no birthday celebrations to protect students with food allergies. The teacher said, as a funny aside, that, of course, she really does miss cupcakes.  So, my Sister baked.  She packed one cupcake in a Ziplock bag and wrote a note.  She had heard the teacher missing cupcakes, so she wanted to give her one. No nuts.  The teacher, she said, seemed more comfortable thereafter, looking her in the eye, not “in the head scarf.

    None of these women is from Syria.  None is a refugee.  All are struggling to find ways to connect with Americans who seem primed to view them as scary, other.

    As our conversation continued, we wondered how to identify strategies to diffuse tension and increase acceptance. How to find opportunities to forge common bonds? How to lay the groundwork for hard conversations? How to help one another ask what seem at first to be hard questions but are hard only because they have not  yet been asked? Nothing we came up with was as effective, we decided, as the cupcake, which helped a teacher view a woman in a head scarf as a mother, a parent, and a person.

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  • Excavating in the basement storage area this week, I unearthed “Lily, Max + Sam’s Day by Day Book, Volume I” (Mark’s titling), a.k.a. “The Book of Life” (my titling).  Mark and I began recording in the book on October 22, 1992, when we brought our two-week-old triplets home from Yale-New Haven Hospital.  We seem to have stopped keeping records on Friday, January 30, 1993 – the last page of the book and also the eve of the kids’ baby naming ceremony.  If there is a second volume, I don’t remember it…or haven’t come across it.

    On the sheets of this pad, we tracked each kid’s ins and outs.  That is: what the babies took in…and what came out t’other end. Who could muster an oral report at 2 AM? Who’d remember by 4 PM? These records aren’t very interesting, except to demonstrate how often we were feeding and changing diapers..  The jottings – in my hand unless otherwise indicated – evoke what it was like to get premature triplets (who weighed about 4 lbs. each at birth, about 34 weeks gestation) from two weeks to three months old.

    ***

     SONG LYRICS (what else to do during 2 AM feedings?):

    The Baby Song:

    Lily & Max & Sam / How proud of them we am / They roll around their eyes / And hardly ever cries.

    Sung to the Tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” (Wizard of Oz “Scarecrow Song”):

    I wile away the whiles / And burp away the miles / …if I only had a smile / I would laugh / I would chortle / I would giggle / I’d cavort-le / …if I only had a smile.

    ***

    RUNNING COMMENTS (in my hand unless otherwise noted):

    10/22/92

    [Mark’s hand]: All Home

    Saturday, 10/24/92

    Max will be tall & rangy? Sam short & fine boned?

    They’ll never forget each others’ birthdays.  Sam will be a financial wizard in Hong Kong. Lily will be saving the rainforest in Costa Rica – giving speeches, and Max will be a truck farmer in N. California – all will conference call on Oct. 7 to wish each other a happy birthday.

    Smelling Max’s head, I know that no matter how old the babes are I’ll always smell them and love them. I’ll always kiss their heads and think of their babyhoods.

    Sunday, 10/25/92

    Sam: easy lay of the burp world.

    Max: champion Arm Wrestler?  Symphony Conductor? Houdini?

    Monday, 10/26/92

    [Mark’s hand] Sam: Now the monk of the burp world.

    [my hand] 10 PM feeding – WPLR burp contest – looking for an 11-second belch – while we’re trying to squeeze out a little squeak from each baby.

    10/27/92

    Sam: A lesson in why not to prejudge your children.

    Visit to pediatrician: Lily = 5 lbs. 1 oz.  Max & Sam = 4 lbs. 14 oz.

    10/28/92

    Big-time spit-up day: Sam & Lily

    10/30/92

    7:20 AM:

    Max’s arms are huge – so are his hands & feet.  Could he take after his Uncle Tom?  Hard Man II?

    All the babes are fussing more, crying more, awake more.  Their heads seem bigger, neck muscles stronger.  Lily consistently awakens 30  mins – 1 hr. before feed times.  Sam is awake much of the time now, cries until he is held and rocked and assured of a pacifier.

    10/31/92

    At the allergist, a nurse asked Mark what the kids were going to be for Halloween.  Mark’s response: “Asleep.”

    11/1/92

    I just get tireder and tireder…took a long walk (for me) outdoors – leaves spectacular – 1st time I’d been out so long in months.

