I procrastinated in writing this piece. I’m flooded with memories and I didn’t know
Where to Start
by Laura Barrett
I’m good at the hello part. Saying goodbye – not so much. That’s one of the reasons I procrastinated until the last minute in writing this piece. I’m flooded with memories and didn’t know where to start. I’ve had to say goodbye to houses that I didn’t want to sell, neighbors I didn’t want to leave, grandparents I didn’t want to die, and even books I didn’t want to end.
And this week I’m going to say goodbye to my oldest son, who will be moving out of my house. Again. For the third time. I’m sure I’ll miss him a lot, and I’ll miss his 80-pound dog. I won’t miss his socks shoved behind the TV or the blankets that stayed on the living room couch for six months.
It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that he had to hold my hand when we crossed the street. On my desk is a framed photo of us. He’s less than a month old, squeezed into a snuggly carrier in front of me. His eyebrows are lifted and his lips are parted as he tries to catch my attention; he is trying to get used to the new world he found himself in. Somehow 22 years passed by and now he’s grown up, mostly. And I won’t have a chance to feel lonesome for him because I have two more boys still at home. Maybe by the time the third one leaves, my grandchildren will be moving in with me (I really hope I’m wrong about that). I remember saying goodbye to him on his first day of kindergarten and the time he left for Boy Scout camp. I can see his smiling face as he waved to me from the driver’s seat of Jeep Cherokee after he got his driver’s license. And I can remember the time he slammed the door and left “for good,” the first time he moved out.
Saying goodbye to this stint as a writer is different. On the one hand, no more deadlines! On the other hand, I’m proud of the work that I’ve done and my growth as a writer. I’m grateful to have had a forum to air my thoughts and feelings in my post-divorce life.
Thank you, Michael, editor-in-chief of this online magazine. Many thanks for your kind words and your encouragement about my prose. Good luck to all my fellow writers. Let’s all say hello to our next adventure.
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To the mother of the two-year-old tyrant at Costco, here’s some
From Laura K. Barrett
Hi, there. I saw you and your little boy today at Costco. Yes, he’s absolutely adorable – a cute little blond with rosy cheeks. He’s very smart, too. I saw that he was showing you a piece of paper with some numbers on it. He could identify the number “6.” Yes, he’s a bright one.
I’m sorry that I ran over his foot with my cart. You see, he was walking along in the aisles, playing with your cell phone as you were trying to talk to him and fill the cart at the same time. You had quite the conversation going, lively banter back and forth, almost like he was your husband-substitute. Unfortunately, he’s quite small, as I’m sure you know, and he’s difficult to notice so close to the ground. Not to mention the fact that he kept wandering back and forth across the other side of the aisle blocking traffic.
Might I suggest that you confine him to the shopping cart? They are designed for that purpose, allowing a small child to sit high up and safe. They even come with seatbelts. It doesn’t count, by the way, to let your toddler stand up in the back of the cart. That’s dangerous. He could fall over or even worse, climb out.
Let’s face it, the only reason you’re letting him walk next to you is you aren’t able to set appropriate limits. Believe me, we’ve all been there. I’m the mother of three boys. I confess that there were times that I bribed my kids to be quiet or pretended not to notice bad behavior.
But, because my kids are much older, I can speak from authority that it’s much easier to corral a toddler and make him behave than it is to try to corral a teenager and make him behave. Don’t kid yourself. You’re thinking that next time you’ll make him mind or next time you won’t give in when he screams. The time is now, my friend, for your sake, for my sake and for your kid’s sake.
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My mother deferred to my father on all matters musical. And so I was raised on, and still enjoy, the stuff of clarinets and trombones, because
My Dad Loved Jazz
By Laura K. Barrett
Music fills the background of my family life. I sang to my boys when they were babies. As the boys grew up, we all sang together to Raffi songs and Disney videos. Nowadays my house is filled with music. My boys play the drums, which are conveniently located in the center of the living room. My middle son is teaching himself to play the ukulele using Youtube.
Some of my earliest memories include music. My parents didn’t get a television set until I was five years old. Instead, we listened to whatever music my dad played on his stereo or the radio. As I recall, my mother deferred to him on all matters musical. My dad loved jazz the most – Dixieland jazz, the stuff of clarinets and trombones. I remember playing Trivial Pursuit in the 1980s and providing the correct answer to a question about jazz. I don’t remember the exact question, but it must have been something along the lines of, “What was the nickname of the jazz musician Morton?” The answer, of course, was “Jelly Roll.” No one believed that I hadn’t read the cards in advance.
I wasn’t much of a jazz fan, to put it mildly, but I loved Broadway musicals. We listened to West Side Story over and over. My sister and I could sing “Officer Krupke” (which our family always called “The Mustache Song” because there is a reference to a mustache) long before we knew the meaning of its words. My dad let us play his albums, even though we weren’t careful enough and constantly scratched them. The record player was separate from the tuner. I can remember reaching up, way over my head, to lift up the much-too-heavy needle and dropping it with a thud on the record. That couldn’t have been good for the records.
Later, in the late 1960s, my parents bought my sister and me a portable record player to share. The sound was tinny and flat, especially compared to my dad’s hi-fi system, but it belonged to us. I don’t remember fighting over it, but I’m sure we did, because we shared a room and fought over everything else. My sister and I did fight over whom Davy Jones of the Monkees loved more. I’m pretty sure I won that fight because I could out-argue my sister even at that age. I wish I had kept that album in which I carved hearts in pink pen all over Davy. In my fantasy, I was grown up already and we were getting married. I carried daisies as my bridal bouquet and wore a white mini-dress with white go-go boots to the wedding.
Even though I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s, I missed the hippie era. I never went to Winterland for a concert. I didn’t see the Beatles at their last concert at Candlestick Park. No, I was that dorky kid who liked The Carpenters. (Wait, I still do!) Instead of seeing the Jefferson Airplane at Winterland, I went to a Barry Manilow concert at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, a place also frequented by the likes of Tony Bennett, Steve Lawrence and Eddie Gorme (okay, I like them, too.) Did I mention that my date was my dad?
I did graduate to disco in high school and punk rock (mostly because of the fashions) in college. I dated a guy who wore skinny ties and dressed like Elvis Costello back in the day. Eventually I settled down and started having kids. I missed much of the grunge period of music and the rap scene.
My kids have had the advantage of computers and iPods, CDs and Napster. They’ve been given drum lessons and performed in musicals. Music is still part of my life. And did I mention that my kids know the words to “The Mustache Song”?
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I am grateful that, on a regular basis,
Jon Stewart Slams Glenn Beck
By Laura K. Barrett
So here you are. Is it because you plugged “Jon Stewart Slams Glenn Beck” into your Internet search browser? I hear that is a sure way to get website visitors. Maybe now my purchasing of the domain name “www.JonStewartSlamsGlennBeck.info” will pay off.
I’m glad that Jon Stewart slams Glenn Beck repeatedly. Someone has to do it. What does it say about our society that 3 million people watch that moron on Fox? It’s not just what he says (diatribes against those who disagree with him), it’s how he says it. His arguments are simplistic, juvenile rants. It encourages the dumbing-down of the populace. How do you argue with, “Because I said so”? That doesn’t even work with my kids.
I have a very distinct bias. The way Jon Stewart approaches an argument has finesse and humor. He pokes fun at those he disagrees with. His approach is like flirting: His gee-whiz-doggone-it style invites the viewer to see his point of view. Beck is the opposite. He hits the viewer over the head like a caveman bringing a mate back to the cave.
Most of all, I am frustrated with the direction that America has taken with this extremism. Glenn Beck followers spew hate-speech and encourage us-versus-them mentality. We Americans can certainly disagree about any subject. I am all for freedom of speech. And I’m glad that even someone who enrages me, like Beck, is allowed to speak his mind. But could he just say it with some flair and decorum? And could he please stop lying?
Recently, Glenn Beck went on TV claiming that no other media outlet would show the footage of the Israeli raid of the flotilla near Gaza. The reality was the footage was shown on MSNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and even PBS. Aren’t other people outraged? During the healthcare debate, Beck claimed that the United States had the best healthcare system in the world, which would be undermined if healthcare reform passed. Sixteen months earlier, on his TV show, he claimed that his treatment in the hospital was so terrible as to give him cause to worry about the entire system. I learned this from Jon Stewart.
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Your life appears before me as a series of snapshots. From that first day when I met you, I knew that
I Knew You
By Laura K. Barrett
That first day I met you, it was 8:30 in the morning, change of shift. That first night that we met, we slept together, nestled next to one another. And that sleeping arrangement would continue for another two years, until I finally got fed up with it.
That first week you met your two brothers and your two grandmothers, and you slept a lot.
That first month contained Halloween. You wore a Super Baby costume. And your father held you in one hand and pretended to fly you around the room with your cape extended straight back. Whoosh! That first Christmas, you slept through the opening of the presents.
