Bridging the Generation Gap

“I’m sorry we don’t live near your grandparents or uncles,” my mom once told me. “It’s good to have someone to run away to.”

Like many people in the post-World War II era, my parents enjoyed the prosperity and modern conveniences that allowed them to move around the county, far from their parents and siblings.

I adored my grandparents, but didn’t know them well. My dad’s mother lived in a small, coal-mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania; she flew in every Christmas, bearing home-made nut-bread and Snickerdoodles. We made occasional Spring Break trips to visit the fragrant, sun-lit South Florida home my mom’s parents built when Pop-Pop retired from Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and they sometimes traveled to see us in Chicago during the summer.

And so, when  we became “best friends” with a family that lived near us in both Boston and Chicago, we forged our own family unit, celebrating every holiday – from Christmas down through Labor Day – and major event together for decades. Our mothers commemorated their “fifty years of friendship” a few years back and the kids – some separated by thousands of miles — still enjoy an extraordinary, cousin-like closeness.

To me, that defined “family.”

Our parents made it clear we were not expected to stick around: we would attend college and establish careers wherever we wanted. As such, my oldest brother studied in Arizona and settled in Hawaii; Number Two attended school in-state, worked for a while at IBM in New York, then followed the computer-era gold rush to California. My oldest sister went to college in Minnesota and graduate school in upstate New York, then returned to Minnesota for a career in art. The sister with Down Syndrome stayed closer to home, by necessity, and the next brother attended college five hours away, but now lives in our home town. I followed that brother to college, moved to New York City for grad school and, a decade later, drove across the country to Seattle with my husband.

We still live in the Seattle area, on the island where my husband’s parents moved from Minnesota in the late 1970s. Although they attended college elsewhere, my husband and his three siblings all decided to raise their families on the island (one brother later moved his family half an hour away).

It is a close-knit family full of kind, interesting and successful adults and kind, interesting and motivated kids. Now numbering 30 people, the family gathers several times a month to celebrate holidays, birthdays, baptisms, graduations and every major achievement.

A few a years back, seven cousins attended the same elementary school – and an aunt taught second grade there.  This fall, six cousins will attend high school together. We all know we are blessed to have family that we love close by.

Rich’s parents are young and active, and are actively involved in their kids’ and grandkids’ lives. Grandpa retired early and Grandma now works as a consultant, so they have the time and resources to fully participate in family life.  They routinely provide before- and after-school care for several of the grandkids; keep a complicated calendar of the kids’ school performances, band concerts and athletic events; and often take weekend duty so their children can get away with their spouses.

However, their biggest contribution is the “family trip” they organize once a year. It started when the two oldest grandchildren were 11 and 8, and the boys’ parents were expecting a new baby. Grandma and Grandpa carted the kids off for a few days, and a new tradition was born.

That annual summer getaway now is called the “Eight and Up Trip”—as the grandkids can attend as soon as they turn eight. The location is always kept secret until the last minute. About 10 days before the trip, Grandpa starts sending out clues, such as “We will go west, then north, then east, then north, then east, then south,” or this year’s code-breaker: “These numbers tell the whole story: 4, 216, 3 56, 70, 1350, 5399,” which an industrious grandson deciphered as: 4 days away, 216 miles to travel, 3:56 travel time, 70 degrees at the destination, 1,350-foot elevation and a 5,399-yard golf course (Mt. Hood).

At its peak four years ago, the vacation included 16 grandchildren, but Grandma and Grandpa have since wisely split off the 18-and-older crowd, which now enjoys an annual golf weekend near the Canadian border.

Vacations usually involve car travel, although last summer, the crew (two adults, 10 kids) took an overnight train to Montana. (After a 12-hour delay on the way home, that won’t be repeated.) Golf and water sports always factor into the trip, as do raucous games of Monopoly and Rummy.

Yesterday morning, the group left on another five-day vacation. As the ages now range from 11 to 17, I suspect my in-laws will spend considerable time and effort managing teenage hormones and attitudes.

I won’t hear from my kids while they’re away, and I won’t hear much about the trip afterwards. When they return, Grandma and Grandpa will assure us as always – with bags under their eyes and forced smiles  – “Oh, everyone was terrific!” even though we know better. The cousins will keep their memories, inside jokes and secrets between themselves, and recall them with smiles through the coming year.

