Of roscas, kings and friends

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“Welcome. Bienvenida. Come in and have some rosca,” said my friend Stephanie.

I stepped into Stephanie’s tidy El Cerrito house and followed her into her kitchen, where we could sit at her table and enjoy a view of the bay.

“What’s a rosca?” I asked.

Stephanie grew up in Colombia. She explained that a rosca is the traditional oval-shaped pastry that Latin Americans eat on Three Kings’ Day. It is supposed to symbolize a crown, like those worn by the kings who visited Jesus twelve days after his birth. Candied fruits represent the jewels.

I bit into the sugary rosca. “Muy rica!” I said.

In Colombia, and much of the rest of the Hispanic world, Three Kings’ Day, January 6, also known as Epiphany, is the day when children open presents, not Christmas day. This makes perfect sense. This is the day when Jesus received presents from the kings.

I had gotten to know Stephanie because her daughter was classmates with my son at his Catholic elementary school. Her daughter came to the school in fourth grade, the year I was a room parent. I helped organize a back-to-school reception and met Stephanie and her husband Hugo at the event. I was immediately drawn to Stephanie and enjoyed practicing a little Spanish with her. We went for a few walks and had coffee together. As it turned out, Stephanie was very intentional in her Catholic faith, unlike many of the parents at the school, and she observed Saint’s Days and other holidays. I remember once that we talked about the new Cathedral of Light in Oakland and she was so excited. We decided to go together for a tour, but somehow never did.

A couple of years after meeting Stephanie, and sometime after our rosca together, she started having pain in her leg. Stephanie went to the doctor and learned she had a hole in her knee. She had cancer, non-Hogdkins Lymphona in the bone. She immediately started chemo and her mother came from Columbia for several months to help. My son’s class parents organized us to deliver meals. I visited Stephanie a few times during her treatment and she was amazingly positive and always smiling. Instead of complaining about how she couldn’t walk or had lost her hair, she would ask me if I liked her newest hat or she’d want to know how I was doing. And she was so touched by the outpouring of support. I can’t remember how long Stephanie’s recovery lasted, but at the end of it her bone had healed and she was cancer-free.

**

Just like Colombia, Spain celebrates Three Kings’ Day with presents and roscas. The year we lived in Spain we happened to be visiting Gibraltar on Three Kings’ Day. Gibraltar is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It’s a strip of rocky land off the coast of Spain owned by the British. The one small town on the rock looks like an English village with narrow streets, traditional architecture and pubs serving fish and chips. Besides eating at a pub tourists are told they must take a tour of the caves. A driver takes you up to the caves, where you can see beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. Next, you can tour long tunnels dug into the mountain, which were once used for ammunition. If that isn’t enough, you can also see many wild monkeys who roam the rock. They aren’t shy. Several crawled on top of our vehicle or blocked our path, hoping for a free snack.

After our obligatory tour of the rock, we lingered in the town plaza and were amazed to find a large parade forming. The locals were celebrating Three Kings’ Day with floats of dancers, musicians, kings and camels. I felt like I was at the Rose Parade. Apparently, these Three Kings’ parades are common all over Spain. The participants even throw candy out to all the children.

To this day, I still receive messages from my Spanish friends on January 6th saying “Feliz Dia de Los Reyes” (Happy Kings’ Day) and they make me smile. We could always use more excuses to celebrate. I think this is something Catholics do especially well. I learned this year that, in fact, Kings’ Day doesn’t have to end on January 6th. Roscas are traditionally eaten all the way to Mardi Gras, the start of Lent. They are indeed a variation of the colorful purple, green and yellow King Cakes that are popular in New Orleans. One article I read said that some groups of people have a King party ever week until Mardi Gras. That’s one long party! In some traditions, a plastic baby (symbolizing Jesus) is hidden inside the cake. The person who finds the baby is in charge of either buying the next cake or specifically of hosting a party on February 2nd to celebrate the day Jesus was presented in the temple. Ironically, we hosted a Mardi Gras party on a whim a few years ago, complete with a King Cake, but I didn’t understand the traditions.

Usually I feel a bit of a letdown after Christmas and New Year’s. The excitement of the holidays has passed and there is not a lot to break up the cold, dark days of winter. This year, though, I may look at things differently. Perhaps I’ll have a Kings’ party or two and really celebrate Mardi Gras with zest. I may even get in touch with Stephanie and make a date to tour the Cathedral of Light. It’s a good time of year to celebrate life.

