Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

The empty nest re-fills and re-empties

February 4, 2019

The nest is empty. Again.

My daughter moved back home from New York last September, about two years after graduating college. It was a temporary although open-ended move: She wanted to live rent-free while applying for artist residencies in Germany.

I had trepidations. I write at home and rely on an empty house free of distractions. Since leaving my job last January, I’d chugged along with the first draft of my novel as steadily as a railway worker laying track. I was worried that having her around would mess that up.

But home she came. And mostly – 90 percent – it was great.

Empty birds nest

This was the first time she’d lived with us for an extended period since high school. And delightfully she was no longer a high school student! None of the surly, oppositional stance of a teenager. She was funny, talkative, interested in doing stuff with us, and good about keeping the kitchen clean and confining her mess to her own room. She cooked (excellent) dinners. She made progress on the work goals she’d set for herself – the residency applications, creating a portfolio web site, doing her creative projects etc.

BUT.

We were both working at home. All day, every day. This was more time than we have spent in each other’s presence since her first year of life, when I was on maternity leave and she hadn’t yet started day care!

My preferred routine is to get up early, go to the gym around 7 a.m., and be on my computer by 9 or 9:30. Meanwhile she’d be in bed with the cat until 11:30. It drove me nuts. Was she working? Was she watching YouTube videos? Everything she did seemed to take much longer than it would take me. I flailed around in the swamp between Trust and Verify. I tried not to constantly ask, “SO? What are you working on? Have you finished your ______?” but I did end up asking that a lot, which probably drove her nuts too.

There were pleasant distractions as well as irritating ones. She’d ask me to accompany her shopping, and of course I’d say yes. She’d want to go to the gym mid-day and I’d do that with her, even though it broke up my writing momentum. I don’t regret those interruptions – she’s only here for a short while, enjoy the time with her– but it meant I often felt less productive than I like.

There’s a kind of a worry sub-routine that runs under the other programs of my brain when she’s living with us. I suspect this is true for many parents, particularly mothers: It’s 11 p.m., is she still out with her friends? Did she write that thank-you note to her great-aunt yet? Has she made a dentist appointment?

When she was living 3,000 miles away, that sub-routine shut off. I didn’t know or care where she was at 11 p.m. I assumed she would manage her life, and she did. But then she moved home, and the sub-routine kicked back in. Unnecessary, vestigial, irrational, but there it was — stressful and distracting for me, and annoying for her.

Spending so much time around each other reminded me of when she was an infant.  We’d be home together all day, skin against skin, nursing and fussing and nursing and fussing, and sometimes by 5 p.m. I felt like we couldn’t stand to touch each other any more. Thankfully that was when Sam would show up, fresh and calm, and I could hand her off.

In any event, when she was accepted into a three-month residency program in Berlin, I was thrilled. It’s a great opportunity for her, it will allow me to reenter my lovely hermitlike work mode, and it will also give us some distance from each other. Good for everyone! By last week, I was eagerly counting the days until her flight and looking forward to having time alone with Sam again.

But then in the past few days, I started to feel separation anxiety. Was she packing everything she’ll need? Does she know what to do if someone follows her in the street? Does she have dental floss? I wanted to hover but she wanted to be left alone. I felt rejected and jagged and weepy.

Just like when we dropped her off at college six and a half years ago.

Today I dropped her at the International Terminal of SFO. Which meant it was time to:

Get all this off my chest.

Turn the sub-routine off.

Get back to work!

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Change

August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:

andreesen

Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.

An emerging feminist filmmaker (who happens to be my daughter)

January 7, 2013

Normally Daughter is not thrilled about being a subject of this blog. But for once she asked me to include something of hers!

During the fall, for one of her freshman film classes at NYU, she produced the following montage.

She has had almost 1,000 viewers on Vimeo without doing any promotion. She’d like more views! So… if you feel like it, please share this link on your Facebook page, or with friends who might be interested etc. The link is http://vimeo.com/54917152

I’m very proud of her. Not just the production quality, but the ideas. I’d say something about the feminist apple not falling far from the mother tree, but there is altogether too much fruit associated with this issue already. :-)

Family traditions, my traditions?

December 7, 2012

What happens to family traditions when your family goes away?

Well, “family goes away” might be stating things a bit too strongly. But this is our first winter with our daughter away in college, and holidays feel different when there is no child in the house.

