Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year

During the past year, I’ve had more time to think, mull, ponder, obsess…well, you get the idea…than I have in probably a decade. Truly, I am sick of ‘introspective’ me. And I’m sure my friends, while way too kind and compassionate to say so, are too (thank you especially Susan, Holly and Jean).

I was fearful blogging would make me self-absorbed. Or maybe I already was. Ouch. Simply, my goal was to write about family, faith and that ‘F’ word, which I promised not to mention again. I also wanted to commit to paper, or rather computer screen, stories about my children that have been rattling around in my head for years.

The notion of ‘holding on and letting go' runs strong in my psyche. In another life I was on the journalism faculty at a large university and the director of advising for that program. During the summer, I’d face hordes of eager freshmen and their parents. Part of my job was to soothingly explain to parents they wouldn’t be joining their sons and daughters during the scheduling process. Rather they would attend a special session called ‘Holding On and Letting Go.’

I must confess I may have been a bit testy the year Erik left home at sixteen to spend a year abroad as a foreign exchange student and a parent would ask me ‘what classes are we taking.’

My flaws are legion in my book, but I also know my strengths. Putting myself in the place of the other is one of them. My husband is both amused and bemused that I argue both sides of a dispute between us, his and mine. Just because I am adept at ‘letting go’ does not mean I don’t understand how difficult it is. Just measure my waistline.

The mall bookstore is going out of business, like so many of its ilk. Today I was standing in line to buy 40-percent-off books that I can get at the library for free, including a mid-life mom memoir. Behind me two women were having a conversation. One said she couldn’t believe her daughter would be 18 months soon. Turning around, I saw that the woman agreeing with her about how fast time went had an infant strapped to her chest.

Instead of ‘sagely’ weighing in, I kept my mouth shut. Suddenly it does seem like a very long time ago that I had a three-month-old infant strapped to my chest at the Phoenix airport awaiting his first flight to grandma and grandpa’s.

Many flights and many years later, that child is spending New Year’s Eve in London with his girlfriend.

As my wise mother once said, “You don’t get to keep your babies very long.”

And that’s just fine.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Birthday Ever

My wonderful friend Leigh Rosenecker, mom extraordinaire, ace cake decorator and one-day Jeopardy champ, set up a Facebook group to secretly gather 50th birthday greetings for me. She printed the messages out, cut them into strips, punched holes and stuck multicolored birthday candles into them before mailing them off to my husband.

Now that’s a true-blue friend.

I had the best birthday ever. Thank you Leigh, my husband, my mom, my sons, the friends who joined us tonight and the friends and family near and far who gave me the best birthday wishes ever.

Fifty is the new fifty.

20th Birthday

30th Birthday

40th Birthday

50th Birthday!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Fifty is an Even Bigger Number

One can take a multitude of approaches toward aging.

There is the poetic and profound:

The Young Man’s Song by W. B. Yeats
I whispered, "I am too young,"
And then, "I am old enough";
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
"Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,"
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

Oh, love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away,
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is the concise:

As we grow old…the beauty steals inward. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is the tongue-in-cheek approach, such as this one for soon-to-be-empty nesters:

The best way to keep kids at home is to make the home a pleasant atmosphere...and let the air out of their tires. -- Dorothy Parker

I’m rather fond of this folksy truism:

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. -- Mark Twain

Finally, I derive comfort from the following:

I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming... suddenly you find - at the age of 50, say - that a whole new life has opened before you. -- Agatha Christie


Anyone who’s been within close proximity, literally or cyber-ly, to me this fall knows I’ve been moaning and groaning my way toward fifty. Dear Husband and I went the other day to order the cake for Saturday’s birthday pasta party (if the ground blizzards and fitting 50-mph winds don’t keep even in-towners away!). The bakery manager, a cancer survivor and recipient of a two heart stents, told me she’ll hit that number in July and embraces every birthday. She reminded me to do the same. When I wasn’t begging my husband to tell me I looked much younger than her, despite the gray in my hair, he gently pointed out cancer will age a person.

Personally I think the stress eating I’ve done this month has plumped me out so much a wrinkle won’t show until the spring thaw.

But enough about me.

Or at least about this blasted birthday. So I didn’t lose the ten pounds I wanted to, instead managing to find a few. I will, I always do. Beginning now, I’m a full-time free-lance writer, my childhood goal. And for the record, I’m glad I’m not Mrs. Donny Osmond or Mrs. David Cassidy (like there ever was a chance).

