Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Empty Chair

I went down into the basement tonight after dinner, and--without thinking about it--expected to see Sam sitting at the computer, either doing homework or (more likely) cubing.  But he wasn't there. The chair was empty.

This is, actually, normal. Sam helps to teach karate classes on Thursdays, so he comes home late that night. But tonight, I felt his absence deeply and painfully.

In just a few years, that chair will be empty all of the time (at least, empty of Sam). My son will be a college freshman. I won't see him every day. I probably won't talk with him every day. I won't be able to gauge his moods or help him to manage his time or make sure he gets up for school. I won't be able to hug or comfort him when he is sad. I won't be privy to his daily joys and victories. Will he keep in touch regularly? Will I have done a good enough job as his mother that he will decide to keep me in his life when he has a choice in the matter? (Am I the only mother who wonders about that? I love these kids so dearly, but I am so flawed and imperfect.)

I won't be able to help monitor his diabetes, or provide instant back-up with it if he needs help. I won't be able to protect him from the overwhelm of the semester, or the pressures of making all new friends and finding a place for himself on campus. 

In short, I will feel his absence like a wound, and I won't be able to keep him medically, physically, or emotionally safe. I will be proud of him, I am sure, and maybe I will sometimes relish new-found freedom. But it will take a long time to fill that gaping hole, to stop noticing the empty chair. 

This has been on my mind a lot lately because Sam turns 15 next week. But it's plaguing me today, because we learned that a freshman at my university was found unresponsive in his or her dorm room...and died. I don't yet know what happened, or who it was. But something, somehow, went terribly wrong, and somewhere--not far from me--parents are living their worst nightmare. 

My heart breaks for them. They can't fill the empty chair anymore, ever. 

Maybe all we can do is to remember to love and appreciate what we have right now, mindful that the only thing we can rely on is that everything changes. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What He Still Gives to Me

Today would have been my father's 96th birthday.  I've been thinking about him on and off all day. I'm so much his daughter--mostly in ways that I never wanted to be. I can be stubborn, and too hard on both myself and others. I am passionate about my convictions and will argue with almost anyone about them (though not usually if they agree with me, which my Dad was quite likely to do).  I'm cranky when it's hot out, and mosquitoes love me (that makes me crankier.)

But I am also his daughter in other, better ways. I earnestly want to do what's right and have a strong sense of fairness.  If I have a choice between doing the right or honest thing and personal benefit, I will (almost always) choose what's right.  I believe that I should do whatever I can to fulfill a promise that I make (including deadlines).  I also love being at home and puttering around--one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend afternoon is cooking at leisure. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how my Dad accepted that he was...well, just an ordinary guy.  Working in academia, it's hard to keep that kind of attitude. Everyone wants to be recognized, respected...special.  I mean, I have done my part and contributed to my field with original research and publications.  After all, I did publish a monograph (and might publish a second), and my pedagogical publications will probably have a broader impact than any specifically scholarly pieces. But I am not a "top tier" researcher.  For a long time I felt like that meant I didn't measure up.  In recent years, I've been rethinking that and trying to see my accomplishments as "good enough."

My limited contributions to academia also result from the fact that I chose to focus on other parts of my life.  I chose to take more weekends off. I chose to spend time with my husband and kids. I chose to have hobbies. I chose to read novels entirely unrelated to my work. I chose quiet evenings because if I don't get enough "down time," I get really overwhelmed and unhappy.  Even within my work, I often chose to spend more time on my teaching than on my research. 

In short, like my father, I chose direct commitments (to my students), the love and warmth of family, and ordinary moments of beauty over "getting ahead."  And at 50, I find that, like my father, I'm glad that I did. 

I don't know how much longer I'm going to stay in academia.  I've been wallowing in indecision over whether to quit for about five years now. I hate feeling stuck like this, unable to make up my mind. But lately I've been thinking about how, even if I make this decision, I won't know what's coming next. Life doesn't work that way.  And whether I stay at my job or leave it, I will have a lot of choice about how I will fill my days.  I'm very fortunate to have such flexibility. In part, this is due to our good luck to be in a decent shape financially. It's also because I am a tenured full professor who has a lot of power to shape what my work looks like. 

But it's also thanks to my Dad, who taught me (with his actions, not words) what it means to live a meaningfully authentic ordinary life.

I miss you, Dad. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Her Mother's Daughter

Today in her fifth-grade class, Anya's teacher had the kids read "The Little Mermaid" and write about/discuss what they observed in the story. Anya said that Ariel shouldn't have given up her whole life for some guy.

The teacher didn't know what to make of her. I simply couldn't be more proud. After all, I was the one who got labeled a "feminist" at age 18--before I had come to self-identify as one--just because I thought it was stupid that women who did the same jobs as men got paid less. 

Lately, I've become convinced that Anya is either going to ditch college and meet life on her own terms OR get a Ph.D. (or M.F.A.). Time will tell. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Holiday Presents

When I was little, my mother used a numbering (or lettering) system to label Christmas presents.  Apparently, at some point she got tired of her many children shaking presents with their names on them and guessing what they’d been given. If she numbered them, she figured, she would thwart her children’s tendency to spoil the surprises she had planned for them.  I should note here that my mother also thought she would conserve cake from my siblings’ voracious teen-aged appetites by freezing it.  This ploy failed when my brothers and sisters discovered the frozen cake is still tasty and ate it anyway.  Similarly, her present numbering system didn’t always turn out quite as she had planned.  One particularly memorable year my mother lost her list altogether and couldn’t remember whose present was whose.  So, she had each of us open a present with a different number so that she could figure out what her system had been.  It was a typical Mum kind of moment: her own scheme backfiring on her, with much laughter ensuing—and all wrapped up (or unwrapped, as it were) with a pragmatic solution.  It was interesting, though, that first round of presents: whenever you opened something, you knew that you were likely uncovering a surprise for someone other than yourself.   

