Kissing It Goodbye

The affair was over. While it had not been love at first sight, the relationship had developed over time and now 18 years of my life had passed. Over the years I had enjoyed its size and it had become an integral part of my life, but I needed to move on. We had a connection and it was a multi-tasking machine. This past week, however, I finally said goodbye to my minivan.

As I exited the driveway in a minivan for the last time, I asked my youngest son to snap a picture of me. I guess I was a little sentimental after all. This vehicle represented a sweet and chaotic family era that was now ending.

I drove alone through Seattle to pick up the replacement and recalled that I wasn’t overly excited about purchasing the minivan oh-so-many years ago.  At the time I agreed with my husband that a minivan would be a practical purchase, but I really didn’t want one.  Sure we had a house, a dog and I was expecting our second child. But, it was not a cool car. Although it was my signature on the purchase agreement, I was not a “minivan mom,” whatever that is. Minivans were driven by suburban women who smiled too much and cared more about matching fabric swatches than the fabric of society.  This was like adopting the persona of an alien into my brain and eagerly paying big dollars for the privilege.

I remember driving with my husband onto the car lot in Minneapolis the day the van was ready for pick up and he cheerfully chirped, “Aren’t you excited about your new car?” Not wanting to seem childish, I weakly replied, “yes,” while thinking what a far cry my new Mercury-Villager would be from the Mustang I had driven along the California freeways of my youth.

I learned, however, to embrace the minivan lifestyle. In the early family stages the van worked perfectly for carting around pop-up play-pens and strollers. At its peak use, we needed four car seats; the cause and effect of four kids born within eight years. The handy fold-down seats served as a great diaper changing station and sheltered picnic spot. Later, it was the family workhorse as it became a sports equipment shed, a mobile food-sourcing station and office.

When I turned in the keys this week I was surprised that I had driven a minivan for so long and all that it represented in our family history. I was equally amazed that I no longer needed one. My kids are now much bigger than me, and two drive themselves places. We seldom need a car that seats six. We no longer go to the park or zoo on weekend outings and are rarely photographed together.

I pulled into the dealership both eager and apprehensive. Was I really ready for this new era? Yes. My new car is not tiny, but it is most certainly not a minivan. It can still carry the equipment and friends of my sons living at home. But, the mid-sized SUV suits my self-image: It looks sporty and is the silver color of my beloved Mustang.

As I left the lot, heading east toward the freeway, I became aware that I had a Cheshire Cat grin spreading across my face. I cranked up the radio, put my sunglasses on and enjoyed inhaling the “new car smell.” I was back in my element and for a brief time not the practical mother of four. I gave myself permission to thoroughly enjoy the moment and happily drove my car down the open road.

Carol Lewis Gullstad June 25, 2012

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Cherishing Mothers and Sons

In the past few weeks, a former colleague lost her 18-year-old son to a tragic bike accident, and a 17-year-old who plays football with my sons lost his mother to cancer.

I’ve heard of a spate of deaths recently – parents of good friends, the beloved grandmother of a student, the 2-year-old nephew of an acquaintance – but none hit me as hard as the teenage boy and the mom.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, because after all, I am a mom raising teenage boys.

Much has been written about the relationship between fathers and sons – often tormented, loaded with pressures and expectations. However, as the mom of three boys, I’m partial to the connection between mothers and sons.

Years ago, when I took walks or made grocery-store trips with my sons (often with one in a backpack and two in the stroller or cart), strangers would stop and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky; boys always love their mothers.”

I do feel that way. Sure, the “terrible two’s” were exhausting and we have battled over schoolwork, curfews and cars, but we haven’t endured long stretches of silence. For the most part, life with boys is drama-free: they say their peace and move on.

It’s different with daughters. From what I understand, I’m about two years away from a seismic shift in my pre-pubescent 12-year-old girl.

Although she still exudes sweetness, I know Pea will soon perfect the eye-roll and will rebel in her own way, to prove how different she is from me. At about 14, she will become a card-carrying member of the “I hate my mom club,” and will keep her membership active for about two years. I plan to spend some time appearing stupid and nerdy in her eyes.

Afterwards, I trust, she will come back and serve as my ally forever.

But between mothers and sons, that dynamic doesn’t exist. They know they’re different from me and have nothing to prove. We relate fairly well, and I take very seriously my role as a nurturing force, moral guide and “disaster-prevention specialist.”