And the best piece of advice about this birthday came today from my Great-Aunt Lou, who turns 90 in February.

“It’s just a number, don’t sweat it.”

Thank you poets and scribes and Aunt Lou.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Little Christmas Eve

Earlier today, I wrote the following:

Tonight my husband’s parents, siblings, spouses and families are gathered in Minnesota celebrating Lille Juleaften or Little Christmas Eve. In Denmark, ‘the old country,’ the main celebration of Christmas falls on the night before, December 24th. In Minneapolis the Hanson/Knutson clan is eating oyster stew. The nasty liver paste I can’t spell, let alone pronounce, is probably on the menu too. Over the next few days the exquisite risalamande will be made and served. It’s a dish of rice pudding, whipped cream and almonds served with raspberry sauce. A whole almond is hidden in the dessert and served to the youngest member present who receives a gift of candy, sometimes even the traditional marzipan pig.

There’s more, but believe me it just gets worse.

I can’t find the words to say what I want to say, to tie the examples and the theme and wrap it up all nice and neatly like a Christmas package. One not wrapped by me.

Maybe it’s all the sugar fumes I’ve inhaled during my baking binge today.

Hard to believe reading this, but I do get paid for writing. But not this. This is about things that have been on my mind for years or minutes.

Tonight Denmark is on my mind. Erik, is just a hop, skip and a ferry ride away from the ‘old country.’ I want to write about Vikings, and wanderlust and the unaccompanied bus ride my husband took in Aarhus, Denmark when he was seven. I want to wax eloquent about how I'm the poster child mom for ‘letting go,’ but this holiday season I’m in a ‘holding on’ mood. I want to articulate how I’ll be happy when my son’s gorgeous, generous girlfriend lands in Heathrow at the end of the weekend. And I want to thank her parents for letting her go. Instead, I’m waning.

So I’m going to go dip the second batch of buckeyes in chocolate and direct you to my son’s latest blog post…on homesickness. It’s eloquent and expressive, and I’m a proud mom.

Happy Holidays all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Birthday First-Born

A blizzard plunged the mid-Atlantic region and the East Coast into chaos over the weekend, dumping snow, snarling travel and sending Weather Channel reporters scrambling for shelter. A couple weeks ago a large storm hit here in the Midwest, but since fewer people and less major airports were involved it didn’t merit around-the-clock television coverage.

Nineteen years ago a similar spell of weather affected this part of the country, stretching into the Southwest. It was so cold there was even snow on the ‘cactuses.’

Snow dusting the prickly pears down in Phoenix became part of the ‘mythos’ surrounding the December 21st, 1990 birth of our first son, Erik, in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was so cold in ‘Flag,’ as the locals called the town nestled at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, that the pipes in our townhouse froze. My doctor finagled another night’s stay for baby and me so we didn't go home to no water.

My parents braved the bad weather and flight delays to come out to see their first grandchild. At six pounds, Erik was so tiny we called him our little monkey baby. Every year on his birthday, I pull out the scrapbooks (old-fashioned notions in this digital age) and marvel at the small, serious infant cradled in his grandmother and grandfather’s arms that first Christmas. His father looks tired but happy, and I look exhausted.

You start to collect the stories of your baby’s life through photos and memories. The endless sleepless nights that give way to finally sleeping through the night…or not as the case may be with Erik. Thanks to Facebook, even though he’s a world away, tucked behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’ on study abroad on his second sojourn to Germany…I can see he still stays up all night.

Parents of newborns don’t have time to ponder deep truths, such as the goal is to someday have them leave you and go out on their own. Constant diaper changes, 2 a.m. (and 3:00 a.m. and 4 a.m.) feedings, teething, and ear infections all keep a weary mom and dad occupied. Before you know it, your baby walks and talks and turns that milestone of one.

Sooner or later, that toddler gets toilet trained and the momentous first day of kindergarten comes.

Then one day you’re sitting with your spouse at a departmental beginning-of-the-year picnic, and your high school sophomore wanders up and tells you, out of the blue, that he’d like to go to Germany. Glibly, parents say in unison “Find a way to pay for it.”

So your child does and off he goes, at 16, to a foreign country for a year as an exchange student. He writes a new story of his life. The Cliff Notes version: he gets accepted to college a year early, comes home, drops out of high school, gets his GED, goes to college a year early. Then goes back to Germany on a university exchange program.

I was afraid for a moment when we left the hospital 19 years ago that the nurse wasn’t going to give me my swaddled-in-yellow-bunting baby. Somehow I though she was going to tell me I hadn’t studied the mythical ‘parenting manual’ enough and was going to flunk motherhood.

