Making Your Bucket List

In the hit 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, two terminally ill men assemble a personal-life wish list of things they would like to do before they die. Since the movie’s release, the term “bucket list” has entered the cultural vernacular as a short-hand way to communicate what we aspire to experience during our lives.

The list might include places to visit, foods to eat or adventures to tackle. Just making the list can be exhilarating and inspiring. However, depending on age or economic where-with-all, it can be a depressing exercise, as it might represent a list of things that will never be.

Recently, a bucket list has widely circulated about Avery Canahuati, a six-month-old girl who suffers from the genetic disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Avery is not expected to live beyond age 2.  SMA is a progressive disease of the motor neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord that will eventually rob Avery of the use of her muscles for swallowing, breathing and movement of her limbs. Some degeneration has already occurred. To read more about SMA, click here: http://www.fightsma.org/sma-guidebook/what-is-sma/

Her father, Mike Canahuati, began an imaginary “bucket list” for his daughter to spread awareness about the illness and to ensure that the family enjoys the limited time they have together. Each week, Canahuati shares photographs and experiences and crosses items off Avery’s bucket list. The blog is joyful, humorous and poignant.

On Saturday, April 28 Avery knocked off items that included going to her first baseball game and shaking hands with “super hot baseball players.”

A few days prior, Avery’s dad had crossed off, “Wake up smiling, Have a bad hair day, Eat a cupcake and a Blow Pop.” Each entry concludes with, “Up Next: Whatever I bring to life, because I don’t have time to wait for life to bring anything to me.” Click here to visit Avery’s blog: http://averycan.blogspot.com/

While the Canahuati family’s situation is tragic beyond description, Avery’s list offers great perspective that life, and one’s bucket list, does not need to be full of monumental accomplishments. It is also an important reminder to prioritize spending time on joyful and satisfying simple pleasures. As the oft-cited saying goes, “No one on their deathbed ever wishes they spent more time working.” If we are lucky with our health and mindful of the way we live, we will certainly have a very full bucket when we die.

Carol Lewis Gullstad April 30, 2012

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Making Musical Memories

One of the many viral videos making the Facebook rounds depicts a fairly uncommunicative elderly man, Henry, spending his time seated in a wheelchair, eyes cast downward; he doesn’t even recognize his own daughter. The clip then shows how he is “awakened” and begins a lively conversation after listening to 1940s music. (Click here to view the video.)

Several recent studies, including those by MusicandMemory.org, have proved how old, familiar songs can jog our minds and conjure up positive memories. This year’s Oscar winning Iron Lady drove home that point in scenes where the aging former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (via the inimitable Meryl Streep) travels to a happier, more lucid place while hearing “Shall We Dance.”

For most of us, songs that accompanied our lives’ highs and lows have the power to transport us back in time. Your “personal soundtrack” may include tunes that recall the lazy, carefree summer days of your youth; the first 45 (or LP, cassette or CD) that you purchased with your own money; the song that was popular when you and your first girl- or boyfriend got together and the one that soothed you when you broke up.

You probably feel nostalgic when you hear a hit song from the first concert you attended, music that you listened to in your first apartment or a tune that you heard over and over during a fun road trip. Most of us remember graduation party and wedding songs, albums our parents and kids enjoyed and soundtracks from popular films and Broadway musicals.

When we were younger, some of us even created theme cassette tapes to express certain moods or sentiments for friends (one of my brothers was especially proud of the “She Dumped Me” tape he handed out to buddies in crisis). So, we can relate to, and laugh at, John Cusak and Jack Black’s characters as they discuss Black’s totally inappropriate mourning tape, “Top 5 Songs About Death” in the 2000 film High Fidelity. (Feel free to list songs from your own “personal soundtracks” in the comment box below.)