That first year that I knew you, I dressed you up in cotton long johns with snaps up the front – sometimes all white, sometimes reversible with one side a solid color and the other side striped. My favorite suit was a gift from a distant friend: It was royal blue with neat rows of black-and-white penguins wearing read shoes. You had a matching beanie and blankie – two blankets, in fact, in case you lost one. (You never did).
That first year, I played Mozart CDs for you. You perked up and tried to sit up against the straps in your baby seat as you listened to the music. You cried when I put you in the bathtub. You laughed when I pulled up your T-shirt and made raspberries on your belly.
That first year, the cats slept in your crib because you slept in my bed, between your father and me. You slept through the news but woke up for David Letterman.
That first year I held you on my lap. You nursed on one side and then the other. Then you took a nap. I held you there and rocked you back and forth. I was cold, so I covered you with lots of blankets. You loved to grab my elbow. You pinched the fat on Grandma’s arms. You pulled the cat’s tail, not to try to hurt him, but just because.
Your life appears before me as snapshots: Your first haircut, cutting off all of the blond curls that would never return; playing with the toy vacuum; chasing bubbles in the park; wearing cowboy boots and a diaper; sliding down the slide; sitting in the wheelbarrow with the pumpkins; swimming at the hotel pool; finally sleeping in the big-boy bed, the one shaped like a race car; your first day of school; moving to a new house.
Today’s your twelfth birthday. You took the bus home from school on your own. Your brother picked you up halfway up the hill. He left his car door open and his car idling while he took a spontaneous run down the hill on his skateboard, as if he could remember for a minute what it was like to be twelve years old again.
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Imagination can be better than the real thing. At least that’s what I am imagining on
This Valentine’s Day
by Laura K. Barrett
At this moment, as I am writing this column, I’m listening to Boz Scaggs singing about longing: “What can I say? What can I doooooo?” His soft, pleading voice takes me back to my teenage years – those awkward, lonely times when I just wanted someone, anyone, to ask me on a date. I had little knowledge of what a real boy-girl relationship was like. I could barely imagine kissing a boy, not to mention marrying one. My fantasies about love were unclear, fuzzy visions of snuggling by a fire and reading a book, mostly gleamed from the romantic comedies that I loved to watch on TV.
It’s easy to look back 30 years and analyze what I should have done. For the record, I should have dated lots of boys and men. I should have gotten to know my likes and dislikes, my must-haves and my can-do-withouts. I should have figured out what I wanted from a relationship. I should have learned how to discuss problems and work out differences more effectively. I shouldn’t have gotten married so young. But that’s neither here nor there, as my father used to say.
Valentine’s Day is coming again – it’s just around the corner. It’s the day when you celebrate love. When I was a little girl, my father had a special routine on Valentine’s Day. During his lunch hour, he would go to the drugstore, Merrill’s I think, to purchase a special chocolate heart and have my name written on it in thin white frosting. At school, we’d have a party and give our friends Valentine’s cards. When my kids were little, I can remember helping them write cards for their school parties. By then, the teachers had rules that you had to give everyone a card so that no one’s feelings were hurt by being left out. My boys were very excited at the prospect of all of the candy they would get at school.
During my married years, I didn’t really think much about Valentine’s Day. I don’t recall any special dinners or such. I imagine that my then-husband must have brought me flowers, probably red roses, but I can’t picture it. But the last Valentine’s Day during my marriage stands out very clearly. He had gone on a business trip and he didn’t even call to say, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I remember thinking that was strange. We went out to dinner the following weekend and halfway through dinner, as I was babbling on about which faucet to buy or some other equally unimportant thing, he announced that he had “something terrible to tell me.”
It could have happened yesterday instead of four years ago – the events are so clear in my mind. He was sitting across from me. We were at an expensive steak house. Our table was a small table for two. We had ordered a Silver Oak Cabernet, his favorite, to go with our steaks. I can picture me sitting there stunned and knowing that I didn’t want to hear the bad news, which I imagined to be bad but not as bad as it turned out to be. Summoning up some courage from somewhere, I told him that he had to wait until we got home. We sat in silence for the rest of the meal and, of course, skipped dessert, my favorite.
The news was shocking: He wanted a divorce. Not, he was unhappy in our twenty-plus year marriage and wanted to work on some issues, go to counseling, try to make things better. No, he didn’t love me anymore, didn’t find me attractive anymore and wanted out. Period. Well, there are ways to ask for a divorce. And that was not a good one.
Post-breakup, I’ve dreaded Valentine’s Day. Last year, a married friend of mine sent me a Valentine’s card, saying that she’d been alone on many Valentine’s Days and was thinking of me. That was very kind of her. Kindness is such an underrated quality. This Valentine’s Day, I’m going to make a nice dinner, steak and lobster, for me and my boys. We’re going to have chocolate molten lava cakes for dessert, warm from the oven, with fresh vanilla ice cream on top. After dinner, I’m going to put on my Boz Scaggs CD, close my eyes and imagine what it feels like to sit by the fire with someone I love. That will do for now.
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Keeping a secret often involves telling a lie. We all have secrets.
We All Tell Lies
By Laura Barrett
Maybe he gives it away by trying too hard, overexplaining, talking with hands and avoiding eye contact. Or the other extreme, too much eye contact, even adding, “Why would I lie?” or “Don’t you trust me?” Another might turn it around and accuse you of lying – implying that you’re the one who got it wrong – we weren’t supposed to meet at 7 p.m. for dinner. No, it was 8 p.m., so I’m not really late.
There is no getting around it: Every day we tell lies. Most lies are little ones, like “I’m busy” instead of “I don’t want to come.” Those little white lies are really designed to help two people – the liar and the listener. The liar doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, and maybe even isn’t brave enough to tell the truth. Lots of people just don’t like conflict.
Some lies are bigger, like the time my son “forgot” to tell me about hitting someone’s car. And then there are the doosies, the big ones. You find out that your father was married before he married your mother. Or, worse, he fathered a child during an affair five years ago. Your sister isn’t really your sister – her real father took off and your dad married your mom knowing this information. Your grandmother spent time in prison. Your niece’s boyfriend beats her. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Those secrets are big. And the big ones shake your world up when you find out the truth.
I discovered a family secret by accident when I was about 18. Of course, I didn’t believe it, so I went and asked my mother. When she confirmed it, I was distraught. Why hadn’t my parents told me? The secret wasn’t that I was adopted. But it had a similar effect of finding out at the brink of adulthood that you were adopted. Mainly, there was the thought: What else did they lie about? Not being able to trust them was a huge problem.
It was as if I suddenly was placed in another country with different rules and different customs. I was obsessed with finding out what other secrets there were. Of course, there were other secrets. But during my obsessive investigation I came to the conclusion that all of us are entitled to some privacy.
It turns out that dealing with my family’s secrets prepared me for later when my marriage was ending. My soon-to-be-ex-husband wanted to make confessions. He wanted to tell me all of the transgressions and lies that he’d keep secret. I told him I didn’t want to hear it, and I walked away. He wanted to tell me not because he felt guilty or wanted forgiveness – he wanted to get it out of him. The secrets he had kept for years were rotting away at his conscience. He didn’t want to clear the air, he wanted to poison it.
So maybe telling lies is as complex as the lies themselves. We all lie, and the vast majority of us aren’t sociopaths. We’re just average people trying to get by.
Speaking for myself, in case you were wondering, I’m an honest person by nature. It really is easier to be honest. You don’t have to try to remember the convoluted explanation that you came up with instead of the truth. You don’t have to live with the guilt about lying. That said, I have some secrets that I don’t want to share. Please don’t ask me what they are. Then I’ll have to make up a lie.
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I miss working at the library, because even jobs without a paycheck can provide
A Big Pay-Off
By Laura Barrett
I’ve recently gone back to work, as they say. Like many people, I hadn’t planned to rejoin the workforce. I was perfectly happy at home, planning meals and play dates, coordinating schedules and calendars. Like not-so-many people, I was lucky enough to find employment. My current day job is as a legal secretary.
Because my time is now taken up with gainful employment, I’ve had to give up some volunteer responsibilities. My favorite non-paying job was volunteering at the bookstore at the local library. This very small store, the size of a closet really, was the source of tens of thousands of dollars raised on behalf of the library last year. Patrons of the library donate their gently used books that need a new home. Then the bookstore volunteers sort the books, organize them by category and resell them in the bookstore to raise money for the library.
The bookstore is run by hard-working volunteers who love books. They weed through the books and sort them into different categories. New fiction (published within a year or two) includes hardcover books for a bargain $3. Newer trade fiction is most likely $2. Then the pulp paperbacks of Hillerman and Jance sell for a $1. Older fiction is quite the deal. Only $1 for trade paperback and 50 cents for traditional paperback. Where else could you buy a copy of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen for a mere dollar?
