Making a Difference

Typically on Sunday mornings my husband and I share articles from the New York Times. He’ll often read me pieces while I prepare breakfast or visa versa, and we’ll discuss the ones that pique our interest. The year end edition of the Sunday Magazine runs detailed obituaries on a handful of famous and infamous people who died that year. Though many are well known— actors, x-presidents and the like, some are more obscure, but they all share one thing in common. They all had [at least] 15 minutes of fame.

As my husband read on from person to person I began to feel more and more irritated. Where was the balance with the everyday hero— the dad who worked his life to support his family, or the career woman who slated her ambitions to be a mom? Their stories are equally interesting as some one hit wonder, or marginal actor. Even the most common among us had lives that mattered, that touched many, and deserve to be told.

On my mother’s death bed she asked me “Did I make a difference?” She stared at me with sunken eyes, her skeletal face practically begging me for an affirmative answer. And I gave her one. And, of course, it was true. She was my mom. She made a difference to me.

She turned me on to love, light, color, beauty, nature, music, art. She would often point out a vibrant flower, stop everything to view a sunset and be truly awestruck by its magnificence. She genuinely liked people. She was open to most all ideas as long as they weren’t filled with hate, or born of ignorance.
My mother was a humanitarian, and without prejudice, and she taught me to respect all things equally.

She was a wife for nearly 50 years. My father used to call her his ‘sunshine.’ Laughter and joy came easily to her. She exposed him to simple things—good talks during long walks, exploring new places, trying different foods. She loved to dance, especially with my dad, and they were grace in motion. She sang all the time, had a beautiful voice that blended perfectly with my father’s melody.

My mom was a passionate and devoted teacher. She created a magnet ocean science program she taught to underprivileged and gifted kids that is still active today. I’d met several of her students, decades later while with my mom in the market or mall, who claimed they became oceanographers and biologists because of her influence. She loved kids. They were uncomplicated—what she pretended to be, even want to be, but wasn’t. She was childlike in many ways however, always curious and loved learning.

As I sat on her bed and ran through her list of accomplishments her expression became sadder and sadder, and my “turn that frown upside down” mother started to cry. She wanted to give so much more. She had so much more to give but she realized her time had run out.

Two weeks later I stood over her grave and refused the dirt filled shovel the Rabbi handed to me. I knelt down and scooped a handful of moist, sweet earth from the freshly dug ground, smelled its musty richness, then let it fall off my hand and run through my fingers as I released it onto her casket. And then I silently thanked her for teaching me to recognize natural beauty and engage with it at every opportunity.

My mom died of cancer at 73. Over 100 people attended her funeral. Another hundred or more have contacted our family since her death to give their condolences—lives she touched, who will touch the lives of other, and so on.
Andy Warhol was wrong. Most of us live and die in obscurity.

But we make a difference.

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1st Journal Entry to my Newborn Daughter

How am I going to raise a girl, and help you establish a strong self image?
How do I teach you what I myself don’t know how to be?

JOURNAL FROM MOM TO JRW

1/10/02

Hi JR. Welcome to the world. What to say… It’s hard to arrange all the things I’d like to say to you here, now, on this 6th day of your life, outside of me. You’re sleeping on the bed next to me as I type this into my laptop. You’re sure cute. And small!

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have two kids. I always pictured having two boys. When I found out you were a girl it scared me a little. A lot, actually. How am I going to raise a girl, and help you establish a strong self image? It’s easier with boys. Socially, boys are indoctrinated with a strong self-image. But in my experience, that’s not been the case for girls. It’s been, and still is very hard for me to believe in myself, to trust myself, to like myself, for the greater part of my life. I don’t want that for you. So how do I teach you what I myself don’t know how to be?

I wanted two kids so that you and your brother can have someone of your own generation to grow with, to share life with, to align with. Your dad and I are older parents, two generation drops from you and your brother. We didn’t intend it to be that way. At least I didn’t. I wanted kids much younger, but even with vigorous searching I didn’t meet anyone I wanted to marry until your dad, when I was 37. We tried having kids straight away, but I had a lot of miscarriages (7), and it took us two years to have your brother and another 2 plus to have you. After losing 5 pregnancies before your brother, I was scared out of my mind that I would never get to have any children.

