Monday, May 23, 2011

The Right of Return

That's it! I'm out of here; or, at least, almost out of here. Last week I stumbled upon the word "exurbs" in Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom.  A quick search (Kindle-enabled) revealed that this apparently well-known term, which I'd never heard of before (mostly because it's primarily used to describe an American phenomenon), pretty well defines where I live. I did a quick search in the dictionary and discovered that "exurb" refers to that area beyond the suburbs; that region that is "beyond the beyond". For those in the know, this is one huge leap beyond Levittown! The term appears repeatedly within American publications from approximately 2003 and describes the new boom created by the loss of population in America's biggest cities and the aging of the inner suburbs. Its origins go back to a book published in 1955 by August Spectorsky titled The Exurbanites. According to Spectorsky, exurbs are "other than" urban areas characterized by prosperous communities with a large percentage of college-educated residents (more than closer-in suburbs) and generally high average incomes. Sitting here in my comfy house, gazing up at the diploma attesting to my own doctorate, I realized that I fit right in. That being said, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I got here!

Why would any super-educated person choose to live so far beyond, well, everything.  The fact that my life had been so neatly defined by what is now considered a well-documented geo-economic group has left me more than a little depressed. To add insult to injury, one of the areas upon which Spectorsky's now fifty year old book was based is that beyond Main Line Philadelphia which I, as a born and bred Center City resident attending a racially and socio-economically mixed school in Germantown, have always disdained. Venturing out to this carefully groomed, ever-green, area as a teenager, for a lacrosse game or a garden party, I would cynically mock its ho-hum boring pace, the overwhelming monotony of color amongst the residents and its remote location--distant from anything and everything. Could it be possible that I had somehow become a Mainliner?--that I was now a full-fledged member of one of the multiple exurbs that satellite major metropolitan areas and are so obviously twice removed from, well, life!!

The fact is: I’m a city girl. Just last week I drove into Tel Aviv to have breakfast with a group of local Caesarea women. Traffic was wretched and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why we couldn't sit down for an omelet and diced cucumber salad somewhere that didn't entail so much time staring at the back of a bus. The significance of my remoteness from bustling city life grew with every creep forward. The sludge of the morning crawl on the sole highway leading to the city weighed on more than my gas tank, creeping into my psyche. Upon arrival we settled ourselves in a pretty café in the city's port. As the conversation at the table moved from one subject to another I looked up and down the boardwalk. There it was: the world. Parading before me was an endless stream of types ranging in age, color and nationality. A typical 10 second glance might include a few people on Segways, obviously on some kind of tour, a 60 year old woman taking an exer-walk, an older man with a fishing rod, a young couple in their twenties holding hands and an assortment of runners between the ages of 25 and 55.

In short, sitting on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, I had found life. Here it was. And soon enough I'd be paying the bill, taking a last sip of my cappuccino and facing whatever traffic lay ahead as I made my way back, gulp, to the exurbs. Talk about being stuck in the middle. Not only was I chronologically right smack in the middle of life but also physically wedged into the middle of the Israeli coastline--halfway between two cities: Haifa (if that counts) and Tel Aviv. I turned to the other women around the table and broached the topic of my "itch" for city life. Half were with me and half had no clue what we were talking about. This latter group was happy to return to the "beyond the beyond" after a quick Mimosa and Israeli breakfast. Those whose kids were virtually out of elementary school, heading to the army, or beyond, and approaching fifty-- in other words: beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel--were with me.

My sister in law recently announced that she and my brother are "this close" to relocating to the city. I am jealous; more than ready to turn in my wheels, give up the ceremony of raised waves to familiar cars passed on our town's one main drag, and the boredom of the same two cafés. When all of my chickens have flown the coop I am out of here! The question of how I ended up an exurbanite (I can't bear to even write the word) isn't all that important. Of greater significance is how the heck I'm going to get out of here!

Any getaway demands careful preparation, including a thorough assessment of what one's escaping--kind of a "know what you're up against" strategy. Accordingly, I consulted the ever-faithful Wisegeek. This source provided three characteristics of "exurbans" which I felt demanded address. First, exurbans specifically choose the isolation and remoteness of the exurbs in order to escape the political and social hotbed of the city. That would explain the extreme sense of boredom and somnolence which cloaks my little town and which I will be happy to escape. Next, exurbans seek smaller and safer refuges from city life where there will be more opportunities for their children to engage in nature.  I'm not exactly sure how to make peace with this assessment since my kids spend a minimal amount of time in the so-called "great outdoors" (especially now, during snake season, when we've got the house sealed up like Fort Knox) and a maximum glued to whatever screen enters their visual perimeter. Last, exurbans are under the assumption that the ex-urban perimeter offers their children better educational opportunities. While I'll refrain from addressing the overall quality of primary and secondary education here in Israel, I am firmly convinced that, unlike inner-city USA, in this country the best opportunities still reside smack in the middle of the three major cities.