My mother’s desire to protect secrecy in the holiday season was almost certainly related to the fact that money was tight.  My father worked as a machinist for Gorton’s seafood, and there wasn’t much wiggle room in the household budget.  This required that my mother work creatively with limited resources to make Christmas morning special for all eight of her children.  She was good at that, as she was with so many of the challenges of raising children on a shoestring (while still making all of us feel loved).  One of her talents was, simply, that she paid attention

I’m not sure if I ever gave my mother a list of things that I wanted for Christmas, or for my birthday. But she knew, and more often than not the thing/s I wanted the most were there. She just always noticed and remembered the things that we all liked, and she could tell what we wanted most. Even when we wanted something that stretched her financially, she usually found a way. There are pictures of my sister Chris with a guitar in hand when she was about 15 or 16. Guitars weren’t cheap, but she wanted one so badly—and my mother simply couldn’t resist the chance to make her happy.  Something similar happened when I was in high school.  There was a leather goods store in town, and I coveted a leather backpack.  But, it was pricey. I can’t recall now how much it cost, exactly, but I know it was more than I thought my parents could afford. Yet somehow, it ended up in a box under the Christmas tree. I had that backpack until about 5 or 6 years ago, when it finally gave out altogether.  More than the bag itself, it was the memory of my mother finding a way to afford it, just to make me happy, that made it special to me. 

My Dad had his moments, too.  One year—mind you, this was back in the 1980s (otherwise the story doesn’t make sense)—Dad copied my favorite Christmas movie, which at the time was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” onto a VHS tape for me. But he didn’t want to leave the commercials in, so he borrowed my brother Steve’s VCR for a day, connected it with his, and then went through the whole movie and cut every commercial.  Then, of course, he put it into my stocking as nonchalantly as possible…because, you know, Dad didn’t admit to feelings very well.

When I had kids, I remembered how all this felt…but I also knew that we are fortunate enough that my kids would not have to think “Oh, my parents can’t afford that.”  I’m grateful for that, but wanted to instill in them the wonder of giving that I learned growing up.  Thus Home-made Present Night of Hanukkah was born.  And every year, it is the home-made presents that my kids give the most time to thinking about, especially in giving to others.

I guess I did something right along the way, then. 

(me, probably when I was not quite 2 years old?)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Days of the Week

My life is falling into daily patterns of late: 

  • Many Meetings Mondays (How can a day without classes be that busy?)
  • Focused on Classes Tuesdays
  • Bad Language Wednesdays (coined with Martina)
  • Truly Tired Thursdays (typically without time to breathe, and all too often finding me on the late train home)
  • Full of Hope Fridays (hoping I won't have to go to campus, hoping to get enough work done to take the weekend off...)
  • Domestic Saturdays (cleaning, shopping, cooking)
  • Seeking Balance Sundays (taking them off if I can, getting ready for the work week if I must)

My family life is falling into some of these patterns too.  We have:
  • Dr. Who Sundays
  • I don't want to go to school Mondays.
  • Taco Tuesdays (but only on occasion)
  • Pasta Wednesdays (Every Wednesday. Remember Anthony?)
  • There is no Thursday theme, even on occasion. (Or, I don't think there is. I might be too tired to notice. See above.)
  • Friday Family Movie Nights
  • And back to Domestic Saturdays
I think that these patterns either reveal my coping mechanisms in a life that's too full...or just that I've finally lost my senses altogether.  

Now, if I can just get that damned conference paper revised...oh, wait: that can't happen until after finals...
(Note that I am allowed to say "damned" because it's Bad Language Wednesday.)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On the Eve of Hanukkah

This weekend--in order:
1) Anya brought home an eyeball on a stick. I thought it was inspired.

2) The barbie-type dolls hung out with a Dalek. I found it interesting that the Dalek seemed to be playing therapist to one of them.

3) As long as I had my camera in the girl child's room, I took a few pictures of one of the Lego Twin Cities. They've grown over time. (Pretend you can't see the dust in that second city photo...)

4) She looked at the Josefina doll in the catalog and exclaimed "My name is Josefina Montoya. You killed my father--prepare to die."  I couldn't be more proud.  (Do you know the scene from this movie?)

5) I cooked some meals for freezing from this workshop.  I thought I could never enjoy it with this timing--we're at the end of the semester and everything is crazy.  As it turns out, the workshop has given me something to be excited about even before all the exams and papers are graded.  (Mind you, I am still living for the end of the semester, but at least I can think about something other than that once in a while.)

6) Hanukkah began tonight!  First up: Smart Phones for all. Yes, I've entered the 21st century, albeit somewhat reluctantly. (I am excited about the photos I can take with this camera, though...)

Happy Hanukkah!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November Rain

So, I did get a few work monkeys off my back on this rainy day. But this afternoon? I took a 1.5 hour bath instead of grading response papers.