    11/3/92: Election Day

    (two “I Voted Today” stickers affixed to the page)

    Got out of the house today: to vote, to the bank, to Macy’s, to the OB.  Changed my purse (to match shoes?!) – and found that I had not used my brown bag since the end of March, when I found out I was pregnant.  Inside: medical receipts. List of questions for Dr. Gutman, including, “How many fetal sacs do you see?”

    By the time I got to the safe deposit box at the bank, where I locked away plastic ID bracelets from the hospital (Baby Girl A, Baby Boy B & Baby Boy C…), I wept in silence in the little private room.  Time lost.  Time gone.  Babies gained.

    11/4/92: Wed.  Clinton wins!

    Hard night. Lily screams, then won’t eat & falls asleep.  Sam is still constipated! Max just chugs along, plays with his hands, moves his head.  All babes gaining head control.  Born 4 weeks ago today.

    11/5/92: Thurs

    Max is really starting to track with his eyes – exciting! Sam seems more comfortable now that he’s pooped some.  And Lily is determined, serious, earnest…a delight.

    11/7/92: Saturday

    Lots of hose-type spit-ups today – M & L both.  M constipated. Feedings run into feedings.  Neither Mark nor I went outside today.  Flurries predicted overnight.

    11/8/92: Sunday

    Everybody had a bath, production-line style.  Photo shoot followed.

    [Mark’s hand]: Lily raises head! 5x! Joins Max!

    11/10/92:

    Sam to pediatrician: wt: 6 lbs. 2 oz.!! Head 34 ¼; chest 32; length 19 ½.  Got his HIB vaccine (barely cried, brave boy!).  Dr. La Camera says all’s well, answers all our questions.

    11/12/92: Thursday

    [Mark’s hand]: Max & Lily go to Dr.:  Both 6 lb 3 oz. Lily 19 ½ in. Max 19 ¼ in.

    [my hand]: Both get HIB vaccines. The big kids do great!

    11/14/92: Saturday

    We took a walk w/ the triplet stroller – freedom! Sam moved his head well.

    11/15/92: Sunday

    Friends babysit while we walk to cemetery & back!  Lovely to be out together alone.

    11/18/92: Wednesday

    6 weeks old.

    11/30/92: Monday

    Mark goes back to work. (drawing of a frownie face)

    12/1/92: Tuesday

    Baths relaxed the babems – Max & Sam were comatose at 6 PM feeding…Lily was calm and able to feed.  Three different people; three different levels of stimulation.

    12/4/92: Friday

    Wrote an article […] on design in Woodbridge.  Felt great to be back in the saddle.

    Sat on couch in British art center and read Beyond the 100th Meridian.  Bliss.

    Today, I had it all.

    12/5/92: Saturday

    First snow. Dusting.

    Trip to Dr. La Camera – Max (9 lbs. 7 oz. w/ diaper).  Max has “intertigo” – horrible blistering – scalded area in groin – raspberry colored & horrible.  Dr. La Camera prescribes ointment 3-4x a day.  He is a Wonderful man.

    12/6/92: Sunday

    Dr. La Camera calls just to check on Max, whose little groin looks much better.  Long walk with w/ Max in sling.

    12/7/92: Monday

    Long walk with Sam.  Max’s rash looks better.

    12/8/92: Tuesday

    Walked to Walgreen’s with Lily.

    12/9/92: Wednesday

    9 weeks old today. Sam is pushing up & moving his head; pushing off of my shoulder, reaching a little bit.  Max pulls my thumb to his mouth.

    Lunar eclipse – easily viewed from backyard.

    12/11/92: Friday

    Horrible disgusting driving sleet, snow & rain.  Why can’t we live where there are eucalyptus trees?

    Lily to Dr. La Camera: 8 lbs. 5 oz. DPT and polio. 20 ½ in. long.

    Dr. La Camera says: OK to let the babes cry – will teach them they can take care of their own needs.

    And what about us?

    12/12/92: Saturday

    Very cold; more heavy snow. Awoke to sound of snow ploughs for 1st time this yr. Turned to heavy snow by 7 a.m. High winds. Veritable blizzard.

    12/13/92: Sunday

    Walk w/ Sam in snow.

    Nobody to help us during day or night. Hard.  Horrible colic w/ Sam.

    12/15/92: Tuesday

    Max & Sam to pediatrician: Dr. La Camera says they’re doing wonderfully. DPT & polio.