In his "Take a Ride to Exurbia," David Brooks claimed that the move from the city, to the suburbs and then onward to the vast sprawling exurbs, was a way of breaking "free of the gravitational pull of the cities" which afforded people the ability to discover "their own world far beyond." That makes a lot of sense to me. Ending up "beyond the beyond" could only be the result of some vast disturbance of the natural law of physics. The problem remaining is how and when to take that one big leap into the vortex and let it draw me back toward the center. In some ways I feel a bit like the Palestinians--desperately claiming their right of return! While my banishment years back was voluntary, and could be rescinded without so much as a blink from any foreign government, the path back to where I belong would require careful negotiation.

How does one pick up an entire life and relocate it, albeit one quick 45 minute ride down the road. The fact is that by the time we've hit "middle" life, several kids up and running, established firmly in one community or another, it becomes all the more complicated to unpeel everyone from their present digs/life and move them elsewhere. Ironically enough the only consideration that doesn't come into play is work. A move to the city is almost always an economically better option; just how many hours does my husband spend jammed amongst other frustrated drivers on the highway--and my own work is entirely portable and might actually benefit from an audience bigger than a pea. But relocating will require my children to switch schools (or maybe not if I wait just a few more years); me to find a new triathlon group (unthinkable! But then again the statute of limitations on that hang-up will expire soon enough as I, a-hem, age); and a bit more effort to maintain my small, but select, group of friends (most of whom I presently engage with on the telephone or through the internet). Maybe this move isn't as complicated as I imagined! It certainly didn't seem to be for my parents who, in their mid-forties, moved us back to the city after 10 years in the, shhhhhhhh!, exurbs.

That settles it. The reality of my present "exurban" life is more than I can handle. It's time to escape Siberia. With my exit strategy nearly in place, there remains only one fly in the ointment: the question of relocation. Why stop at Tel Aviv when Philadelphia is just one hop, skip and jump away? Obviously this hurdle will take time to cross. In the meantime I'll enjoy another smashing coastal sunset, right in my backyard, and, like Scarlett, "think about that tomorrow." 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Art of Mothering

It's Mother's Day and I want to write about my mother. Endlessly devoted, never wavering, steadfast in her efforts to support my brother’s and my every project and share our successes with the world, my mother is definitely up there with the best. I've known this since I was a child and feel it twice over as an adult. I'm not saying she's perfect. I don't know any perfect mothers. I am definitely not one and I'm pretty sure that hers was not one. Mothering is an art that needs constant attention, adjustment and tweaking. I don't know one mother who thinks they have it "down pat". Along with the multitude of challenges that come with the job is the need to change and adapt as we, and our children, grow. Although my own mother is mother to an adult, and accordingly no longer needs to parent, she still serves as a major, and I want to add excellent, role model.
Growing up it was obvious that my mother liked to plan. I used to find her daily to-do lists, itemizing exactly what needed to get done before the sun went down, around the house. She always got an early start, and still does. There's so much to do! She always included some form of physical exercise (a bike ride, a row in the Schuylkill, a brisk walk, a game of tennis) and still does. She always worked-in time to read a chapter in at least one book, and sometimes two, to make whatever phone calls were needed to keep the house running, and scheduled cherished time to put together dinner for whoever was home. Although as a child I used to find these lists daunting, amazed at her daily aspirations, as an adult they garner respect. For my mother, then and now, each day is full to brimming and, as far as I can tell, she closes her eyes at night knowing exactly how much she has accomplished and what's coming up the next!
Recently my mother was put to a test. Her ability to plan every moment, to anticipate every next step, was washed away. A situation arose which entailed an enormous amount of flexibility. "Go with the flow" was going to have to be the new mode and I wasn't entirely sure how she was going to handle that.
As most mothers learn to do, mine has quickly adapted and risen to the occasion. Pouring endless energy into something which she wanted no part of and never asked to have in her life, my mother is proving tenacious, unfaltering and dedicated. Her strength, which I have admired from afar my whole life, is shining through. She's only at the beginning of something very unwanted that's been shoved onto her plate, but I am certain she will handle this exactly as she has handled everything else: with determination, fortitude and unfailing love.
My mother's performance on a new battlefield has inspired me, setting the bar for how I want to mother when my children mature into adulthood. Although I’ve also become a list maker, I have never subscribed to her method of daily scheduling. In fact most of my lists get lost in the ragged shuffle of my life and I usually move on to a new one before completing the items on the last. Nevertheless, I've recently discovered that her seemingly simple routine may offer a solution to some of the challenges I’m presently facing as mother to three adolescent children. Last Fall I stumbled over an article that, by introducing its own to-do list, goes a long way toward easing the bumps of parenting teenagers. In "What Do You Tell Your Teen Every Night? 15 Things Every Parent Should Tell Their Teen," psychotherapist Dr. Mary Jo Rapini doesn't give her opinion on the role of the parent in the age of technology, the methodology of parenting or, heaven help us, the dichotomy between Western and Chinese forms of mothering; instead she offers an itemized list reminiscent of those I've seen my mother prepare, check over and actually complete, for decades. 
Rapini's nighttime checklist of things you should say to your teen, including items such as "My job is not to be your buddy, I am your parent; It is okay to mess up, I do it all the time; and I am sorry you don't like my rules, but you will have to abide by them," not only satisfies a natural desire for checks and balances but, even more significantly, reminds us of what we might be forgetting. Sometimes watching our grown children lope through the house, a foot taller than us and one step away from walking out the door, we forget that they still need our love and direction. Rapini's list offers a way to step in, do our work and get the job done.
Sometimes simple steps go a long way. My mother still makes lists, today’s containing certain things she could live without right alongside her favorites, and her daily accomplishments show the results of direction, focus and determination. The fact remains that whether actively parenting, or serving as role model, our responsibility as mothers is both essential and infinite. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, "God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers." On this particular mother's day I want to pay tribute to my own. There are a lot of great mothers, and she is one of them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Can we talk?"