Of course, there are lots of nonfiction books, too. There’s a large selection of cookbooks and coffeetable books, self-help books and biographies. Many art books turn up, too. For the kids, there is a plethora of age-appropriate paperbacks and even a bunch of young adult fiction. If you’re interested in travel, which I am, you can find the latest book on England or DisneyWorld, they’ve got them from Reading Lolita in Tehran to I Feel Bad About MyNeck by funny lady Nora Eprhon. There’s a respectable classics section and small group of books on poetry.
For you parents out there, you could find books on parenting – from Penelope Leach and her books on toddlers to Michael Gurian and his books on teenage boys. Father's Day is approaching, fast. You could buy a book for your dear (old) dad: a book on golf or dogs or barbecuing.
I’ve giving away my secrets here but, if you wait long enough, you’ll come across virtually any book you want. The downside, if you could call it that, was that I spent lots of money at my non-paying job. All for a good cause, of course.
Like many other jobs, the best part was the people I worked with. My boss was a spunky, well-read woman who combined hard work with efficiency. She was kind enough to put aside treasures for me. A fairy godmother in disguise, she would save books on Paris and France, books on fashion and yoga. She got to know my tastes and always had a special treat waiting for me on my shift.
Even though I returned to a real job, she still saves the occasional book for me. Just a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by and she had saved me a book of John L. Stoddard’s lectures about Paris – a book with the copyright date of 1898. It’s an exquisite edition. And there is more where that came from.
If you’d like to check out some of the books firsthand, click on this link at Amazon to the used books from the library bookstore. The books here are a little pricier ($20 and over) but they bring in a lot of extra money to the library. So, you’d be doing good work.
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I’m unhappy with the way our lives have been
Overtaken by Phones
By Laura K. Barrett
Every household had a telephone when I was growing up – the antique rotary kind. You put your index finger in the circular slot above the number you wanted, rotated the dial clockwise as far as possible, then you let go. You heard the clunking, churning sound as the dial returned to the starting point, and you had to do it again. I can still remember my grandparents’ phone number: 525-2084. I can hear my grandfather answering the phone, “2084,” not “Hello” or “Good Morning” but “2084.” His reasoning was that, if it were the wrong number, the person would then hang up. He wasn’t exactly a friendly sort of person.
My grandparents’ telephone sat on the table between their easy chairs in the front room. At my parents’ house, we had a telephone in the kitchen. In those days, it was common to have the telephone located in the kitchen, often on the wall, because that was the center of the household. The mom was usually in the kitchen cooking or cleaning, and the kids would be there doing homework or some such thing. We had an extension in the hallway upstairs for more privacy.
That’s the phone that rang the summer between third and fourth grade. My mother was working, and my sister and I were home alone. A man’s voice asked if my mother was home. I can’t remember what I said. I know I was the one that answered the phone, even though I was the younger kid. After I hung up the phone, I called my mother at work, virtually hysterical. I was convinced this man knew where we lived and was going to come and get us. My mother told us not to worry, of course, but my sister and I fled to the grocery store until my mother came home from work.
Another vivid memory is a conversation I had with my
father, sometime in the 1970s, in which he told me that eventually
everyone would have personal phones that they carried around and used
whenever they wanted. At the time, I thought he was making it up. And, years later, I remember receiving the phone call from my mother announcing my father’s death. I can visualize picking up the phone in a hotel room and hearing my distraught mother on the other end.
Yes, we have the ability to call anyone, anytime. We can communicate really important information like, “What are you doing?” or “Did you just drive by?” Stuff that can’t wait until we get home. It seems like one day we were thrilled to get answering machines and the next thing you know we are talking to ourselves as we walk down the street.
When my then-husband upgraded to a Blackberry, it was the beginning of the end of our marriage. He loved that phone more than he loved me. He always had it with him – that small, precious object he held and caressed, fingering the keys and waiting for the beep that told him that someone called – someone very special, I suspect. One time, it beeped that it had a message, and I went to pick it up. Before I could do anything, he announced, rather defensively, that it was password protected and I couldn’t get the message. At the time it puzzled me, but in hindsight, I realize he was starting his secret life and I wasn’t invited along.
My kids have secret lives, too, with their own cell phones – their lifelines to their buddies. All of their friends have phones, too. They come over to visit my kids, ostensibly, but they’re texting someone else or half-listening to a phone conversation and simultaneously carrying on another one with the kids in the room. These teenagers don’t remember the days of the rotary phone, when our lives were simpler. Sorry, but I don’t think that all this gadgetry has improve our state of affairs.
Orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”?
That joke always makes me smile. My oldest son told it to me in kindergarten. He has a great delivery and a droll sense of humor. Another joke courtesy of him: Why was 6 afraid? Because 7 ate 9. Remember, he was in kindergarten
When I think of my kids and the color orange, I can’t help thinking of plastic toys – Nerfguns and Nerf balls, Frisbees, Little Tyke’s play structures. Orange is such a vibrant color, alive and invigorating. It wakes people up and gets them moving. Kids are naturally drawn to it.
But orange is not a very popular color. It barely makes the top 50 on the Crayola website. Although there are a few fascinating “fun facts” associated with the color orange, including the suggestion to wear clothing with orange in the summer to discourage mosquitoes and that it is used in the fast food industry as “a sign of informality or affordability.”
One of my first orange memories was the job I had “making” orange juice for my father. I took out a can of orange juice concentrate from the freezer the night before. In the morning I simply plopped the contents into a Tupperware pitcher – was that orange, too? – added cold tap water and produced the orange juice. My family did not own a juicer, the kind that you used to make fresh-squeezed orange juice. Not being a fan of orange juice personally, I still don’t understand what all of the fuss is about.
Some other memories of orange things include tie-dyed clothes from the 1960s and a sleeveless bright orange turtleneck T-shirt worn by someone, maybe my mother, with white pants and sandals. When we moved to the suburbs, my mother let me pick out the color of carpet I wanted. It being 1971, I chose a hot-pink-and-orange shag carpet. Evidentially, I was a trend setter (or a trend follower, I’m not sure which).
Looking around my house, I was surprised to discover how many orange things surround me. My cat is orange. I have several orange sweaters in my closet. An evening clutch bag that I carry is made of orange silk with an ornate faux-jeweled pendant on the clasp. It goes with everything.
Sports teams use the color orange frequently. My favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, uses the Halloween colors of black and orange. I love to go to the games and see all of the fans dressed in various combinations of those colors. Who else but a loyal fan would buy an orange leather jacket?
Nature surrounds us with shades of orange. The autumn leaves turn rusty orange and drop off the trees. Mini-violets come in orange varieties, not just the traditional purple. Pumpkins signal the approach of Halloween. The fragrant blossoms of the orange tree become fruit to eat. A rainbow shines with an orange stripe.
Every morning, the sunrise brings us a spectacle of colors, warm shades of pink-tinged orange. I take out my pale orange yoga mat from the closet, unfold it carefully near the window and breathe in the day.
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been
At Least Agnostic
By Laura K. Barrett
This is the first poem I ever wrote. I’ve had a difficult time sharing it with other people, because of the last line.
By Laura K. Barrett
This morning, the sun was shining
like God smiling.
Here’s one problem:
I don’t believe in God.
When is the best time to “come out”? Sometimes you wait until you’re out of high school. Or maybe you get married first, in a church with a preacher. Maybe your mother dies and then you speak up. Then again, maybe you have to wait for both parents to be gone. Frequently you just keep your mouth shut.
I’d much rather be telling you that I’ve been born again or that I’m gay or that I’ve won a million dollars in the lottery – none of which is true. I’m not against God or religion; in fact, there are many times when a belief in God would come in handy. Right now, for instance.
I’d rather be one of those who find comfort in scriptures and prayer. My spiritual side leans toward Buddhism and humanism. “All we have is this moment” is my motto. I also believe in the Golden Rule. Most of the time I even try to follow it.
I’ve known that I was at least agnostic for as long as I can remember. I was raised by parents who weren’t religious, either. My parents didn’t go to church as adults, but they both grew up attending church. My mother was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. My father’s family went to the local community church: Everyone was welcome at that nondenominational church, no matter what you believed.
I have very fond memories of going to Easter services and other holidays at Grandma’s church. As a visitor, I loved the feeling of being welcomed by the parishioners. On either side of the path to the front door, the minister had planted a row of peace roses, all different varieties, shaped neatly into rose-trees. The church itself was such a beautiful place with stained glass windows and lots of light. Usually flowers were overflowing in the foyer and at the altar. As a child, I often imagined getting married there. But, even as a child, I felt fraudulent going to church.
I’ve rarely shared my secret with other people. Usually, I just avoid discussing religion. I guess if someone asked me directly if I believed in God, I’d tell him that I was agnostic. I have several close friends who are born-again Christians. They might be shocked to read this. What if they stop being friends with me? Now that’s seems very un-Christian, but that’s my fear. Admittedly, it’s a very important subject to many people; some people blow themselves up in the name of God.
