Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What's Next

It's the summer before my eldest begins high school.  A number of her friends are youngest siblings, and conversations at summer parties have turned on how soon these kids will be out of the house.  A good many of the mothers I converse with have entirely devoted the past decade and a half to their children's lives.  "So what's next for you?" I've asked a few. 

It's a bit uncomfortable, at least for them.  Because I've been a Working Mother (at a certain local elementary school, a few of my ilk have felt they bore scarlet W badges, given that PTA meetings take place at 10 a.m. on weekdays) for much of my own kids' childhoods, I frankly have a little bit of trouble understanding how they haven't lost their minds completely. It's not that I don't appreciate them. For so many things, I rely upon the moms who have done this.  They ferried my kids to and fro from various after-school activities, and I might not have any actual printed photos of my children over the past five years save for their thoughtful gestures. 

I like to get things done and to think about what I want to do next.  Yes, what I want to do next.  This sets me apart.  One friend was talking about her house recently and how a major upgrade turned out to be, as these things do, more expensive than she expected.  "But we're going to spend the next 35 years in this house," she said, "this is where our kids and theirs can come home to." She loves her life. But it scared the hell out of me to think she knew exactly where the rest of her life would be spent. 

Many would argue that this mother is of a superior caste to that which I occupy. After a trip to DC and then to NYC over a period of six days, I got to thinking that maybe I should consider the wider world once my chicks have left the nest, and I mentioned this on the weekly phone call to my parents. "Well, that will depend on where the kids end up," she said.  That's what airplanes are for, I responded.  She said that maybe the mistake she and my father made was trying to do this for me.  A fair point, since putting down real roots sounds like giving up what else might be out there.  

My kids tell me they like that I'm independent and try new things, that I jump on airplanes and go places and meet people and do stuff.  They know I'm here for them until they head off on their own paths, but they've had enough upheaval in their lives that they really don't sentimentalize: they know things will always change. Someday they may take me to task for my independence, but all of the big choices--where I live, how I choose not to marry again until they leave me, where they go to school--are about them.  Once they've crossed the stage to matriculate and know which college they'll attend, all bets are off on my whereabouts, though not my financial or moral support, the latter of which will continue until the day I die. In return, their love for me will not depend upon me sitting at home waiting for them.  They would rather hear of my latest adventure.

I wonder, when I hear these mothers say that they want their kids to have a familiar home to come back to, if they are doing for their kids or for themselves.  It's a convenient reason to avoid getting back into the world and finding out what they are made of.  Most of them don't have to for financial reasons, but to me this means they can do whatever they want, which maybe would be scary to me as well: often challenges are gifts. They've established identities revolving around being mothers and wives, and I suppose husbands don't always react well to change, either. But knowing most of their husbands, I don't imagine that starting a freelance business or getting a part-time job would send the guys into a tailspin. Most of them just want their wives to be happy. Making a little money would be okay, too.

Doing things that scare me (not the reckless stuff, the I've always wondered if I can go there stuff) I've learned during the past decade, thrills me. Quite likely that's why I have the life I do.  Heaven knows I don't want to be sure about where I'll be living for the rest of my life. There's a big wide world out there, and I for one am excited about what's next, tomorrow and beyond.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You Can't Make Old Friends

Christopher Hitchens famously said a melancholy lesson of advancing years is that you can't make old friends.  For many people, the biggest obstacle to taking risks and growing personally is the fear that they will leave friends behind. 

There are a lot of people I don't remember from earlier stages of my existence.  I get friend requests from people and can't for the life of me remember sitting beside them in high school math class.  There are others who knew me as I became myself, back at university. I see them only on occasion, and they typically fall into one of two camps: those who keep up with who I am now, and those who still see me as the person I was two decades ago. 

The ones who keep up with me are those who've made an effort, and it's reciprocated by me.  Even if we don't see one another very often, we keep up over the phone or by electronic means and I also know how far they've come.  In at least two cases, they are the sort of people who've spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of life they want, and they are living it. I admire their purposeful ways and the satisfying selves they have built with like-minded spouses.  The other camp, who still see me as the awkward hayseed, typically have let their personal trajectory move along without their permission--usually in an attempt to satisfy external expectations they've constructed rather than what they deeply wish for themselves--and so continue to play their long-expired superiority cards.