    Max: 10 lbs. 21 in. in length.

    Sam: 9 lbs. 8 oz. 20 7/8 in. in length.

    Sometimes, I think I can’t get any more tired.

    Mark came home from the office with 102 degree F.

    12/17/92: Thursday

    Lily waits!

    [Mark’s hand]: Daddy’s Back!!

    12/18/92: Friday

    Mark & I to E. Rock with Champagne. Climb E. Rock, eat Chuck’s Chicken Salad, drink Veuve Cliquot and warm ourselves in the winter sun.  Can’t believe we’ve come through the last year so well. So blessed.

    Pour the remainder of the bottle onto the rock in name of each of the kids, thereby “christening” the rock in their honor.

    12/19/92: Saturday

    1st night of Chanukah.

    12/20/92: Sunday

    Lily takes a shower with Mom!

    12/21/92: Monday

    Sam showers w/ Mom! Walk w/ Lily! Max smiles.

    12/22/92: Tuesday

    Max showers w/ Mom!

    Play time: Max up most of AM & early PM. Lily & Sam up early PM.

    12/23/92: Wednesday

    Lily smiles!

    Put boys on bed at night – dangle rattles near head – they are fascinated and agitated – Max more animated – and both boys intent on seeing.

    12/25/92: Christmas

    Max: Guiness Book Record SPIT – even hits toy box.

    12/26/92: Saturday, last night of Chanukah

    Max showers w/ Dad – Lily & Sam w/ Mom – in AM.

    Lily awake more or less from 1 PM 8:30+.

    Lily smiles a bit & plays.

    12/31/92:

    Sam smiles!

    1/1/93: Friday

    New Year’s Day

    1/2/93: Saturday

    [Mark’s hand]: Walk kids for 30 mins. Cold.

    1/3/93: Saturday

    Mark & I go out to lunch & to the movies: The Crying Game. Walk kids from 4 – 4:40.

    1/4/93: Monday

    Max rolls over! Flips from tummy to back!

    Walk w/ kids – great weather.

    1/5/93: Thursday

    Max is incredibly frustrated – wants to play, can’t do all he wants, can’t always flip over – howls in protest.

    Lily just cries…because?  Sam, too. Why?

    Much screaming at night/evening.

    1/8/93: Friday

    Afternoon in library: how can I be the same person I was when last I sat in the periodical room at Sterling?

    1/9/93: Satuday

    Out to firm dinner.

    1/10/93: Sunday

    Max bathes w/ Dad.

    1/11/93: Monday

    Lily & Max to Dr. La Camera – HIB vaccine.

    Max: 22 in. long, 12 lbs. 4 oz.

    Lily: 22 in. long; 10 lbs. 3 oz.

    Snow.

    Dr. La Camera says it’s time to add in semi-solids. Will switch back to a 4-hourly schedule, add rice, then applesauce, and hope the fussing dwindles.  Also will begin to work on sleeping through the night.

    1/12/93: Tuesday

    Snow.

    [Mark’s hand]: Lily sleeps til 7:30!!!

    First day with rice cereal – Lily HATES it and decides she’s never going on solids.  Max says it’s OK but would be better with salt.  Sam sucks his down eagerly, finishing it all, then licks bowl with tongue. “Spoon?” he says. “NO problem!”

    Just imagine when they first taste raspberries, chocolate, asparagus, lettuce! Fresh green beans! The world is waiting at your feet, little babies. I hope you love it as much as I do.

    Second verse: Lily changes her mind and sucks down cereal.

    1/13/93: Wednesday

    Snow.  More sleeping through the night!

    1/14/93: Thursday

    Snow.

    1/15/93: Friday

    [Mark’s hand]: We wake everybody!

    1/18/93: Monday

    [Mark’s hand]: Everyone sleeps through (to 6 AM).  No one cries.

    1/20/93: Wednesday

    Sam to Dr. La Camera: 12 lbs 7 oz…23” long!

    We listen to Clinton’s inaugural address on radio in car on way home.

    1/26/93: Tuesday

    [Mark’s hand]: Everyone sleeps thru – No crying

    1/30/93: Friday

    Visits from Aunt Laura, Uncle Michael, Aunt Katherine, Uncle Chris, Cousin Emma, Grandad Klaus, Grandma Pat, Grandpa Jack & Annette.  Friday night supper here.