For my own children, I hope they think for themselves and make their own choices about what they believe. Once, I took all three of my boys to church – the youngest was still in a stroller. As we were leaving, I asked my ten-year-old what he thought about the experience. He suggested that if we pretended to believe in God that maybe we’d start to feel it. That’s also known as “Act as if…” That doesn’t work for me, but if he wants to try that, I say, “God’s speed.”
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My mother recently was diagnosed with colon cancer, just like my dad. She had a tumor the size of a grapefruit. Years ago she should have had
By Laura K. Barrett
Cancer is a scary word. Just hearing it causes our hearts to beat faster. It’s one of those dreaded things that people don’t want to talk about, one of those things that happens to someone else, one of those things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Cancer has affected my life dramatically. My father died of colon cancer more than ten years ago. My mother recently was diagnosed with cancer – colon cancer, just like my dad. She had a tumor the size of a grapefruit growing in her colon. The doctors think it had been there at least ten years. My mother’s own father had died of colon cancer years before. Neither my father nor my mother had followed their doctors’ advice to have a colonoscopy procedure performed to screen for colon cancer.
Maybe you’re thinking what I was thinking: What are my chances of getting colon cancer? Well, unfortunately, I am at least three times more likely to get colon cancer than the average person. When I received this information, it really shook me up.
But now for the good news: Colon cancer is preventable and treatable, even curable, if caught early. For instance, I’ve already had a colonoscopy. When I turned 40, I started nagging my doctor about the procedure. It was a tough sell to the insurance company – even with my family history. Eventually I got a referral for the procedure. And I’m here to say, it was not a big deal. The prep work is the worst part of it. I had the colonoscopy itself done without anesthesia – I only had a bit of Valium to relax me. The procedure itself was only mildly uncomfortable. I certainly did not need pain medication.
My doctor had informed me during the pre-op meeting that Americans insist on being drugged during a colonoscopy, but that is not usually the case in Europe or Asia. There, the procedure is done in the office, and the patient goes back to work. In my case, I was able to watch my colonoscopy on the TV screen. In case you’re wondering, my colon is clear and pink and polyp free. The doctor gave me souvenir photographs. Let me know if you want to see them.
We need to take care of our bodies so that we’ll be around for our children as they grow up. Be a good example to your children. Talk to them about cancer. And whether it’s for breast cancer or prostate cancer or colon cancer, go out and get those screening tests.
The bottom line, so to speak, is that many cancers are curable. Please don’t wait.
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Move all you want. Wherever you are now,
You Are Home
By Laura K. Barrett
As a child, it seemed to me that I moved around too much. Although, if you asked my mother, who had moved every year while growing up, she would have said that we rarely moved. My father grew up in one house his entire life. His parents, my grandparents, lived in that house until they died.
Sometimes moving is experienced as an exciting adventure, when you go off to college for instance. Sometimes it feels like an upheaval, and sometimes it is just plain sad. One thing is for sure: Moving always involves change.
During my divorce, we had to sell our house and move. I remember that, in the beginning, many lawyers and other advice-givers told me that selling the family home was the usual scenario in divorces. Initially, I balked. I was determined to stay in my home. My ex-husband moved out fairly quickly, so the house seemed to me like it belonged to its remaining household members. But because we lived our entire marriage in a community-property state, half belonged to my ex-husband and he was entitled to that.
I saw the writing on the wall, or at least on the tax return, when I consulted a financial adviser. She reminded me that, if I waited to sell the house until after the children had grown up, I would be responsible for the capital gains tax. I thought it over and chose to move my family not only because of the tax ramifications but also because of the opportunity to start fresh and form new roots. It was a time of change, and I had to put on a brave face and move forward.
It was painful to sell the house that I loved, the house for which I personally chose every door handle and towel bar. Many of the walls were covered with paintings by the kids. I had sewn curtains by hand for some of the rooms. The corner bedroom would have been my sewing room when the kids grew up. There was a cottage in the back that was the kids’ playroom. My neighbors were wonderful and helpful.
My ex-husband was patient about selling the house; he was willing to wait a bit. But, as luck would have it, an acquaintance was renting the house that their father had lived in. It was a stone’s throw from the old house. The kids could attend the same schools. The rooms were spacious. The views were wonderful. There was even a pool for the kids (one of their few requests).
Our new home is not the house that my family had planned to live in forever. There are no kids to play with around the corner. But there are horses down the hill, and you can hear the birds singing in the morning. It’s our home for the time being and, as my mother knows and I now know, too, wherever you are, that’s where your home is.
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The divorce has had some positive effects on the emotional well-being of my family – on the grown-ups and children alike. But that doesn’t mean it’s all peaches and cream when it comes to
The Divorce Schedule
by Laura K. Barrett
When I was married, I was in charge of the family schedule. One thing I could depend on from my workaholic husband was his unavailability. He had his schedule, and the rest of our family had theirs. His was sacrosanct. His priorities were work, work and golf; somewhere way down the list came the family. In our second round of couples’ therapy, our major fight revolved around my request that he commit to one night a week to be home for a family-style dinner. He absolutely refused to commit to that. I gave up the fight and allowed him to get away with that.
So, yet another gift of divorce is the ironic fact that he has now committed to one night per week with the family for dinner. What is very sad for me is that I’m no longer included. Somewhat surprisingly, I’m happy that my kids get that time with their father. Like many women, I’ve read those articles and books about how important it is for families to eat together so that the children will grow up happy and emotionally healthy.
I know that, in the case of my family, the divorce has had some positive effects on the emotional well-being of grown-ups and children alike. Since the divorce, my ex-husband has been reliable in his schedule as a father. He’s committed to every other weekend and Tuesday nights. For the most part, he has succeeded, especially when it comes to our youngest son. Our ten-year-old has spent more time with his father since the divorce than the other two did at his age. His father has been able to figure out the soccer schedule and manages to get our son to the games. For the ten-year-old, his father has committed to Tuesday nights, which include providing dinner, usually at a restaurant, helping with homework and getting the kid to school the next day. It’s gone better than I expected. The oldest is out on his own and working out life as a semi-grownup juggling school, job and rent money. The middle son, who is at the darling age of sixteen, has had much more difficulty with the divorce schedule.
As I hope you can only imagine, teenagers are – at their best – difficult to manage, sullen, occasionally brilliant and downright frustrating. In a lot of ways, their personalities are already formed by that age and change, especially divorce or moving, can be very difficult. Lingering problems persist and even get worse. Scheduling time between my teenage son and his father has not gone well. That’s partly a testimony to their different personalities and divergent views on life. For a while, my middle son tried to spend one 24-hour period with his father twice a month. Or, put another way, on the every other weekend visitation, he went to his father’s one day. That is only two days a month, but that was too much. There was a lot of fighting and ragged nerves. After several months of breaks, they are back to having dinner once a week on Tuesdays with the other sons. The proximity of the other boys seems to help them get along better.
The bottom line is that it’s never too late to schedule time to be a father. All you dads out there, make it a point to spend more time with your kids. It’s not about quality time or quantity time. A few hours a week can make a big difference.
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I try to avoid conflict. I don’t speak up when I’m angry. Here’s my advice to myself and to you:
Don’t Ignore Problems By Laura K. Barrett
It’s been a while, but he made a good point. Rodney King called for everyone to get along and try to work it out. I’ve asked around, and it’s a recurring theme among my women friends. We like to keep the peace. If Hillary had been the nominee, then you’d have seen … well, maybe she’s not the best example. But the reality is that keeping peace in the family is not easy or even desirable. Conflict is part of life. In families, we disagree about politics, how to spend money, what to have for dinner, whose turn it is to do the dishes. A family is a microcosm of any social system. And it makes things harder, really, that we love each other. That brings me to conflict-avoidance. I was trying not to go there, but I can’t help it. It goes along with being a peacemaker. I (and I have lots of company) try to avoid conflict. I don’t speak up when I’m angry. I ignore the problem: I step over the dirty laundry; I give my kid ten more minutes to call and check in; I cross my fingers and hope they did their homework. Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that working for you?” It could be working better, I have to admit. But there is no Conflicts Anonymous group around, so I just have to go it alone. One great thing about middle age is that you become more willing to accept the stuff that you have to deal with. One great thing about divorce is that you discover emotional reserves you never thought you had. And, one great thing about self-help books is the abundance of helpful suggestions. I’ll save you the effort of reading lots of books and offer you some good advice: Let life be messy. Don’t avoid conflict. Speak up when something is bothering you. No, it won’t be easy but, yes, it will get easier with practice. Start small. When you see that your kid left his underwear, socks and shoes in the bathroom after the shower, call him over to clean up. Not in five minutes. Right now. Enforce the rules. However, don’t take it personally when the troops don’t follow their leader. In my past, I used to expect that when I pointed out the error of my (now ex-)husband’s ways, that he would pause, think about it and decide that I was right. In my vision, he’d put his finger up to his chin in a somewhat professorial stance, look up toward the sky and then announce that he was wrong. Or a corollary, that I was right. Never happened. Not once. Never will happen. It won’t happen with the kids, either. The best you can hope for is a lot of staring at the floor and grunting. Or, they’ll fight to the end. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong, so don’t take it personally when they call you a name, roll their eyes, slam the door or [fill in the blank]. This too shall pass. Stick to your guns. Conflict is part of human nature, and so is resolution.
