Saturday, September 25, 2010

Help Wanted

I’m always surprised (not to mention really humbled and flattered) when people ask me for help with their problems or say they got good advice from my blog rants. I guess I feel that way because most of the time I’m grappling with so many of my own issues, I can’t possibly see how I could have any helpful suggestions or advice for anyone else. But recently I realized that in some ways, that’s the point. Because of my personal experience, because I am working through my own marriage, work and family issues or ranting about what’s going on in our nation and our world, my efforts to try to understand and make sense of it all for myself, is what helps me empathize or give advice to someone else.

We all want help with the issues challenging us, no matter where we are on our life journey. Everyone - regardless of age, race, gender, economic status or political persuasion – seeks answers to the things that confront and occasionally confound us in our lives.

I started thinking about some of the things people have asked me about over the years – some seeking answers, some venting, others needing a shoulder to cry on. The questions ran the gambit from marriage, divorce, family and work life issues to concerns about child rearing, schools and developmental milestones. I’ve had men and women (who in some cases I barely knew) confide in me and ask about fertility concerns, substance abuse, grief issues, domestic violence and even whether or not they should consider aborting a pregnancy that was the result of a one night stand. (I’ve come to think I must be the kind of person, like bartenders and hairdressers, who people feel comfortable confiding in, either that or I'm just way too into hearing everyone else's business!) More recently, the concerns of the sandwich generation seem to echo in my ears, just as I’m feeling like the cheddar in a grilled cheese sandwich myself. I even had someone ask me a financial question, which if you saw my last Amex statement you’d know why that is ludicrous – that question I farmed out to a good financial planner. Oh, and the fashion questions…really, fashion??? I can hear my friend Allison laughing now…given that I missed that day of instruction at girl boot camp and that my idea of dressing up is changing into a clean pair of sweat pants and a headband which isn’t stained with perspiration, fashion questions are ones I’ve never tried to field.

I think having these conversations with others is something I have been able to do, benefited from doing, and hopefully was able to be helpful doing is because in most cases I have (or someone close to me has) gone through these issues before. I’ve done my own research and fact finding, and asked myself the same hard questions I needed to in order to empower myself to help myself. Some of the issues I've been successful at addressing, others are challenges I continue to try to work through. But from my experiences, I have been able to pass whatever I had learned to someone else dealing with one of life’s many questions, both important and trivial. BTW, one of the reasons I love talking to really old people is because I think, for the most part, they have a fabulous perspective on life, having spent so many years living it. They generally seem nonplussed by things that make the rest of us rush for the Zoloft.

I really think all these tv, radio, newspaper, internet advice givers are, in a more formal way, really just the 21st century version of neighbors talking over the back yard fence, sharing ideas and common sense. We’re making suggestions, giving tips, and providing advice that will help point us towards the tools, resources and courage we need to help ourselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ten Back-to-School Tips You Really Need

Okay, so here are my 10 back to school tips that I’ve learned now that the first week of school is over:

1. Try not to forget the first homework assignment (completed ahead of time) on the front hall table.

2. Stash jackets (that fit) in the trunk of your car so that when your kids walk out of the house without jackets and insist they are warm until the moment you arrive at school and they are suddenly freezing, you will have something to put on them other than the 2T jacket (and diapers and wipes) you had stored in the car for them when they were toddlers but hadn't bothered to replace since then.

3. Don’t piss off your kid’s new teacher by asking them too many questions on the first day of school.

4. Don’t piss off the office staff by handing them too many forms on the first day of school.

5. Avoid other parents who are trying to find out if your kid did better than theirs on the spring standardized tests.

6. Don’t buy back-to-school supplies just because you’re in Target and everyone else in the world is there buying them. You’ll only be upset when your kid gets to school and you learn that the teachers have already provided everything your kid needs that was in Target on sale.

7. Don’t bother trying to explain to your child why cold grilled cheese sandwiches do not make good school lunches.

8. Remember that everything your kid is raving about now (how cool their new teacher is, how great their classmates are, how little homework there is) will soon be replaced by how tough and unfair their teacher is and how much drama there is with his/her classmates and how there is too much homework.

9. Remember that everything your kid was complaining about before will be replaced at the end of the year by how cool their teacher is (again) and how great their classmates are (again) and how the homework wasn’t that bad (again).

