Sunday, August 19, 2012


Constanta, Romania
I am away this week, in the Black Sea with my father and sister, exploring, excited, but even though we will be sharing a cabin, meals and excursions it will be hard because I'm lonely when I'm away from home and the urge to flee back is almost unnaturally strong. 

Up until this trip I have been home recovering from a concussion, as I've said, and after weeks of me reading and writing and nesting relatively complaint-free in my bedroom cave, my husband Mark said I needed to get out every day.  I hated the thought, because as my recent attempt to order for three people at Subway showed, I get easily overwhelmed.  On that day, I thought I might need a tranquilizer to recover.

His points, if I can remember correctly, are that while I may be lonely when I'm away, and fight his requests that I go to the bookstore or library or coffee shop of my choice everyday, I am overwhelmed when I am home, I'm becoming afraid of the world, so getting out is therefore good for me.

He's right, of course.  Like a kindergartner sent off for those few, important hours each day despite the fearful looks to the front door from the bus stop, I do forget the separation once I'm engaged in reading and writing, mostly.  I am not an entirely social creature, at least not with the hordes who aren't my family or close friends, but I get by.  People see me as friendly.  I hold doors, I enjoy the sunshine, I engage with the world.

And then I come home and, after the first moments of relief, of the welcoming chords of my lovely, vibrant home, it starts to get to me.

It's really the lack of needed peace.  When I have a headache, a bad one, there is no place I want to be, nee no place that I will allow myself to be, other than in the chair or couch or bed in my room.  And yet, no matter what the signs on the door say, the parade begins as soon as my presence is felt--Mom can I have some money for camp, tape for my posters, a ride to Steffi's, something else for dinner, my uniform cleaned, your tv remote, company--the universal clamoring of children for the attention and assistance of their parent.  But it gets to me especially quickly, and I yell "WHAT??" at about the dozenth knock in an hour, usually sending poor little Ava fleeing in tears.

So, Mark sends me away each day for everyone's benefit, and I bounce between being lonely but peaceful in the company of strangers, and being comforted but overwhelmed in the confines of my home.

All of this is exaggerated by the vulnerability I feel from the head injury, the child-like dependence at times, the confusion, the lostness, but it was there all along too.  When I went off to college in Providence I was so homesick I looked into transferring to UConn by my second semester, then to Hamilton my fourth because my brother had started there, then I took my fifth semester off because I couldn't leave to go back to school after the summer.  My dean, I still remember, was almost bitterly disappointed in me because I had an RA slot in the hardest freshman dorm, he said I could handle anything and what was he to do now?  I said I would take whomever's spot was vacated by spring, and I did, in that same dorm as some other sophomore decided being there was entirely unworth the tuition break.  I finished college and actually stayed in Rhode Island for seventeen years with my husband and kids, but every other weekend, at least, I came home to my mother's house, van full of kids in tow.

I live next door to my mother now, naturally, but days go by without my seeing her because it's just the potential for company, and not the company itself that is needed.  She cannot say the same for my kids who flock there all afternoon and early evening, looking for regular grandma things--snacks from her cabinets, help with homework, sewing of a hole in a favorite sweatshirt, attention.  Or they are looking for their grandfather, for wheels to be inflated or fish tanks to be discussed or  a favorite toy to be repaired.  My brother swings by and drops off his kids, or picks up mine, and gives me the temperature of his stressful life and, in that telling, takes it down a few degrees.  Or he stays in the car and sends someone in to tell me why he's there and what he needs.

For me, it's enough that they're nearby, and as the kids move back and forth, giving messages from one of us to the other, and to the house on the other side, the Grazynski's, good friends for the past thirteen years or more, and to my brothers' house five minutes away.  I don't really need to see them--the web is enough to hold me.

ArcadiaLast month I read Arcadia by Lauren Groff, and my first thought was that it was amazing how it could take a gifted author like her years to write a book that I could consume in less than a day, staying up late, getting up early, thirsty for the whole of it.  Then, my second thought was about communes, one of which she creates in all its love and pain in a way that's stayed with me, and how we create that sense of wholeness, connectedness for ourselves.

I've had two main jobs in my life, one for sixteen years and the other for thirteen years now and counting, each in big, bustling hospitals with small, quiet circles of work and healing and it's suited me, having both, and working with the same people for many years.  When I left the first it was wrenching, so much so I could barely look back.  There is something about family that precludes such trauma--I can never be asked to leave, can I?--and though there are losses and separations and tiffs to bear, I can do so from within my pod of people in a way that I never could manage on my own.  We have an everlasting commune that's called a big family.