After your bro, I was sure all those loses were behind me, and your dad and I tried for you 6 months after your brother was born. But I lost that baby, and another one a year and a half later. And I didn’t think I could handle another loss. So we stopped trying so hard. And 4 months after that last loss, you were conceived. And I was so afraid I’d lose you too. But you hung in there, and saved my sanity. And you were born to me on January 4th, 2002. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I kiss your head with my words.

I hope I serve you well as your parent. I hope we can grow to be good friends. I’m not quite sure how to be a mom to two children and give you both what you need. As I’ve told your brother, and I am telling you now- I’m sorry for the times you will feel I was not there for you. I hope they will be few. And I hope you can forgive me for the times you will feel you are left wanting. I promise to do my very best, and to make you and your brother the highest priority in my life. I love you more than you’ll ever know, unless you get lucky, like me, and have children of your own.

I’m looking forward to you growing. Infancy is a hard stage for me, as I don’t really know anything about you, who you are, how you are, what kind of person you will want to be, and become. I hope for you that you are kind, that you care about the world around you and the people in it. I hope for you that you are strong and stand by your convictions with actions. I hope for you that you are wise and understand when compromise is necessary as it will be so much of your life. I hope for you that you choose wisely whom to love and that you understand that love is an action and takes constant work to maintain. And I pray that you will always know that I deeply and passionately love you, my beautiful daugher.

Welcome to earth, JRW! So very glad to meet ya!!

The Power of LOVE

Five days of labor, and the moment I held my son for the first time, his tiny warm body on mine, a tsunami of humbling awe so overwhelmingly powerful swept through me it literally took my breath away.

My 9 yr olf son’s guitar teacher was freaking out the other day over the impending arrival of his first child. Beyond a healthy birth, he was consumed with anxiety over the care and feeding of an infant, all the way up through guiding his teen. So I told him the secret of parenting, what makes the sacrifice not only tolerable but wildly enjoyable, and he calmed, and smiled, allowed excitement to peek through.

It’s never talked about—that intense, profoundly magnificent feeling a parent gets the moment their child is born, and forever forward. It’s expected we love our kids, and therefore taken for granted, which is a shame, because the intensity of that feeling is so spectacular and unique.

I’d listen to my contemporaries talk about their children before I had kids. They spoke of the long nights with crying, colic infants, “the terrible two’s,” “the f***ing four’s,” surviving the teen years. Sometimes they’d comment their Kylie had made the honor role, or that Jordan had just got first chair for his violin, and their entire countenance would light up. But those moments were rare compared to the complaints.

Like most women, I simply assumed I’d have children. I planned to have two kids in my early to mid-30s after I’d established my career and proven my own greatness. But it wasn’t until I was almost 40 that I became pregnant with my son, my first baby to survive after six miscarriages.

Nine and a half months of pregnancy, connected to the infant growing inside, and everyday was fraught with wonder, and fear. Five days of labor, and the moment I held my son for the first time, minutes after delivery, his tiny warm body on mine, a tsunami of humbling awe so overwhelmingly powerful swept through me it literally took my breath away. And as I kissed his downy head, his hands, each finger, I realized the joyful contentment, the sense of energized completeness, that electric connection I felt to him, for him— was love.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the intensity of love that could be attained until having children. I’ve been lucky and had loving parents, a few dear friends, the love I now feel for my husband, passionate and true. But it doesn’t touch the intensity of the love I feel for my kids. Virtually every time I am with my children, snuggle with them, kiss them goodnight, or just see them across a room, I feel that all encompassing love fill me up and consume me with tenderness, compassion and humility. Now 9 and 7, and they still takes my breath away. Everyday.

People who never have children, or don’t devote their life to raising them— as with adoption— will never know this level of love. In their lifetime, they will never understand the feeling that we call ‘love’ can be this intense. I’ve heard many of my contemporaries say with conviction that they’ve never wanted, and will never have kids, with rationalizations like “I’m just selfish, I guess.” But the truth is they’re only robbing themselves.

