Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

It wasn't the first time a driver was caught with an open container. That, in itself, was clearly not newsworthy.

What turned heads is that the offender was the township's police chief. And the director of the local school's D.A.R.E. program.

Move over, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. You've both been dethroned, at least in northwest Ohio, as this year's Most Disgraced Role Model.

None of us is a saint. As anyone who even peripherally knows me can attest, I will never be canonized. Like most of my similarly aged friends though, I left behind the biggest sins of wayward youth when I took the Vow of Parenthood. The majority of us morphed into respectable, law-abiding citizens. We wanted to be good parents, and that includes being proper role models.

So we try to teach our children to abide by the law by staying within the boundaries ourselves. We teach them a work ethic by dragging ourselves to our jobs each day, even when we're dead-tired. We teach them healthy habits by eating all the vegetables on our plate. (Lima beans? I admit parental failure here.)

By laying down some basic rules and by following those standards ourselves, we hope we're teaching them right from wrong. Yet what's easy for us to overlook are the subtleties in parenting, the daily behaviors we seldom realize they are observing.

The parent who screams at his ten-year-old's referee can guarantee he's raising a bully. The parent who lies to the PTA to avoid volunteering at a school function can't expect her child to be truthful about his Saturday night whereabouts when he's sixteen. The parent who can't make the time to visit an elderly relative will one day find himself old--and quite likely, very alone.

How we behave in the seemingly insignificant moments of our daily lives doesn't go unregistered in our children's minds. While we're teaching them respect for the law and a tolerance for lima beans, perhaps we should be focusing equally on how we behave when we forget our children may be watching.

Virtues aren't commodities we can select for our children from the shelf at Target. We can't just buy them the gifts of patience, honesty and compassion, and hope these things will one day simply fit. And our children won't buy it themselves, unless they've seen us wearing the stuff first.

We can't count on others to always point them in the right direction either. My guess is that D.A.R.E. officer did a respectable job of teaching the children well throughout her carefully planned curriculum. Unfortunately, she didn't think about her actions when she thought no one was watching.

We're not fully responsible for how our children turn out. Even a perfect parent, as elusive and unlikely a possibility as that is, will raise imperfect children. We will make mistakes, and our children will make their own.

As role models, all parents can do is hope for the best. And hope our children emulate the best they see in us--even when we think they're not watching.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Down But Not Out

I cancelled my dinner plans. The only kind of dinner I wanted was one where I answered the greeting of an imaginary hostess with, "The name's Pity. Party of one."

The day started out a downer and never found its way uphill. Some unwelcomed news from the professional front. Frustration in the family arena. Worries about an issue beyond my control. (And this is the only kind of issue really worthy of worry, because if we could control the issue, then we'd simply find a way to resolve it, wouldn't we?)

Looking for a quick fix, I noted on my Facebook page that "My smile is upside down today," and I solicited attempts to make me laugh.

A number of friends emailed me or posted responses. Several made me smile. One made me laugh out loud. (Note to any of you whose own smile is currently upside down: Have you tried standing on your head?)

And one person made a statement which left me pondering. "Hope your smile is turning," she wrote. "I know how it is. Sometimes I find if you fake it enough, you will forget it's fake."

Her words have stuck with me for days.

I am not, by nature, a pessimist. As I've posted here before, I generally see myself as a realist, with a few spoonfuls of optimism sprinkled on top. Even so, aren't we all prone to occasional periods of self-pity and blue funk?

Yet if we dwell on the negative too long, it's likely we will become immersed in it.

I'm not saying we should ignore the truly worry-worthy issues in our lives, or overlook prolonged periods of sadness or stress. Death, divorce and other life-altering experiences require more than a mere attitude adjustment. And I've known many clinically depressed people in my life. In cases like these, putting one's head in the sand may provide a temporarily warm and comforting retreat. But the end result is unhealthy.

Much of the stuff that gets us down, however, are the tiny nuances of life. The Bad Shit that consequently makes it a Bad Day or even a Bad Week. Personal setbacks are frustrating. We have a tendency to let even the little things, like stalled traffic or a co-worker's criticism, turn our smiles upside down. And not just for the duration of the actual experience, but for a long, lingering period afterward.

Forcing a smile when we're down might sound senseless or even insincere. But perhaps happiness is like any other state of achievement: like learning to drive a car, mastering a new language, or playing the piano.

If we practice long enough at being happy, just maybe we'll get better at it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Just the Ticket

Always the wise investor, I've been ardently timing the market. Consequently, I decided now was the right moment to plop down a dollar for Tuesday's $88 million Mega Millions jackpot.

Being a pragmatist as well, I figured it best to plan ahead what to do with my winnings before my life's consumed with accountant meetings and media interviews.

First off, let me say I'm not one of those unconscientious winners who just won't show up to work the next day. I will head into my office Wednesday morning like I have every day since I joined the working class. Then I will collect my family photos and mug warmer (which doubles as a nifty can cooler), gloat among my co-workers for a half hour or so and say See Ya.