So though it's hard for me to go out to the coffee shop, the library, and even to the Black Sea, I'll be fine.  I actually love travel and adventures, as long as it's not too far or too long.  Because like playing in summer when I was a kid and the streetlights turned on, at the end of the day I know I'm supposed to get home.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sweet Sixteen?

My third daughter turned sixteen this week, and it made me wonder where this phrase came from.  "Sweet" is not the term I'd use for most sixteen year-old girls.

So I looked up on wikipedia.  They list a number of traditions I'd never heard of happening at a sweet sixteen party, like the Shoe Ceremony (the father gives her heels, bringing them in on a pillow like Cinderella), taking off her flats and placing the heels on her feet) and the Tiara Ceremony (where the Mom comes with with know), both to commemorate their little girl turning into a woman.  I wouldn't know these things personally because I've never been to one of these parties (never mind thrown one) but it sounds like fun.  And expensive, like a wedding.  Ciara preferred to go out to a Chinese restaurant with her friends, her father ensconced in a separate table, near by.  That worked for us too.

It's an American thing, apparently, of celebrating this particular year.  The first song about it was from 1960 so it's relatively new, and there have been a bunch of songs since, keeping the theme going.  There's nothing similar for boys.  Odd, that.  In most cultures there's a ceremony celebrating coming of age for both.  In Jewish culture it's 12 for girls (bat mitzvah) and 13 for boys (bar mitzvah).  In China, girls have a Ji Li ceremony at 15, boys a Guan Li ceremony at 20.  Both ancient cultures seem to recognize the need boys have for a little more time.  Only Filipina girls (at age 18, Début) and Latin American countries have a ceremony only for girls, the  15-year-old's quinceañera or Baile de debutanteswhich gets back to the origin, of this as a debutante or coming-out ball.  These started in England two hundred years ago, but these days most European countries just have a bash, at eighteen, to celebrate being able to legally drink, usually without parents.  That seems to be the party most kids are interested in.

So, the phrase is for a party and not a temperament.  That makes more sense to me because girls that age are in the absolute throes of rejecting their parents (and especially their mothers) in a way that feels, if anything, hellion-like.  My daughter wants me to give her rides everywhere, all day, but does not like me to sing in the car, walk near her in public, give her any advice, comment on her outfits (or even see them if she can help it, taking off for dances with her dress in her pocketbook) or ask questions about her social life.  She also isn't much interested in my life--it's an unofficial Don't Ask, Don't Tell kind of phase.  Though I'm not sure she knows totally who she is, she knows for sure what she isn't: anything at all like me.  I'm glad to help her out in this way, as the anti-reflection of her being.

I've grown to like this level of spirit.  Sixteen-year-old girls could rule the planet, I think, with relative ease.  Katniss is 16 in The Hunger Games, and I'd put my money on her for President and politician-in-chief.  .  Cher from Clueless can hand the social world in her skilled but compassionate way,  Hermione from Harry Potter can handle academics, Joan of Arc the spiritual needs of the world (and the warfare for that matter), S.E. Hinton the writing (she wrote The Outsiders at 16, which I still can't get over), and Bella from Twlight can take on all the threats from otherworldly creatures that girls this age are seemingly concerned about.  For love and happy endings I'd go with Ariel in The Little Mermaid.  They are a determined, confident bunch.

And none so more than Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast who rocked the first week of the games with her win in the all-around, and evident nerves of steel.  Her confidence is nearly as remarkable as her skill, and even though she eventually did falter under the immense pressure during the individual events, the poise she showed in the interminable post-event interviews was so striking it made me wonder: what if you could continue to learn and grow and mature but still keep this utter, optimistic faith in yourself?  How great would that be?

As it turns out, Gabby's public relations challenges were not only discussing her own performance, that of her teammates and of her future, all with aplomb, but also her hair.  In case you missed it (though I'm not sure how), there's a big controversy about Gabby's hair.  There's a Today blog entry that summarized it: Gabby's Mom Defends Gabby's Hair but the main issues are that it's straightened, and gelled back, and looks like all the other girls'.  Apparently, there are a number of African-American women in America who would have preferred that the first black American Olympic all-around gymnast have hair that was natural, or braided, or straightened but not in a ponytail (short and styled), or if in a ponytail then glossier, smoother, more perfect really, with no fly-aways and nothing looking like a hair piece (which apparently it's not) on the end.