Life’s greatest gift is our ability to feel. We all experience pain and sorrow, happiness and joy to varying degrees. The unspoken gift of parenting is getting to feel the fulfillment and richness of that intense love integrated into every aspect of our lives, motivating us to be positive examples, and challenging us to consider others, and the future beyond ourselves.

The price of living with this intensity of love is the amorphic fear of losing it, which is why parents worry so much. Through the tantrums and the tears, the joy and the fears in sharing life with kids, the ultimate reward in parenting is the privilege of loving our children.

Selling Our Children

Corporate partnerships with public education are poisoning our kids for $$$. And educators and parents are letting them!

My 10 year old son came home yesterday and told me he had learned something new at school. At his [advanced] age, he told me confidently, kids start to smell bad because they get grown-up hormones, and therefore they need deodorant. He shared with me the packet he got from school, a plastic bag filled with a small, bright red deodorant stick of Old Spice, Red Zone, and a booklet titled, “About You. Puberty and stuff,” all compliments of Procter & Gamble, Inc.

My son uncapped the stick and extolled the translucent ‘aqua gel’s’ great smell, then sniffed under his arm to convince me he should start using it. He reiterated his teachers warning about becoming known as ‘that kid that smells bad.’ Then he retrieved the little booklet and read to me the “No sweat!” page that tells about glandular development through puberty and why it’s important to use “deodorants or anti-perspirants to control the [unpleasant] smell.”

Unfortunately, the school failed to teach my son, and every other kid in his class, the risks of using deodorant and related products like make-up and perfumes. One quick search on the net reveals several types of cancer and other progressive, debilitating illnesses that are now being correlated with using many of the popular body products.

Breast cancer, Alzheimers, and a slew of neurological disorders, study after study points to the potential for long term damage when people rub artificial compounds into their skin, especially young skin of developing bodies. While we can all argue the validity of these studies, and Procter & Gamble and their like do, loudly, there are simply too many clinical trials showing a link between using body products and cancer to ignore.

I have instructed my kids not to use these types of products, unless they are organic and have nothing artificial, and even then I don’t recommend it. Clogging your pours with outside chemistry, natural or not, probably isn’t a good idea. Washing with natural soap daily, or more if necessary, will battle odor as effectively as deodorant, and has not shown, in any controlled study, to be harmful.

Marketing to children is effective. Get kids while they’re young and you have them for life. Corporations have been targeting kids for a long time. The Ronald McDonald clown isn’t aimed at exciting adults. But only recently have public school districts begun accepting ‘donations’ from corporate ‘sponsors,’ and actively promoting products directly to students.

Apple supplies computers to our school district starting at the 1st Grade level. My son’s 4th Grade class has a hub they affectionately call ‘The Cow,’ a big white steel case bolted to the wall with 30 laptops in it for student use. Apple isn’t being benevolent distributing computers to schools. They know if kids get use to working with their interface, they’re more likely to buy Apple down the line.

Proctor & Gamble knows this too. Except what they are selling is potentially toxic.

Million dollar incentive deals that put Coke machines in the hallways of our high schools, and junk food machines in the cafeterias [regardless of our national obesity epidemic] are now restricted in most states. Corporations go around this ban by ‘sponsoring/donating/contributing’ everything from product samples to full-blown ‘educational’ programs to our schools. Puberty education is now being funded by Proctor & Gamble. The glossary of their colorful little booklet covered everything from circumcision to ejaculation, all while promoting Old Spice and Red Zone. The booklet was even fragranced and smelled exactly like the sample deodorant stick the teacher distributed to the students.

Public education must serve our children before serving themselves with corporate money. Funding for education must not be the sole consideration of every corporate partnership with our K-12 schools. To serve our students effectively, now and forward, it would behoove our school district administrators to thoroughly investigate what they’re getting before agreeing to promote crap, and poison to our kids. Since it’s unlikely to get any education admin to thoroughly do anything, it’s best to make it a law to eliminate corporate ‘partnerships’ in public education.