What I want for Christmas

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When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.

Missing Miguel

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There’s something about a fall evening that makes me just want to curl up on my sofa and stay inside. Partly it’s the early onset of darkness, as the sun sets quickly, even before I’ve had dinner. Partly it’s the rain, filling the sky with grey clouds and making the streets slick. Partly it’s sadness that my older son is no longer at home.

I actually had a plan tonight, to go hear an author talk about her book profiling 100 women entrepreneurs and artists. The book is filled with short interviews of accomplished, fashionable and creative women who have forged their way in the world of art, fashion, writing and business. I was looking forward to an inspirational talk. Maybe this talk would fire me up to do some of those creative projects I’ve been meaning to do. But I couldn’t muster the energy to go. I felt like it might take too much energy to hear about all these energetic women. So instead I decided to stay home, heat up some packaged Indian food from Costco, and have a glass of wine.

Fall is a busy time for most people and it certainly has been for me. I sent my oldest son, Miguel, off to college two months ago and then welcomed an exchange student from Spain for the next two months. Sending Miguel to college in New York city was difficult–so many memories, so much love. Having an exchange student for a few months distracted me from my emptiness. Now that she’s gone I am more aware of Miguel’s absence. He filled the house with energy and joy, always ready to tell me a story, ask me about my day or try a new recipe with me. There’s nothing that can replace my son’s presence. Instead, I reminisce about the special times we had and look forward to new ones ahead. In the meantime, Facetime is great. We talk several times a week and text frequently. I am confident our relationship is on steady footing. He’s gained his independence, living on the other side of the country, but we’re still intimately connected. That feels wonderful, even unexpected. I really didn’t know what to expect parenting an adult child.

The truth is, this new season of parenting has been revealing itself gradually. Like the houseplant I bought six months ago that is blooming little purple buds for the first time (and I just thought it was a plain green plant), my relationship with Miguel has grown and developed in the last few years. His first year in high school, I remembered being worried that he wasn’t getting out enough. He still preferred spending weekends with the family, watching cooking shows with me or playing golf with dad. By his last year of high school those days were long over. He was out of the house constantly with a job, sports and friends, and I spent many nights waiting up for him to come home. I’d often be a little annoyed that he was so late and my bedtime was delayed, but then all those feelings would be erased as we chatted about the day. He may have spent less time at home but our conversations were often richer. When I finally dropped him off at college this fall and we went out to an expensive dinner, I realized we were talking as two adults. He shared with me some of his dreams (lots of travel, eating at nice restaurants and marriage someday were some) and he and I observed the other diners around us just like my husband and I sometimes do when we’re out.

As for Miguel, he seems to be doing well on his own. He’s been kayaking on the Hudson River, been to a few concerts in Central Park—one with Cat Stevens, taken trips to Philadelphia and Amherst, Massachusetts, and located some excellent late night food destinations. More importantly, he gets along well with his roommates and is enjoying his studies, especially his screenwriting class. His high school girlfriend is nearby at another New York city school and she’s been a good companion through it all. He misses home a bit—his parents, his brother and his dog—and sometimes yearns for the natural beauty of California.

I now calculate life a little differently. How will I make it through Thanksgiving without Miguel? Or his birthday right after that? How long is it until winter break? Fortunately, life’s response to these questions (or God’s perhaps) is often sweet. I have another son at home who fills my life with warmth and new adventures. In December he and I will be going to Austin, Texas to visit an online friend he’s known for three years but never met. It’s the second time my younger son has cultivated a friendship with someone from Texas. Meeting his first friend turned out to be a great experience–and they’ve continued to be good friends. Hopefully this one will follow suit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting, it’s that you don’t stay in one state of mind very long. You never know what new thing may come your way. I’ve grown to like that.

Consolation, desolation and the election

burning_candles_in_the_dark_199518For the last few years I’ve followed an ancient practice of the church, the daily prayer of the examen. Conceived by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500s, the prayer of the examen has enjoyed a popular resurgence in recent years as people search for new (or old) ways to connect with God. The examen involves prayerfully examining your day and looking for points of “consolation” and “desolation.” Consolation may be a point in the day when you felt most grateful while desolation may be the point in the day when you felt least grateful. Another way to look at it is when in the day you most felt God’s presence versus when in the day you least felt his presence. I’ve found it to be a helpful and encouraging tool as I bring before God both my thankfulness and neediness.