Between the curve balls fate has thrown my way and my deliberate attempts to learn about the world at large, I've ended up with a bunch of friends I might not have had otherwise.  Or, more accurately, they are the people I was supposed to meet once I became who I've always wanted to be.  Two come to mind, and both have made big changes recently.  Both are life-long Texans, women with whom I bonded initially because we'd been through divorce and had ambitions to come out the other side roaring, if you'll pardon the Helen Reddy reference. 

Both have worked incredibly hard and have done well in their respective fields.  They are about the same age, but one had her only child very young and is now unfettered.  After gutting out several years to work off a degree, she's just moved to NYC.  I visited her there this past weekend and was thrilled to see her new neighborhood on the Upper East Side and felt almost more giddy than she about her absolute gumption in pursuing such an adventure.  There will be winter, but she'll adapt. 

The other has a young child and has given her all to her little girl and her place of work over the past six years.  She became a city person, or tried to, against her instincts.  Now she's done her time in North Dallas (my frequent readers know how I feel about that place) and is heading to the Hill Country of Central Texas, which is as lovely a place as I can imagine living.  She's got a good gig, which she's earned ten times over, and I'm looking forward to heading to the gorgeous banks of the Guadalupe to catch up and see her in her element. 

For both my happiness couldn't be greater than if it were my own life taking shape. We've all got our circumstances arranged in the way we wish, men or not. We take care of our children and we make our own money. When I met each of them, I knew immediately they would become dear friends of mine, even before I knew how things had earlier played out for each.  I  measure our friendships in years rather than decades, but we've made up for lost time and take great delight in hearing one another's stories.  With each, I've developed a deep and abiding connection.

So as much as I admire Hitch's intellect, which surpasses mine by immeasurable yards, I must say this is a case where men are at a disadvantage.  Women may not be able to make old friends, but many of us have the ability to recognize them when we meet them.  And sometimes we even get to have great vacation spots as a bonus. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

A World Without Facebook

The Girl and the Boy, both on summer vacation, are both out of town this week, headed in separate directions.  I'll be doing the same in a few days and there will be hundreds of miles between us.  Yet in addition to daily texts and phone calls, the Girl is posting pictures on Facebook, so I can see how her day went. The Boy, while more cryptic, also posts, though his lame phone (mom's old Crackberry, aka The Brick) doesn't take pictures.

I am of an age and live in an age where my friends fall into two camps: those who engage in social media, and those who adamantly oppose it.  Three summers ago my friend Colin visited me and suggested I get on Facebook.  My response was that social media was irrelevant to me, given my age.  Colin--who is not only one of the scariest-smart engineering types I know but also, back in 1986, introduced me to Elvis Costello--was unequivocally in opposition.  "Your kids," he said, "will use this or another version of it constantly. If you really want to be involved in their lives, you"d better get with it." 

It wasn't hard, except that I spent a couple of weekends searching for friends from previous lives and wasting a whole lot of time getting an understanding of it.  I'd started this blog and realized quickly that most of my readers would come from my friend list.  I even started tweeting, though my enthusiasm for that never really has taken off.  At least I understand it, though. By now most of my good friends and even my mom are on Facebook, though some of them are either erstwhile users or perpetual lurkers. 

Others yet resist entirely.  This gap is not, anecdotally, based upon education or age, as many of my most intelligent friends resist.  And while some of my older friends say they don't get it, many others who are several decades beyond me post with relish.

Some of my resistor friends even have managed to keep their children off. I feel, alternatively, that these kids will go on to finish mapping the human genome or will be the subject of future Weiner-esque memes, sort of like the university friend who now spends four hours a night glued to the television because his parents forebade his watching during his formative years. I have misgivings about my indulgence of my own two children, though I and many other significant adults in their lives watch their posts carefully. 

Today in the WSJ I read the best argument yet for staying with the program. Daniel H. Wilson, in his piece "The Terrifying Truth About the New Technology" argues that what modern Luddites (they were, you may remember from sociology class, the textile workers who threw mechanized looms into the river) really fear is getting old.  And yet by resisting, they make themselves old, because the world keeps changing whether they like it or not.  Mr. Wilson, born in 1977, says it well:

Of course it's possible for old folks to adapt to new technological advances. People do it all the time. It only takes a grim determination to force yourself consciously to interact with each new wave of technology, no matter how insipid it seems. Only through grueling, hard work can you hope to understand or belong to the new world that is constantly (and rudely) emerging.