This blog has been delayed a few weeks. Originally I wanted to write about how the Facebook generation's communication, i.e. people, skills are crumbling. But soon after I began to write I was sidelined by some very difficult news. All of a sudden there were no words—nothing I could say, let alone write. This lasted for several days. I couldn't figure out how to express what I was feeling. A few outrageous comments, ones I immediately regretted, popped out, but that was it. And then the wind shifted and my old friends returned to help me recover some of the balance I'd lost. Although they haven't taken away the pain, words have helped me deal with it.

How does one react when told something which changes their life forever; when everything comes to a screeching halt? Faced with truly life-changing moments we are left to sort through our feelings and form some kind of verbal expression. While some of us are ready—poised to jump in with a why or how or what--others are struck silent.
This got me thinking. What happens if we can’t find the right words? Can we cope with upsetting situations without them? This whole issue became relevant when I shared my news with my three children. While this wasn’t the first time I'd had to tell them something difficult or sad, and pretty much capped off a year full of hard-to-fathom conversations, this particular one was the kind that throws a STOP sign in front of you. I braced myself for their reaction.  While my daughter was quick to express herself, crying, making comments and asking questions, my sons pretty much clammed up. After shedding their own tear or two they swallowed hard and shoved all their emotion back into a more manageable and less accessible area of their hearts.

I take no issue with their decision not to exhibit sorrow; it may be due to their generally sunny dispositions or their discomfort with emotional situations (a subject upon which much ink has been spilled in studies devoted to adolescent boys). There are certainly occasions when words simply won't capture what we're feeling; where we're struck speechless--where hugging goes a long way. I myself had difficulty speaking, let alone breathing during our conversation and welcomed my children's embracing arms. But when I came up for air I was flooded with thoughts, things I needed to express. The words formed rapidly in my head, spilling out over close friends and family during the course of a few days, working their magical healing power.

My concern is that my sons' reactions reflect an inability to find the words to express their pain. Although no one response is better than the other, figuring out how to string together those little black letters to express what we're feeling can help us delve into the meaning of what’s going on, an important part in coping with it. What if this means of rescue, which had so helped me, wasn't available to them? 

My thoughts on this subject come on the heels of watching them pummel one another over the past calendar year; not only pummel, but also hug, in a "half Nelson" kind of way. Although there might have been a split second back when it all began that I thought this was a sign of anger or frustration, I’ve come to realize that those emotions do not play any part in their routine. In fact, this physical aggression is, as far as I can tell, a sign of their love and devotion to one another. How am I sure? A. they only pummel their best friends or each other and B. this action is frequently accompanied by cooing sounds. Their intention is clearly not to hurt but rather, to connect. This physical tug of war is simply their way of expressing themselves; albeit a bit too Neanderthal for me.