     

     

     

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  • A long-time, much loved friend posted a question months ago, which I paraphrase: what do you think about parents who have the resources not to work outside the home and who know, from the get-go, that they will seek full-time employment because they want it?

    My answer today is prompted by a piece I read on Politico.com this morning.  Writer Michelle Cottle criticizes Michelle Obama for  “Leaning Out.” Cottle complains that Obama has wasted her Ivy League education and career as a high-powered lawyer and that when, this week, Obama weighed in on an education system that leaves behind impoverished kids of color — especially impoverished girls — it was too little, too late.  Cottle also criticizes the First Lady for choosing a public role that has emphasized traditionally “feminine” issues such as healthy eating and exercise.  I am sympathetic to the complaint that Obama might have focused on less traditionally feminine topics, but I draw the line at the following: “Turns out,” Cottle writes, “she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.”

    With privilege comes personal choice.  People with relatively large amounts of money and power, whether they are men or women, have options that at this point aren’t open to everyone.  They get to choose the work/life balance they wish, and they are often — but not always — able to move into increasingly interesting public work as their children mature.  This ability to lean in and out, in and out, over the course of a long life is precisely, as The New York Times reported, what many women want.  Which way they lean?  Doesn’t have much to do with whether they are “good” parents.

    Michelle Obama, the most privileged woman in America, has had a choice.  As a feminist, I respect her choice to give her daughters the foundation and protection they need growing up in the Klieg-light-glare of the presidency.  I’d have respected her had she chosen to allocate her time and attention differently — to “work outside the home” or to take on something other than vegetables and exercise from her spot in the East Wing.  But I would not have respected her had she ignored the implications for her daughters of her family’s choice to inhabit the White House for eight years and work in politics at the highest level.

    Here’s the thing about having kids: most of them don’t raise themselves.  Some children are relatively easy and uncomplicated.  Others need extra medical and emotional support.  All need attention.

    The relatively wealthy are able to pay others to attend if they don’t choose to have the time to do it, themselves.  They can enroll kids in good day care, pay private school tuition or buy homes in districts where schools have longer hours.  They are also able to make their mortgage or rent payments if one parent chooses not to work or to work part-time.  That the choice should appear to rest solely on the shoulders of women is wrong.  That the choice isn’t available to all parents, all women, is just plain unfair.  Rather than criticizing Michelle Obama — or any other mother, for that matter — for her personal choices regarding work, get out your bullhorn to increase access to the options currently only available to those of relative privilege so that all parents are able to give their children the attention they need.

    This past June, I finished my work days by stopping at a pond for a swim at around 6:00.  One evening, I noticed two different moms with their kids.  Mom # 1 sat on the dock.  She caught the rays off the water and periodically yelled at her children.  Mom # 2 was in the water.  She was talking with her kids, encouraging their diving and swimming, laughing with them.  I have no idea what these moms were doing all day — whether they were at work, whether they had nannies, whether they were on vacation.  The one I respected and admired from afar leaned in.  In her spare time, she leaned in to her children.

    And so, dear friend who I have known since our children were two, you have chosen to work full-time outside the home from the beginning.  You have had an excellent mate.  You’ve had the support of a warm, on-the-scene grandparent.  You had access to excellent day care and child care.  Your child was relatively easy to raise.  And: in the almost 20 years I have known you, there has never been a time when you have not taken every opportunity to lean in and get “in the water” with your kid.  I say: hats off to you!

     

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  • I stayed up late last night listening to Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma. The piece, produced with Jay Allison and Transom.org, is NPR reporter Kelly McEvers’s remarkable, hour-long audio documentary about her struggle to justify covering deadly war zones while raising a toddler.

    McEvers’s choice – and her agony over her choice – is specific and universal.  Not many of us civilians are in lines of work where a tenth of our colleagues have been murdered or killed in crossfire the past year.   But most of us struggle with the complex emotions of wanting to succeed professionally in jobs we love and also wanting to be with our spouses and kids.

    An avowed gung-ho thrill seeker, McEvers came to parenting late.  As best I can figure, she gave birth to a daughter at about 40, the peak of her journalistic career.  NPR assigned her to cover the Middle East.  Her job got dramatically more dangerous when the conflict in Syria heated up.  As the roll call of fallen journalists in and around Syria lengthened – Tim Hetherington, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Rami el-Sayid, Anthony Shadid, Ferzat Jarban, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Mika Yamamoto — McEvers found herself increasingly unhinged.  She sought the counsel of a former war correspondent turned psychotherapist.  He suggested she examine her motives and begin to imagine what life after covering war might be like.