Maybe next time Gabby can take a poll to try to please her fans (or critics), though it's hard to imagine how she'd look or do any better than she has at these games.  The hair controversy is emotional, so it's not rational--Chris Rock tried to illustrate these points in his documentary Good Hair because he so pitied his daughters and the contradictory, vitriolic messages they got on what they should do with their hair.  The movie is funny, and sad, and clearly a no-win situation at this point.  Every black female will get looks and comments from other black females regarding their hair, and this is the struggle on top of figuring out what to do with it, getting to the stylist, conditioning it, straightening it or not, adding a weave or not, and then how to pay for it all.   In this sidebar drama, Gabby came out on top.  She said her hair doesn't matter.  Soon, I suspect she'll stop talking about it all together.

Because sixteen-year-old girls pretty much do as they please.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why I Feel Bad For Ryan Lochte

I've spent my socializing time over the past couple of days trying to convince people to have some sympathy for Ryan Lochte.  It's hard--boy, he's done a lot of foolish things this week, all of which highlight a pretty serious ego problem. As much as we as a nation like heroes, we are even more fond of seeing people too full of themselves get knocked down a few pegs.  So it's been a bit of a feeding frenzy, and every time I try to assert some evidence in his defense, I get blasted with new stories of ridiculous things he's done.

But that is my point.  He's totally out of control and has, it seems, been so for a long time.  Not in the traditional way of doing drugs and skipping workouts, but in the potentially more lethal way of believing his own hype.  At least an addict knows enough to be humbled by their failures.  Ryan, it seems doesn't know what to think.  If he's as great as he thinks he is, then it's just not conceivable to him that he would win "only" one individual gold in London.  There must be some mistake.  The look I see in the cameras shoved into his face after every race he doesn't win is one of shock.  What he looks like at his press conferences is haunted.

It all started out in good fun.  When my husband read to me about the "grill" incident I laughed at the ridiculousness.  When Ryan did interviews in the third-person referring to the win for "Lochte Nation" and showed John McEnroe his color-coded shoe closet and his penchant for lifting 600 lb tires I giggled for days.  And when my daughter Cait and I stared at the full-length pose of him in People magazine in the tiniest white suit ever made, flat out on a clear pool effectively making him look like a sex-god angel, we just shook our heads--it couldn't be good, we knew, to enjoy being objectified as much as he does.  And yet we couldn't tear our eyes away; it's like he was made for our viewing pleasure.

It began to change for me as he started to lose and look panicked.  It's not fun for me to watch someone come apart at the seams, and while Michael Phelps looked human, tired, in defeat, Ryan looked lost.  You can tell that he was so convinced that he would win every race--he'd visualized it, he'd killed himself for it, he'd been surrounded by sycophants dependent on his doing it, he'd surely had more tee-shirts made up to commemorate it in advance--that it was almost like he couldn't quite believe the losses were real.

Of course it's quite nice that in the Olympics you still get medals if you come in second or third, and you are supposed to act happy about it, and Ryan did this for his sponsors if not from his heart, but watching his father become enraged from the stands as Ryan finished third in the 200 backstroke (a lovely win by Tyler Clary) and second in the 200 IM (to Michael Phelps in their last head-to-head competition) did something to me.  I know NBC was aware of the psychological windows they were opening up to Ryan and Michael's real lives when they cut between Ryan's red-faced, screaming, disgusted father and Michael's nerve-wracked but cheerleading, Chico-wearing mother and sisters.  How could you not wonder--where are Ryan's brothers and sisters?  Where is his mother?  Where is the love?  Where are the smiles?  Are they really only there when he wins?  When in the press conference he spoke vaguely about moving on with his life, trying to convincingly say he was  moving away from his family in Florida to Los Angeles to train because of the weather being better, I could almost understand it.