And so, without apology I will continue to doze on the couch and await their arrival home every night. I will kiss them good night and say, “I love you.”  I will send texts when they’re out, and ask to be apprised of location changes. I will remind them to wear seatbelts, not to text behind the wheel and to use designated drivers. I will ask about their friends, and forge relationships with those they love.

I give myself permission to remain actively involved in my sons’ lives, because we need each other, and—as recent events have reinforced—no one knows how much time we’ll have together.

–        Linda Williams Rorem, 22 June 2012
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Home, Sweet Home, Again

When a young neighbor recently spoke of her college-age older sister, I suggested that she must miss her terribly. “Yes, but she’ll be back home in a few years,” the girl said.  I asked if she was certain her sister would return to the nest.  “Oh, yes,” she replied. “She’s going to have trouble getting a job in her field.”

I was amazed that this was a foregone conclusion, when big sister was still a freshman. However, this seems to be the normal course these days: attend college, then move back home and figure things out.

I became aware of this phenomenon a few years back, when reconnecting with a high school friend on the east coast. She mentioned that her 20-something daughter planned to live at home until she could buy her first house, and that her sons would probably follow suit.

It’s definitely a different scenario from when I was growing up. The general path then was: go to college, graduate, get a job and move into a cheap apartment, go through a few roommates and then cohabitate with your beloved and think about marriage.

And, a few decades before that, in my parents’ era, the plan was often: go to college, graduate, get married, move into a cheap apartment and start a family. When I see photographs of my parents as a young couple in their mid-20s, wearing suits and dresses and surrounded by babies, they look so grown up.

Life was different then. Because of World War II and the Korean War, many young men had to grow up quickly. They rushed to marry and received assistance for college. Jobs were plentiful for veterans.

Today, college can be unaffordable, youth have few societal pressures to marry and with our depressed economy, entry-level jobs are scarce.  As a result, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 6 million people between the ages of 25 to 35 – about 40 percent in that age range — return home to live with their parents.

So, I when my friends and I commiserate about our challenging teenagers, we should stop reminding each other, “Well, you only have three more years…” as if our parenting duties will cease when these youngsters head off to college.

Like my young neighbor, we should prepare for more time together after these children earn college degrees.

Sally Koslow – a former New York-based magazine editor – recently delved deep into the subject of “boomerang kids.” Her just-published book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, “gives voice to the millions of parents who are bewildered, and exhausted by this growing trend among their young adult offspring: an unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to take flight,” according to Amazon.com.

Koslow calls this group of kids “adultescents,” because while they are legal adults, able to drive, vote, work and drink, they are not quite ready to launch into society.

In a recent interview in the Huffington Post, Koslow explains that this cultural shift is due primarily to the economy – few jobs are available for those with little or no work experience – but also because of parenting style:

“Each generation seems to be more invested than the one before in trying to raise their children the ‘right way,’ “ she notes. “And…this seems to be to treat their kids more like hot house plants. Each child is a perfect specimen… Affluent people might spend vacations for two years looking for colleges. Everything just seems to be amplified.”

It seems that the more we treat our kids as if they were “perfect snowflakes” deserving “the very best,” says Koslow, the more these youth will continue to demand our emotional and financial support, because their high expectations for life in their 20s will be otherwise impossible to achieve.

I’m wondering what, if anything, my friends and I can do to buck this trend. Should we do more to prepare our kids for life’s realities, and remind them it’s okay to struggle in their 20s? Must we give ourselves permission to force life’s hard knocks on our offspring?

Following graduate school, a friend and I moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We had to walk up a worn, narrow staircase to reach our fifth-floor apartment; we didn’t have an elevator. The bathroom contained a stained bathtub on clawed feet and a toilet in a 45-degree corner; if you turned around to flush, you might burn your bum on the hot-water pipe. The bathroom had no sink, so we brushed our teeth in the kitchen.

When we moved in, we pulled up the kitchen’s filthy carpet, only to reveal a prosperous colony of roaches.  The living room window faced into a narrow, brick lined chute, and was so old-style, when my oldest brother visited, he leaned out and yelled, “Hey, Norton!” (If you have seen reruns of The Honeymooners, you’ll understand.)  We loved that place and were thrilled to be “making it” in New York.

My starting salary was so low, after paying rent, I figured I had $6.30 a day to spend on everything else. So, I walked the three miles to work (saving subway fare), learned to love bagels and take out slices of pizza (the kind you fold in half and eat while walking down the street) and discovered bars that served free “happy hour” appetizers, which made a fine dinner.