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Fevers, fractured toes, chicken pox and broken arms. Of course,
A Mother Is Going to Worry By Laura K. Barrett
When my first child was a tiny baby, I used to watch him sleep. If I say watch, I mean stare. I worried that he might die in his sleep. I had the baby monitor turned up loud, loud enough to hear my neighbors arguing next door. When he was just a few months old, I lifted him out of a car seat that I had placed on the dining room table and, with great force, propelled him into the chandelier. We both started screaming. I called the pediatrician hysterically. I’m still grateful that the office staff treated my call with respect. Evidently, it was no big deal. He had a little bump and was crying, but that was it. No damage. That was just the beginning. Later, he had a fever and was really sick. He threw up. He broke his toe. He sprained his wrist. He had the chicken pox and gave it my friend’s newborn baby. Once he told me he had a stomach ache. I said that he could stay home from school only if we went to the doctor. The early morning doctor-on-call sent us to Children’s Hospital to rule out appendicitis. Unfortunately, they couldn’t rule it out. He had an emergency appendectomy while I watched Oprah and sobbed. Then he had a brother. His brother has seen his share of visits to the doctor and emergency rooms. He had stitches in his eyebrow and still carries the scar. He broke his arm and had to have surgery and physical therapy. He’s also sprained his wrist skateboarding. By the time the third son had arrived, you’d think I’d have this kid-thing under control. Well, you’d be wrong. Partly because he had two older brothers, partly because of his spunky, adventurous personality, he’s been intimately involved in the healthcare system, too. He’s had lots of narrow misses. He missed hitting the fireplace and cracking his skull open when he dove for and missed a ball on the hardwood floor. Once, as he was walking along a concrete ledge and practicing his balancing – one foot in front of the other, hands out in a T – one of his feet missed. He slipped and did crack his skull a bit. Evidently that’s not a big deal, except to parents. He’s also fallen off the coach and broken his collar bone. He’s only ten – so it’s not over yet. Then again, maybe it’s never really over. That first baby is now 20 years old. He is on his own, calls the doctor to make his own appointments, and brushes his teeth without being reminded. But maybe I should call and check on him.
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Just thinking about money brings up strong fears of not having enough of it. Money is not just what women want, it’s what everyone wants:
We Want Money
By Laura K. Barrett
I don’t want to talk about money. I’d rather talk about the dentist than talk about money. I’d rather go to the dentist than talk about money.
There wasn’t much money in my family when I was growing up, and my parents didn’t talk to me about money. I grew up living in apartments. My parents couldn’t afford to buy a house until they were in their forties, and they only were able to pay for it with help from my grandparents. My parents fought a lot about money and spent it on strange things. My father bought books that he didn’t read, records that he didn’t listen to and clothes that he didn’t wear. But no one else was given much money to spend.
One of my first memories is of my mother crying because I refused to eat the lunch she made for me. I think she was worried that I would be hungry and there wouldn’t be food to eat later. Another memory is of the family walking to the store on a holiday to buy milk. We had to walk because we couldn’t afford a car until I was about five years old. Back then, the grocery stores were usually closed on Sundays and holidays.
Thinking about money brings up strong fears of not having enough of it. My mother went back to work when I was in the third grade so that she could have money of her own to spend. My mother kept the money she made in a separate checking account. My father paid the rent and, later, the mortgage. He liked to be in control of things, so he gave my mother a very small allowance for food and clothing. There were no extras like parties or vacations. I was about eleven when I won the grand prize from Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor – an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland for our family of four. That was one vacation that I can remember.
When I left home, there wasn’t much financial support from my family. I do remember that my father gave me a credit card for gasoline and paid my car insurance for years. In hindsight, that was quite a gift and helped me keep my head above water financially. I worked part-time when I was in college, just as many others did. I remember what a treat it was to go out for ice cream or when my parents occasionally took me out to dinner.
My children have had a different experience with money. There has not been much stress over money in their lifetimes. There has always been enough to eat and nice places to live and lots of cash leftover for toys and vacations. They’ve never seen me cry over spilt milk or worry about paying the rent. Things can change. And for that I’m grateful.
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February 6, 2008
Sometimes it’s awkward, but at least my kids know
My Opinions about Sex
By Laura K. Barrett
“I really don’t think I should be discussing sex with my mother,” my ten-year-old told me recently. And that was just the beginning. He went on to tell me that his older brother was having sex with his longtime girlfriend. He thought I should know that much.
At our house, we talk about sex sometimes. Other times we talk about death, sports and taxes. In other words, it’s not a big deal. I have condoms in the kids’ bathroom, just in case. One of my good friends says that, in their house, Rule No. 1 is “Always wear a condom.” That certainly is a good rule.
As my youngest reported, my oldest son is sleeping with his girlfriend. They are both over 18. I think it’s okay. They’ve been going out for more than a year. Still, there have been a few unexpected consequences, like the time he and his girlfriend slept in my bed when I was out of town. When I complained that they hadn’t changed the sheets, my son informed me that they didn’t have sex, so it was no big deal. Well, that’s just too much information for my tastes.
I admit that sex-related issues can be awkward, like the time one of the kids asked me what a tampon was and what it was doing in my car. Or the time when I explained to my boys what you’re really talking about when you say that something sucks. They groaned and covered their ears.
Sometimes I like to tease them, in a more-often-than-not misguided attempt at humor. When it’s one of their birthdays, I ask if they would like to have the graphic photos of their birth. So far they haven’t taken me up on it.
So, when it comes to sex, the kids know my opinion. You shouldn’t sleep around, but you shouldn’t be a virgin when you get married either. It’s important to have good character and be kind. Be honest with your partner. Have fun but be safe. Please wait until you’re more than ready to get married and have kids. And, if possible, it’s best to do it in that order.
My kids are a product of divorce. They remember what it was like to live in a two-parent home. Their father and I were married and shared the same bed for many years. That’s the ideal situation in which to raise children. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, you don’t get to choose what happens to you. So we make the best of it.
I haven’t dated much since the divorce, so the issue of my sex life hasn’t really been an issue. One of my sons specifically asked me not to parade a different guy every week like one of my divorced friends. That’s not my style, anyway. And, I hope my boys are like me in that way.
Helicopter parents need to stop whirling about and
Leave the Kids Alone By Laura K. Barrett
I’m the mother of three boys, three sports enthusiasts. All of them have played organized sports at one time or another. I’ve seen more than my share of youth soccer, kids’ baseball and high school football. So, I feel entitled to say: Just let the kids play, already. Helicopter parents, a national epidemic, are overly involved in their kids’ lives, and the sports arena is no exception. Some of these parents fight with each other, their kids and even the referees during sports matches. Even the most well-intentioned parents insist on constant banter with their kids as they play the game. Most youth sports activities are volunteer-driven. The coaches are often parents who spend their leisure time trying to teach these kids the rules of the game and, more important, how to get along with each other and learn to deal with losing. Believe it or not, the main point of youth sports is not winning. It’s learning how to play together as a team. I was once a soccer coach. When one of my boys was about six years old, he joined a team with a wonderful, kind man as its coach. No other parent volunteered to be assistant coach, so I stepped forward. Let me tell you, it’s scary out there. You try to corral 14 six-year-old boys. Herding cats is easier. One Saturday, I was entrusted with the entire team and had to coach a real game. Yikes. I was lucky enough to have a team full of parents who knew how to behave. It also helped that nobody keeps score at that age level. But I’ve also witnessed some appalling behavior. As a sideliner, I’ve seen friends who are usually mild-mannered become tyrannical. One father I know used to pace up and down the soccer field screaming commands at his kid. Go to the goal. Go to the left. You missed that shot. Most of the nonstop chatter was negative. If I had been his kid, I would have felt like quitting. I wonder what the father’s motivations were. Was he trying to be encouraging? Well, how about, “Good game, son!” And leave it at that.
