Monday, November 30, 2009

Be a Man

If I could teach a boy to be a man, I'd tell him to play football. Or to take up theater instead, if he preferred (just not simultaneously in the end-zone, unless he's looking for a 15-yard penalty).

I'd tell him flowers are always, always good. Sending them for no reason at all? Even better. And when he's calling the florist, to be sure to remember his mother, too.

I would advise him that a being a father means he should discipline. And he should also hug. That real men know the right moment for each, and that the two actions are not always mutually exclusive.

I'd acknowledge that his mother might have read his mind when he was eight, but that it was probably a fair guess when he wanted an ice cream sundae or was sad about losing his soccer game. Mature men must communicate their feelings and needs--with mature words.

I'd warn him that being career-focused will be an asset, but being career-obsessed to the detriment of the rest of his life will just make him an ass.

I'd tell him to admit when he's wrong; compromise when he should; but not to defer to her for every decision. Being a man does not mean being controlling. It doesn't mean being PW'd either.

I would tell him, when he's grown, to call his father, not just his mother, more often. Mothers often learn to convey their needs by goading and guilting, but fathers miss their children too.

I'd suggest that it's all hunky-dory if she wants to cook and he prefers to mow the lawn, but that stereotypes only work if both partners are stereotypical. And I'd say that raising children is a tag-team sport, even if she happens to be a stay-at-home mom. I'd want him to understand that being tired at 8:30 p.m. is no excuse for skipping his child's bedtime story.

I would want him to know that if his favorite pet dies, tears won't make him less manly--only more human.

I'd tell him that he could ignore all the advice I've offered. But that if he was a man, a real man, he'd at least truly listen and nod his head that he's heard me, before he might disagree.

And then I'd listen to his argument, because I'd like to think I'm both man and woman enough to consider that I might be wrong.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Please Be Seated

When I was growing up, before the creation of diaper division soccer and 12-hour workdays, families had this strange tradition: We sat down and ate dinner together. At home. At the same table. With home-cooked food. Nearly every single night of the week.

At our house, dinner wasn't just an occasion for shoveling in spaghetti (sauce not made by Chef Boyardee but by BoyarDenny or Gloria). It was also a time for each of us to share the highs and lows of our day. In addition, it was our daily opportunity to try to one-up each other in witty repartee. (In the Stanfa household, we usually referred to the dinner hour as Sarcasm Hour. My dad ruled. Still does, I'm sure, at those heavenly feasts he now enjoys.)

When my kids were younger, however, a typical weekday schedule went something more like this:

8 a.m. to 4 p.m.:
Kids off to school; Mom off to work.

4 p.m. to 8 p.m.:
Left work early, using skipped lunch hour to pick up kids from school for appointment with pediatrician/dentist/orthodontist/optometrist/voodoo doctor (these were often desperate times). Waited an hour for ten-minute appointment with doctor. Dropped off one kid at baseball/basketball/sporting practice du jour. Dropped off other kid at guitar/piano/maraca lessons. Picked up both kids from their individual timesucking--make that enriching--activities. Dashed into carryout for several convenience sized boxes of Chewy Chips Ahoy, to arrange nicely on a paper plate for the next day's school bake sale. Assisted kids, as needed, with homework, except for post-sixth grade math which left me clueless. Packed lunches, rewashed mildewing clothes in the washer, failed to locate iron so stapled on merit badges for the next day's Boy Scout ceremony.

9 p.m.:
Tried to concentrate on work project I promised to finish that evening. Argued with kids about getting ready for bed.

10 p.m.:
Gave up on work project. Argued with kids about going to bed.

10:30 p.m.:
Went to bed. Told the kids to lock up.

Anything I've forgotten? Oh, dinner. Yes, not to worry, no children went to bed on empty stomachs in this household. Somewhere between the school parking lot and the I-475 exit ramp, we managed to fit in a delightful dinner. Courtesy of whichever squawking box had the shortest drive-through line.

One the rare Sunday afternoon when we had nothing preempting the 4-7 timeslot, I would try to fit in a Family Dinner. Contrary to my kids' beliefs, I still had the ability, if not the opportunity, to cook. Getting everyone to sit down at the dining room table was a bigger feat though. "Nobody sits together at the table to eat dinner," Son #1 once complained, rolling his eyes. (And when I mentioned this to a group of friends later that week, everyone fell silent before one of them finally nodded and said, "We haven't all sat down to eat together in weeks.")

Now, with neither son at home, one at college six hours away, family dinners have become even more infrequent.

As we sit down for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners this year, I will give thanks that we made it through those chaotic years unscathed and unscurvied. And thankful that now, even if only a few times a year, we can sit together and enjoy the kind of family dinners I once knew. We'll share a bounty of home-cooked food and, I'm certain, share some heartfelt words and some witty banter besides.