This last week since the election I’ve felt both consolation and desolation. My feelings of desolation are not surprising, and they look like classic desolation—a mixture of hopelessness and despair. I ask, how can a man who has said so many hateful, thoughtless and damaging things possibly be our next president? How could so many people look past these dangerous statements and still vote for him? Moreover, how can so many people who share my faith think so differently than me? There is no ready “fix” for desolation. I simply bring to God my heaviness of heart, my fears for the future and my grief for the present. I believe God can bear my burden (“love bears all things” Corinthians 13:8). I take comfort in the fact that Jesus himself lived in an oppressive time, contending with an all-powerful Roman government, and he understands my despair.

I don’t really want to write about desolation though. What I want to write about is consolation. Because even in times of hardship, God supplies consolation. Despite what I perceive as bad news, God finds a way to bring moments of grace and blessing. One of the blessings of this post-election season have been some of the honest, heartfelt conversation I’ve had with people. There is a genuine interest in discerning how to best shape our future. How can we get involved to stop potential injustices and support the changes we want to see? I see people online calling their representatives in congress and signing petitions. This seems to be a first step to what could be a larger movement of activism. I’ve never been a particularly political person, but I feel hopeful, maybe even energized, as I consider how I can get involved.

What will God do with all this? What I do know is that God works at a very personal level to encourage us on whatever path we are on. Recently at work a woman named Judy joined our staff. She sits next to me and about a month ago we began to eat lunch together. At first glance, I thought Judy and I had little in common. She is twenty years older and single, with no kids. With the election season at hand, however, Judy and I discovered we shared similar views and it was a great “consolation” to process the news of the day with her. Several nights, when I prayed the examen, I thanked God for the consolation of my new friend Judy and our conversations.

In a more dramatic way, God consoles through healing. One of the harder conversations I had after the election was with a family member on the other side of the fence. It would have been easy to dispatch quickly with the election results in our conversation, but I made a point to tell him how truly sad and disappointed I was. He said he was sorry about this and asked me why I was so disappointed. We proceeded to have a calm, honest conversation about the election. We ended by both saying we loved one another. We can’t heal all the divisions everywhere, but it’s a start to face the ones right in front of you.

I’d be dishonest to say that my consolations don’t sometimes get overwhelmed by my desolations. It’s easy to feel like any small efforts (like calling a congressperson) or even bigger efforts (like volunteering for an immigrants support group) won’t amount to much when compared with the juggernaut of power our president and his advisers will command. I wish I could say I had an answer to deal with this type of discouragement. Simple platitudes and Bible verses don’t always help much. I can only say that I must be a person of integrity and do whatever small or large thing is asked of me. In the meantime, I’ll keep praying the prayer of the examen nightly. In this crazy and tumultuous time I need more space for reflection and quiet than ever. And every day, I commit to seeing God’s consolation.

 

 

Finding wonder in the journey of life

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Sometimes so much happens each day it can make our head spin. Those are the days I feel most compelled to write. It helps me slow down and reflect on things. But also it helps me remember and observe.

Mostly I want to remember good things, of course, like anyone would. Take last Tuesday, for example. I had to drive to Santa Rosa, over an hour away, for a meeting. There was lots of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. However, the meeting itself was happy, as I saw an old friend and met some new ones who are involved in an organization I admire and may join. The best part of my excursion, though, was on the way home. There was still some traffic. But there were a few stretches of beautiful countryside, with rolling brown hills, planted with grapevines. This was unexpected. It seems that vineyards in California have expanded even to Santa Rosa, miles away from the heart of the wine country in Napa and Sonoma. I loved seeing the grapevines, heavy with fall’s harvest. Every time I see grapevines I remember the years I used to drive to Sonoma to visit my brother. During those years my kids were small. I would pack them up in the car and head up to Sonoma for a day with my brother, sister-in-law and her kids. I always looked forward to seeing the landscape, changing from busy, urban Berkeley to bucolic Sonoma. I could always tell what season it was by how large the grapes were on the vines. September is the peak month. The fields are abundant with clusters of lovely red grapes.

I was close to my sister-in-law at that time in my life and her warm, friendly reception was intoxicating. I found myself relaxed in her presence—here was another mom like me, with whom I could share my ups and downs, struggles and successes. In the meantime, she would ply me with homemade goodies, special coffee and her latest finds at Trader Joe’s. One time it was yogurt-covered raisins. The next it was Chai tea. The hours passed slowly as we watched the kids play, walked to the park behind their house, and laughed at random memories. Funny, in all those times in Sonoma we never did drink wine together…but I guess we didn’t need it. Sadly, my brother and sister-in-law moved to another state a few years after those years and later they got divorced. It was the end of an era. Still, I’ll always remember those sunny Sonoma days.

