• 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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  • Two stories caught my eye this morning, both relating to families.  In oneBoston Globe columnist Shirley Leung champions the rights of mothers to return to work the week they give birth.  In the other in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson in Istanbul and David George-Cosh in Toronto analyze the ways Nilufer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, a drowned, 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy, has gone viral.

    What’s the link between the two pieces?  “We” still haven’t figured out what our responsibilities are to all families: men, women, and children around the world.

    As for Leung’s piece, when will privileged women who work in highly-paid jobs re-frame their choices so that they lobby for the rights of all parents — men, women, rich, poor?  I get that women are judged unfairly when they choose to “go back to work” soon after giving birth, while the decisions and behaviors of their privileged male counterparts receive nary an eyebrow raise. The different standards and treatments deserve scrutiny.  But.  The bigger issue is that they have choices. They have jobs to return to, they can choose when they want to return to work, and, most probably, they can even decide IF they want to return to work.  What doesn’t get said?  They can afford the best possible child care that enables them to leave their infants behind.  To write a piece that does not mention the role privilege plays in women’s choices is to miss the bigger picture…

    …of the picture.  Nilufer Demir — a woman — captured what may turn out to be the single most compelling image of the Syrian refugee crisis: a toddler, face-down on the beach, drowned in his family’s attempt to find safety in the EU.  Several important points, here:

    Until we sidestep nationalism and bring our attention to crises around the world affecting families and young children, we aren’t doing justice to the principles of feminism.

    The photographer Demir answered questions about the photos she took of dead refugees washing up on the beach.  She was asked “as a woman,” how she felt seeing the dead toddler on the beach.  “As a woman?”  Why would anyone assume that a woman’s grief would be any different from a man’s when seeing dead children washing in with the tide?

    Last: why are “we” moved to act when confronted with the image of what “we” consider the most innocent victim, a child?  All refugees are innocent victims.  What has any of these men, women, or children done to deserve the chaos inflicted on them by people who put power, -isms, and money ahead of the wellbeing of families?

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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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  • Today, I did the second stupidest thing I’ve done in my entire life.  I’m 51.  That’s a lot of time to do stupid things.  I am not going to tell you about the first stupidest thing.

    I decided to run a few errands before sitting down to work at my desk this morning.  I needed to get a move on it in part because I wanted to mail my sister-in-law the cake I made her yesterday.  She had surgery last week.  She’s going to be fine.

    I don’t live out here in Wellfleet year-round.  I’m lucky to be here for a few weeks at a time, and this year, I’m on the Cape for most of June.  Unlike in Boston, where I mostly live, here in Wellfleet if I don’t get to my post office by noon, I miss express pickup for the day. My plan was to mail the cake and then zip out Route Six to the Transfer Station to drop off my garbage.

    The Transfer Station is the fancy name for the dump. The Town of Wellfleet doesn’t provide garbage pickup.  Some people pay for a private service to haul their garbage away, but most people just pay for a permit so they can make a trip or two a week to get rid of their stuff.  I eat a lot of seafood when I’m here, plus I’ve got a dog, so my trash gets smelly fast.  More, perhaps, than you wanted to know.

    It’s a world class dump, so I don’t mind going.  There are recycling receptacles for cardboard, glass, plastics, rigid plastics, and newspapers.  There’s an area where you can drop trees to get turned into mulch – and you can buy the mulch, cheap.  There’s a drum for used oil, tables for hazardous materials, spots to put old fridges, freezers, TVs, mattresses, and computer monitors.  You have to pay to leave some of that stuff, but, really, it’s a terrific place because it gives everyone a chance to use and re-use thoughtfully.  There’s even a Swap Shop, where people leave and pick up things like old fans, kitchen utensils, lawn furniture, you name it.

    So, I mailed my cake, I got to the Transfer Station at about 11:30, and I put my plastics and bottles and newspapers in their rightful spots. I hopped behind the wheel of my car and backed towards the actual dump, a long, rectangular abyss where non-reusable, non-recyclables go.  When things are hopping at the dump, a dozen or more vehicles could probably park side-by-side – that’s how long the trash trough is.  I popped the trunk, ran around to get my bag, and heaved it in the air. And just as I saw the bag moving up and away from me in an arc, I realized that I had been holding my car key in my hand.  Past tense.

    No matter how much you want to, you cannot stop time.  You can stand in horror and watch the consequences of an action unfold, but you cannot undo what you have set in motion.  And so I stood there by the edge of the dump, my hands clutching the yellow metal fencing, and saw my garbage bag and my car key disappear.  I did not cry.  I did not shout.  I just stood there, mind racing.