    McEvers shared her turmoil in 2011 with Cape Cod-based radio wizard Jay Allison, who encouraged her to keep a diary. The resulting piece is emotionally and intellectually profound.  It’s also a masterful example of audio storytelling.  McEvers used her phone to record her musings.  She taped interviews with other war correspondents as well as a Canadian researcher running a study on journalists who cover foreign conflicts (*more on this last below).  Ambient noise of shelling and machine gun fire, sotto voce comments about the disgustingness of tear gas, the chatter of McEvers’s daughter all provide an evocative sound bed for the heart of McEvers’s dilemma.  “Should I quit my job?” she asks the likes of Sebastian Junger and Christiane Amanpour.  McEvers knows, even as she asks, that the only person who can really answer is she, herself.

    McEvers admits that the most difficult conversation she had was with Anna Blundy, the grown daughter of British war correspondent David Blundy, who was killed in 1989 at 44 by sniper fire in El Salvador.  McEvers writes that she felt she was interviewing an “adult version of [her] own child.”  Anna Blundy, 43, speaks as a grieving child whose father chose work over family.  Blundy’s words defeat and deflate McEvers, until, somewhere around 26:30, she claims her right to follow her path.  The decision, McEvers asserts, isn’t about her daughter.  “It’s about me.”

    And don’t we all – all of us women who want kids and career – find ourselves trying to figure out how much to give to “them” and how much to give to ourselves?  Men may ask themselves such questions, but I don’t know many who would allow others to listen in so publicly.  By the time McEvers reads the letter she’s written to her husband and daughter in case she is killed on the job, she has me in tears.  Spend an hour with this documentary, and you will weep for all parents who have fallen in the line of duty as well as all who, day in and out, struggle to find the best way to do right by themselves and their kids.

    *A NOTE on the explanation McEvers offers about the role dopamine plays in war correspondents’ career choices.  She interviews Toronto academic and medical doctor Anthony Feinstein.  Here is the summary of Dr. Feinstein’s work on his website: “Finally, Dr. Feinstein is involved in a series of studies unrelated to Neuropsychiatry but nevertheless of relevance to current issues within our society.  The questions being addressed are: How are journalists affected emotionally by their work in war zones and what motivates them to pursue such dangerous occupations?”  He presents his findings in Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War (Johns Hopkins Press, 2006).

    I haven’t read the book and am not familiar with Dr. Feinstein’s work, so I don’t know if McEvers reports his findings accurately.  She says that Dr. Feinstein believes journalists who take extraordinary risks have higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine than the rest of the population.

    McEvers is correct in describing dopamine as a substance that conveys a sense of wellbeing, but she’s off a little bit in her understanding of what high levels of dopamine may suggest.  Most researchers have concluded that those who seek out risk and thrill crave more dopamine.  That is, for physiological reasons, their bodies either don’t produce enough or don’t use well enough the dopamine they create.

    If it’s true that war correspondents have more dopamine than the rest of us, it may be that their dopamine receptors are inadequate and that their bodies produce more dopamine to flood dopamine-hungry receptors.  They may therefore gravitate towards putting themselves in the middle of battlefields to produce the dopamine they need to feel OK.  Some of the best research on this topic comes out of studies on families that have high numbers of members with Attention Deficit Disorder. See especially the work of Russell Barkley, Ph.D. here and here.

  • Just a week left, now, until the winter solstice, and less than twenty-four hours until kids start coming home from college. Mark and I have had a pretty terrific couple of months in our empty nest.

    Highlights of our time together: a day at The Big E (annual regional fair in Springfield, MA) to celebrate Rosh Hashanah; hearing brilliant banjo player Bela Fleck in concert at Berklee School of Music; making new friends at the Indian classical dance recital of the daughter of old friends; and babysitting our two favorite little boys. The humdrum has been terrific, too. We’ve watched TV together, talked over the newspapers at meals, gone out to the Cape for long walks with Amos. Was this what life was like twenty years ago, before we were parents? Maybe it’s even better now.