Even today, when we serendipitously hear songs from our pasts, we remember not just what we were doing, but how we were feeling at that time. “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” explains Petr Janata, a University of California, Davis, cognitive neuroscientist, in a summary of his landmark study in the journal Cerebral Cortex. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”

And so, I’m struggling to understand what memories and emotions today’s music will evoke for my children in the future. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I can’t help but wonder if my kids will think fondly of family ski trips when they hear Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (“Let’s do this one one time, can’t stop, we’re higher than a M&*#er F^#%er”).

The fact is, I don’t know what they’re listening to most of the time. When we get in the car, they immediately plug in their ear buds and turn their smart phone playlists onto “Shuffle.” While they’re doing homework, they’re simultaneously listening to rap via headphones attached to their laptops.

Because music has become such a personal experience, enjoyed through phones and computers, will this generation be able to recall “shared” music experiences such as sitting in a dorm room playing the same record over and over, or singing along to hit songs in a car while driving nowhere on a weekend night? Will today’s teens have memories to match those of the older baby boomers who, with Dick Clark’s recent passing, reminisce about watching and dancing along to “American Bandstand” with friends?

I guess what’s most important is that they are learning to love music – be that as it may – and they get positive benefits from listening to it.  As researchers at Penn State University’s Altoona campus recently discovered, hearing almost any kind of music – as long it sounds pleasing to us – can elevate our positive moods and chase away negative thoughts. As one of the researchers, associate professor of psychology Valerie N. Stratton, notes, “If you like music and choose to listen to it, it’s probably going to make you feel better regardless of what type it is.”

Perhaps my sons’ s current playlists, which include hits by Chris Brown, Rihanna and Pitbull (my daughter prefers Adele, Katy Perry and One Direction), really do make them happy.  And who am I to say that hearing Li’l Wayne’s line “Young angel, young lie and im done tryin, I’m jus doin, who’s drinkin’ cause im buyin’” won’t spring them to life 75 years from now?

So, I’m making a point to absorb new songs and make musical memories with my kids. When I drive them to sports practices, I ask them to unplug the headphones and plug their iPods into the car’s AUX cord. I’m trying to enjoy “their” music. In fact, I even found myself bobbing my head along to Jessie J’s “Price Tag” (“Everybody look to the left, everybody look to the right”) the other day.

Now, that’s a visual I’m sure my 12-year-old will never forget.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 23 April 2012

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Mommy Wars

Many have heard about the flap over CNN commentator Hilary Rosen’s remark, uttered about Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, “…his wife has actually never worked a day in her life.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise that Mrs. Romney worked very hard raising five sons and was probably often frazzled and exhausted in her early parenting years. I am sure that the teenage years were no picnic, either.

Photo of Hilary Rosen

Photo of Hilary Rosen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Many have heard about the flap over CNN commentator Hilary Rosen’s remark, uttered about Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, "…his wife has actually never worked a day in her life.”It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise that Mrs. Romney worked very hard raising five sons and was probably often frazzled and exhausted in her early parenting years. I am sure that the teenage years were no picnic, either.

However, the sound bite the criss-crossed the airwaves thousands of times was not the full sentence in context. Hilary was discussing Mitt Romney’s reliance on his wife for advice on women’s economic issues and actually said, “Guess what, his wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why do we worry about their future.”

But, alas, a truncated “gotcha phrase” became a matchstick to a pile of culture wars dry firewood. It’s a little bit like reality TV: the media loves to make hay out of a stereo-typical cat fight. Most women I talked to were quite startled by the brouhaha as they thought the Mommy Wars had dissipated since the days of Hillary Clinton’s Tammy Wynette-not-baking-cookies  line.

In fact, much of the follow-up twitter tit-for-tat came from male politicians attempting to either deflect (Democrats) or make hay (Republicans) out of the dumb comment. That’s when the dust up got my attention, as the statements talking about Motherhood as the hardest job in the world felt both true and a little bit patronizing at the same time.

It was an instant militarization of a social issue with the accompanying arms build-up. It seemed ground in creating publicity rather than tackling real problems. Hence, the collective yawn by those “outside the beltway” in the rest of the country.