This close, extended-family model is not one I grew up with, but I have come to fully embrace it. In fact, I will give myself permission to take my own grandkids (God willing – and not too soon, please) to my own “Grandparents’ Camp” in due time.

–        Linda Williams Rorem, 30 July, 2012
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Parenting Through Paranoia

As adults we get more moments then we would like that remind us about the fragility of life.

Is there a single person who did not think this weekend about the shooting at the midnight

Look both ways, the Orange Line is coming

Look both ways, the Orange Line is coming (Photo credit: LA Wad)

Dark Knight Rises Batman premiere that left 12 dead at a Colorado theater? Much has already been written about the crazed gunmen and his booby-trapped apartment.  It is beyond doubt a tragic tale.  The look of anguish on the face of parents who lost children in the shooting is a stab in the heart. Stories are trickling in about moms, dads and boyfriends body blanketing their loved ones from gunfire. We need these stories to help us all make some sense about a bewildering event.

As parents, we take the necessary precautions to reduce the risk of injury to our kids.  “Look both ways before crossing the street,” we say. “Everyone got their seat belt buckled?” we ask.  Although our rational self knows that the Aurora theater incident was isolated, the emotional response is quite different. As one parent who was at that theater said through a stream of tears, “We just went to see a movie!”

The morning after the shooting was my youngest son’s birthday and we had already purchased tickets to take a carload of his friends to see The Dark Knight Rises. As expected I had a few emails waiting for me in my inbox asking if the party would go on. I told them it would. I had already planned to remind kids about “duck and cover”  before we entered the theater. It felt a little weird to be starting out a 12-year-old’s party on such a serious note, but somehow it felt necessary.

Parents sheepishly apologized to me for being a little paranoid when they dropped off their kids, but it was understandable. I admitted that I too was apprehensive given the timing. It wasn’t that I expected a gunman to appear at a matinée in Seattle, but I knew for sure that my eyes would be scanning the movie audience more than the screen at this particular showing.

Normally my husband and I would have been comfortable in the packed theater sitting several rows away from the kids. This time however, we sat right behind — all the better to keep a lookout.

I remember telling my dad when I was pregnant with my first child that I was worried. He said, “Carol, welcome to a lifetime a worrying.” His words have been truer than I could ever have imagined. Not only do I worry about my own kids, I’ve got plenty of apprehension to spread around for others. It is a trait that makes me good at planning work, vacations and parties because I always have a back-up plan. However it also brings on multiple thought bubbles that keep me up at night.

I give myself permission to be a little bit paranoid when it comes to my kids but that is the joy and love of parenting. I know I have lots of company.

Linda wrote about this topic too. A subject worth revisiting.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

July 23, 2012

Flying Unfriendly Skies

One of my sons plans to attend a sports-related camp on the East Coast next week and, based on plans a friend of mine forwarded (her entire family is making the camp part of an extended vacation), I booked him in and out of Baltimore Airport.

I noted that I could book a shuttle bus ($137 each way) from the airport to the camp, which is about 45 minutes away.

Some time later, I learned that many of the players are flying in and out of Philadelphia, and will travel together – with some coaches – to the camp.  Fortunately, my son was already booked through Philadelphia (connecting there to a smaller plane for Baltimore), so I thought it would be easy to make the change.

I knew that if my son just skipped the connecting flight instead of canceling it, his entire return ticket would be voided, so I tried to make the change officially.

First, I called the “third-party” travel firm through which I had booked the flight. The customer service representative was most certainly sitting thousands of miles away from U.S. shores, and had trouble understanding that I simply wanted to cancel the connecting flight. After my third unsuccessful attempt at explaining that, I ended the call.

Next, I called the airline directly, and that proved even more frustrating.

Here’s what I learned: Although my son had a flight booked to Philadelphia and a seat on that flight, to change his itinerary – and have him stop in Philly instead of continuing on to Baltimore – the airline would need to book an entirely new flight. That “new” itinerary would be charged at the current rate (for me, a last-minute, less-than-two-week’s-notice fare). In effect, to keep the same first flight and free up the second, which the airline could then re-sell at a higher rate, I would be charged a whopping $568 – in addition to the $650 I had already paid.