I will stop at the gas station to fill up my car with Premium (just because I can). While I am nonchalantly observing the gas pump reach triple figures, I will make a call to the housecleaning service I recently felt fiscally obligated to cancel. I will inform them they should start again tomorrow, or today if possible. And, while they're at it, do they have any cleaning connections for my new vacation homes in New England and the Carolinas?

My phone call will be inevitably interrupted by calls from the local TV stations. I will have to oblige them for interviews. This is unfortunate, since I can now afford everything except the extra ten pounds the camera puts on you. Not an issue for the future, since I will soon be hiring the best damn personal trainer in the midwest. I will be sure to compensate him so well that he can't dare chastise me on the days I feel lazy.

After leaving the gas station, I will stop to pick up some treats for Ringo and the Cat Colony. After all, everyone should share in the celebration. One of the local pet rescue agencies will be holding an adoptathon, so I will pick up a playmate or two for Ringo and a couple more cats. People will start to call me the Crazy Cat Lady. But I am a multimillionaire, so I laugh off their insults. I call them trailer trash.

However, I won't forget the little people who were, and still remain, my friends and family. I'm rich but I'm not arrogant. If Paris Hilton calls me to go shopping, I'll tell her I already have plans. If George Clooney invites me to Lake Como for the weekend... Well, I can hang with my friends next weekend, right?

Wealth and fame haven't changed me a bit, I realize as I stop at an exquisite little restaurant for a lunch of butter-drenched lobster. Now, there's just more of me to love. At least until the IRS and my new personal trainer get a hold of me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reflections on a Reunion

A few of us remembered everyone. Everyone remembered at least a few of us. Some of us suspected a couple of us never even attended our school, and showed up here as alumni wannabes because our class, clearly, was All That.

Many of us looked markedly different. Several were easily recognizable. A few looked inconceivably young or just really damn good. We empathized and sympathized with the heavier, the grayer, the balding, because that was most of us. We tried not to hate those who looked better than we did.

Most of us appeared to have done reasonably well. Some accomplished great success in profitable or fascinating careers. A handful hadn't fared as well.

Eleven of us have died. Few of us were spared the loss of at least one close friend.

The multitude of us have lost one or even both parents. A number have parents who are ailing or impaired. All of us agreed we wished we'd appreciated them more.

The majority of us have grown, or nearly grown, children. Several of us are grandparents. Some are still raising small children, even younger than others' grandchildren. We who are empty-nesters nodded in recognition at each others' contradictory sentiments of relief and weepiness.

Several of us still live within blocks of our old high school. Many converged upon the Toledo suburbs. Others scattered to the coasts or to far-off places like Germany and Australia. Those of us who remained midwesterners were thankful to still have family and old friends nearby, but were envious of the others' adventurous lives.

Many of us made each other laugh with nostalgic high school tales. A handful prompted us to grow somber, through stories of the bumps in their life's journey. Some of us wished we were still back in high school. Others were grateful to have moved on.

Most of us who were wild and reckless teenagers have morphed into respectable and more conservative adults. A portion of us never made the transition. Nearly all of us still feel sixteen in our hearts.

Very few of us left early. Most stuck around until forced to leave. A good number of us continued the conversation and camaraderie at a nearby bar, disregarding the toll it would take the next day on our not-so-sixteen-year-old bodies.

And when the lights were turned out, and we walked across the parking lot to our cars, two things remained clear.

We had all changed. And we had all remained the same.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Final Goodbyes

It wasn't the kind of goodbye I envisioned.

I knew saying goodbye was inevitable, once the plastic tubs crammed with clothes and electronic equipment and a thoughtfully packed first-aid kit were unloaded from the van, once the futon and lofts were assembled and arranged, and once $400 worth of textbooks were procured (and most thankfully, paid by a blank check from his father). We'd enjoy one last supper together, not really tasting the bites of sandwiches consumed amidst our animated discussion about the campus and classes and crew practice.

And then, before I left for the long drive home, we'd have our goodbye scene. I'd offer a farewell speech, peppered with insightful parental advice, and we'd have lengthy mutual proclamations of love. It would end with a final hug on the sidewalk in front of his dorm.

But dinner ran late, and he had just minutes to make it to a mandatory student orientation meeting. I pulled up in front of the classroom building. He eyed the clock in the car--two minutes to get inside and find the room. He opened the car door and quickly slammed it shut.

No opportunity for any of the elements of the scene I'd already drafted in my mind.

"Good luck, honey," I told him. How did I condense a ten-minute speech into thirty seconds? "I'll miss you."

"I know." He offered a sympathetic smile. "I'll miss you too."

"So, see you in six weeks."

"Yep." He glanced toward the building and gave me a quick wave before backing away. "Love you," he yelled.