The Definition of LOVE

In a thousand lifetimes I can not repay my mom for her precious gift of love I now model to our children. But I can not buy into her belief [and society’s rhetoric] that family and love are synonymous anymore.

My sister is dead, I told the bank manager.

But she isn’t.

She lives in Washington with her husband, having moved from L.A. where we were both born and raised.

The bank manager expressed his condolences and accepted the paperwork from our lawyer to remove her name from our Trust and Wills as an executor to our estate and guardian to our children should my husband and I die before they’re of legal age to take care of themselves.

I told him she was dead to remove her from my psyche, distance myself from loving her. Five years ago she told my DH she didn’t want any contact with him, me, or our kids, her then 8 and 5 yr old niece and nephew, in a response to an email my husband sent her.

She’d missed our daughters birthday again, sent her a present with the one she sent for our son’s birthday three months later, and spelled her name wrong on the card. This wasn’t the first time. She’d disappointed our kids many times, missing birthdays and special events with a quick message left on our answering machine she couldn’t make it after promising to come.

Her sins were many, and mounted with the years without apology. My husband got tired of it, emailed her five sentences politely informing her the spelling of our daughter’s name, and asking her if she was going to send them birthday gifts to please do it on or around their birthdays.

My sister decided he was asking too much and emailed back that “though I am deeply in love with your kids, and it breaks my heart to do so,” she was withdrawing from their lives entirely. She informed my husband she would prefer no contact at all, with any of us, though she’d established what my children believed was a fairly close connection, email exchanges with my son, calling every few months to touch base with both kids.

She has, in fact, exited our lives almost completely. She sends the kids birthday cards when it strikes her fancy—two weeks late to our daughter last year, but managed to get a card to our son within days of his, professing her deep affection and love for him. It took all my will not to shed the card in a million tiny pieces, her sentiment to him for her self-image alone.

Love is an ACTION, what we do, not some abstract in our heads, my DH and I teach our children.

My kids relationship with my sister was important to them because they have no other on my side of the family. My mom died when our oldest was just 4, so she never really got to know our kids. She did love them though. Deeply. Profoundly. And they got that. How did they know?

  • She came to visit often.
  • She called them on the phone every couple days.
  • She mailed them presents on time, called to sing Happy Birthday on their special days.
  • She spelled their names right.
  • She stayed abreast of their lives through me, my DH, and through the kids, consistently showed interest in their interests and feelings, and shared her world with them.

My mother often extolled how much she loved the kids, to me, to them, to anyone who’d listen, but she also showed it, so my children knew it was real.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I knew when she was gone my connection to my remaining family would fragment. She was the conduit, fervently believed people come and go but family is forever, the folks with which your love an loyalty should reside.

And there is no questioning my mother’s love. She showed it to me throughout my life as she did with my kids, worked at staying connected, even though it was often contentious between us.

In a thousand lifetimes I can not repay my mom for her precious gift of love I now model to our children. But I can not buy into her belief [and society’s rhetoric] that family and love are synonymous anymore. As if not to be bothered to fill in where my mom left off when she passed, my sister and father checked out of my life, and within a year or two exited the lives of our kids.

My father, like my sister, practice love more in the abstract. He never talks to his grandkids, never calls [even me], never asks to talk to them when I call him, rarely even asks about them. He doesn’t acknowledging their birthdays anymore. I got tired of reminding him with multiple calls and emails weekly the month before their special days, then daily the week before. (Her body ravaged by cancer, and near death, my mother insisted my father take her to Toys R Us, then bought each of our kids their next birthday gift and made him swear to mail them on time. She was hoping to establish a tradition (an action) for my father to adopt for his grandkids after she was gone.)

The rare occasions I call my dad, he always professes how much he loves my kids, how important they are to him. He reminds me to tell them that grandpa loves them, and misses them. But I don’t. I tell them, “Popi says hi.” I don’t want our children to ever get the impression it’s acceptable to say you love someone when you take virtually no action to show it.

Love, like potential, is meaningless unless put into ACTION.

What is Genius?