10. Have a glass of wine on Friday after school. The week is over. Two days until Monday and it all starts again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The End of Things

I don’t like endings. My mother always said you should look at an ending as an opportunity for a new beginning. She was frequently optimistic like that. I am not. I face newness with hesitation. I hate for things to end, not only because of the sadness of the loss, but because of the uncertainty that lies ahead. Summer is ending, kids are going back to school – new teacher, new classroom of friends, new set of parents, new academic challenges. This is my daughter’s last year in elementary school. That phase of her life is ending and in addition to heading into middle school and all the associated anxiety that goes along with that process – deciding where to go, which program best suits her, which school is good, affordable and geographically desirable and won’t require us to camp out overnight on the street to get her a permit to attend (seriously, it’s an option) – what will truly be ending is her time as a little girl. She’ll be diving head first into tweendom, complete with changing hormones and that teenage cockiness and confidence which can only come with a considerable lack of knowledge about how things really work. Although she’s not even a tween yet, I can see sparks of it already. From her eyeing my spot in the driver’s seat and envisioning herself there, to her new and growing love of phone, text and email, to the look of her face and body which no longer resemble the baby faced toddler who used to bounce on the sofa and sing along with Blues Clues.

I always get somewhat wistful around this time of year. I don’t like to see summer end, I never have. I don’t really relish endings of any kind. Once I get into a groove, I like it there. It is comfortable and secure and routine. That works for me. But endings mean change and that’s something I’ve never been fond of.

Endings in all possible variations are tough, and yet as mom said, they are really beginnings. Endings bring change. The changes may not feel desirable or even possible at first, but often, in retrospect, we realize that the changes were not only for the best, but that they were required to take us forward to the next step, to show us that we can cope and stand up and meet any challenge that change may bring. Seasons, school years, jobs, marriages, childhoods, relationships, lives – they all start and often end too soon and never in the way we planned or even expected.

There have been so many endings around me lately, not only my own, but for my friends and family. Sometimes I wonder how we’re all coping with the chaos caused by those changes. Then I started noticing how a friend who was dealt a terrible blow in her life, an ending that I can barely imagine dealing with, was moving on. In the face of an awful situation, she was okay, she was helping her children be okay, she was using the change to motivate her to step out of where she had been in life, where in fact she had felt stuck, and move on. I asked her how she continued to go to bed in the morning and get up at night. She smiled and joked, “…with lots of medications and a glass of merlot.” But stimulants aside, she said that despite what had happened, the ending which had turned her life upside down, she was oddly optimistic. She saw the ending as a beginning.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wedding Band: Lost and Found

Less than two weeks before our 12th anniversary, and less than a mile away from where we exchanged vows, while stretched out on a sandy beach enjoying some (very) rare childless time, my husband lost his wedding band in the sand. Earlier, I noticed him wearing it on his pinkie finger instead of his ring finger and teased him, joking that he was trying to erase the tan line. He gave me a crooked smile, and then rolled over to tan his other side and put on his noise canceling (aka) wife canceling earphones while I went back to reading my mystery novel.

We were on our second day of vacation and it was the first opportunity we’d had to get to the beach. We were alone – something that in the last nine years since having kids, almost never happens. So when the grandparents offered to take our girls, we jumped at the chance for some grown up downtime. After a few hours, we realized we needed to get back to the house to relieve the grands, so David got up and started to brush sand off of his legs. But the brushing motion caused his wedding ring to fly off of his little finger and into the sand.

The moment the ring hit the sand, it vanished. David stood motionless, fearing that if he moved his feet, he might step on it and bury it further. At first, I didn’t know why he was standing there, legs apart, frozen. Then I saw the naked finger on his left hand and immediately started scouring the ground with my eyes for something small and gold glinting through the sand.

Two retired ladies seated not too far from us put down their summer reads and asked what was wrong. The moment I explained that my husband had lost his wedding band, one of them asked if we were newlyweds. David and I both laughed. Almost 12 years into it, the honeymoon had been feeling over for sometime now. “Newlyweds or not,” the retired lady said, “It’s a wedding ring, it means something, and we have to get it back.”

My cousin Karen, an engineer, joined us at the beach and helped in the search, making suggestions on the direction the ring might have gone based on the motion of his hands. Next, a father of a young boy stopped their beach football game and they both joined in the hunt. Another man came over and shared his strategy for searching, warning that if we didn’t find the ring by high tide, it might wash out to sea.