***

A couple of days ago I noticed there was a full moon in the sky. It reminds me that life is always pregnant with possibilities. I didn’t know, starting out last Tuesday, that I would see vineyards in Santa Rosa and they would bring back memories of my sister-in-law. I also didn’t know I would encounter the flip side of unexpected joy—unexpected sorrow. I felt that on Tuesday too. The old friend I saw in Santa Rosa is suffering—though bravely and optimistically—because her husband has cancer. She and her husband are good people—some of the best I know. In a few years, when they retire and move back to the Bay Area, we plan to see a lot more of them. I never imagined that one of them would get cancer. I find myself now, in the midst of writing, offering a prayer for God’s healing and grace. Please God, allow my friend to live a long and healthy life.

My friend who has cancer has a great sense of humor and wit. I hope this is helping him through these days. Years ago, he used to visit us frequently while traveling to California. The first thing he would do would be to seek out my children to “eat their toes.” The children screamed in delight and horror as he stomped around the house looking for their toes. Once he impressed us greatly by doing a full body dive down our stairs in search of the toes. This, from a man who is at least 6’4”. He had (and has) the great capacity to be completely silly at one moment and then engage us in a deep discussion of politics and religion the next. He is a Christian who has great faith but also thoughtfully questions dogma and the status quo.

If I do join the organization in Santa Rosa, I’ll be making trips there twice a month. (Ironically, the organization is called The Journey Center.) I dread the traffic but I also look forward to the scenery and ruminations along the way. An hour in the car counts as a small journey. It reminds me of the quote I’ve seen many times: “life is what happens to you as you’re making other plans.” Our plans appear to take us one place, but life has a whole, wide world to show us.

Sending off my son

 

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Sometimes life changes gradually and we hardly notice as one phase passes and another takes shape. Other times life changes abruptly and we can’t help but be aware of a grand shift. I am on the verge of one of those abrupt changes this week, as my first-born leaves for college on the other side of the country. This way of being I have known for the last 18 years is about to change in a big way. I am both full of anticipation and excitement for my son and full of loss at the idea he will be far away. It is a good time but a hard time.

When I was pregnant with my son so long ago I had no idea what parenting would be like. I did not have close friends with children. I hadn’t spent much time with children. I knew that, like most other parents, I would have to learn on the job. And learning I’ve done. Much of the learning is quite mundane, but utterly necessary. I had to learn how to feed him and burp him and when to call the doctor. I had to learn how long to make a time-out and how to regulate the Halloween candy. Everything was an education, and sometimes with an audience. The day I checked out of the hospital with my newborn, I had to take off the diaper the nurse had put on him so a doctor could weigh him. I had no idea how to put the diaper back on. I was so self-conscious. I thought the doctor might not let me take him home given my ineptitude!

It seems like the early years are full of so many decisions. At first my husband and I consulted guidebooks. We turned to three or four expert guides to weigh the competing advice. One said we should let our baby cry it out for 45 minutes. The other said we shouldn’t let him cry at all. We tried both. Gradually, though, we learned to make our own decisions that were right for us and appropriate to our child’s temperament. (We did let him cry several nights and he gradually learned to fall asleep on his own. Those were some painful nights!) Just when we thought we had figured things out, we had a second son who was totally different than the first. It took him much longer to learn to fall asleep. In fact I slept at a friend’s house during one of those sleep training sessions just so I could get a good night of sleep.

One lesson I learned early on as a parent was that I could never rest on my laurels. Just when I had figured out one age and stage, another stage would develop. Two naps a day turned into one, then none. A favorite food would soon be turned down in favor of another. Even now, I realize, the reality of living with a high schooler is morphing into that of living with an adult. Currently we check in multiple times a day with our teenager to know his whereabouts and when he expects to be home at the end of the day. In a few days, we won’t be checking in with him much anymore. He’ll be on his own. If he wants to come home at 3 am, that’s his decision.