Even if for the past couple of years that “child” was a big, independent, less-than-optimally-communicative teenager.

Take Chanukah, which arrives this weekend with its usual single-candle blaze of glory. Normally we would make a Big Deal of the first night of Chanukah — festive dinner with relatives or friends, lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt, dreidels. Most years we would end up making latkes on two or three different evenings for different configurations of friends and guests. And we always made sure to buy at least eight gifts, and we had big gift-opening hoopla every night.

This year? I do not want to cook a single latke. I will be completely fine if I don’t eat a single latke. Okay, I’ll eat some when we get together with our chavurah in late December, but other than that…. meh.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I don’t want to open gifts every night either. I’d like to open gifts on the last night, when Daughter will be home for her winter vacation. But other than that, I don’t really care.

What I do want is to light the candles and say the blessings. Just a nice straightforward little candle-lighting at dinnertime with Sam. (Followed by watching some Jon Stewart re-runs?)

In one sense, this is completely reasonable. Chanukah is a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, which mushroomed out of its historic proportions in the past 50 years as American Jews tried to come up with a counterbalance to the glitter of Christmas. Lighting candles with a minimum of fuss is probably closer to the traditional Chanukah than what we’ve been doing in our household for the past 18 years.

But there are other times when the issue is murkier. Take Shabbat. When Daughter was home, we lit candles and said blessings on most Friday nights where we were all home together. This fall, when Sam and I have been home on a Friday, it’s felt slightly weird lighting candles with just the two of us.

Part of me felt, “Why are we going through the motions? It’s just the two of us.”

Which raised the question… were we just lighting candles to educate our child? or were we doing it for us also?

That question is more nuanced for me than it might be for some people because I was not raised with much Judaism at all. My family had a Passover seder and lit a menorah, but we never celebrated Shabbat or belonged to a synagogue. So the Jewish traditions I carry out are ones that I’ve consciously chosen as an adult, rather than ones I inhaled with my childhood air.

But back to that Shabbat moment of to-light-or-not-to-light….

I lit.

I skipped the white table cloth. But I lit the candles, even without Daughter.

And there are really two reasons for that. One is that as adults, we need to take care of ourselves — regardless of whether we have kids around or not. I don’t want to be someone who lives on TV Dinners because there are no children to cook for. I don’t want to be that old lady who lets the house go uncleaned and unrepaired because she’s the only one living there. We need to nourish ourselves as well as our children.

Shabbat is a kind of nourishment, like a home-cooked meal, an occasional massage,  a bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market. And that brings me to the second reason — I do want to keep Shabbat as a part of my life. I care about it and believe in it. So I lit.

But clearly that’s not true for every Jewish tradition. Some are falling by the wayside.

Building a Sukkah? We did it for about ten years when Daughter was little. Now? Forget it!

Latkes? Can live without the oil, the mess and the calories.

Shabbat? Big Passover Seder? Chanukah candle-lighting? Those are keepers.

What about you? Any changes in your family rituals or traditions if you’ve had children leave home? And what does that say about your values and priorities? 

Empty nest, two months in

October 15, 2012

After putting up with a year of my anticipatory angst, you might be wondering, How’s it going with that Empty Nest? 

And after about two months I can answer… really well!

Here are the visible changes in my life:

  • Got rid of the station wagon and bought the Chevy Volt (which I love – but more on that in a future post).
  • Started taking an intense 90-minute bike/row class at the gym at 6 a.m. three days a week.
  • Cooking more “adult” foods — bok choy, kale, chard, cauliflower.

Stinson Beach – an empty nest weekend walk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

  • More free time on weekends — autumn without kid soccer games! — for birding, hiking etc.
  • Ability to take a vacation in the middle of the fall, not on school schedules.

The biggest change, though, is not a visible one. There’s an entire part of my brain that was tied down and now is suddenly free. It wasn’t taken up with major worries, just a constant drone of minor stuff — when will she be home from school, is she done with her homework, should she be going to bed, should she be waking up, what’s the status of the college applications, what are her plans for the weekend, etc.

It felt like a computer with a DOS program running steadily behind Windows — you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, but it ties things up and makes everything run a little more clunkily. For eighteen years. And now suddenly it’s gone! Wow!

(In other words, my brain went from PC to Mac?? Am I now insanely great?)