    I wondered what it would be like to celebrate a holiday without the kids at home. We all gathered for Thanksgiving, and that was a complete treat. But what would Mark and I do when we weren’t doing for the kids? When it’d be just us chickens?

    “What if we give each other a present every night when we light the candles for Chanukah?” I asked.

    Dead silence.

    “You mean, like a pack of gum,” Mark said.

    “Yep, like a pack of gum,” said I.

    “Wrapped?” Mark asked, looking as if he were about to swallow an arsenic capsule.

    “Wrapped!” said I.

    Five nights of candles lit, and no gum, yet. My favorite gift from Mark so far? Two Lotto scratch tickets. I won twenty bucks! Mark’s favorite gift from me? Probably the flannel footie pajamas I found. They actually fit his almost six-and-a-half-foot frame.

    A gift a night. Each night a gift, as we use this minor holiday to reclaim time, space, and each other.

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  • I took a red-eye flight from California overnight so I’d be back in Boston today to take Lily to the airport. It mattered to me that I be able to have a few hours with her before she left for five weeks in Spain. And it really mattered to me that I be able to escort her to security.

    I won’t be in Boston when Lily returns. Though that’s disappointing (because I won’t be here to hear the rush of stories when she’s fresh off the plane), it feels somehow far less significant to me than missing the send off.

    Of course, I love graduations and celebrations of achieving goals. But even more, I love the feeling that I’ve done all I can to help my kids step out into the wide world with open eyes and hearts.

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  • Last night, I listened to “Glory (Feat. Blue Ivy Carter),” rapper Jay-Z’s tribute to the birth January 7 of his daughter.  And then I listened again.  I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head: “My greatest creation was you.”

    Many musical papas have written love songs to their newborns, with ABC News’s Bill Weir noting that fatherhood is “the ultimate softening agent.”   Dads who’ve publicly crooned to their kids include John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, George Strait, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Alan Sparhawk, Loudon Wainwright, and David Byrne (in no particular order).

    All of these songwriters — with the exception of Jay-Z — focus on the baby as they marvel at the newly arrived.  But not “HOV” — Jehovah, God’s gift to rap — as he refers to himself.  Who is this new, sweetly wailing creature? “A younger, smarter, faster me,” Jay-Z exults.  Not even a younger, smarter, faster…Beyoncé?  The rapper acknowledges his daughter’s mother, diva Beyoncé Knowles, who burst onto the pop music scene as lead singer for the girl group Destiny’s Child: “You’re a child of destiny / You’re the child of my destiny / You’re my child with the child from Destiny’s Child / That’s a hell of a recipe.”

    “Glory” shines a light on two classic parenting mistakes. Never assume that your child will be a better version of you.  Don’t think that there’s a special recipe to produce a great “creation.” Little Blue Ivy might just turn out to be tone deaf, hate music, and have two left feet.

    When I think about the (initially) female progeny of power performing duos — Carrie Fischer, Jane Fonda, or Chaz Bono, say — I don’t think happy.  Narcissistic parents have trouble grasping that the “glory” of giving birth to a child comes from the “giving” part.  Maybe Beyoncé will have enough good sense and girl power to tell her husband, a man who publicly crowed that he “got the hottest chick in the game wearin’ my chain,” a man who declared himself, “not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” that in twenty years’ time, the “feat” in the “glory” of having children is in giving them some of the same freedoms we’ve given ourselves.

    Or maybe he’ll listen to himself. “This is the life that I chose,” Jay-Z rapped in “december 4th,” a hit song about his own birthday from The Black Album, “rather than the life that chose me.”

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  • Sam got home from school last Thursday.  I picked him up from South Station.  Max arrived this past Saturday evening on a bus from New York.  Mark and I were at a party for our favorite nonagenarian, so we couldn’t get him. A friend of his ferried him to the house.  And on Monday, after she’d finished her exams, handed in her last essay, and tidied her room, Lily got an extra special lift home from Max and Sam, who had driven out to Western Mass to bring her home from college.  The three of them took a detour on their way back to collect a gorgeous ceramic bowl they’d ordered.

    Each is growing — up and out and away.  At the same time, they are choosing to continue to be a part of each others’ lives.  Perhaps it’s true that we middle class mothers at the beginning of the new millennium have fetishized child rearing to the point that we’ve created an even bigger chasm between rich and poor.  At the moment, I’m glad I’ve been able to give these three a sense that making family takes conscious effort.  Because now, in this first stretch of time away from home, they understand that it takes effort to continue their relationships with one another and with Mark and me.