Recently I came across a photo of our family room from the time our boys were 8 or 9. It looks like a disaster, with every couch cushion, pillow and blanket in the house arranged in the center of the room to create a fort. I realized I tolerated a lot of controlled chaos. Not only were there forts, but there were Thomas the Tank Engine train configurations that spread from one room to the next, 2,000 piece Lego creations, and a pet rabbit that left behind a trail of turds and hay. Then there was all the normal paraphernalia that comes along with kids—the strollers, car seats, high chair, mini kitchen, sports gear, bunk beds, books, and retainers. You learn to live with a lot of stuff and a lot of messiness. In a small way I actually miss those messier days and the way I was able to surrender to it all, get down on the floor, and play for hours on end.

At times it seemed like my son’s childhood would stretch on forever. There were the long innings of Little League games, the daily routines of getting him ready for school and picking him up, the playdates and birthday parties. More recently there has been the anxiety of waiting up late for him to come home and the angst of watching him suffer through the breakup of a relationship. Time slows down with kids. Other “important” work gets interrupted, put on hold. Just in the middle of writing this article my son came home and suddenly my time was his. We laid on my bed and talked for an hour about his day and his plans. It took me another hour after that to get back to writing.

Alas, childhood does not last forever, but certain memories are so fully etched in my mind that just thinking about them brings me pleasure. There was the day, just a year ago, when we had a rare mother and son outing to the beach. It was a perfect day, with no wind or fog (rare for a California beach) and we walked, laid in the sun and played paddle ball. There was another day, about two years ago, when we trekked to the Central Valley for a golf tournament. We played country music all the way there and laughed at the lyrics; that night we flipped through the channels in our cabin and laughed at all the bad late-night TV shows. I can’t hear a country song or see a late-night show now without remembering that trip.

People told me to cherish the time I had with my child and I am so grateful for their advice. I have tried to be mindful and thankful every day I have parented. I will miss the big and small joys and even some of the challenges. I will miss my son’s creativity, hugs and enthusiasm for life. How many kids do you know who organize their own Mardi Gras parties or who invite people over for a Spanish dinner and costume contest complete with awards? My son is never short of ideas.

I take comfort in the fact that my son’s presence in my life has not ended. He’s changed me for the better. I’ve learned from him how to relax and enjoy life, how to make friends and how to laugh. I know I’ll keep learning from him for years to come and I look forward to our ever transforming relationship.

 

 

Sounds and silence

Sound.  What does your house sound like? I can tell you what mine sounds like: a dog barking as he monitors the front window. A teenager chatting with friends over Skype as he shoots down an enemy in a videogame. Another teenager watching election news on CNN.  The occasional chirp of a cockatiel. A laundry machine swishing around. A dryer buzzing.

It’s amazing how we become so accustomed to the sounds around us. What might seem like a cacaphony of chaos to someone else is normal to me, even soothing. I’ve learned to work and play, read and write, with a variety of sounds. When any of them are taken away, it becomes unsettling.

Many years ago my beloved dog Susie died. I missed her companionship a lot but what I most noticed was how quiet the house was. There was no clicking of nails across the hardwood floor as she ran around. There was no barking when the mailman approached or someone rang the doorbell. The whole atmosphere of the house changed without her sounds. Several years later we got a new dog and it was interesting how quickly the house became full of dog sounds again. I welcomed it.

When I moved to Madrid for a year in 2011 I experienced big changes in my “soundscape” as well. Transitioning from suburban Northern California to urban Madrid meant I heard more horns honking but less birds chirping. Our apartment came with its own collection of beeps and buzzes. We quickly learned to tell the sound of the dishwasher cycle ending apart from the washing machine ending. The apartment walls weren’t thick. We could hear animated arguments in Spanish from our neighbors next door who had teenage children. (We once even heard plates smashing.) On the other side, we would hear an elderly couple’s cuckoo clock regularly sound. In the quiet of the night I would hear the elevator going up and down and wonder who in the building was out so late. On Sundays we could hear the shouts of the Ecuadorians and Columbians playing soccer on the sand lot down the street. I would say it took me a good month to get used to all those new sounds.

Some sounds are so engrained that they even show up in our dreams, years after we have encountered them. When I was growing up, I could often hear the fog horns on the San Francisco Bay at night. I don’t know why I noticed the fog horns more at night. Maybe there was more fog then? Maybe the horns stood out in the quiet of the night? In any case, one night in college, when I was living thousands of miles away from any fog horns, I stayed up late studying and fell into a half sleep. Suddenly I woke up, convenced I had heard a fog horn. Was it a dream or was there maybe a truck outside that reminded me of the sound? I’ll never know for sure but I was convinced I heard a fog horn.