There have been other changes that are more nuanced. They have to do with relationships:

The Alice in Wonderland Marriage

My marriage seems more intense, as if it had inflated, Alice-in-Wonderland style, to fill a room.  I suddenly feel more dependent on Sam. We’ve gone from a household of three to a household of two.

Before, if he went out of town overnight for work, Daughter was still around — most likely busy, or staying out late, or closed up in her room video-chatting, but still around for a good-night hug or requesting a lift to BART. Now when he is gone, there is no one but me and the cat. It’s a little unsettling to feel this dependent on him.

The Assembly Line Has Shut Down

For the past 18 years, our marriage has been intertwined with a huge, all-consuming Project — raising a child. Even when we went out for dinner by ourselves, this was always there at the table with us. Now suddenly the Project is gone.

Returning to my computer analogies, imagine if the Apple workforce showed up one morning and were told they should keep on working, but they would no longer be manufacturing Macs or iPhones or iPads.

You look around and think, Um, now what are we supposed to be doing? Why are we all here? 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

I’m newly conscious that I don’t have that many strong, current, one-to-one friendships. I have a zillion Facebook friends, including some very old, very dear friends from my teenage years with whom I have marvelously reconnected via the Internet. I have blog readers. I have co-workers. I have people I see at synagogue. But I don’t have as many nearby, frequent, get-together-and-laugh-until you-pee female friends as I had in my teens and 20s and early 30s.

Basically — confession time, a little post-Yom Kippur al cheit here —  I let my own friendships slide when I became a Parent. I wanted to spend my free non-work time with Daughter and Sam. And we were constantly socializing in child-centered formations — school potlucks, soccer weekends, dinners with parents of Daughters’ friends. There were lots of people with whom I spent lots of time, but never really developed a meaningful individual relationship. We related through our children. And now those children and those potlucks and soccer weekends are gone.

That just heightens the unsettling feeling of dependence on Sam. And you read those articles about aging and how people with close friendships stay healthier and live longer than those who are isolated. Aak! I don’t want to be an 80-year-old cat lady alone in her house.

So resolved: I will put effort into reviving and cultivating individual friendships.

—————-

All told, I can understand how marriages fall apart when the children leave the house. (Even more, I suspect, when spouses retire and suddenly find themselves together at home all day.)

Now, Sam and I are not going to fall apart. (Don’t worry, Dad!!) But there is subtle recalibration that needs to happen — even with all the positive changes, the freedom, the opportunities, and the knowledge that Daughter is happy and healthy and doing what she needs to do.

I do need to add this as a postscript. The sense of freedom, of losing that DOS program of worry in the background of my brain, is only possible because Daughter is happy and doing well.

The empty nest would be a completely different experience if it were empty because a child had gone AWOL, or was floundering or making dangerous choices. That isn’t our situation… fortunately.

How much bigger is an empty nest?

July 21, 2012

All year I’ve been moaning in this blog about Daughter’s impending departure for college. Loss, separation, passage of time, reminder of mortality, and so on. But in fact, I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about all the things I’m going to do once she’s gone.

Measuring a bird’s nest in the tundra / Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I’m going to cook kid-unfriendly vegetables like kale and cauliflower and cabbage. I’m going to sign up for a boot-camp program at my gym from 6 to 7:15 on weekday mornings. I’ll go to movies. To synagogue. To First Friday art walks in Oakland. Sam and I will bike from winery to winery in Sonoma. I’ll go on countless Audubon field trips….

Above all, I’ll return to revising my novel. I’ll work like a maniac, like life is one non-stop writers’ colony, and resolve all the plot and character problems, and bang that sucker out. I thought about it a lot this spring when I found myself the underachiever of my writing group, feeling guilty for not producing new drafts or rewrites: Just wait until September, then I will be amazingly productive….

It occurred to me the other day that September — the empty nest — has become an Emerald City. It’s shimmering in the distance at the end of the road. Magical things will happen. The Scarecrow will get his brains, the Tin Man his heart, the Lion his courage. Ilana will get the time and focus to finish her novel.

So then I started to wonder, Just how much more time will I actually have? 

It’s not like Daughter is still four years old and needs me to play with her and bathe her and read stories at bedtime. In fact, most of the time  she’s out with friends or in her room with the door closed. She makes her own lunches and does her own laundry. I don’t even need to drive her around anymore, since she got her license last month. Some days we hardly say twenty sentences to each other.

How exactly is she keeping me from working on my novel?