We all know there are multiple realities for moms. Our own small community is a microcosm of the country.  We have every variety of working and household configuration imaginable. We have moms who work full and part-time, SAHMs (stay-at-home-moms), families with “his, hers and ours” children, single moms and gay moms and dads. I have not heard any culture wars other than the occasional and universal plea of burnout and exhaustion. It all depends on capacity, needs and priorities.

No wonder the Mommy War over the Rosen-Romney flap seems manufactured for the media.

Once you have kids it all changes and it’s all hard. My co-author Linda and I have had endless discussions — providing great thematic material for this very blog — about various work and family arrangements in our own lives for career advancement and economic necessity. All required choices and trade-offs, but none required taking another mom to task over her situation. Most moms I know said family life should be out of bounds as political fodder. What do you think?

Carol Lewis Gullstad April 16, 2012

Living With Lines

ImageA few months ago, my husband received a birthday card from a relative who never forgets a birthday, anniversary or holiday. Although our paths rarely cross, I always enjoy the chatty letters she encloses with her thoughtful cards.

However, the last line in this recent letter was a bit sobering. It said something to the effect of, “I am paring down my card list, so this is the last one you will receive from me.”

My first reaction was disbelief: how could this loyal, consistent relative decide to stop sending cards? And then, as is my nature, I started to overthink what I might have done to cause this sudden stoppage. That thought soon turned to guilt, for in truth, I don’t acknowledge this relative’s birthday as often as she does mine.

Then, I started feeling a bit defensive. Doesn’t she understand that I am BUSY? I have four school-age kids! I work part-time! My husband travels nearly every week for work! I have my hands full keeping up with my husband’s side of the family, which includes 33 people, most of whom live nearby!

And finally, I realized my thoughts were getting the best of me, and decided that acceptance was the best course of action. I acknowledged that my relative simply had to draw the line somewhere, and my family happened to stand on the far side of that delineation.

We all draw lines in our daily decisions, separating friends, family, activities, charitable causes, morals and breaking points into to-dos and to-don’ts. And, as we quietly make those choices, we don’t think much about the people or events that get ignored or dropped.

Would it have been kinder if my relative hadn’t mentioned her list-editing? Probably not; after a few missed holidays, I would have noticed the cards’ absence, and would have wondered if she was ill or what I had done to offend her.

However, honesty can hurt. I still remember when my husband and I were driving to a family birthday party with one of his close relatives and that person’s wife. After discussing the gifts we had purchased, the in-law turned to me and said, “You know, the family is really big, and its expensive to buy all of those presents. So, we won’t be getting birthday or Christmas gifts for you two any more. You have to draw the line somewhere.”

She had every right to drop us from her gift-buying list, and her honesty brought clarity. In laying it on the line, this in-law gave us permission to stiff her on her birthday, and spared us the embarrassment of giving and not receiving.

At the same time, I was a bit taken aback, and the fact that I still remember the conversation nearly two decades later speaks volumes. The statement just felt just a little too direct: “Sorry, you aren’t on my A-list.”

So much of life relates to being on one side of a line or another, both literally and figuratively, and we all know how it feels when that line excludes us. We learn in sports that when we cross lines, we’re called out or out of bounds. As all athletes know, only one person can cross the finish line first. Or, as Ricky Bobby’s dad taught him, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

We realize that after waiting in line for tickets, the best ones, or even the last one, might be distributed before we get to the cashier. And, we understand that colleges and employers often draw lines based on GPAs and test scores, and if our numbers don’t add up, we won’t make the cut.

Those of us with small children experience the emotional “you didn’t make the cut” phenomenon frequently. It’s hard not to share a child’s anger the first time he or she is excluded from a friend’s birthday party. Over the years, I learned to say, “I know you’re disappointed, but Johnny probably could only invite a set number of people. If you could only have five friends to your party, would he make the list?”

Tools for accepting others’ hard lines are useful later on, too, such as when a child doesn’t make a select sports team, isn’t included in an outing because the car is full or, perhaps most dramatically, is rejected by his or her first-choice college.