I said I was willing to pay the $150 change fee, but couldn’t understand why I was charged so much extra to keep a ticket I already possessed.

Well, the agent explained, the original itinerary was for Baltimore, not for Philly, and that was charged at the market rate. On the day I booked the flight, the price to Philly may have been higher (although certainly not $568 more), so it would be wrong to let my son disembark in Philly for the Baltimore price.

Okay, I understand that rules are rules, and airline personnel are instructed to follow the book. However, I do believe that some rules are absolute hog-wash and should be circumvented.

I knew better than to spend time arguing with the first agent, who was certainly powerless, so I asked for his supervisor, and eventually that person’s supervisor.  To their credit, all three agents knew the rules well and would not budge.

The second supervisor explained that a “new” ticket had to be booked on the day of that call, at that day’s rate. As she explained: “If another customer called and booked today at the higher rate, and then found out that you got the flight for less, they would sue us.”

“But I’m not booking a new flight,” I argued. “My son already has a seat on the flight I originally booked.” And on and on.

The conversation continued in that fashion, with the customer service representative repeating the rules as written, and me trying to point out how ludicrous the rules were. Clearly, I was getting nowhere.

So, I made one final pitch—a Hail Mary, if you will: “Surely, as a consumer, you can see that it’s crazy to charge me $568 more to keep a flight I have already booked, especially when the airline can make additional money re-selling the flight segment I am dropping. Don’t you see that I am getting a raw deal at both ends? Don’t you have the power to make any adjustments in that price?”

The agent replied, “I’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and I have never been able to make exceptions.”

And that’s when I lost it, and my not-so-stellar “mommy moment” occurred: “How sad is that?” I asked. “You’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and you have no power to actually help consumers?  You know you are taking advantage of your customers. How can you get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, and day after day return to a job like that?”

I thanked her for her time, and hung up, with steam still coming out of my ears. And that’s when I realized that I had an audience in my household: my 12-year-old daughter was sitting outside my office door, concerned about the call, and my 15-year-old son and his friend (whose mom is a retired flight attendant) could hear me from the kitchen.

So, I had some explaining to do. But in the end, I gave my kids – and myself – permission to fight for what they believe in, and to take a stand when they feel they are being wronged. Okay, I was trying to bend some well-established airline rules, and I learned that they were actually set in stone. At least I tried. And I hope that my kids will have the courage to take on their own battles – albeit with a little more honey and a lot less vinegar.

 – Linda Williams Rorem, 20 July, 2012
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Permission Slips for College Reunions

Love them or hate them, school reunions often compel us to return to the scene of our youth.

For most of us, reunions provide an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to reminisce about the “good old days.”

For others, reunions offer second chances: to show that the ugly duckling became a swan; the wallflower gained social skills and became rich, powerful and popular; and the directionless burn-out emerged from the purple haze, got a grip and found success.

For those for whom Father Time has not been so kind, reunions provoke anxiety: the fear of revealing to old pals that they’ve gained too much weight, lost too much hair, failed at relationships or ended up, to quote Chris Farley (RIP), “living in a van down by the river.”

And, after months of anticipation, many find that when the actual event arrives, it’s fun to catch up with schoolmates from long ago, but difficult to know where to take re-invigorated friendships from there. Will you check in again within the next decade, visit each other’s homes or take vacations together? Or, is it more likely that you’ll add each other to Facebook Friends rosters, check out some family photos, “like” a few comments and eventually lose interest?

Probably because I attended a huge, Big Ten university and an out-of-my league graduate school (let’s just say a certain U.S. leader graduated at the same time), I prefer “boutique reunions” with a select group of people that I really want to spend time with. The reunion organizers usually cast a wide enough net to include several people I’ve lost touch with, so the events truly offer wonderful opportunities to re-establish relationships.

As such, last weekend, I was excited to leave the kids behind (thanks to a coordinated effort by my husband, in-laws, mother and brother) and attend an unofficial sorority reunion 2,000 miles away, where 14 of my “pledge sisters” and 20 older “sisters” gathered for a weekend.