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December 12, 2007
Norman Rockwell is nowhere to be found in my
Christmas Memories By Laura K. Barrett
I was raised in a family that didn’t believe in Santa Claus
(or Jesus for that matter) so Christmas is often a confusing and difficult time
for me.Many of my memories about
Christmas resemble scenes from a horror movie, filled with gray skies and fog
and people who turn out to be different than they appear at the beginning.There are some positive experiences, but they
are hard to come by.For instance, my
favorite thing to do as a child was to watch television.I looked forward to annual showings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Charlie Brown’s Christmas.My sister and I would put on our pajamas and
stay up later than our usual bedtime to watch Rudolph fight the Abominable Snowman.To this day, I worry that Rudolph will lose
the fight, and I am thrilled when he wins. Still, most of my Christmas memories are unpleasant.My first recollection of Christmas is sitting
on my grandfather’s lap in the front room of my grandparents’ house and looking
at the Christmas wrapping paper burning in the fireplae.My grandfather is smiling, but not a happy
smile.It’s an I’ve-got-you-now
smile.Across the room is my
grandmother, sitting in her easy chair. My grandmother is yelling at my grandfather,
not because she is angry, but because he is deaf and she is trying to be heard
over the television set loudly blasting a football game.The noise is almost unbearable.My father is slouched on the couch – he long
ago gave up on being happy, whether it was Christmas or not.Next to him is my mother with her gritted
teeth, for the sake of appearances, plastered into a fake smile.Norman Rockwell is nowhere to be found. Families are like holidays: There are moments of genuine
closeness and moments of unbearable sorrow.It goes with the territory.This
year, as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my only willing volunteer
helper, my youngest son, I pulled out an ornament purchased early in my
marriage.It was a plain cobalt blue
Christmas ball. I remember buying it at
the local hardware store downtown.It was
marked down before Christmas and therefore affordable to a self-supporting
college student, probably because of its atypical color.Much later I was able to buy the usual red-and-green
Christmas ornaments, but this treasure was the only one that has remained of that
half-dozen boxed set.All but one of
them have been broken over the years, most likely because I’ve always encouraged
the kids to help with decorating the tree.A broken ornament or two is part of the deal. My children are like most middle-class kids – they have an abundance of the material stuff. What is missing from my children’s Christmas is the sense of wonder and excitement that only comes when you have to wait for gratification. It’s much more meaningful to see Rudolph only once a year. Then all the kids can come to school the next day and talk about it. This modern-day alienation is caused in large part by the quick availability of whatever we want, right now. It creates an insatiable appetite, a demanding and whiny “but I want it now.” My kids are bored with Rudolph because they can watch the video 30 times a year, if they want. For me, there is nothing material that I want or need for
Christmas. My grandparents are gone now,
and so is my father.Now that you
mention it, I don’t have a husband, either.But I do have a blue Christmas
ornament.When that’s gone, too, I hope
to have some positive memories to replace it.Hello, Santa, are you listening? That’s my wish for Christmas – better
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November 21, 2007
I feel equipped to give advice. After all, I had
Three Babies By Laura K. Barrett
I had three babies. The first time around, the whole process was quite a shock – the pregnancy, the childbirth, the infant care. For one thing, he wasn’t planned. Although I prepared diligently for the childbirth part of the process, I was ill-prepared for the child-raising part of the deal. I wish someone had told me (or that I had listened) to the idea that childbirth only lasts a day, maybe a couple of days if you’re really unlucky. But the baby turns into a child and grows up into an adult. You’re a parent for the rest of your life. I wish I had read more books on child-rearing than childbirth. I remember after my first baby was born and I was discharged from the hospital. I couldn’t believe that the hospital would allow me to take a baby home. What irresponsible fool would give me an infant to take care of? I was 26 years old, but I did not feel capable of taking care of a baby. Even though I had been a babysitter and studied nursing in school, I felt ill-equipped to be in charge of another human being. I remember asking the nurses about the crying. How do you know what he’s asking for? The nurses were very kind. They assured me that I’d figure it out. I did figure it out, but it was arduous. My first baby was skinny and colicky. It’s just a bit of exaggeration to say that when he was awake, he was crying. It was absolutely exhausting. I have a videotape of his father and me: zombie-like twentysomethings, desperately smiling for the camera, holding a screaming baby. It was nothing like the Hallmark card-vision of babies. Kind strangers would tell me that he’d grow out of it and I’d forget. Over time, I’ve forgotten how stressful it was, how incompetent I felt, and how the lack of sleep produced a fragile state of anxiety. But I clearly remember the exhaustion. He didn’t sleep through the night for nine months. Finally, we let him cry it out because someone else had to cry besides me. I was too tired to care and too desperate for sleep. It was horrible to let him cry, but it worked. He started sleeping through the night and we all settled down. The second baby was a dream – this time, a good dream. We waited more than three years for the second one. In my mind, I especially had to prepare myself for the lack of sleep. Well, the second one came home from the hospital sleeping through the night. He was the happiest baby. I was amazed that he wanted to sleep. In his baby pictures, he’s smiling. We’re all smiling. Even the first child didn’t seem to mind his presence either. Most of his babyhood was spent on the floor or in a baby seat watching what was going on, contently observing his surroundings. The third time around was like starting over. I had forgotten what to do. Ten years had passed since my first baby and it showed. I had given away all of the baby stuff – crib, stroller, toys, clothes. My recollection of that first year with Baby #3 was sending the older two boys off to school and then holding the baby on my lap. I cooed at him. I admired him. I played Mozart for him. We napped together. It was a wonderful, magical time, closer to the image of babyhood that I expected the first time around. As I look back on the last twenty years, one thing I have learned is how fast the baby phase goes. So, as a mother of three, I feel equipped to give advice. You probably won’t listen, just like I didn’t. Remember that it really does go fast. Even the colicky, crying stage is only a few months. Then the baby smiles. So, slow down. Don’t take the little problems so seriously. Surround yourself with support. Ask for help. Get a babysitter at least once a week, so you can play with adults. Enjoy taking care of the baby and envision him as a busy toddler, creative school-age child and a happy adult. I can’t wait for grandchildren. I hear it’s even better.
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October 24, 2007
Some families keep it bottled up and internalized, wearing glued-on smiles through clenched teeth. They’re suffering from extreme
Anger Management By Laura K. Barrett
When you’re happy, you have permission to smile or laugh. You can share your joy. But happiness is just a feeling state, and so is anger. Theoretically, they should be equally important. But in some families, feelings are not expressed, especially the negative ones. In those families, anger comes out in rages, with broken tables and bruised hearts. Other families deny anger: "No, we never fight." Those families keep it bottled up and internalized, wearing glued-on smiles through clenched teeth. Growing up, my family often had a difficult time with emotions. Anger was often the main feeling we expressed. But frequently that anger was just a mask for the deeper, truer feelings of hurt, rejection or loneliness. I think my family was typical of the time. My parents couldn’t really communicate with each other, let alone their children. As I’ve matured, I’ve worked hard to uncover what’s going on inside me emotionally. It’s taken a lot of practice to monitor my internal states, but I’ve trained myself to notice the nuances: What am I feeling now? As far as my children are concerned, I would characterize them as normal, mostly well-adjusted boys. But that wasn’t always the case. When my middle son was very young, he got into fights at school. In preschool, he would hit another kid rather than asking for a toy he wanted. He was impulsive and disagreeable and refused to sit still in circle time. As a grade-schooler, he was sent to the office so many times that I was on a first-name basis with the principal. I vividly remember going to pick him up from school but seeing the principal coming toward me and hoping that she wasn’t coming to tell me what rule he had broken that day. I was terrified that he would become a teenage delinquent. Something had to be done to improve his social skills. With the help of a book called the Explosive Child by Ross Greene, I learned how to help him express his feelings more appropriately. It turns out that he wasn’t aware of the cues along the way toward his outbursts. I started by pointing out to him when I noticed a trigger. Then I asked him how he was feeling at that particular moment. After that, I reinforced positive behavior and tried to ignore smaller transgressions. I set up playdates that were short – maybe an hour – so that I could honestly tell him that he was getting along well with his peers. When he was kind to other children, I pointed out how favorably they responded. All that hard work paid off. Now, as a teenager, he is a wonderful boy with many good friends. Occasionally he has moments of frustration but, for the most part, he works hard at finding acceptable outlets to express those feelings. I’m proud of him. He is far from the teenager I dreaded he would become. Our family has moments of happiness, moments of frustration and moments we would prefer not to share with anyone else. And that’s just fine with me. Some things are better kept in the family.
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October 10, 2007
When you think about women thinking about men, there's no accounting for Taste By Laura K. Barrett
The subject of love and dating came up with friends the other day. Someone posed the question, “Who is more attractive? Wallace Shawn or Tom Cruise?” I was in the minority because I preferred Wallace Shawn. In case you don’t know, he’s the gnome-like, intellectual writer/actor/artist most famous for having My Dinner with Andre. Tom holds no allure for me. He is physically attractive, handsome and youthful-looking, but that is just the outside. Otherwise, Tom seems unreal to me, slimy and phony, narcissistic and self-righteous. Of course, I don’t really know either of these people. I’ve only had one brief, personal encounter with Wally Shawn. He was the guest speaker at a small event I attended in New York. I admired him as he spoke about his thoughts, dreams and ambitions. He spoke from his heart about how he had accidentally found his way into acting and was able to parlay his acting career into supporting his other artistic pursuits. Wally was raised in a family in which the arts were valued and celebrated. His father was the editor of The New Yorker. As a child, he thought everyone was a writer because those were the only people he ever met. He said that it’s much easier to be a struggling artist in your twenties when you can tolerate being hungry and living in squalid conditions. It’s much harder in middle age to live without heat or to work as a sales clerk just to pay the rent. What I found most intriguing about him was his humanness. He was soul-searching and self-deprecating. His suggestion to twentysomethings was to work at a job or craft that you love, to become immersed in it and explore it. Avoid doing something just because you’ll make a lot of money. That kind of experience is a death to creativity and depletes the soul. Usually, I choose to hang around with people who are intelligent, humorous and full of mischief. I like a wide variety of people, but I’m drawn to people who like to read, enjoy music and are creative in some way. I’m attracted to the Wallace Shawns of this world. There’s no accounting for taste.