A few weeks ago, I had to help one of my kids deal with a different kind of line. He was with some students who broke a school rule, and as the only one who was caught, he was charged as an accessory to the crime. While the school’s former principal was willing to treat such offenses in a flexible manner, the new regime seems to be taking a tougher, more hard-lined approach to student delinquencies.

Although my son presented a strong case for his innocence and begged for leniency, the administration drew a hard line in the sand. For the child and his parents, the situation was extremely painful.

I’m sure my kid went through the same range of emotions as I did regarding my relative’s birthday-card list: first disbelief, then overthinking, then guilt and defensiveness and finally acceptance.

And although I am trying to model this positive response, I still feel the need for closure with that far-flung relative. I’m marking my calendar now to ensure I send a nice card and long letter when her birthday rolls around.

-Linda Williams Rorem, 9 April 2012

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The Farmer’s Wife

This is one of the digitized images of the ori...

This is one of the digitized images of the original painting American Gothic that Grant DeVolson Wood, a master artist of the twentieth century, created in 1930 and sold to the Art Institute of Chicago in November of the same year. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When she was 16 years old, Joanne left school to marry her boyfriend and start a family.  She had grown up in a family with 12 brothers and sisters and said of that time, “We had nothing.”  She plunged into a similar situation when she and her husband started their life together as teenage parents.  As a young mother with three kids in five years, she rose daily at 4 a.m. to milk dairy cows no matter rain or shine, or lack of sleep or 20-below-zero wind chill in northern Wisconsin.

In talking to her about her life, it was never easy. Family dairy farming is a lot of hard work with little pay. Cows don’t wait to be milked and young children don’t wait to be fed and changed.  Joanne was tough as nails, but even she had her limits. Once, after a particularly rough night of no sleep and an early morning of milking cows, her husband made a snarky remark about the disarray of the house and laundry. Incredulous, she stormed out and left him with the young children and all the work.  She did not come back for a week.  Joanne had no plan when she walked out.  She just knew she was angry, exhausted and needed a break. The only thought she had was, “Hell, let him deal with it.”

With steam nearly pouring out of her ears, she drove away with a heavy foot on the pedal, knowing only one thing for certain: her own worth. This was the era before cell phones and no one knew where she was headed, least of all Joanne.  She had no contact with her family, but after a week of cooling down, she walked silently back into the farm house.

No words were needed, as each spouse had achieved an “attitude adjustment” during their time apart. Both husband and wife had a new appreciation for the role they each played and how they needed to support each other, work together and acknowledge each other’s contribution to the family.

I met Joanne years after her kids were grown, but she told me this story and many others like it when I was a young mother facing exhaustion and feeling underappreciated. She delivered her stories matter of fact, without judgment about my family and I love her for that. There was always a clear message in each story.  It’s OK to be frustrated and tired and everyone has a breaking point. Her folk-style wisdom also conveyed that time-outs are useful tools for adults, not just kids. She also demonstrated by her nearly 50-year marriage that relationships take constant effort and we all get angry at times. Your spouse is not perfect and neither are you, so figure out a way to make it work.

While Joanne lacks formal education, I always thought she was one of the smartest, wisest people I have ever known. She is a tremendous observer of human behavior and brings grace and good humor to tough situations.

Although I had not seen her in 13 years, last week we had a great visit. I got to see her in action in one of those challenging situations. She is now caring for her husband, who has had three strokes. When I visited, she told me her husband was depressed about being sidelined after working two jobs all his adult life. Carl loved to work hard and visit people, but now he has lost his speech, some mobility and is becoming increasing isolated.

There was not one hint of self-pity as she described the cards they were dealt.  She finished  up by telling me that while walking with Carl she exhorted him to, “Get moving faster or I’ll kick your arse!” Carl started laughing hysterically. She was helping him without humiliating this proud man and she had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye as she told the story. Everyone should be so lucky to have a Joanne in their life.

– Carol Lewis Gullstad, April 2, 2012
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