The critic in me says that she isn’t keeping me from the novel; I’m keeping myself. Revising is hard, I feel stuck on certain things, and she’s simply providing a good excuse not to deal with those challenges. I already have a relatively ideal situation for writing — a half-time job, and a beach house “retreat” that we share with friends and thus have access to every third week. Why aren’t I writing my little fingers off right now?

But in fact, I do believe that having a child at home tends to consume one’s attention, even if that child is an independent teenager.

Having a child — particularly for women, I think, but maybe for some men too — colonizes part of your brain like some alien Star Trek spore. A whole section of your brain is roped off with “seat taken” signs. When your child is nearby — even shut in her room texting friends — millions of your neurons are firing away non-stop on autopilot, vigilant for sounds of distress, sounds of happiness, sounds of misbehavior. When all this is going on, it is hard to summon up the level of concentration needed to work on a novel.

What will change when Daughter is gone:

  • I’ll feel free to spend four-day weekends at the beach house. With Daughter here, I don’t like to be away overnight. But once she’s gone, I can join Sam there on weekends and then remain there writing by myself on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • I’ll have uninterrupted early mornings. I can wake up at 6 a.m. and get right to work.  No half-listening for sounds of showering, dressing etc. No need to remind anyone that they need to be out the door in ten minutes. No driving anyone to BART. By 9 a.m., I can have three hours of work under my belt.
  • I can work evenings without a chunk of my brain hovering down the hall to see if homework is really being done, chores have been completed etc. (This is after Sam and I eat our kale-cabbage casserole,  of course.)

So yes, I think I will have more time for writing when she is gone. Or at least more focused time for writing.

But still, I wonder if I am heaping too many expectations onto September. If I’m slipping into a bit of magical thinking. The Emerald City shimmered from a distance but the Wizard turned out to be an ordinary man with no special powers.

How many ambitions can one empty nest hold?

La Miserable, c’est moi

July 20, 2012

I’m walking around with quiet sadness as background music, with Daughter going off to college in less than one month. Then every so often — rarely, but still sometimes — something happens that makes me want to hurl her out the door with her suitcase flying behind her.

On Thursday night, we took Daughter and Boyfriend out to see the 25th anniversary touring production of Les Miserables. I love that show! It is one of my two far-and-away favorite musicals of all time, alongside The Threepenny Opera. (Clearly I like musicals about social misery.)

Sam and I saw it on Broadway back in the 1980s, and for two decades I have continued singing the tunes.

Red — the blood of angry men —
Black — the dark of ages past —
Red — a world about to dawn —
Black — the night that ends at last —

So when I heard last winter that Les Miz was coming to San Francisco, I rushed out — well, rushed to my computer, to be accurate — and bought tickets.

For months I looked forward to this. I bought the soundtrack for my iPod. I borrowed the Victor Hugo novel from the library and read all 1,400 pages of it, adding forays into Wikipedia to try and puzzle out 19th century French politics. I imagined sitting with Daughter and Boyfriend at dinner before the show, summarizing the plot and the context for them so they would get the most out of it.

(By now, you know what’s coming, don’t you?)

Flash forward to night of show. Lovely dinner at a Brazilian restaurant near the theatre eating feijoada and balls of fried something-or-other. I offer to summarize the plot, only to hear, No! Don’t give it away! Earlier I had offered to share the soundtrack with her, only to hear, No! I don’t want to listen to it in advance!

Then we watch the show. It’s a middling production. Kind of rushed, and not as grand as I remembered. But then, things generally aren’t as grand as you remember them 20 years later. The music is still fabulous. At intermission, I turn to her and ask the fateful question, “What do you think?”

Shrug. “I wish there was dialogue and it wasn’t all music. And it’s not really my kind of music.”

I turn to Boyfriend. Another shrug and a nod of agreement. “Not my kind of music.”

Aaugh! 

Why does this always seem to happen? Les Miz. The Threepenny Opera. Bruce Springsteen. Erich Fromm. The movie Reds. The movie Nashville. Casablanca. Or dinners that I look up in cookbooks, then carefully dice and blend and bake.

It feels like I offer a small, carefully wrapped gift box to my child — a little gold box with a satin ribbon holding a part of my heart. And then she dismisses it with a toss of her head, or rolled eyes. Doesn’t want to bother with it. Or goes along but doesn’t get it. Doesn’t really care.