David knew I was truly upset because of what I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t yelling or saying I told you so, I wasn’t nagging him about why he was wearing the ring on the wrong finger in the first place. He explained that he put his ring on his little finger because it had been feeling tight (the result of vacation noshing) and that he had moved it to his little finger so he would be more comfortable. I was surprised at how deeply I was saddened by the loss of his gold band. After all, it was just a piece of metal. I could be replaced, right? But it wasn’t just metal, it was more than that. I continued to search frantically, in silence, and pushed back my sunglasses so no one could see that I was about to cry.

Forty minutes later, we were still searching. We had to get home. I gave up and as we headed back to the car, told David to call our insurance company, tell them what happened and see if and for how much we were covered.

On the ride home, I realized how close this was to our anniversary, that we were on Martha’s Vineyard where we got married, and that the minister who married us might even be on the island and willing to remarry us. I had wanted to renew our vows on our tenth anniversary when we went to Hawaii, but David had been hesitant, didn’t understand why we needed to, saying, “We’re already married, why do we need to do it again?” His response disappointed me. Maybe he didn’t need to, but I wanted to, and that should have been enough for him, but it wasn’t. So I said aloha to my dream Hawaiian vow renewal.

But now, it seemed that the marriage gods were in collusion – the lost ring, the location, the timing, there was no way he could say no this time. That night I fell asleep planning the where, when and how of the renewal ceremony – when would we get the new ring and have it engraved, what bouquets of wild flowers would I carry, what would I dress the girls in given that I’d packed them nothing but shorts and t-shirts for days at the beach and quiet family nights at home playing scrabble. I wanted us to say our vows in the historic campground just outside the church where we’d actually gotten married. The campground is surrounded by tall trees, has a grassy lawn and is circled by quaint and colorful gingerbread cottages which haven’t changed much in over 150 years. It would be simple and perfect – a wonderful place to rededicate our vows. It would be a chance to recommit ourselves to our marriage and to each other, to rekindle the devotion and passion which, although may not have eroded over the years since we said “I do” the first time, have definitely been strained by the day-to-day of being together, being parents, taking care of house and health, and following our own individual goals. The lost ring was a chance to find each other again.

The next morning, David got up and left the house early – something which is very rare, especially on vacation when he likes to sleep in until ten or eleven. He went back to the beach to search one last time before calling the insurance company. He hoped that maybe the tide had come in and made the ring more visible.

Instead of being gone for an hour, David was gone for three, interrupting the plans we had for the day. Usually, that would have pissed me off, but I knew what he was doing, even though I thought it was futile. A ring lost in sand was the beachy equivalent of a needle in a haystack. We waited, but finally, kids bouncing off the walls, I packed a picnic lunch and took my youngest daughter to a different beach to go swimming. We were in the water when David arrived. He was talking to us for several minutes, explaining why he had been gone so long when I realized that the ring was back on his finger! He explained that he went to the police station to see if they could help and they told him where to get a metal detector. He’d driven half way up island, rented it, returned to the beach and started to look again, but still couldn’t find it. As he was about to pack it up and go, a man approached him and offered to help. The man explained that metal detectors were tricky and that even if you didn’t know what you were looking for or where it was, there were subtle nuances in knowing how to look in order to find what you wanted. Within a few minutes, this stranger helped David zero in on his ring. The machine beeped rapidly and David dug a few inches or so down into the salt and pepper, pebbly sand and there it was, a braided gold ring with David’s initials and our wedding date engraved on it. David admitted that he went back to try to find the lost wedding ring again not so much to avoid a renewal ceremony – although I’m sure that was part of it – but because he knew how much it meant to me and how hurt I was that he’d lost it.

As we all rode home from the beach that afternoon, the girls in the backseat, covered in sand, their bodies tanned despite the SPF 50, singing along to the music pounding in the car, I looked over at David, wearing the wedding ring I’d given him a dozen years ago. It was sparkling in the sun as he drove, one hand on the wheel, the other hand thumbing his iPod like a happy DJ eager to fulfill yet another a song request on the kiddie playlist he’d lovingly and painstakingly created for our daughters, and I realized I didn’t need to renew my vows either. Losing the ring was like finding the things that were good and valuable to me about my marriage all over again. When David lost the ring, and we started looking for it, it was just like using the metal detector, sometimes you don’t even know what it is you are looking for or what you will find. What I found wasn’t a ring at all, it was a reminder of the importance of our marriage, our feelings towards each other, our commitment to our family. Finding the lost ring, was finding each other. And it didn’t take a renewal ceremony to do that. Yes, I’d still like to renew our vows one day, but I don’t need to…Maybe on our 30th anniversary…or if I lose my ring next summer.