Another part of the picture emerged about a month ago during a conversation with another mother in my community. We were commiserating over the fact that our children, as far as we can tell, despite being buddies since fourth grade (seven years and counting) almost never meet outside of school and don't seem to talk. Joan Rivers' famous line was ringing in my head.  We weren’t concerned about the boys in any general way, in fact they are part of a small group of brainy cool guys--definitely the kind you’d like to see your child hang out with.  Yet the facts speak for themselves: once off school grounds these boys barely utter a word, even to one another, and, except for sports’ practices, do not leave the house. These days, where means of communication are abundant, such a major lacuna in “reaching out” is nothing less than shocking.  Pummeling might just be as good as it gets.

While both of my sons (and this issue pertains to the younger one as well) have many good friends, the multiple indications that they don't really know how to talk to them, except on the most superficial level, is alarming; alarming, but not surprising, as most of their off-campus communication is restricted to Facebook chats. When conversation does occur it comes out in the stunted form of updates, short and to the point; prompted by some kind of need, say, obtaining a missing homework assignment. The common teen pipeline, the cellular phone, is relatively defunct in my household. Neither of my boys takes his to school and it’s most likely that when I actually want them to have them accessible, they can’t remember where they last saw them. Off campus “get-togethers” are few and far between. Obviously too old for “play dates” I definitely expect there to be some attempt, of the likes we see between my eleven year old daughter and her friends, to “hang out.” Nevertheless, I can count on one hand the number of times my sons have each had a friend over, or gone to visit one, over the course of the past school year!

None of this should come as a surprise to me in a world where one can let someone know about something cool they saw or read with the simple click of a button. The attraction of this new push-button sharing was emphasized a few weeks ago with Google’s new +1 feature, a direct challenge to that ultra positive, thumbs-up, LIKE popularized by Facebook. Writing for Slate, Farhad Manjoo writes about how features such as these add to the overwhelming attraction and popularity of social networks, enabling us to connect with our friends electronically, either directly through chatting, or indirectly by letting them know about things we’ve read or done or seen.

As an extraneous part of life, something we are able to glance at, and move on from, these social networks actually serve as a nice, sometimes informative, distraction. Anyone that knows me knows that I definitely enjoy the connectability enabled by Facebook. But the ability of these networks to mask as actual social interaction is disturbing. As the mother of three Facebook users I wonder whether the potential to update and connect, in a brief manner, to maintain a tenuous tie with humanity while shuttered behind closed doors, hinders the development of important communication skills, including conversations longer than two sentences, sharing a room with one or a group of others, relating to people as physical entities instead of bytes and bottom line: negotiating real life in real time--live and on stage. Manjoo also expresses concern about what all of this “friending, liking, and sharing“ might amount to and states that “readers often complain that Facebook in particular and social networking in general, detracts from real-life relationships.“

It’s amazing that we’ve all just closed our eyes and accepted the concept that checking in, writing tidbits and reading up on other people via Facebook, or any other of the many networks popular these days, counts as actual “social activity”. One recent conversation between me and my younger son, wherein I expressed my concern that he had made no attempt to meet with friends, of which, to date, he still has many, provoked the defense: “But Mom, don’t you see how much we chat on Facebook?” My silent answer was “Yes, I see exactly how frequently. I also see what is written in those chats, and this makes me worry even more!”

If social interaction is primarily limited to brief, faceless blurbs in the place of actual, in the flesh, conversations, how will these kids be able to come to grips with the difficult and sometimes devastating things that they will most certainly confront later in life? Shielded from having to share space, from dealing with both peaks and lulls in conversation, from negotiating the ups and downs of human relationships which occur naturally within extended phone calls or get-togethers, how will they ever be able to find a way to express their distress, not to mention someone to express it to? 

Whereas hugs (which my children give in abundance) and wrestling holds will go a long way, words, and the ability to use them to express whatever—whenever, are a gift; one that is fading for those whose primary form of day to day communication is limited to short bulletins almost never uttered face to face.  The adoption of a form of selective mutism, one aspect of what I see as the stunted emotional development affected by these social networks, suggests the break-down in these youngsters' capacity for putting their feelings into words so essential to the development and maintenance of deep friendships as well as healing, in difficult times.  

One of my greatest challenges as a mother is, in the face of so-called modern technological "advances" in communication, to achieve, year-round, the Shangri-La of personal development achieved by a month of summer camp. Unable to hide behind a screen, to maintain distance and anonymity, given plenty of time to develop conversations beyond the "bulletin" stage, my children have flourished during these annual retreats. An atmosphere where the norm entails constant social interaction, 24/7, face-to-face, sometimes within the four walls of a cabin and sometimes outside in nature, but never negotiated through electronic means, goes the farthest in encouraging profound relationships based on verbal expression and emotional maturity; the perfect antidote for Facebook dumbification or, dare I say, social retardation.