Went to the Jelly Belly Factory on a field trip with my daughter’s 2nd grade class. The young man assigned to escort us on the tour misquoted a brilliant saying by one of my favorite icons.

The guide delivered his canned speech, spoke of how long and complex the process to make even one single jelly bean, but that nothing great every came easily, “as the inventor, Thomas Edison said: ‘Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.’”

But that is NOT what Tom said. He said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

So what is my issue with the mere 9% our tour guide misquoted?

Mr. Thomas Alva Edison was trying to tell us that to get good (‘genius’) at ANYTHING takes HARD WORK (‘perspiration’), and a lot of it. He should know. It took him and an educated team of men many years and over 5,000 exploded glass bulbs to invent the light bulb.

Still, you say, it’s only 9%. The 8 year old’s the tour guide was talking to didn’t even know what percent meant. And while this may be true, there were 15 adults with the pack of 40 kids the guide was leading. And the parents understood. Most had probably never heard the quote before. It is somewhat obscure, which is a shame because it is an astounding insight. What the tour guide misquoted did not communicate the gravity of Mr. Edison’s meaning.

In the beginning of the 4th grade our son failed several math tests in a row, and upon inquire we found he didn’t understand the material. When asked why he hadn’t asked for help from either his teacher or us, he confessed he felt afraid he’d look dumb. Having always done fairly well in math, when he got lost he felt too stupid to ask. He was supposed to be smart, but maybe he wasn’t he cried, clearly shamed.

I hugged him, held him, and reminded him of old Tom’s saying for the hundredth time. Then my husband and I got to work, played tag team, alternating afternoons, evenings and weekends to teach our son what he needed to know. Within three month of daily math he not only grasped the material presented but excelled to the top of Math Swap in his grade level and remained there through elementary school.

Our son now loves math. It’s his favorite subject. He works hard at it and that hard work just placed him in the most advanced math class at his new middle-school. Failing those math tests in the 4th grade turned into a great education for all of us. We got to see directly how hard work pays off. And though our son may not always tow the line of excellence, he now knows that ‘smart’ is not given, but earned.

The New York Times Magazine had an article a while back on ‘genius.’ It sited Anders Ericsson’s research on The Making of an Expert, which concluded ‘genius’ wasn’t born, as previously thought, but made.

“Outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice, not any innate talent or skill.” According to K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely.

Most everyone starts out with the 1% inspiration. It comes with being human, and our ability to think abstractly.

Few of us have the tenacity, or the determination to endure failure after failure and continue through that last 5-10% it takes to achieve excellence. Most of us settle on gawking at greatness instead of pursuing it.

So, the question isn’t ‘What is genius,’ or even excellence, but what motivates persistence?

Good grades, or better at piano or guitar, or soccer, [or parenting] takes “deliberate practice.” We need to impart Tom’s wisdom to our children, teach them by example, with unwavering diligence that reaching their potential can not be achieved blowing most of the day in front of the PS4 playing Street Fighter X, or reading Harry Potter for the 5th time. To actualize ‘greatness’ means devoting the 99% perspiration— the time, energy and effort necessary to create anything of lasting value. Whether it be a school report, a science project or a math test, genius is not only doable for most every child, but for all of us with hard work and persistence.

Parental ADD

My cousin has two children. Her oldest, 15, was diagnosed with ADD when he was nine and has been on Ritalin since. He’s failing out of the private high school he attends in Manhattan. He lies, cheats, and steals when it suits him. He is volatile (way beyond normal teenage angst), and often violent with his mom and sister.

Her daughter, 11, also has trouble in her private school. According to her mother, she too has learning disabilities. She has very few friends, and is often cutting and cruel. She also lies constantly to get what she wants, and does whatever she wants regardless of opposition from authority.

The three of them live on the 10th floor of a posh apartment complex, in a huge flat overlooking the Hudson River in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty, holding the torch of truth stands boldly in the bay and can be seen from almost every room of their home. My cousin and her ex-husband are very successful in their careers. She broke the glass ceiling only a few years out of graduate school and is now a top executive at the New York Stock Exchange. He is an architect. His style is distinct, and sought after, and can be seen all around Manhattan. Since both are busy professionals, the maid of the month raises their kids during the long work week.