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September 26, 2007
What Kind of Fathers Will My Boys Be? By Laura K. Barrett
I just read a piece in The New York Times online about the trend of fathers spending more time caring for their children. The article quoted a study from 2002 by a research group called the Families and Work Institute, which stated that Generation X dads spend 3.4 hours weekdays caring for their offspring, compared to 2.2 hours by Baby Boomer dads. According to the study, Generation Y fathers will continue the trend. Who is Generation X or Y? Gen X members were born in the twenty years between 1961 and 1981. Its members grew up at a time when the draft ended, HIV limited free love, and Reaganomics was mainstream. This was a time in which the pace of life increased dramatically. As children, these Gen Xers likely watched Sesame Street and had parents who praised them a ton. Often referred to as slackers, they don’t worry about lifetime employment and may harbor disdain for our work ethic. The upcoming group of fathers, Generation Y, will likely include my boys. Most of these kids had two parents who had to work to put food on the table, so these kids helped out around the house at quite a young age. They grew up with the TV on, the computer running, and the cell phone ringing. Now life is moving even faster. So what does that mean for Generation Y fathers? A backlash, I predict. My hope for Generation Y dads is a return to a slower pace of life – a stop-and-smell-the-roses attitude that may provide the extra time to care for children. In my own life I have tried to slow down. Recently a friend e-mailed me to make sure I viewed the space shuttle orbiting the earth. The orbit occurred at a specific time, and precision was important or we’d miss it. My boys and I gathered outside (I was already in my jammies). I had my nine-year-old on my lap. We looked up and then we saw it – a bright light in the sky moving very fast in an arc – that’s what an orbit is, I guess. The boys were mesmerized. My fifteen-year-old son exclaimed that it was just like in October Sky, a required book in his eighth grade. The book was originally named Rocket Boys, for which “October Sky” is an anagram. So he did learn something in school . . . but I digress. Such a moment can only happen if you actually spend time with your kids. My hope for my Generation Y boys is that they will follow the prediction of the New York Times and spend more time caring for their own children. And while I’m hoping, I hope I’ll be around to see it.
September 12, 2007 A Clean Sofa By Laura K. Barrett
American Beauty is one of my favorite movies. The scene that I’ve been replaying in my mind is the one in which unhappily-marrieds Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey are having a moment of passion. Annette interrupts them to complain that Kevin is going to spill beer on the very expensive, Italian couch. Then she defends herself when he complains that the couch is more important to her than he is. I’ve had similar moments in my life. I’ve even had a similar couch. I have to admit that I can understand how she felt. In my last house, I used to have the previously mentioned couch in my family room. But no one ever saw it because I always had it covered with matching blankets. In my former life, I spent too much time concerned about the condition of my furniture while I should have been looking closer at the people living with me. We are bombarded with images of what a happy family looks like. My vision used to include a house in suburbia with a white picket fence and the mother at home with an apron on. I no longer live in the house with the white picket fence. Okay, my friends all know that I still wear an apron. But I have taken the covers off the couch. The red-and-yellow-checkered fabric is clearly visible in my living room now. This new reality brings up a lot of issues for me. How do I accept the fact that if you really live in a house, messes will happen? More important, how do I help my boys learn to be responsible, to take care of things, and to enjoy life at the same time? One step at a time – just like everything else in life. A little change in my perspective has proven helpful. I’m reminded of an incident that occurred at my last house. After a year-long remodel, the carpet was installed finally and I wanted to get the bedroom set up quickly. To do so, I needed to iron the duvet cover. Because of the chaotic state of the house in the midst of a remodel, I couldn’t find the ironing board. So I decided to iron the duvet cover right there on the floor – on the brand new wall-to-wall carpet. Well, I created a permanent reminder of my impetuousness. I melted a large iron-sized spot on the carpet at the entrance to my bedroom. For the next five years, whenever I stepped on that spot I remembered that incident. In a way it was the gift of natural consequences. That’s what happens when you only see one solution to your problems. The result of my change in perspective is that my family seems to be happier. The image I had tried to live up to was just an illusion. The reality is that my kids are just as happy without the white picket fence and the clean sofa. Our needs are simple – love and attention, stability and flexibility. With that attitude, it’s easier to learn the lessons I’m trying to teach.
August 29, 2007
I Don’t Know How to Swim
By Laura K. Barrett
I’ve been talking a lot about dating lately – not doing any dating, just talking a lot about it. So,
I’ve also being thinking a lot about dating and the whole process of
pairing up with the opposite sex (or the same sex – I live in
California, after all.)I
feel a lot of pressure to start dating, from my 70-year-old neighbor to
my married friends, I hear the repetition of “get out there.”
So what exactly is going on with me, I wonder. The surprising truth for me is I’m enjoying being alone. Part of that, I guess, is I’m not really alone, i.e., living alone. Two out of three of my boys are still home with me. Lots of kids, so far more boys than girls, visit my house. I have a cat, two cats up until recently. Occasionally I have a dog visit. I know a lot of people, and I have good friends. My mom is still living, and she lives five minutes away. Is it a cliché to say that I have a full life? It really is enough for me, especially for the foreseeable future.
Periodically, I check in with myself. Do I want a romantic relationship? So far the answer is no. What I want is male friends. I want to learn what it feels like to talk to men at a level that doesn’t involve the dance of dating. I feel pulled into a “pleasing mode.” It’s a role I feel comfortable with. In some ways, I missed the women’s movement. I dreamed of getting married and having children. I
remember when my ex-husband was in law school and I was still in
college and someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life. My answer was to have a family and stay home with my kids. That really was the path of my heart. I’ve loved staying home with the kids. My ex-husband provided well for us financially. He is a hard-working, responsible man who was good at providing a home for his family. In turn, I tried to make him happy. I cooked food that he liked. I took up golf because he liked it. In a lot of ways, I’m a throw-back to the Fifties. My fantasy life of the beautiful home with the nice cars and vacations was my reality for many years. But, as many woman of my mother’s generation have learned, what I lost was my inner self. What happens to a woman who often makes other people’s needs more important than her own? In my case, I forgot that my needs were important, too.
So, in Lauraspeak, I’m “getting out there.” I have spent many months reading about how to deal with change. I read books on Buddhism, aging, travel, divorce, among others. I thought about the massive amounts of advice each book suggested. For me, the bottom line was: Find out what you long to do, and do it. So, I went back to studying French after a twenty-year hiatus. I joined a writing group, which led to this Dad magazine gig. I called old friends and rekindled relationships. I took up yoga. It’s amazing to me how many interesting people I meet. Sometimes it feels that I’m jumping in the deep end and barely keeping my head above the water. Other times, I’m dipping my pinky toe in for fear of getting wet. However wet I get, I’m the one who is swimming. Did I mention that I don’t know how to swim? Yet.
August 15, 2007
The Cliché of Age by Laura K. Barrett
I was at a party recently with a bunch of middle-aged people like me. We started talking, even some of the men were talking. Someone mentioned Satchel Page’s line about how old would you be if you didn’t know your age already. Well, that really is something to think about. I look in the mirror and am often surprised. Most of us look in the mirror and see a combination of our parents. Up until recently, I looked a lot like my dad and his side of the family. My hair is dark and, although I have light-colored skin, I tan fairly well. I definitely have my dad’s eyes and eyebrows. My mother says I have feet like my dad’s. I don’t remember what his feet looked like. But as I age, I see a resemblance to my mother. It’s an overall thing – body type and facial expressions. She’s an Irish lass (I am way past being a lass) with fair skin and freckles. We’re both short.
When I look in the mirror, I also see a 46-year-old woman. That’s my age. I feel like I’m supposed to keep it a secret, especially now that I’m single. Since I don’t like to keep secrets, I’m putting it out there to the world. But the truth is that I don’t look 46, whatever that means. I’ve always looked young for my age. When I was sixteen and got my passport, my smiling face looked about twelve. When I was pregnant with my first child, at the age of 26, people often thought I was a teenage mother. One
of my favorite stories is opening up the door to a salesman, when I was
very with child and having the guy ask if my mother was home.