    You won’t be surprised that the folks running such a world class dump did what they could to help me.  “It’s Wednesday,” the woman who sits in the entrance booth to the dump told me.  “Wednesday is anything can happen day.”  She called a guy who fetched an extension ladder.  The two of them called the bosses, who arrived speedily in their forest green Town trucks.  A very nice man named Kevin climbed down the ladder and searched for my key in the vicinity of where I thought it might have landed.  He could not have been nicer, but he didn’t find my key.  Along with another Transfer Station Honcho, he pushed my car out of the way while I steered.

    I was out of options.  I couldn’t say the key was lost, because I knew where it was.  But I couldn’t get the key, and I didn’t have a spare.  The service guy at the dealership in Yarmouth told me he could order me a new key for $100, but it wouldn’t arrive until Friday, and even then, he couldn’t squeeze me in until next Tuesday.  My car windows were open, as was the sunroof.  It was threatening to rain.  Again.

    You know in a preindustrial society, farmers had lots of children so they’d have extra hands to help in the fields?  I have three children.  Though I have wished all were fully employed this summer, I got very lucky that one was home mid-day playing video games with his friend Nigel.  My son Sam understood I was truly stranded.  He did not make fun of me.  He began driving the spare key from Boston to me in Wellfleet.

    What to do for the two hours it would take Sam to reach me? I listened to other people talking:

    “What’s goin’ on?” one man said. “Nothin’,” another replied.  “Same, here,” the first guy said.

    and

    “Need a hand?” a guy asked another guy unloading nine milk crates filled with wine and liquor bottles.  “Nah,” said the other guy, climbing around in the back of his blue pickup.  He gestured towards his crates. “That’s what they call a standard load.  It’s a shitload.”

    The sky darkened.  I worried it would rain, and the car interior would get soaked.  And then, at 3 PM, I saw Sam at the wheel of the van, pulling in at the entrance booth.  I could just imagine the conversation.  “Where is my very stupid mother, the one who threw her key in the dump?” Sam would say.  “Oh, that lady?  She’s just been sitting over there in her car for two hours, trying not to throw away anything else important.”  Yes, that would be me.

    Sam unfolded himself from the van, all 6′ 2″ of him.  He delivered the key, stretched, then let me take him out for a vanilla soft serve cone.  I heard a bit about his internship at the radio station – the one he has to be to by 4:45 AM two days a week — maybe more than he’s told me all summer.  And then he went on his way.  He needed to get back to watch the Bruins.

    It’s only the middle of June.  I know it’s going to get hot at some point.  The greenheads will hatch.  We might even have a hurricane or two.  And I will probably do more stupid things, but I hope none as stupid as the one I did today.  Time will pass in enormous and miniscule increments, and I will not be able to do one single thing about it.

     

     

     

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  • In case you missed these beautiful photos, here’s a link to images of American Olympians with children. They are all photos of women.

    Of course, I wondered how many Olympic men are dads…and why that’s completely un-newsworthy. The underlying assumption is that men, whether or not they have fathered children, are always free to pursue excellence. Women, on the other hand, spend their energy putting their children first. That they have time to become the very best at anything astonishes.

    I actually don’t think that the goal ought to be to eliminate the surprise in being able to raise kids and reach for the stars. A better goal would be to spread the astonishment around. Some day, we’ll lift our collective eyebrows when anyone — male or female — raising young children is able to go for the gold.

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  • It’s been almost two weeks since Mark and I embarked on our empty nesting adventure.  My tears have dried.  I’m starting to enjoy increased freedom and diminished stress.  Fun is being had. A book — a library book, no less — has helped me shift into drive.  I checked out non-fiction writer Melissa Fay Greene‘s No Biking in the House without a Helmet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

    Greene is a brilliant storyteller.  I first encountered her work in Praying for Sheetrock (1992), a lyrically written chronicle of the legal and political fight to bring civil rights to rural Georgia.  She belongs in the same class of writers as Tracy Kidder, Buzz Bissinger, William Finnegan, and Susan Orlean.  Orlean presents herself as a woman in a ballsy – sexy – edgy way.  Greene doesn’t trade on her looks.  She’s a public mother, a wife, a person deeply concerned with raising children (not with jetting off to exotic locales to commune with a fertility goddess).