I was poor by most standards, but thrilled to be living out my dreams and succeeding on my own. I understood that the years of deprivation would be short, and that my salary, living quarters and diet would eventually improve. How can those of us parenting young adults assure them of the same?

 –       Linda Williams Rorem, 18 June 2012
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Father’s Day

Last weekend, I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing Buzz Bissinger speak at Powell’s Books in Beaverton, Oregon. Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist mostly known for his bestseller, Friday Night Lights.  He was there to promote his new book, Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is the story about his cross-country trip with his autistic adult son in 2007, but his talk last week was about coming to terms with the expectations parents have for their children. Bissinger pointed out that both books are about the same topic, fathers and sons, hopes and dreams.

Father’s Day does not include multiple story lines like Friday Night Lights, it is simply about the author’s relationship with Zach.  Zach was born 13 weeks premature and suffered brain- damage but his twin, Gerry, survived with no ill effects and has gone on to college, graduate school and is soon to be married.  Zach however, is stuck in time and Bissinger discussed his nearly 30 years of mourning the loss of Zach’s “normal” life. He lamented that Zach will never kiss, hold a job or achieve independence.

He said, “You want your children to do well, be happy, be on the right path.” He spoke of trying to reconcile his own need for success in his life with his inability to help his son. He honestly told the crowd that for many years he would have angry tirades yelling, “I deserve a different son!”

He referred to a particularly poignant moment on his trip where he desperately wanted Zach to have recognition of his condition. He asked Zach if he knew what brain damage was. Zach replied, “When your brain is not right.” He asked Zach if it made him sad and if he knew there were things he could not do. Zach said, “Yes, like not go to school or college like my brother.” At this point, Bissinger’s words became halting and he quietly uttered, “That was the hardest conversation I ever had in my life.”

Bissinger questioned whether he had been too honest about his feelings toward Zach in his book. He referred to a recently published negative review in the Dallas Morning News by Alex Lemon. In that review, Lemon wrote, “But in my life, no book has left me with such a sour impression of its author. Bissinger’s Father’s Day is full of moments that made me cringe at a father’s selfishness.”

Bissinger was deeply wounded by the comment and riffed on the Lemon article for five minutes at Powell’s. It seemed like a storm was brewing so I was not surprised to read this past week that Bissinger launched a highly profane twitter assault at Lemon. Bissinger tweeted, “Dallas can go f@%&*$k itself.”

http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/books/20120518-book-review-author-of-friday-night-lights-bonds-with-his-developmentally-challenged-son-in-fathers-day.ece

To me, his reaction shows the intensity, love and hope we all have for our children. It took a lot of courage to write honestly about his feelings and frustrations. I don’t know if Lemon is a dad, but he sure didn’t show much empathy. I don’t have kids with developmental needs, but I have observed my friends who do and I can see their pure emotional and physical exhaustion.  Truthfully, I would not volunteer to be in their shoes. We need to give ourselves permission to not only love and forgive, but to be frustrated and angry at times. This is a gift that we can give each other this Father’s Day.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

June 11, 2012

More Than Fifty Shades

When I worked at a national news magazine, I learned that the optimal “cover story” evoked an equal number of “pro” and “con” responses. I found that to be roughly true after my recent blog post on the popular Fifty Shades of Grey series: half of the respondents thanked me for the warning not to read the book(s), and the other half expressed gratitude for encouraging the read.

What’s most interesting is that 90 percent of these remarks came through one-one-one conversations or personal emails, not comments on the WordPress or Facebook posts. Could my loyal readers be afraid to admit publically that they’re reading – and even enjoying – E. L. James’ books?

Do we need permission to take a break from our duties as serious grownups at work and home, where we normally spend our days stressed and hurried, cooking, driving, cleaning, spectating and reading children’ s books or school papers?

Is it so wrong to take flight from our normally frantic lives, and maybe even to fantasize a bit?

I admit that I did read the first book out of obligation to the book club (our meeting is this Thursday; I’ll let you know how the discussion goes). But, aside from the over-the-top sexual stuff (who knew you could do that with a riding crop, that balls could be inserted there and that you could buy things to “plug” certain orifices) – the story grew on me. And, when Book I came to a sudden halt, I moved right on to Book II (Fifty Shades Darker), and got sucked into the story of Christian and Ana’s burgeoning relationship.