And we don't want any fries with that, thank you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top Ten Things Squanto Would Have Told the Pilgrims If He'd Known Better

10) These corn mazes are a blast! And we promise to come find you if you get lost.
9) Trust me, turkey is best cooked really rare.
8) Sure you all get along great here now, but just wait until someone mentions healthcare reform.
7) Oh, a little peace pipe won't hurt you. Here, smoke some more.
6) Freedom of religion? You should really check out Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Boy howdy, is that big over in those places!
5) But the growing season's year-round here! No need to stockpile all that squash and shit.
4) If I were you, I'd write that king of yours and tell him exactly what I think of him.
3) If you think this part of the New World is beautiful, you should go see Canada, eh?
2) Who's up for a game of lawn darts?
1) The tribe has spoken.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

From Hopelessness to Helplessness

Some of them enjoyed the evening by watching college football. Some hung out with friends at a party or at the movies. Some stayed back in their dorm rooms, working feverishly to write the two papers due Monday morning.

None of them anticipated how their seemingly typical Saturday night at the close-knit college, a midwestern Jesuit university, might end.

Because a college freshman isn't supposed to end his own life.

In the midnight moments in which the sirens neared and feet pounded down the dorm's hallways, the unusually warm and beautiful fall night turned to a stark and cold Sunday morning. As the sheet-wrapped body that was their friend was carried from the room, boys who were almost men watched silently. In the wee hours of the morning, almost-men who were yet still boys called home to their mothers.

And mixed in with the continuing deluge of disbelief and grief and horror will be the guilt.

One of the young men will wonder if there wasn't, perhaps, a clue he might have missed in his classmate's words that day. Another will regret not stopping on his way out that night to invite his friend along. A former girlfriend will struggle with the possibility that their recent breakup was ultimately devastating.

What truly drives an 18-year-old, or anyone for that matter, to suicide? Surely it's seldom one incident, or singular discussion, or specific experience. It's likely a culmination that leads to such a vast and overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

But it is that person's momentary and final decision to end their hopelessness which leaves others--many for a lifetime--with a sense of helplessness. It will continue to gnaw at the R.A. who discovered the body of a young man whom he didn't find in time. It will overcome the two people who, in the middle of the night, received the call every parent fears most.

If we can maintain anything in life, it should be hope. No matter the inner-turmoil we might feel, or the anguish we might be experiencing, the reality is that life, eventually, will get better. We will always rebound and we will always recover. If we only give it time.

Hopelessness is only temporary. Always.

Helplessness, sadly, lingers much longer, for those who are left behind.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Escape from Reality

I'm confused.

Didn't people used to watch TV to escape from reality?

So why are we suddenly a nation of voyeurs, spying on the not-so-appealing aspects of total strangers' lives?

Apparently, according to Nielsen Ratings, I'm in the minority of uninterested non-viewers. But the reality is, I don't want to know if some Real Housewife is cheating on her husband. If I cared about such things, I could glean better gossip at my hometown Kroger store.

I'm not interested in hearing who the Don's decided to fire. Plenty of controversial layoffs at my own place of employment, thank you.

And if Jon and Kate Plus Eight are now Minus One? Sorry for your loss, but... I have toilets that need scrubbing.

Not that I'm one to avoid reality. I read my share of non-fiction, and I watch the news. (Although my TV appears technologically incapable of broadcasting Fox.) (Oops. Was that a slip of political bias? Sorry. Won't happen again.)

But when it comes to entertainment, I can muster little interest in viewing some limelight-lover's personal debacles or disasters. If I wanted to watch a soap opera, I'd tune into General Hospital. (By the way, haven't seen that since the eighties. Did Luke and Laura ever get back together?)

Give me back Arrested Development. Give me back M*A*S*H. Give me back Bob Newhart. Give me back intriguing characters and settings and plots.

Reality is way over-rated. Although Nielsen clearly disagrees.

Which, I guess, just makes me The Biggest Loser.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Mother, My Friend

She ignored the house when it could have used a good vacuuming, choosing to play Scrabble with me instead. She grasped, full-on, life's priorities.

She conspired with me to adopt the clumsy, brindle-furred puppy. She knew my dad's soft spot would eventually surface, just as she seemed to know what was within everyone's heart.

She grounded me when I was suspended from high school for smoking. She knew when wrong was wrong.

She understood the importance of a well-rounded dinner of meat, potatoes and a beverage. So she found a way to justify our mother-daughter Friday Night Dinner Parties of Slim Jims, Potato Chips and Pepsi.

She knew my dad meant well when we were young, but couldn't always be counted on. Amidst the fun times she preferred, she realized the discipline, too, was left to her hands.

She saw her husband, her parents, and several close friends through terminal illnesses. She was the caregiver and the support system. Time after time, she was the strong one, even when she was weak with grief herself.

She spent time with her grandchildren because she wanted to, not because she was obligated. And they knew it.

She was soft with me when I needed her to be, and tough with me when I needed that.

The theory is that one can't be a good parent and also be a friend. Yet somehow, she's managed both with love and skill and finesse.

Happy Birthday, Mom.