    In No Biking, Greene describes how she and her husband, Donny, went from a family of four (biological) children to nine (through international adoption). She’d hit her early forties and no longer had very young children at home.  Her oldest was well into high school, and she thought, “Why not?”  Greene got pregnant, but the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She’d already done the hard work of choosing to expand her family, so when she learned of Romanian children languishing in orphanages, she convinced her husband and four children to make room for one more.

    As she began her adoption journey, she stuck to one guiding principle: she would only consider healthy, older children who had started their lives in families where they’d had a chance to bond and love. From Romania, Greene moved on to Ethiopia in the height of the AIDS crisis. There, over time, she adopted a daughter and three sons, two of whom are biological brothers.

    Greene argues passionately in No Biking for the power of family.  She exults in the beauty of raising children and the basic pleasures of having growing kids underfoot. It’s not all smooth sailing for Greene and her husband, though, especially as the oldest kids leave home. Greene realizes a bit too late that those older kids, the boys especially, have provided a pecking order that has kept the younger kids in line and relatively free from conflict.  Their absence produces a dearth of order and fun, leaving the family in a state of crisis.

    Greene also realizes that no matter how many children she adopts, she can’t avoid the pangs associated with children’s inevitable departure.  She has launched her two oldest sons and finds herself sitting, alone, at a gate in the Cleveland airport:

    It seemed especially unfair for these goodbyes to hurt so much, since the working THEORY was that Donny and I would AVOID the pain of empty nest by continuing to FILL the nest. I sadly phoned Donny from the waiting area. “I don’t think our plan is working. We’re getting all the pain of empty nest anyway…” “I know,” he said. “But we don’t get to go to Paris.” (280)

    Raising children, Greene asserts, doesn’t diminish a woman’s intelligence or capacities. Raising kids takes patience and skill, not to mention organizational prowess. Without these, parents can wind up turning  a family into a “group home.” Her account left me feeling joyful.  There really is something profound to celebrate.  And there is also something profound to mourn.

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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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  • Friends called yesterday morning to ask if Mark and I would like to go to the movies early afternoon.  My knee-jerk reaction? I internally looked over my shoulder, thinking, “Who me?” Aren’t we supposed to be ferrying children around and fanning the fires at home? I just as quickly said, “Sure!” once I realized that we could actually meet up without a wrinkle.

    We saw Fair Game, a film featuring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, which tells the story of outed CIA spy Valerie Plame and her ex-ambassador husband Joe Wilson.  The show manages to sustain a high level of drama, even when viewers are all-too familiar with the story.  Actors playing Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney deliver intense performances as extra-creepy Bush Administration manipulators hell-bent on falsifying evidence to justify America’s invasion of Iraq.  And Sam Shepherd has a sweet cameo as Plame’s retired-military-man dad, a guy who urges his daughter to fight for what’s right.  Is it a great film? No, but worth seeing. Troubling, though, to imagine that anyone would be learning of this story for the first time via Hollywood rather than the news.

    After the film, the four of us chatted about the take-home message.  We all expressed dismay that anyone could still harbor affection for the eight years that mired us in debt and dismantled civil rights. We two women — both of us moms coming to the brink of empty nesting — focused on Plame’s decision to have children — twins, even.  Plame’s domestic arrangements are as much a part of the story as her public battle to restore her reputation as a secret agent.  We suspected that her real-life decision to play out the fantasy of “wife, mother, spy” sold filmmakers on the tale as much as the political intrigue. Neither of us could imagine being CIA operatives with children, disappearing for stretches in dangerous places where pretty much no one drives carpool.

    Later, I mentally smacked myself.  Has Plame allowed herself to be exploited yet again with this film? Would anyone have thought to read or watch her story if she hadn’t been a mother?  Would anyone have made the film if the outed spy had been…a father?  I wind up with the same old worn-out question: does anyone spend more than a split second asking whether male CIA operatives should have their careers and families, too?

    My favorite part of the film, I decided, is the last bit, the one where editors cut from Naomi Watts to archival footage of the real Valerie Plame testifying before Congress.  Plame isn’t as pretty or thin as Watts.  But she speaks with power, conviction, and poise.  She doesn’t look like a mother or a spy.  She looks like a hero.

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  • Two pieces in yesterday’s New York Times caught my attention  One, by The Times’ ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane, addressed the paucity of obituaries celebrating women’s lives. The other, by “Motherlode” blogger Lisa Belkin, analyzed the decision of a group of academic psychologists to declare parenthood the pinnacle of human experience. Both Brisbane and Belkin were well-intentioned, but both missed the implications or their arguments on the connection between parenthood and women’s lives.