We toured the sorority house, walked through campus (despite 107-degree heat), shopped for those at home and ate and drank at old, familiar spots. Along the way (actually late at night at the “old watering hole”) several “sisters” helped me create the following “Permission Slips for a College Reunion”:

We hereby grant each other permission to:

  1. Just for one night or a weekend, forget that you’re a mom, a wife or a business manager. Let yourself be transported back in time. Of course, you have permission to brag on your kids if you want.
  2. Give yourself a break from the things you always do at home. Perhaps more important, give yourself permission to do the things you never do at home.
  3. Pick it up where you left off, and forgive any lapses, hurts or misunderstandings between then and now.
  4. Remember where you all started, and celebrate how far you’ve all come.
  5. Take on old roles with your pals. The sorority president shall always be in charge, the “standards” chairperson shall forever set a high moral bar and the “footloose and fancy free” gal shall always pave the way for fun. However, give yourself permission to change up the roles, too. Who says only the social chairperson gets to dance on tables?
  6. Connect on an adult level with people you knew in your youth. Talk about politics, social issues and personal problems if you want. Then again, give yourself permission to act like a kid again and keep the conversation light.
  7. Tell each other that no one has changed a bit., and feel grateful for the age-induced far-sightedness that masks the wrinkles, blotches and extra 5, 10 or 15 pounds.
  8. Take pride in feeling young and healthy after all those years. However, feel free to skip your daily workouts and eat junk food and drink fattening, sugary drinks all weekend. If you want to eat ice cream twice in one day, who will stop you?
  9. Remind each other you used to “have it “ and assure each other you’ve still “got it.”
  10. Prove that you’re in the know as you text – using capital-letter abbreviations — your friends and kids, even if you need reading glasses to do so.
  11. Laugh as you recall the good times, and cry about the tough ones – then and now.
  12. Laugh until your cheeks and ribs hurt, and be grateful that you are still a few years away from needing Attends.
  13. Have a hot flash in a bar crammed with twenty-somethings, but assure each other that it’s really just the heat. “Doesn’t anyone have AC around here?”
  14. Say “No” to that one last drink, even if that wasn’t standard behavior in the past. With age, you’ve learned that restraint leads to a cheerier morning after. Of course, you can say “Yes,” to it, too, as you don’t need to drive or face your family.
  15. Dance on the tables if the spirit moves you (see #5 and #14). If you enjoyed that at 20, it will be even more fun now. Just make sure no one takes pictures, because you will not appreciate them the next day…or when your friends and colleagues see them on Facebook.
  16. Join in fun activities with old friends, but don’t feel compelled to participate in everything. A reunion weekend can provide great “alone time” as well.
  17. Promise to stay in better touch, knowing full well that once everyone returns to their homes, families and careers, life will continue as before.

 – Linda Williams Rorem, 16 July 2012
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Confessions of a Sportsaholic

Cristina, our exchange student from Madrid, told us years ago, “Your family is sports-obsessed.” It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and I thought her remark was just an observation of the contrast between American and European culture, but the evidence says otherwise. When our kids were small we only allowed “educational television” for a maximum of one hour a day. We attempted to give them “balanced exposure” to activities. We required our children to play a musical instrument, we bought tickets to children’s symphonies and attended theater. Yet, one activity was always constant throughout: participating and watching sports. They enjoyed the physical activity and the competition and so did we.

As the kids got older we started increasing the allowable TV time if it was for sports viewing, rationalizing, “The kids will learn a lot about competition and teamwork.” We scheduled our family vacations around sports tournaments and seasons. We encouraged our kids to read the newspaper by starting with the sports section and they read books with male and female sports heroines. TV time expanded further as we ate dinner while watching Monday Night Football.

We eventually realized “balance” was not to be achieved, our family would not be culturally well rounded; we were “all in” when it came to athletics. We purchased season tickets to Washington Husky football and basketball games. Our two oldest children each became Sports Editor of their high school newspaper and our daughter wrote her college essays sprinkled with sports analogies. It is only in hindsight that I can see how the path unfolded with our family. As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement speech, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

It was fait accompli, our family was indeed sports-obsessed . We all virtually stand at attention when Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is played. I dare anyone to listen to this and not get a tingle.

In the past month I attended author talks by Bizz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) and Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated. This week I am playing in a tennis tournament. Hi, my name is Carol and I am a Sportsaholic.