So, ladies – and brave gentlemen – give yourself a little permission to escape every now and then, and let us know how the “trip” feels.

–        Linda Williams Rorem, 9 June 2012
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Driving Me Crazy

High school boys shouldn’t own cars—at least that’s what I told my first two sons.

I’ve watched enough movies to know what dangers lurk when a teenager has wheels.

  • Those with a “need for speed” are likely to disobey speed limits, get tickets or crash cars.
  • Highly distractible kids find plenty of distractions in cars, such as load music, lively friends (in and out of the car), food and beverages.
  • Testosterone-charged boys could take advantage of young women in the back seat. (Ah, the memories of youth…)
  • When a kid has a car to call his own, he or his friends may be tempted to stash and consume illegal substances.
  • If a kid controls the keys, his parents lose an important bargaining chip: follow the family rules, or you won’t have permission to drive the family car.

So, when my first two boys turned 16, I stressed that we had a spare available, and if all went well, they would retain the privilege of driving it.

Then along came my third son, the “gear head.”

As a toddler, he loved wheels and speed more than his ball-crazed brothers. His first word was “truck,” he only “read” picture books showing vehicles and at his in-home day care, he made sure to “park” the push toy curbside before heading home.

He spent hours “driving” our Fred Flintstone-like foot-powered “mini-van,” and he treated his electric jeep like a real car – checking the tires and hosing it off in the driveway.

When Son #3 was about 10, we consolidated the funds we and Grandma would have allocated for Christmas and his birthday (Dec. 26) and bought him a gas-powered scooter. The kid could not have been happier, and he proved a safe and responsible driver.

However, he soon became bored with scooter #1, sold it via eBay or Craig’s list, and bought a bigger, faster model. Before long, he was spending all of his lawn-mowing money on parts to make a succession of scooters faster and, seemingly, louder. Friends started dropping off scooters, in various states of disrepair, that they – or their parents – had tired of.

He would track FedEx and UPS deliveries online, and sit by the window until the trucks arrived with the next shipment of parts. He spent hours watching YouTube videos explaining how to repair and improve two- and four-stroke engines.

Recently, he calculated that he had gone through 13 scooters, making a sizeable profit along the way.

My husband and I worried that our son would never be content; that he would always search for something faster and better, and that he would eventually get injured.

Last fall, soon after starting high school, he befriended an upper classman in his “Small Engine Repair” class, who tipped him off to a 30-year-old BMW “5-Series” being sold for a song; it just needed “a little work.”

Our son had saved enough money for the purchase (from the scooter sales and yard work), and would have plenty left over to pay for insurance. The fact that he was still 14 and not even old enough for driver’s ed was of little consequence.

My husband and I reaffirmed our stand: high school boys should not own cars.

And then, one day, I had a change of heart while thinking of my brother Rick, who passed away a decade ago.

Rick had spent his middle-school years buying, improving and racing tiny “slot cars.” He soon moved on to real engines, and turned a VW-Bug into a dune buggy before completing driver’s ed.

He continued to overhaul and sell cars throughout his teens, and, after college, moved to Hawaii to open a car-repair business and teach high school auto-mechanics.

So who was I to keep my own son away from gas-powered engines?

We broke down and made room in the driveway for the old Beemer.

Life changed suddenly for #3. He had a sense of joy and purpose that we had never before witnessed. Through online BMW forums, he discussed minutiae with men three or four times his age. Via Skype from Chicago, Uncle Al asked for a tour of the engine. Through Facebook, Uncle Dave, a BMW fan who lives in California, strengthened their relationship. And “Uncle John” (my first cousin) in Atlanta sent a BMW repair manual for Christmas.

He spent hours under the hood and taught himself to drive a stick-shift in our driveway. Once he turned 15 and started driver’s ed, he begged me to go on drives daily.

And then, six months before he would turn 16, my son was ready to sell the car.

Our first thought was, here we go again. He’s never going to be happy with one car, and will constantly crave something better.

On the other hand, we figured that Car #1 had been a great learning tool, and Boy #3 was ready to broaden his education.

So, with great sadness, we all watched our son’s first baby leave “the lot” last Friday.

The following morning, he came to the breakfast table with a sense of urgency: he had spotted an amazing 3-series BMW on Craig’s List. It was five years younger than Car #1, in near-perfect condition and amazingly cheap.

Who were we to argue?

–Linda Williams Rorem, 4 June 2012
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