The manual doesn’t exist, and motherhood is a fluid occupation. You love them, and squeeze them and roll with the punches.

And collect all the stories you can.

Happy Birthday, Erik.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Hair-Raising Tale

In a week, I’ll be fifty.

Recently my mother and younger son helpfully pointed out that technically I already am since I’m closing out my 50th year. It’s a polite way of telling me to quit moanin’ and groanin’ and move on.

My three-months-younger-than-me husband is looking forward to the next decade because his forties tried to, if not kill, at least severely maim him.

A diabetes diagnosis, a big chunk of melanoma and an oddball case of cholesterol-drug-induced hepatitis that exacerbated the diabetes and tromped on his liver all paid calls.

The only casualty of my forties?

My hair.

In addition to being the smart one, my husband is also not the shallow one. That title belongs to moi.

In pulling out pictures for my ‘special’ birthday blog, I noticed something disconcerting: I have basically the same haircut on my 20th, 30th, and 40th (except for the addition of bangs and even chubbier cheeks) birthdays. This year will be no different, except for the amount of silver.

Now, mind you, over the years I have had perms (good and bad), bobs and even shoulder-length hair.

There was even the unfortunate incident of January 1997 when my foray into Lady Clairol’s ‘Hibiscus’ resulted in purple tips in my short coal black hair instead of the all-over auburn I was hoping for.

Is it any wonder I’ve chosen to go gray?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Reason for the Season

Sometimes life needs a narrator. As this week winds down, I can hear Garrison Keillor intoning “It was a long week in Lake Wobegon.”

I’m not going into details, but suffice it to say I’ve been whiney and weepy and self-absorbed.

But for a few hours tonight I was transported when I expected to be traumatized.

Dedicated church youth group leader, Perry Wayne Hanson, another mom and I took 25+ sixth graders to Target to shop for Secret Santa gifts for each other. Nothing got broken, and they bought thoughtful gifts for each other.

As the mom of a 14-year-old and an almost 19-year-old, I’m a veteran field trip chaperone. I’ve been everywhere from a pumpkin patch with kindergartners to New York City with a busload of seventh graders. My finest hour was not a class trip to a Pittsburgh museum when my older son was in fifth grade. I watched helplessly as one of my charges leaned on a glass shelf full of snow globes in the museum gift shop. It snowed all right...

I’m transitioning….too old to have more babies, too young (given the age of my babies) to have grandchildren. Age is creeping up on us, and in some cases galloping. My husband’s 82-year-old mother had her appendix out this week, which was fortunate because a slow-growing spot of cancer was spotted and removed.

That and other concerns made for a long week on the prairie. But it hit a balmy 30 degrees today, and no snow globes crashed to the floor.

Sometimes that’s enough. And sometimes you get caring middle schoolers who remind you of the real reason for the season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The End of an Era

This week marks the end of an era for me. After not quite twenty years of working with college students, I’m ‘retiring.’ Teaching was something I literally fell into, first as an adjunct then working my way up to teaching and directing advising for a journalism school at a large university.

As chronicled previously, my husband and I were ready for a less hectic lifestyle and eager to be closer to family so we made a big move. I spent last year tutoring students three days a week in the writing center of the much smaller university where he accepted a new position. This was my ‘rehab’ job to ease me into fulfilling my goal of staying home fulltime to write. Despite the dismal job prospects for me in our new location, I simply couldn’t go from what felt like working outside the home 24/7 to zip.

By this fall I whittled my tutoring schedule down to one day a week and by Thanksgiving had made the decision not to return in the spring.

It’s a good decision, and certainly a well-timed one emotionally. My writing partner/mother and I sold our first book together when my older son was a toddler. Nearly 30 books later, he’s toddled off to Germany for the second time as a college sophomore doing a study abroad. His younger brother is a freshman in high school and already talking colleges and career choices. I want to spend more time with my mother, who was always there on snow days, sick days, and goin’ to one-more-work-event days (usually nights) for my children. And the timing is just right to pursue my long-time dream of making ‘free-lance writer’ my full-time occupation.

I loved college. I loved everything about it. Well, not the math or science classes but those were irrelevant to the rest. So much freedom, so many choices, but still that cocoon of not yet being tossed out into the ‘real world.’ Of course by the last semester of my senior year, I was ready to hurtle into that real world. But that’s the natural order of things.