The next day we heard from his mother, in an interview with US Weekly.  We already knew from Ryan, in hundreds of ways big and small, that he considers himself a stud.  He talks about sex in the Olympic Village as the sweet compensation for a hard day's work.  That his having a girlfriend in Beijing really cramped his hook-up style but he's free this time around so he's good to go.  All bad enough.  But to hear from his mother in a magazine interview that Ryan is too busy to maintain any relationships so he's forced to have only one-night stands because anything else would be so unfair to the girls (this makes it easier on them, she supposed, because they know not to expect a call the next day) I felt really terrible for him.  If he gets his values from his parents he's bound to be in rough shape.

All kids are self-centered (except maybe the five year old who gave up his birthday presents this week to buy school supplies for poorer kids), and all try out big egos at one point or another.  My own son Ryan says he's too busy to iron his work shirts; it's my job as his mother to remind him that this is true of only the President, if then.  So he pays my daughter Sheyanne a dollar a shirt to do it for him but only if he acknowledges that he's simply too lazy to do it, or that he hates to iron, or that he sucks at it, rather than that this is beneath him.  Everyone needs these reality checks to stay mentally healthy and socially tolerable.  Otherwise...

Phelps with his mother and sisters in Beijing
I know it's especially hard as an athlete to stay humble.  Michael Phelps' mother must work overtime at it, but it is so worth it.  It's actually a sign of her deep love, of wanting her son to be capable of the constant give-and-take of real relationships that leads to lasting peace and happiness; and she's done a good job.  I have no idea what Michael's romantic life is like (thankfully) but when I heard Rowdy Gaines' voice catch Friday night in Michael's last individual race (which he won), and the usually effusive and upbeat Rowdy was speechless for a moment and then forced to explain it with a simple "I'm going to really miss this man," it showed for me what respect people have for Michael, not just for his achievements, but for his depth as a person, and his innate goodness.  He has messed up, of course, most publicly with a drunken driving arrest and the pot-pipe pictures, but his mother says she keeps her foot on his when she can, feeds him information, and thinks he'll be fine.  I agree.  Debbie Phelps, has been a school principal, so not only has she done a great job with her kids, but likely many others.  She helps others on the ADD Moms site.  She wears a duct tape flower for a young Maryland artist-swimmer killed last month in a car crash.  She's as heroic as her son.

The contrast between Michael and Ryan is mirrored in the book I read this week, Chris Cleave's Gold.  In it, two indoor cyclists (it's called a velodrome, the banked indoor track I haven't seen at all this Olympics) compete against each other for three Olympics, training together in London.  One is driven mercilessly by abandonment in childhood, sacrificing relationships and everything else for Olympic gold; the other is nicer, less beautiful, sacrificing Olympic gold for the relationships in her life.  In the first chapter you learn she's stayed home with her sick toddler while her husband, also an Olympic cyclist, goes to Athens.  Later we hear she's missed Beijing due to their daughter having cancer and being on chemo.  Cleve calls having a child with cancer "the Olympics of parenting" and the contrast of human drama versus the staged drama of Olympic athletics is nicely done; I liked the book.  Even the "good" athlete makes some shaky decisions as her third Olympics comes close, wanting it so badly she too becomes obsessed; and the "bad" one teeters on the edge of redemption.  I am hoping for redemption for Ryan Lochte.

Dara Torres was the last swimmer to leave the
pool after the 50-meter freestyle final. (AP Photo)
I am afraid that I might have to wait a long time.   Ryan says he's going to compete and win in Rio in four years, when he's 32 years old, but I think Michael might be right in retiring instead, saying there will be a tide of younger swimmers taking over by then.  If this is true and Ryan still makes the team, the records he will be chasing won't be "first" but "oldest" records, like Dara Torres did.  Last Olympics as she tore her aging body apart every day in the pool and then tried to put it back together again with physiologists, psychologists, massage therapists, nutritionists and pharmaceuticals there was a cautionary article in Sports Illustrated where her husband all but broadcast his impatience for it all to be over, standing off to the side with their daughter in his arms like they were bills to be attended to after payday.  When she announced, after winning three silver medals at age 41 in Beijing that she was going to try to come to London at age 45 to try again for gold, I waited for it--her husband left her weeks later and they quietly divorced.  She went on to have radical knee surgery to try to extend her swimming career and was at Olympic trials this year, missing making her sixth Olympics by a tenth of a second, with that same look I see on Ryan's face of utter devastation.

I hope Ryan was paying attention, and I hope for his sake he learned the right lesson from her--someday this will all be over, sooner than you'd like, and then what will you have left? If you sacrifice too much, if you sacrifice people, it won't be enough.