I have to admit, pure silence is difficult for me. This week my kids both started after school sports teams and for the first time in many years neither of them is home or needs a ride anywhere after school. This means the house is quiet for several more hours than normal. It’s uncomfortable. I like the sounds of other people, even if we aren’t interacting. I find I turn the radio on more frequently. I know the NPR schedule like the back of my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start listening to podcasts. On the other hand, silence could be good for me. It’s Lent after all, and maybe my discipline this Lent can be to embrace the silence.

Last night I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. The atmosphere was solemn and prayerful, with candles and soft music. Several times our pastor asked us to prostrate ourselves (kneel) on the floor. At the end of the service we received ashes on our forehead as we were told, “For dust you came and to dust you shall return, for God gives life.” It was and is a reminder that we owe our existence to God. He gives us life and allows us a short time on this earth to enjoy the wonders of living. I appreciated the quiet service to stop and ponder that thought and I look forward to more quiet this coming season.

Techno dreams and cell phone addictions

I had a dream last night that I was being attacked. I was in an airport restroom and four or  five tough-looking teenage girls surrounded me and started insulting me. I realized they wanted to hurt me. For what reason I don’t know. Just then, one of the girls took pity on me and lifted me up and carried me out of the bathroom. Somehow though, one of the girls managed to steal my purse on the way out and there was no way I was going to go back and get it. I strode down the airport corridor quickly to find my family. Feeling safe again I started to get angry. Someone needs to arrest those girls. What right did they have to threaten an innocent person? Soon though, I panicked. They had stolen my phone as well. That was the worst part of the whole thing. My phone was missing! Was the data saved? Would I ever get it back? Suddenly I woke up from the dream, wondering what would happen if I ever did lose my phone. That was worse than being threatened.

What does it say about me that my worst nightmare is losing my phone? Have I become too dependent on it? Only a few years ago I was a cell phone hold-out (hence the sign prohibiting cell phones which I placed in my house). Now, I can’t imagine life without my phone. Most people I know feel the same way. Is there any remedy for us who are addicted to devices? I think there is, but I’ll get to that later. First, a story about my friend Bruce.  

Recently my friend Bruce Wydick, a professor at the University of San Francisco, conducted an experiment with his college students in which he asked them to give up their phones for two weeks to show solidarity with the poor. For every student who gave up his or her phone a donor would give $50 to a non-profit organization working with the poor. Out of a room of 30 people, Bruce got about half to give up their phones. As you can imagine, the results were interesting. One student caved in after the first day and said he was going crazy without his phone. The rest of the group, including Bruce, lasted the two weeks and reported a mix of experiences. Some felt liberated without their phone and more engaged with real-life situations. Others felt more dependent on people and less “cluttered” in their thinking. Everyone seemed to miss the conveniences of their phone. One student, for example, had to make a collect call from a pay phone and found out that collect calls cost $25. Another student overslept without his cell phone’s alarm clock. Bruce got stuck in a bad traffic jam without the ability to use GPS.

While it’s certainly an admirable experiment to give up your phone for a period of time, most of us won’t do that willingly. Instead, I think we need to make an extra effort to spend time each day on low-tech hobbies, things that slow us down and make us appreciate life, like music or art. Maybe it’s been a while since you simply listened to music without also looking at your phone. When was the last time you leafed through an art book? We can also just observe our surroundings, wherever we are. For me on this January day, that means looking out my kitchen window and being dazzled by the white flowers on my ornamental pear tree. I take a moment to be thankful that I live in California and get to see a blossoming tree in the middle of winter! Out of another window I see my neighbor on top of his roof clearing leaves out of the gutter in anticipation of another storm. I’m thankful again for the abundant rain we’ve had so far this season. Slowing down our thinking means noticing our surroundings, appreciating the changing seasons and pausing between activities.

For a longer pause in the day you might try meditation, though in this age of constant communication that is a challenge. Sitting quietly without using a phone or other device is difficult. Another alternative is to engage your body while slowing down thoughts. I tried yoga for the first time last fall with a sense that I simply wanted to do something physical. Now I understand the popularity of yoga. You are in a room for an hour, concentrating simply on your breathing and following the instructions of the teacher to stretch your body this way or that. For that hour I am not thinking of worries or concerns or things to do. I can leave the outside world behind and enter a space that feels outside of time. I feel my muscles clench and tighten. I look forward to a particular pose. I wish we could skip another pose that is difficult. Am I getting better, more limber? Occasionally I get distracted by another person next to me, but then I come back to my own body and the teacher’s calm, soothing voice. Of course, my cell phone is turned off the whole time I am in yoga.