And why does this push my buttons? There are many times that Sam hates a movie or book that I love, and it doesn’t frustrate me this way. But there’s a different emotional weight when it’s your child. You yearn to give them beauty, delight, joy. Isn’t it your job to show them the beauty in the world?  And you try so hard! You plan! You care! You anticipate!

And then it doesn’t work out.

Okay, I know this is totally normal. Daughter will discover her own sources of beauty, delight and joy. Probably discovering them on her own — rather than being led to them by a parent — is part of the delight and joy. And she’s not ungrateful. She even thanked us for buying the tickets and dinner last night.

In fact, when I consider things rationally, there are lots of times when she has appreciated some beloved cultural icon of mine — Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, Lord of the Rings, the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Esther Averill’s The Cat Club. Even Springsteen, a little.

Still, who wants to be rational? On Thursday night, boy, was I ready to throw her out of the house.

Graduation

June 10, 2012

Last Thursday, my daughter passed her driving test. On Friday, she graduated from high school.

Now we enter two months of limbo — done with high school, not yet starting college. None of her friends have very organized plans for the summer. A lot of them are “looking for a job” — which, in this economy, and with them just starting to look in mid-June, means they will be babysitting. It’s as if both kids and parents used all of their mental energy and organizational capacity making it through the college application process and senior year and finals and graduation and now… oops, here’s the summer.

The New York Times had a front-page story on Sunday morning about students at high-achieving high schools using prescription stimulants like Ritalin to improve their SAT and exam performance. Really interesting (and disturbing) story, estimating that as many as 30 percent of kids at some schools are abusing prescription drugs intended for children with conditions like ADHD. Not to get high, but to get the test scores necessary to please parents and teachers and get into prestigious colleges. And these are the “good” kids — the star students, the student council presidents etc.

The Times story focused on private schools in New York and public schools in affluent East Coast suburbs, but suggested this is a national trend. I asked B. if she had heard of such abuse of “study drugs” out here in Oakland and San Francisco. She said no, and sounded genuinely surprised. Maybe her school — which has a less academically pressured culture than some other private schools — is uniquely immune? Or maybe this hasn’t hit the Bay Area yet? “Things are more mellow here in the Bay Area,” B. suggested.

“One more bullet we dodged,” I thought. Along with anorexia, drug abuse, cutting, promiscuity, binge drinking, clinical depression, running away from home… the litany of hazards afflicting teens from otherwise safe and privileged communities in our weird, affluent country.

Because that’s one significance of graduation. Yes, graduation is a recognition of academic achievement, and of life transition — no longer a child, now (more or less) an adult.

But it’s also recognition that we did it — shepherded our small charges past the various shoals of childhood and adolescence.

They didn’t electrocute themselves by sticking their fat toddler fingers into wall sockets. They didn’t wander off into traffic. They didn’t eat poisonous berries or small plastic Legos. They didn’t get kidnapped by strangers, abused by priests, date-raped on Quaaludes by entire high school football teams. They didn’t catch meningitis or Lyme disease. They didn’t get shot by gangs. They didn’t get shot by police who assumed because of the color of their skin that they were in a gang.

They didn’t steer the car off the Bay Bridge while learning to drive. (Yet!)

They dressed ad nauseum in pink Disney princess gowns and clutched Barbie lunch boxes, but didn’t grow up to be Snooki or Kim Kardashian.

Exhale!

Happy graduation!

Leaving nests, literally and figuratively

May 27, 2012

A Peregrine Falcon pair have been nesting and raising their young on the 33rd floor of the PG&E building in downtown San Francisco.   I’ve written in my other blog for Golden Gate Audubon about the nest cam that let viewers watch the chicks on the Web, and the “fledge watch” volunteers who are monitoring and helping the young falcons as they master their flying.

Here I wanted to write about their first flight.

Think about it. Their nest is 33 floors up, over concrete streets and sidewalks. For the first month or so of their lives, the falcon chicks hang out on the building ledge while the parents fly to and fro bringing them food. They walk back and forth a bit, stretch their wings, flap a bit.

Then one day they push off the ledge. Just like that, an unforgiving 33 floors up.

PG&E building, where falcons nest on the 33rd floor / Photo by Sara Skikne/KQED

We talk about our kids “leaving the nest” all the time in a figurative sense, but I’d never really thought about what this means literally for birds like those falcons.

Human development seems so incremental and safe in comparison. Our infants start to move by crawling, pushing one arm up at a time. If it doesn’t work, so what? They collapse five inches onto the floor.