Every time we get together they virtually drop off their kids to my care. Dad, before and after the divorce, has always been a marginal part of the scene, off to work, or squash, or rollerblading along the waterfront. Mom stays with us, but she’s not really with us. She’s on her tablet texting her secretary, or on her cell phone chatting it up with some high powered executive about market trends, or on her laptop writing reports. She goes out for a two hour run, or off to the store for diet soda. The entire time we’re together she has little to no contact with her children.

My sister also has kids, a boy and a girl, a couple of years apart. During their formative years she was a stay-at-home mom, sort of. Her husband, a successful real estate broker who used his limited free time for cycling, skiing, rock climbing, provided his family a McMansion with all the trimmings in a desirable suburb north of L.A. He hired a live-in maid to clean house and handle the mundane aspects of child care so my sister could pursue her many muses. And pursue them she did. She played tennis several hours a day. She went out with friends; shopped, and shopped; redecorated her house every year. She took classes in cooking, massage, religion. She was one of those soccer moms who sat in the stands and gossiped, or read People or Jane, or was on her cell phone every other minute, attending the game but not really there.

Unable to manage her son’s disruptive behavior, my sister took him for counseling when he was ten. He was diagnosed with ADD. He took Ritalin from 12 until he was 20. Now 27, he smokes pot every day, pays his rent and bills with poker winnings and a small stipend from an inheritance trust fund, has not gone to college and has little prospects for the future. Her daughter, 24, is still only a junior after six years in college. She lives on the money her parents provide without a clue how to make it on her own.

These two sets of kids struggle in life because their parents consistently catered to their own needs over those of their children. In doing so, they abandoned their kids to their own device, and left them to strangers, relatives, and society at large to raise them. Restrictions on behavior came from teachers, religious leaders and caretakers as commands—discipline imposed without love. Their parents didn’t bother to invest the staggering amount of time and thought required to help their kids decipher feelings, or examine abstractions like morality or values, or why they are important, or impart to them the seemingly endless list of rules we all must follow to get along.

The other day I was at the neighborhood pool watching my kids swim and play. All went well until a well-known rowdy kid arrived with his mom. She stood with her back to the pool and chatted on about her job, the upcoming hundred mile extreme run she was training 20 miles a day for, and the third Bruce Springsteen concert she and her husband had been to that week. She did not notice her nine year old son shoving kids into the pool, holding them underwater, pouncing, splashing and causing general havoc. Most everyone agrees her son, and six year old daughter, have severe ‘discipline’ problems. Though their mom labeled them ‘passionate,’ she admitted she was seriously considering her colleague’s suggestion to have her kids examined for ADD, or the latest variant: ADHD.

Even Wikipedia, can not state without dispute what ADD actually is, though a wide cross section of sources seem to agree it’s a behavioral disorder. Symptoms include Hyperactivity—like working all day, everyday, never putting your cell phone or tablet away; Inattention, the lack of ability to focus on one task for an extended period of time—like flipping from texting to your social feeds to your company message board while serving dinner, only occasionally acknowledging your family members. Impulsiveness is also an indicator, like going to see Bruce multiple nights in a row instead of being at home with your kids.

Though they possess the symptoms, these parents have never been diagnosed or even suspected of ADD, even though most have invested hours and dollars in personal therapy. Their kids did not inherit their lack of focus. The Attention Deficit Disorder they ostensibly suffer from by and large comes from parental example—adults who haven’t figured out that once they produce children, most of their own priorities must become secondary to the needs of their kids.

Rich or not, working—having to or not, parenting is about paying attention, being attentive and present— being there when you’re with your kids. Certainly, rules need to be continually taught and enforced, but also discussed at length, not handed down as edicts from on high. Kids need detailed explanations, reasons to partake in our code of ethics, and out of desire, not disdain. Society is not sustainable filled with resentful children who grow into parents that never mature beyond self-interest. Children can not raise themselves above solipsism without example from those who have.