I hear all the time that I don’t look my age. Part of it is that I don’t act my age; I’m often playful and silly. I like to try new things, which means I often make mistakes. Yesterday my nine-year-old son taught me a duet on the piano. I’d never played any sort of music. I was amazed that I could learn an admittedly very short piece. He doesn’t play piano, either. In fact, he is learning to play drums. His babysitter taught him the duet, so he was confident that even his ancient mother could learn it, too. It was an interesting switch to be the student instead of the teacher. I believe what keeps me young-looking and young-thinking is a spirit of curiosity. Toddlers and teenagers are curious creatures. But they turn into know-it-all three-year-olds and thirty-year-olds. I have a habit of asking one friend of mine how old he is. The fact is, I keep forgetting. His age is somewhere in between 50 and 60. In reality, deep down I don’t care how old he is, or anyone else really. I’m curious to know approximately how old a person is because that gives me a clue to who he or she is. I have much more in common with someone over 40 than I do with someone younger. I feel younger at 46 than I did at 36. Another cliché. Well, there you go.
July 25, 2007
More Macaroni and Cheese, Please
by Laura K. Bennett
I do almost all of the cooking in my household. Every week, I plan out a menu of meals for my family. My goal is to provide food that is nutritious but edible – I guess better than edible. Sometimes I present food in an attractive way, especially when we have company. What does that tell you? Well, last night I took lots of care to cut the pineapple according to the complicated instructions on the tag. I must say I could have presented it at a luau – it looked beautiful. The pineapple became a boat-shaped container for the sliced fruit. No
one touched it but me. In fact, Nick, my middle son, covered up his
face with his t-shirt and begged me not to bring it to the table. He hates pineapple and thought that merely looking at it would ruin his appetite.
I’m not giving up, though. Like
most mothers, I want my kids to try a variety of foods, and you never
know if the presentation of the food will spur consumption. On the other hand, I only insist that they try one bite. That’s
probably because I vividly recall the time when I sat at the table as a
child for at least two hours for refusing to eat yams. Kids are kids, and mine are just as picky as other kids can be. On a positive note, I am lucky that all of my kids like broccoli, unlike some Presidents that I recall.
Even though I try to include new foods once in a while, we do repeat a lot of the same meals. For instance, at our house we eat a lot of macaroni and cheese. We eat a certain brand: Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar Cheese. There’s a running joke at our house. I announce that we’re trying something new for dinner and I think they’ll like it. Then I produce the macaroni and cheese. The kids’ part is to feign surprise and make a big deal about how good the meal is. Wow, they tell me, we should have this more often. Even their friends know the routine.
The bottom line is that meal time is so much more than just a time to eat. It’s a time when we can be together as a family and slow down for a bit. I’m not the first one to point out the deep message of love in the ritual of the preparation of food and eating it. Often, we need to be reminded that our lives together as a family are just a series of moments. I hope someday Nick will serve his son macaroni and cheese and smile at the memory. It’s more likely, though, that he’ll remember the pineapple.
July 4, 2007
I’m Done with Mean
by Laura K. Barrett
Yes, you heard me. I’m done with Mean. I’m done with mean people, mean intentions, mean-spiritedness. I’m warning you: If you try to be mean to me, I’m not putting up with it. I don’t deserve being treated that way, and neither do you; you don’t have to take it, either.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I will be able to stop myself from being mean again. That’s an absolute that I can’t guarantee. If I had to be honest, I’d predict that I'll be mean again, maybe even today. But one thing I can assure you is that I’m trying not to be mean. In fact, I’m trying to be kind.
Yes, I’m one of those Liberal Hippie Wannabes. I meditate and think positive thoughts about others.
The reality is that you always have a choice, even when you think you don’t. For instance, when you start feeling that you’re going to blow, you can learn to catch yourself. It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure. This morning I had the twelfth phone call to my cable company in the last two weeks. Really, if we’re counting the last month, I’ve spoken to my cable company upwards of 25 times. You can imagine my frustration. I had waited all day a week ago, but the cable guy did not show up. This morning, they couldn’t guarantee a service call today. I hung up the phone and stomped my foot. My youngest son was watching me. I felt like screaming and throwing the phone across the room. Instead I looked into his eyes. He looked afraid of me. I exhaled and calmed down. I told him that I was very upset but that I was going to hope for the best. And guess what, an hour later the cable guy showed up.
The moral is that I started with myself, as you should. It really is a worn-out expression that we can only control ourselves, but that’s the truth. So because I was able to catch myself, I was able to stop myself from creating a mean spirit. I can’t control when the cable guy is going to show up, but I can control my reaction.
The first step is to be kinder to yourself. Whenever you’re trying to make any change, start with yourself. From there, you radiate out to those you love. I’m kinder to my children. It starts from there, because that’s the easiest place to start. Take the easiest road first because then you have the best chance at success. Once you succeed a time or two, it will get easier to catch yourself.
In Buddhist terms it’s called practicing the Art of Loving Kindness. In Christian terms, I’d say it’s practicing the Golden Rule. Whatever terms you want to use, there is no downside. Kindness and compassion for others brings more back to you.
June 13, 2007
by Laura K. Barrett
“I don’t want a wife with gray hair.” That’s what my friend said to his wife. Mind you, he has salt-and-pepper (gray) hair and the beginnings of a beer belly. Whenever I see him, he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of jeans, which is perfectly acceptable, don’t get me wrong.
The problem is that he expects more from her. It’s important that she be in good shape, physically attractive. She should dye her hair and try to look younger. Plus, shouldn’t she wear a clingy t-shirt that shows off her curves?
My suggestion to my friend is that he should look in the mirror. He’s aging, too. Is it okay for him to have graying hair? What about his middle? Is he working out and watching what he eats? Does he look his age, or more than his age? Who made the rule that women aren’t supposed to age? Men. I
want to emulate women who are maturing gracefully, the ones who are
letting their hair gray naturally and who don’t get plastic surgery
that tucks in their tummies. I find myself noticing and complimenting women who look their age and are proud of themselves. My mother never dyed her hair (and neither did my father). They looked their age, and they looked just fine.
June 6, 2007
I Want a Man Like Her
by Laura K. Barrett
The other night, I went out with several women, some of whom I knew a little bit and others I had just met.We were chatting in the car, as women do.At some point, we started discussing creativity.One woman said her husband of many years had just taken up painting again after a long absence.She was very excited about his new passion.His paintings were bringing up a lot of personal issues for him.“Let’s peel away the onion and see all of the layers underneath,” she quipped, referring to the layers of his personality.
I want a man like her – not like her husband, like her, and that’s what I said.I
want a man who paints or writes or sings -- someone creative who wants
to “peel away the onion” and to look at what’s underneath, and then
tell me about it, of course.Why did you paint that?What does it remind you of?Did you see it in a dream?What does it mean for you?What are you going to paint next?
The consensus of the group was that there are no men like her.These wonderful, intelligent women essentially told me not to bother looking.I won’t find one that wants to talk about the inner workings of his mind, of inspiration and motivation and meaning.Maybe that’s true.I’m not sure.But the world is a very big place.I think men and women are more similar than different.We all want to figure out how we fit into the universe.
May 30, 2007
by Laura K. Barrett
Ask the question: What one thing could I do differently?
That’s the thought that came to me as I sat with a friend and his teenage son at dinner the other night. What if he asked his son that question? Of course, he might get the usual response, “I don’t know.” But
what if the dad insisted that he was serious, that he wanted to improve
their relationship, that he was willing to try a new way?
Just asking the question could change their relationship. It would show the son that the dad cared about his view of the world. It would provide a role model of give and take. It would show the teenager that all loving people, even their fathers, especially their fathers, can shift their point of view.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that the son suggests that the father be less stubborn. The father could agonize over that and worry obsessively that he’s too stubborn. Then he could become the opposite – too flexible or wishy-washy. But, better yet, he could start to notice when he is indeed stubborn, once or twice a day, maybe. Then he could label the behavior – that’s when I’m stubborn. Gradually, he could start to notice before he became ingrained in the stubbornness.
A shift could occur. Instead of being a nine on a Stubbornness scale of one to ten, he might become a seven-and-a-half. What an improvement. What an example for his son.
I Am Laura K. Barrett
by Laura K. Barrett
The “K” stands for Kathryn. I was named for my paternal and maternal
grandmothers, respectively. My household consists of a teenage boy, a
nine-year-old, and me. My oldest child has already left home.
As the mother of three sons, I’ve worked hard to raise them to believe
in the equality of the sexes -- although I do feel it’s their job to
take out the garbage. Deep down, I worry about how men and women treat
each other and hope the next generation will understand the opposite
sex better. I grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from the
University of California at Davis with a major in Economics. For more
than ten years, I’ve worked as a copyeditor for a nonprofit dedicated
to advocating for children. I’ve worn many other hats including those
of accountant and legal secretary. One of my favorite jobs was working
in a fabric store. For fun, I love to read. My house is
filled with books. I’m on a first-name basis with the local
librarian. At the moment, I don’t have a TV in my bedroom. I very
much enjoy music but I can’t carry a tune. Every day, I take a walk,
sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Occasionally, I even go for a
jog. Like many other Californians, I practice yoga and meditation.
Every summer, I take my family camping. I love to travel, especially
to warm-weather locales. If I could live anywhere in the world, I’d
choose France. I think French men know what women want.