Perhaps because of my affinity for those years, I adored teaching college students. I love my sons desperately, and it’s a good thing I never had girls because I can’t do hair and hate to shop, but have had many honorary daughters over the years. Honorary sons, too.

A fellow tutor and ‘honorary’ daughter is graduating from the University of Nebraska at Kearney at the end of the week. She’s heading across the world to fulfill one of her dreams. I’m going to miss her something fierce, the way I miss other students whose lives have touched mine over the years.

It was a good run.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Sense of Place

For more than a decade I taught beat reporting to journalism students at West Virginia University. This was always their first assignment:

Interview one classmate on what/where his or her favorite place was as a child.

Consider the following:

  • location
  • sights, sounds, smells it evokes
  • memories involved
  • ever revisited?
  • Still derive comfort, enjoyment, etc. from it?

After the interview: Making as much use of description as possible, write a short story (minimum 1/2 page).

Every semester ‘grandma’s house’ was the winner, followed closely by the beach or a backyard filled with swing sets and childhood innocence.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about place, especially this week when a ‘storm of the century’ blizzard whipped across the prairie, dumping snow, bringing fierce temperatures and high winds.

I grew up in Michigan, and even though I haven’t lived there in nearly 30 years, that still defines me. When I was 14, my best friend was Heidi Flower. Her German-born mom, artist Helga Flower, made the best ever peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate. To this day I can close my eyes and taste that perfect sweetness and feel the dry chill of that particular Sault Ste. Marie December.

Perhaps because the following month, a boy kissed me for the first time.

I married an Iowa boy, and years later gave birth to my first son, Erik, in Flagstaff, Arizona during one of the coldest Decembers on record in the Southwest.

We moved to West Virginia, had another son, Andrew, and spent 15 years in that rugged, beautiful state before moving to Nebraska.

After this blustery week, even a Michigan girl who has lived in Iowa and hauled a bundled baby to the pediatrician during the winter of 1991 when 80 inches of snow fell in one month in Flagstaff, Arizona…gets defeated.

Now in addition to missing the Great Lakes and the San Francisco Peaks, I miss the Appalachian falls and springs.

I ask my son in Germany what the weather is like, remembering the beautiful snowfall we encountered on our visit two years ago. His answer is always the same: rainy, cold, dreary.

The prairie is growing on me…slowly. I’m learning to appreciate the year-round blue skies, something I missed intensely when we moved from Arizona to West Virginia. I remind myself it rained non-stop that first fall in Morgantown, West Virginia when Erik was a toddler, and we were both used to being able to go to the park every day. Instead of noticing the lack of trees, I’m starting to find the trees.

A friend of mine, poet and essayist Rob Merritt, teaches English at a college in Virginia. He was born in North Carolina, which seems like a foreign country to a northern girl. He writes about place in The Nantahala Review.

I’m thinking place can be fluid, carried around inside of us then coaxed out when we need the memory of that first kiss to take away the chill of mid-life.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow Day

As a child the words filled me with glee: Snow Day!

As the mother of two school-age children, for many years the words filled me with incredulity. Not another snow day!

Today’s snow day found my husband and me crunching along the back way to the YMCA to get some exercise. The place, slated to close mid-morning, was fairly empty.

As I walked around the track, the strains of Andrea Zonn’s Galilee Road wafting through my ears, I glanced down at the gymnasium floor. Childcare providers were riding herd on a passel of pre-schoolers. One girl had a tow headed little boy perched on her hip. Her stance was so achingly familiar to the way I held my boys, to the way all mothers seem to stand when their children are that age.

Only the fact I had one ratty Kleenex prevented me from bursting into tears.

I don’t miss my children being little. Really, I don’t. I relish their independence and self-reliance. This week I’ve had several conversations via Skype with my older son, Erik, about his potential plans for next summer.

I found myself repeating over and over, “I don’t care what you do,” then adding “You know what I mean.”

He reassures me each time that he does know what I mean.

Maybe that’s what nearly had me scrounging for tissues this morning. My flaxen-haired serious toddler has grown into a world traveler, is in love with a wonderful girl, and likes talking potential graduate schools and urban planning issues with his father.

When I say I don’t care, my son knows it really means “I trust you.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different

…or random musings that have nothing to do with anything.