    Brisbane was addressing reader Mike Sponder’s complaint that The New York Times seems to publish women’s and men’s obituaries at a 1:8 ratio. “Women rarely die, it seems,” Sponder quipped. Brisbane turned over Sponder’s observation to Times obituary editor Bill McDonald. McDonald wrote that the Times has to “narrow the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame or notoriety in the process.” Given where women were seventy or eighty years ago, when most of these dead people were born, there’s not much chance that they’d make the cut. Brisbane urged McDonald to look harder, contacting organizations such as NOW to cast a wider net.

    Belkin wrote this week’s Times Magazine’s “The Way We Live Now” column about a new configuration of  the hierarchy of needs Abraham Maslow posited in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow theorized that people have to meet low-level needs first (food, shelter, safety) before they can contemplate reaching their full potential, or “self-actualizing.” The tippy top of human experience these days? Parenting. That word used to be thought of as a noun, Belkin noted, but these days it’s a verb whose infinitive form is “to parent.” Belkin was appalled by the new hierarchy.  “Most of all,” she wrote, “it raises the question of whether to sanctify parenting has gone a bit too far.”  The psychologists who put parenting at the top of human experience, just above finding and retaining a mate, she wrote, have lost their sense of perspective. Parents, she proclaimed, are supposed to be making themselves unnecessary, since the goal of parenting is to raise self-sufficient adults.

    Maslow wrote his essay when many of those appearing in current Times obits were born. In other words, his organizing principle of human behavior informed the worldview of those now in their seventies and eighties — as well as obit editor Bill McDonald. By telling McDonald to look harder for notable women, Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane didn’t challenge the fundamental assumption that greatness and notability appear primarily in the public sphere.

    For her part, Lisa Belkin missed a critical bit of demographic data. Academic fields, especially psychology, have largely been feminized in the last seventy years. When Maslow was busy focusing on self-actualization in 1943, he was writing as a man for a mostly-male audience of academics and practitioners. The group that reconfigured Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t resemble Maslow and his peers. Belkin didn’t mention in her condemnation the possibility that women, who continue to perform the bulk of parenting responsibilities, likely made up a large part of the academic psychologists who declared mating and procreating the pinnacle of human experience. She didn’t consider that for the first time women have had a chance to value their own roles, to publicly declare that what they do (we do) privately matters as much as or more than anything else transpiring on the planet.

    While I, too, am grossed out by the self-indulgence of my generation (and myself) at times, I want to make sure to celebrate this new hierarchy of experience. This ranking values something that has historically been private and unworthy of note. If we follow the reasoning of McDonald, Brisbane, and Belkin, humans who spent and continue to spend much of their lives raising the next generation to be healthy, independent adults aren’t worthy of obituaries in the Times.  If we follow Maslow.2, perhaps we have to rethink what it means to make an impact publicly, since, for the first time, an academic discipline has privileged what has traditionally been women’s private sphere.

    Maybe it’s time for editors and reporters to acknowledge more fully that creating families and caring for others (parenting, nursing, teaching…) at times may well be the way we humans make “the largest imprint,” whether we find “fame or notoriety in the process.”

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  • I’ve been blogging this summer — but not here, on Bowl o’ Cherries.  I’m keeping a blog for WCAI, the NPR affiliate for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.  The blog’s called “The Outer Space,” because I’m spending the summer covering stories on the Outer Cape (roughly Orleans to Provincetown).  Come find me, and leave me a comment:

    http://wcaioutercape.wordpress.com/

    WCAI is a great radio station.  It relies on a small staff to produce features and investigative spots.  Because it’s based in Wood’s Hole, home of the famous oceanographic institute, the station features a wide array of science and marine stories.  WCAI is also home to Mindy Todd’s “The Point,” a daily 1/2-hour live call-in show.  Mindy does the show without a producer — amazing to me after spending the spring at WBUR’s On Point, which has a staff of 10+.

    I’m so excited to be working as a radio reporter.  No ambivalence whatsoever.  And the timing couldn’t be better.  Just as I’m learning to push the buttons on digital recorders and editing software, the kids are learning to push buttons on their own alarm clocks and test their independence.  They are all doing interesting things this summer, each taking emotional, intellectual, and physical risks.  I’m getting a chance to do a bit of that myself.  Lucky, lucky me.

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