When it’s time to stand, they pull themselves up on a coffee table or chair. They have something to hold on to. And if it doesn’t work, they  plop right down on their fleshy bottoms.

Even other birds have an easier first flight than those falcon fledgelings. Sam and I went to view Great Egret nests today at Audubon Canyon Ranch near our Stinson Beach house. There is a colony of dozens of egret nests high in a single tree, a kind of apartment complex of egrets. But the nests are resting above a thick canopy of branches and other trees, so if a fledge (first flight) goes wrong, the young bird only falls as far as the next set of branches. Not so for the falcons.

The human activity that feels most comparable, at least right now, is teaching my daughter to drive. She’s had her learner’s permit for about three months and has had two professional driving lessons plus a lot of time in the car with me or Sam. She is a very cautious and thoughtful driver. She doesn’t speed or take risks. And I know that almost every adult behind a wheel today was once a beginning driver, and they all learned and turned out fine. (Well, most of them!)

But every time I drive with her I am terrified. Any single mis-step could bring disaster. Is she too close to the wall as we drive through a long tunnel? Is she going to pay attention and turn the wheel as we approach a curve on the freeway? 

There is this potential for disaster with any driver — cab drivers, bus drivers, friends of mine, even Sam. Once you get going fast enough, any mistake becomes the equivalent of a 33-floor drop. But I take safe outcomes for granted with most adult drivers and don’t picture imminent death in each freeway curve. With my daughter, though, I get terrified. I try not to show it. But I feel it.

But even learning to drive is less all-or-nothing than a falcon fledge from a 33-floor skyscraper.

Does the young bird realize what it is undertaking and what is at stake when it spreads its wings and pushes off from the ledge?

Do its parents?

Mother and son Peregrine Falcons in downtown San Francisco, May 2012 / Photo by Glenn Nevill
You can find more of Glenn’s falcon photos at http://raptor-gallery.com/2012_05_23/index.htm .

Do-it-yourself empty nest blog post

April 15, 2012

This week it became apparent that the end had arrived for my 17-year-old Camry station wagon, the mommy car I bought when my daughter was 18 months old. 

The blog post seemed ready to write itself: Another sign of transition to en empty nest. Feelings of sadness, astonishment, mortality. Et cetera.

But I feel like I’ve written this same post about a dozen times so far this year. First rule of blogging: Don’t be tedious or whiny. 

So I figured: If people know what I’m going to say already, why not let them say it for me? Here goes — fill in the blanks to create your own empty nest blog post —  

Yet Another Empty Nest Blog Post

As a young adult, I fantasized about little flashy sports cars like the _________. As a good environmentalist, I drove little high-mileage cars like the __________. 

But when I became a parent, I needed a vehicle that was more ________. I envisioned ferrying bevies of children on field trips to _________  or camping trips to _________. With only one child, a minivan seemed like overkill. So we bought a white Camry station wagon, the kind with a back area that could be turned into two rear-facing seats to carry a total of seven passengers. 

The Mommymobile, almost old enough to vote / Photo by Ilana DeBare

It was huge. It was bulky. We nicknamed it the Great White ___________. The first few weeks when I looked at it in our driveway, I couldn’t believe who I had become. I was suddenly a suburban ___________. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a Parent. And that felt so wrong! I was supposed to be someone who HAD Parents, not someone who WAS a parent.  That big white stationwagon was a symbol of all the _______  I felt about the transition to parenthood. 

Well, I got used to it and the station wagon did a sterling job for 17 years and 140,000 miles. Field trips, ski trips, camping trips. Trips to the Oakland Zoo, Fairyland, the Monterey Aquarium, Marine World. (That’s before Marine World got all __________.) 

Then last week the computer that runs the _________ gave out. I was told it would cost $3000 to replace it. That crosses the border into “time-to-buy-a-new-car” land. 

And since B. is going off to college in four months, the next car won’t be a station wagon. It will be smaller. Probably a _______ or maybe a _________, since I remain the good environmentalist.

I can’t help thinking that this is the first in a series of downsizings over the next couple of decades –- smaller car, smaller grocery bills, eventually a smaller house and someday leaving houses entirely for a _________. 

The parenting period of my life is ending.

Even scarier, the expansion period of my life is ending. 

I don’t want to be morbid, and I know there are lots of upsides to this transition, but I still feel __________.