  • Georgia O’Keefe or Curious George?
  • Maine or Miami?
  • Mayflower or Santa Maria?
  • Hibiscus or hyacinth?
  • Subtext or subterfuge?
  • Centrifuge or centimeter?
  • Arbor Day or May Day?
  • Lions or tigers?
  • Zoos or amusement parks?
  • Pink or blue?
  • Gum or mints?
  • Football or Food Network?
  • Long or short?
  • E-mail or texting?
  • Yesterday, today or tomorrow?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Birthday to me ….almost

In three weeks plus change, I will be 50. There I said it, out loud, well kind of. As I finish up on the treadmill, I mull (over a Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris duet), how I can still be whiney about this birthday?

Two dear friends never saw their 40th or 50th ones respectively. I so need to embrace the next decade, not continue to gripe about it. Nevertheless, why does fifty feel like a popcorn kernel that gets lodged between a tooth and the gum, causing the tongue to worry it out after days of flossing and brushing fail to?

Beats me.

I can clearly remember details about each birthday that ended in zero, going all the way back to the first one, including how I wore my hair and what I weighed. But you knew that was coming.

Ten ushered in the 1970s and the death of my beloved grandfather, 20 was all about hope and optimism and a very small jeans size, 30 brought the birth of my first son (by just a few days), and 40, well, started rocky but heralded an amazing decade filled with highs and lows.

Fifty feels like being perched on the edge of a precipice, knowing full well you’re not going to fall but wondering if it’s time to take a leap of faith anyway.

My sons are turning into the men they’re destined to be. Time for their mother to quit complaining and take joy in a new decade.

If you’re traveling along I80 in the middle of the country on the day after Christmas, stop in and have some pasta. Don’t worry, I’m not cooking. There will be cake and no whining.

I promise.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Marriage 101

The other night I dashed off what I thought was a clever little blog entry. Following are the first few paragraphs:

Talkin’ Tabloids

I’m interrupting the regularly scheduled content of this blog to express shock and dismay about an oh-so-trivial matter. My media savvy college professor husband does not know what Jon Gosselin looks like.

This was revealed to me when I commented to him how the husband of someone we know resembles the TLC-traumatized male half of Jon and Kate Plus Eight. In my defense, I have never watched the show. Ever.

However…I have been known to peruse the glossy tabloids in the supermarket checkout and even to plunk down some hard-earned dollars if the cover promises a story on a contestant on the Biggest Loser or Kirstie Alley’s weight battles.

Jon and Kate’s marital woes had been plastered on magazine covers for so many months that one magazine promised a ‘Gosselin-free edition’ on its cover.

I then segued into talking about my favorite TLC show, ‘What Not to Wear,’ and how I love makeover shows. How the power to transform oneself never ceases to fascinate me.

Somehow I wrapped it all up by proclaiming that unlike Kate Gosselin, I love that man of mine, even if he wouldn’t know a picture of Jon Gosselin from a picture of Celebrity X.

And that’s when I got into trouble.

I like my husband to read my blog posts before I put them up. Husband said he certainly would know the difference between Kate’s mate…and Gilligan. Yes, I used Bob Denver as my example. There’s a slight resemblance, after all. Okay, very slight.

It is important to note that in our marriage I am the mercurial, clever (or so I thought) one. He is the highly intelligent calm one. His feathers are never ruffled, and if they are, woe unto the ruffler. My dh took umbrage with my not-so-clever wordplay, and I took umbrage with him.

We joke about it nearly twenty years later, but we once had a horrid argument about the grammatical correctness of a sentence in The New York Times. Husband said to me coldly: “I could diagram it for you.”

When two journalism majors marry, life can be weird.

Our second year of marriage we rented an old farmhouse in rural Iowa. We were both working at the local newspaper, he in the newsroom, me in circulation then composing. A ‘nepotism’ policy prevented spouses from working in the same department. I was miserable.

That house was so cold we literally had ice in the bathtub and needed to thaw the tub before using it. As the wind howled around us at night, huddled as we were in our long underwear in bed, we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into regarding marriage. It would have been easy to go our separate ways at that point. But when I thought about what kind of future I wanted, it always came back to wanting babies with the man I’d married. The man I loved. He felt the same way. One night I sprang up in bed and told him I thought he should apply to grad school. He really wanted to be a college professor.

The rest is marital and parental history.

Now it doesn’t even take ice in the bathtub to set me off sometimes. I’m happy to pout over petty annoyances if I’m feeling cranky. But when I think about the imminent empty nest years (and I suspect the blog ‘incident’ was triggered by my realization that my youngest goes to college in just three and a half years…my youngest!), I can’t imagine not spending them with my husband of two and a half decades plus.

Even if he doesn’t know what Jon Gosselin looks like.