    And guess what? They gave me that beautiful bowl for Chanukah. I am filling it with new memories, the fruits of my labor.

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  • Two Ends

    Two of the kids – Lily and Max – finished high school in early June.  I know, I know.  They call it “commencement.”  It’s supposed to be a beginning, the start of what’s coming next.  I like the idea of “graduation.”  You move (up?) from one step to another.  But, really, it felt so much like an ending.  The end of waving kids off in the morning from the breakfast table, the end of dropping kids at the train station and picking them up again in the afternoon, the end of having supper ready for everybody and hearing holy hell when everybody is sick of chicken, the end of having gangs of boys hanging out in the basement in front of the TV.  It was hard to think about beginnings, especially because nothing had begun yet.  It will.  I know it.  But it hadn’t then and hasn’t yet.

    We celebrated a lot of these ends, and it was joyful.  I threw parties.  Grandparents traveled to Boston from distant locales.  There were presents.  Everybody dressed up and looked spiffy.  Mark, the kids, and I traversed Alaska’s Inside Passage, from Juneau to Ketchikan, as a way to note these endings.  The five of us had – let it be publicly acknowledged – a lot of fun. Together.  As a family.  A dream come true.

    For Sam, of course, things haven’t exactly ended, because he is spending another year boarding and will have his commencement/graduation/end next June.  It’ll be different, in part because he’ll already have made the leap to “away.”  And it’ll be different because he won’t be graduating near home, so I can’t make all my neighbors gather and fuss.  But with luck we’ll all be together again – grandparents included – and it’ll be a big huge deal.  That’s the way it seems to be turning out in this family.  Reaching goals, coming to a place of achievement, marking rites of passage: we notice, and we eat cake.

    A Middle

    So, now, it’s high summer – August – and I feel like a yo-yo.  I keep pinging around.  I helped Lily get set up on the Cape so she could work her usual summer job at the fruit’n’veg stand.  I helped Sam get started at Berklee, where he’s been percussing away. I’ve helped Max and four others find an apartment in New York, where they’ll be volunteering with City Year for 11 months in public schools. Max hasn’t started yet, but he’s fully engaged in planning and will soon head with Mark in a U-Haul filled with furniture donated from generous friends.

    And I’m in the middle of too many projects.  I’m working on the syllabus for the course I’ll be teaching in the fall.  I’ve done another round of research for a long piece, but I haven’t written it yet.  I’ve emptied my office of books, but I still have a dozen, deep file cabinet drawers to sort through and vast stacks of papers to sort.  Good news: underneath the horrible, mouldy carpet lies a hard wood floor.  Such potential.  Kind of a metaphor for everything else.  Who knows what’s underneath?  Maybe something that with a bit of polish will shine?

    I feel stuck in the middle, meanwhile. After all the fanfare, not much has changed.  I’m still buying groceries and emptying the dishwasher.  The kids are keenly aware that new sorts of independence are just around the corner, but they haven’t quite reached the corner yet.  A bit of push-me-pull-you has ensued.  Normal, I know, in the Separation Derby, but not always comfortable.

    A Beginning

    You give everything you’ve got to these growing, shifting children, and if you are actually able to give what they need – not necessarily what they want or you expect – you get … to be left alone.  This somehow seems a bad bargain at the moment, although older friends tell me it’s actually great.  Right now, I think, “Who’d be crazy enough to sign on?  Three times?”  But that’s what the Bowl o’ Cherries is all about.  You’ve got to savor the delicious fruit of raising a family, recognizing that you’re going to be left with a messy napkin filled with pits.  The tasty fruit is gone.  The seeds are to scatter.  They’re going to mature into the loveliest trees. Probably in someone else’s yard.  You’ve been so busy getting to this point that other parts of the garden have lain fallow or even gone to seed. What to do?  Begin again.

    Mired in the middle after so many endings, I am engaging in a tiny beginning. I’ve had my first two cello lessons and can now play both the “Dreidel” song and “Jingle Bells.”  Pizzicato only.  I told this to a neighbor’s son, a young man I have loved since he and my kids were all 5.  He’s a wonderful musician with a wry sense of humor.  Next, he assured me: Bach’s cello suites – preferably Number Two.  I told him to check back with me in 2014.

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