"So what?" you might ask. Those young people can keep their precious Internets.

I'm not saying you have to keep up. But at the moment you choose to stop growing, your world will begin to shrink. You'll be able to communicate with fewer people, especially the young. You will only see reruns. You will not understand how to pay for things. The outside world will become a frightening and unpredictable place.

As they say, the only constant is change.

Each new generation builds on the work of the previous one, gaining new perspective. New verbs are introduced. We Google strange and dangerous places. We tweet mindlessly to the cosmos. We Facebook our own grandmothers.

I, for one, don't want to be left behind.

Me neither.  Thanks, Colin, for helping me keep my world from shrinking.  And for the record, I follow Elvis Costello on Facebook.

Friday, June 10, 2011

One Way Greatness is Made


"When I was a child my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general.  If you become a monk you'll end up as the pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I Can't Live in Canada (And Just a Few of the Reasons I Love Texas)

"It's too early to run the dishwasher yet," my mother said on the phone last week when we talked during the dinner hour. She was talking to me and directing my father on how to correctly load said appliance, which is why it came up. When I look forward to retirement, I hope to not descend into sweating the small stuff, but it is a fate that seems to befall most.  We humans are in perpetual struggle for control over existential angst, and once past a certain age, this seems to manifest most in matters of food and how it's served.

Yet paradoxically, my mom's comments were about a new policy from Hydro Ottawa, the only electric service available where my parents live. The monopoly means that the authority can impose higher fees on use--with the implementation of "smart meters"--at times when highest usage takes place.  Hence, the dishwasher should not be run until before bedtime.  However the forks are placed, apparently it's fine for the nanny state to determine her housekeeping schedule.

In Texas, we have, for good or ill, deregulated electric utilities and choice, which I have learned is paramount for Texan consumers.  (I've no experience living in any other US state, and my adopted home is sufficiently different from all others that I won't presume to comment on the cultures of the other 49.) We are also, not coincidentally, on our own electric grid.

The smart-meter idea, however it quite likely would benefit the greater good, would in local parlance fly all over Texans. Who the hell is the government to tell us when we can wash the dishes or where we should set our thermostats?

A few years ago I was talking to a friend who also happens to live in Ottawa, about our cat.  "You mean, she just goes wherever she wants?  We have a by-law against that." Well, Midnight is now more of an inside cat, due to her skirmishes with ferals, who also do so.  But she can still roam freely, as can the ferals. 

I suppose it would be much better if everyone agreed that cats should not roam at will.  We'd have fewer problems with strays and concommitment disease, clearly, and the local bird population would be flourish.  But the difference between Ottawa and Fort Worth is this: no one where I now live would comply, and enforcement would be next to impossible.  And any politician who tried to impose laws limiting Texan's freedom--even if it's freedom to use up a scarce resource or let pests run free--would be drummed out of office, no matter what ticket he or she had been elected on. 

I got rid of the ferals in what I consider a particularly Texan way: my neighbor helped me.  He is an outdoorsman who sells hunting equipment to companies like Cabela's.  His family owns a big ranch a couple of hours outside of town, and he drives one of those tricked-out pickups.  Graduates of TCU, he and his young wife are just lovely.  Also, he has deer guts just around and knows how to use live traps.  He caught no fewer than four of the feral beasts and took them to the ranch to be mousers.  He also has a chicken.  Yes, a chicken, now that the ferals are gone, as the first chicken he had was eaten by a feral and he had a vendetta.  I'm certainly not calling the authorities, as I am holding out for fresh eggs.  And he is my neighbor, a bond not taken lightly here in the Lone Star State.

As for me, I continue to be a committed recycler.  I also keep my thermostat at a conservative 78 degrees in summer--given that it's already 103 outside, it's nowhere near ambient but that would be miserable--and don't run the dryer or the dishwasher at peak hours.  Because I choose to.  Not because the government tells me to.  Guess I've officially gone native.