My kids are the first generation to grow up with smart phones as a staple of life. I wonder how life is different for them. I wonder if they notice everyday things in nature and the environment less. I wonder whether they would have given up their phones for two weeks if they had been in my friend Bruce’s lecture. Would they have simply replaced the phone with more time on their computers? Maybe the better experiment would be to go with no technology at all. Just about the only time that happens now is if we are on vacation in a remote place, which is very rare. Even last summer when we were camping, the campgrounds all had wi-fi.

I had another disturbing dream last night after the dream about losing my cell phone. (I guess it’s true you work out your anxieties in your dreams.) In this second dream my son, who is now 15, was a baby, and we were in a large modern art museum. I was holding him in my arms as we stood looking at a large room filled with undulating worm-like cylinders. The cylinders were lit from inside with flashing neon lights. My son got overstimulated by the lights and began to gag so I hurried away. Perhaps this was some kind of dreamlike warning to me to avoid technology? In any case, I’ll put my phone and my Ipad away a little earlier tonight and hope for better dreams.

 

The allure of TV in 2016

 

Watch more TV.  It sounds funny, but that’s my top resolution for the new year. I know most people want to watch less TV, but for me it would be quite an achievement to watch even one regular series. You see, I’ve resisted TV for so long that to even watch one series would be a big deal—and quite positive I think.

For one thing, I see that TV viewing brings a lot of pleasure to certain friends and family. They seem positively exuburant as they ask whether I’ve seen “House of Cards” or “Homeland.” (I always have to say no.) And then I watch them connect with someone who has seen their show and they relish the conversation, comparing notes on the various plots twists and character developments. I feel left out of a major part of routine social interactions.

I trace my TV aversion partly to the guilt I feel about having spent so many good hours of my childhood hooked on TV. Of course, I was like most kids of my era. Growing up in the 70s and 80s kids like me found their main source of entertainment in TV. After school I watched “Brady Bunch” reruns and other fluff. Within 30 seconds I could tell if I had already watched a particular Brady Bunch episode–but even if I’d seen it before, I’d watch it again. At night we watched “family” shows like “Eight is Enough” and “Little House on the Prairie” and comedies like “Golden Girls” and “Happy Days.” What innocent times those were! And maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time after all. Like TV viewing now, those times were social. I always watched TV with my brother or parents and we laughed a lot.

Later on, in the 90s, I became a big fan of  “Seinfeld” and watched every episode. I still remember the fun I had recounting episodes with my co-workers the following day. Sometime after that, however, I stopped watching TV altogether. I became busy with other activities, I went back to school, I traveled, I read more, and I had kids. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of good TV being produced. “Friends” just didn’t appeal to me.

They say that today TV is experiencing a golden age, with so many great series on Netflix, HBO and Showtime. The writing is great and acting is superb. I wouldn’t know. Instead I either spend my time reading a book or flying through the netherworld of the Internet. Somehow those activities feel more free. I can stop reading or surfing the web whenever I want whereas if I watch a show I’m commiting myself to something for an hour—or maybe many hours, as those who binge watch can attest to.

Maybe I can start this TV thing small. If an hour seems too long I can watch half a show each night. It’s easy enough to start and stop viewing on my Ipad. That should still leave plenty of time for other activities. Plus, I have the perfect show. That was a problem before. I didn’t want to watch a show about drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”) or scandal-ridden politicians (“Scandal”). But recently my son introduced me to “Newsroom,” a kind of updated and more sophisticated “Mary Tyler Moore.” It seems like the right amount of serious content, i.e. news, circa 2010, mixed with social manuevering among the staff. I’ve already watched three episodes, so I’m on my way.