One time, I opined about our obsession to my friend who was V.P. of marketing for a pro sports franchise. She said the appeal of sports is that it is “unscripted drama.” This rang true as I recalled how sports commentator Jim McKay used to introduce his television show, ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…”

It really is the thrill of pushing a body to the emotional and physical brink with no predetermined outcome that gives sports junkies an adrenaline rush. Our family consumed a considerable amount of time in the last few weeks watching the Olympic trials. We watched hours of swimming and track and were even lucky enough to get tickets to attend the Olympic Diving trials held in Washington. I don’t know how we are going to get work done during the London Olympics since the advertising has been touting the ability to watch 24/7 which scares me and excites me. I know my family and I will be watching as much as possible, eagerly and without one trace of guilt. I can’t wait.

Carol Lewis Gullstad July 9, 2012


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Selecting Sisters

When my friend texted on Friday with an invitation to see Magic Mike, I had not even heard of the movie. However, I’m always up for a Girls’ Night Out (GNO), so I agreed. The night was full of surprises:

Surprise #1: The 7:50 pm film sold out hours ahead of time, so we had to buy tickets for a late-night showing. Those who know me are already laughing, because I have trouble staying awake during matinees.

Surprise #2: When the theater doors opened at about 10 pm, hundreds of happy women (and perhaps five or six sheepish men) poured into the lobby. Who knew Magic Mike would become the summer’s GNO hit?

Surprise #3: Who knew that Channing Tatum was such a skilled “dancer”?

Surprises #4 – 26: Well, you’ll just have to see the movie.

I promise, this is not just another post about Mommy Porn (we’ll wait for the Fifty Shades film series for that). Instead, I’ll focus on how most women crave and thoroughly enjoy time together, and how we often treasure our girlfriends as much as our blood relatives.

In fact, our girlfriends are the sisters we get to hand-pick.

At times, I have felt a bit ambivalent about my choice to attend a big, rah-rah university and to join a big, rah-rah sorority. I adapted well to communal living, well-scripted rituals, theme parties and formal dances, but I never was sure that was the “real” me.

Later, my graduate-school classmates were, by and large, intellectual, earthy, left-wing, non-comformists, and I never felt they understood why someone would choose to join a sorority. In fact, I kept my affiliation fairly quiet.

And then, at a magazine job, I was surrounded by deep-thinking, liberal, free-spirited journalists, most of whom had attended small, Ivy League colleges. I didn’t even try to explain the sisterhood to my colleagues.

However, time is the true test of friendship, and as the years have rolled forward, my “sisters” have remained my constant confidantes and allies. I guess it’s true that the cream always rises to the top.

A few of my “sisters” helped me through some early, lonely days in the big city – whether I was lamenting a failed relationship, frustrated with a colleague or just in need of some laughs. And, it was a sister who – despite living 3,000 miles away – passed my phone number to a friend who was moving to New York. That man has been my husband for 21 years now.

My “sisters” and I flew around the country to attend each other’s weddings, which all included the obligatory “circle dance” to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” We sent birthday cards and baby gifts, and kept each other aprised of moves, promotions, marriages, divorces (surprisingly few), tragedies (sadly, a handful), graduations and parents’ passings. Now, email and Facebook keep up even more connected.

While many of the women stayed within driving distance of our college and see each other regularly, it takes a planned reunion to draw me “home.” This weekend will mark my third visit back to campus in as many decades, and I’m filled with joy as I anticipate reconnecting with a dozen or so friends from my pledge class.

We’ll tour the sorority house, walk through campus, have a few too many at the renowned tavern and stay up too late telling stories. Along the way, I’m sure I’ll recall challenging classes, good professors, bad choices and fun parties.

But, most important, I’ll strengthen bonds with some women that I’ve chosen to call sisters for life.

Sure, men bond during their time in fraternities, too. Often, those frat brothers become life-long buddies, as well. I know several who keep up during annual poker weekends, ski trips, summer barbecues or bar-room reunions.

However, I don’t think you’ll ever see a group of middle-aged guys head out for drinks before an action-adventure film. They don’t sit around swapping stories about friends and kids, and I doubt they provide shoulders for each other’s tears. As I’m sure my many “sisters” would agree, it’s their loss.

 –       Linda Williams Rorem, 2 July, 2012To receive posts directly, please email

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