"Love you too," I called after him. But he was already several feet away, his back turned to me.

I inched forward before the line of cars behind me honked and I was forced to hit the accelerator. My last glimpse of him was a fleeting image, through the open car window, as he raced toward the building.

"Just as well," my sister told me the next day. "Short and sweet is better than a long painful goodbye."

Perhaps she's right, I thought. Although even short goodbyes can still be painful, at least they preclude massive emissions of tears. And I'd promised myself on the drive to Milwaukee that I couldn't cry.

For several weeks leading up to this, I prepared myself for a tear-filled farewell. It was, after all, the Ritual of the Strings-Cutting Parent. Particularly in the case of a youngest child, it was normal. It was justified.

But nothing makes you reassess your own life more than someone else's death.

Three days before our departure, a boy down the street was killed in a car accident.

He, too, had just graduated from high school and was preparing to head off to college. He, too, was the youngest of two children. While his parents had been helping him plan and pack for the start of his new life, on a campus three hours away, I'm sure they were filled with excitement, trepidation and grief at the idea of him leaving for school.

But in the instant it takes for an out-of-control car to strike a tree, their grief was the only emotion that remained.

Jake would be starting college next week. The event is probably still scribbled on a family calendar. No doubt it is etched upon his parents' minds.

I'm certain they would welcome, so very gladly, the opportunity now to see him off to college. To hear him say, "I love you," before they drove away, perhaps teary-eyed but knowing they'd see him again in six weeks.

As I maneuvered my way out of downtown Milwaukee that day, leaving behind my child to live the life yet awaiting him, I did cry.

But not for the reasons I once imagined.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Top Ten Reasons Not to Clean Your House

10) Dirty windows prevent the neighbors from seeing you walk around in your underwear.
9) Pethair-covered bedsheets provide insulation on cool fall nights.
8) Wouldn't you think the water in a bathtub would WASH the damn thing?
7) Making the bed is so 1950.
6) With kitchen tables, who really needs a floor so clean you could eat off it?
5) Running a vacuum sweeper in today's energy-conscious society just seems wrong.
4) Dust particles, to an artist's eye, are probably aesthetically pleasing.
3) Nothing says Home Sweet Home like sticky pancake syrup on the counter.
2) You've put the clothes in the washer; you've put them in the dryer; so where's the machine that will fold and put them away?
1) Toilets, by design, are meant to be dirty.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Reckless Driving

She still has perfect skin--she's a woman young enough to be raised with the discipline of SPF 30, yet old enough to realize the leatherizing effects of tanning beds. Her figure's not burdened with a middle-aged middle, yet rounded in the places that catch a mature man's eyes. She's educated and engaging and everything, at least to an outside observer, that might be what it takes to attract men.

The question isn't why she might have this guy's attention, but should she be getting serious about him already?

"My divorce was just final six months ago," she confides, "and I've been dating this guy for the last three. Do you think I'm ready for a serious relationship?"

I gather my best Ann Landers wisdom and contemplate this. "Do you feel ready?" (Effective, yes? This therapist strategy of throwing the question back at the patient?)

She sighs. "I'm definitely over my ex, and this guy seems really great. I know it seems soon, but he's already mentioned marriage. And I think he's just what I need."

OW. I feel the blood trickling down my chin as I bite my tongue, fighting from shouting the words that so want to come to my lips: "NO, RUN! RUN NOW!"

But instead, I simply and calmly nod. "Of course that's appealing. And comforting, right now. But maybe," I tell my thirtyish friend who's dated little since her divorce and only had one other "serious" relationship before she married her college sweetheart, "maybe it is just a bit too soon."

The "need" word clinched it for me.

Being open to a New and Improved Relationship after a failed one is probably healthy. I'm not knocking companionship, and I have nothing--not a thing--against great sex. But my experience with many divorced friends and relatives is that too many confuse normal desire with need. And "need" demands urgency.

The result is that women who've never before had--or haven't given themselves the opportunity to redevelop--a sense of independence, are sucked into a new and ultimately unhealthy relationship.

I call it the Air Bag Relationship.

It's the relationship they think will save them when their life has crashed around them. The one they feel will cushion and rescue them from needless trauma and suffering.

Air bags are designed to save lives, but you can't fully count on them. If you put all your faith in an air bag, yet drive recklessly and at too fast a speed, it may do no good at all.

In come cases, with all its power, it suffocates you.

Needy women who haven't taken the time--or haven't worked to muster the strength--to be on their own after a painful split-up, are too often crushed by Air Bag Relationships. Dependent relationships, to which they are drawn due to need and insecurity, frequently do more damage than good.

Some women subconsciously embrace dependency. For others, simply putting all their hopes and confidence into being rescued, even while they drive recklessly and too fast, ultimately ends tragically anyway.

I hope, as I watch my young friend walk away, that she's intelligent and intuitive and independent enough to clearly see the road ahead of her.

And that she's one hell of a driver.