I know that to really be successful about watching a TV series I have to make it a habit. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg talks a lot about how to change or create certain habits. (Anyone thinking about new year’s resolutions should read Duhigg’s book.) He says that habits are best cultivated by establishing a set routine. For example, doing the same thing at the same time every day. In my case, I could watch my series at the same time every night after dinner. Duhigg also emphasizes the importance of linking a reward to a habit. My “reward” for watching my show might be to enjoy a cup of my favorite tea. This is already sounding appealing. Duhigg goes on to say that certain “keystone” habits have a domino effect in influencing other behavoirs. For example, someone who stops smoking is also likely to start eating better and exercising more. I can’t see that TV watching would provide more benefits than simply existential happiness, but who knows? Maybe the characters will influence me to try something new. Maybe I’ll change my mind about some issue. At the least I can sound intelligent when social conversations turn to TV. I know that books can change me, so I don’t doubt that TV will too. I’ll report back in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smells Like Teen Spirit

A week ago my son and I went to the DMV at 8 am so he could take his driving test. It would be his second try and I waited nervously in my hard plastic seat while a computerized voice called out numbers over a loud speaker. I tried to read the newspaper to distract myself, but I kept wondering how the test was going. Would Miguel make a big error and automatically fail like he did the first time? Would he forget to do a few simple things like turn on his blinker and lose points? Miguel was a good driver but sometimes the testers were extremely picky. In fact we went early with the hopes that the testers would be rested and cheerful.

As it turned out, the second time was a charm. The text taker was friendly and polite. In what seemed like about 10 minutes, Miguel was done, proudly showing me the paperwork that showed he passed. He got in line to take a photo and that was that. He was a new driver. At age 18, he had finally gotten his license. We celebrated by going out for gourmet donuts on Telegraph Avenue.

Having a new driver in the house has been one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced as a parent. It’s changed our family dynamics in the space of a week. On the one hand, it’s good: I am no longer the shuttle driver for one of my kids. I can sit back and relax while he takes himself places. He’s driven to see friends, spend time with his girlfriend and even visit his grandparents. On the other hand, I feel wistful. Trips in the car were always a good time for conversation. I think of all the places we’ve gone—school, soccer games, baseball practices, swim lessons, friends’ houses—and realize we have spent hours and hours traveling together.

Driving is a rite of passage for teens in the U.S. and I can still remember the thrill I felt when I started driving. Unlike my son, who has grown up in Berkeley, I grew up in a small suburb in Marin County and almost everyone got their license when they turned 16. I was eager to stretch my wings and explore new places beyond my little town. Soon, to the consternation of my parents, I was driving to San Francisco and Berkeley, both about 40 minutes away. In San Francisco my friends and I hung out in North Beach, discovering funky little shops and good pizza. In Berkeley we walked up and down Telegraph Avenue, sampling more pizza and shops and mingling with college students. We felt sophisticated and free. The world was ours to explore.

I know that driving is one of the many steps toward adulthood my son will make this year. In less than a year, he’ll be on his own, doing his own laundry and keeping track of his money and schedule. He’ll enjoy more freedom, but also more responsibility; I have no doubt he’s ready.

In the meantime, while Miguel is still home, we have plenty to bond over. Miguel keeps me current on technology, music and culture. Last year he got me started on using Apple Music on my phone. I had no idea you could have access to every album ever made (almost), at the touch of button. Now I understand why no one buys albums anymore. On the TV front, recently we started watching an HBO show called “Newsroom,” about a fictitious TV station. We’re watching that via Amazon Prime, which was a revelation (again) to me. I didn’t know that our Amazon membership included TV shows. Through Miguel I’ve also discovered the comedian John Oliver (outrageous but funny). Most curiously, I’ve made many “appearances” on Miguel’s Snapchat feed. Why he likes to post pictures of his mother on Snapchat, I don’t know, but many of his friends meet me for the first time and they already recognize me from Snapchat.  

Fortunately for me, I am blessed with two sons, so I have another one at home for several more years. However, I realized the other day that my younger son could be driving in a year as well. If he’s like his brother though–and lots of other kids in Berkeley–he won’t get his license right away. That’s just fine with me. We have lots to bond over too, such as our shared love of reading (“The Girl in the Dragon’s Web” is on our Kindle now), our pets (dog and bird), and good snacks (peanut butter on banana is the current favorite). Driving can wait a while.

Am I nervous about having a child behind the wheel? Less than I thought. Fortunately children take many small steps between the big ones. Each step prepares them and their parents for the next one. Mostly, I’m happy to see Miguel grow up, enjoy adult responsibilities and make good decisions. I don’t know if I’m yet prepared to see him drive across the country on a road trip (which he has mentioned once or twice), but we have many steps before that happens. Now it’s just across town. Next week he plans to pick up friends at the airport. Next February he’s driving to a concert in Sacramento. We’re moving right along at just the right speed.