A Day For Love

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All the complaints about the commercialization of Valentine’s Day may be true. It’s overhyped, a “Hallmark holiday,” and an excuse to sell overpriced flowers, chocolates, and jewelry. Still, there’s something sweet about a red and pink holiday celebrated smack dab in the middle of the winter doldrums – and a celebration of love, no less!

Valentine’s Day helps remind couples of the romantic feelings that brought them together. It’s a day to break the cycle of taking our significant other for granted and do something nice for him or her. Going out for a nice dinner together, cracking open that bottle of champagne you’d been saving, surprising him or her with fresh flowers. All these actions can signify our appreciation for the one we love.

And these forms of appreciation need not be costly. Offering a back rub, taking a long walk, or watching a favorite movie on TV together can be just as romantic as an expensive night out or a piece of jewelry. Cooking her favorite dinner or whipping up a special dessert for him are wonderful ways to say you care. Just putting down those phones and really talking to each other. There’s an idea!

I’m a sucker for greeting cards. I can spend hours in the aisles at a store perusing the selections for just the right message for the ones I love. Yes, commercial greeting cards have gotten ridiculously expensive, and many people don’t want to waste upwards of $5.00 on a piece of card stock. But exchanging valentines is still a sweet and romantic gesture. You can always swipe a card from the sets your kids are using for their classmates and pen a message of love to your loved one.

Kids have the right idea about celebrating Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day should be heavy on candy, cardboard hearts, stickers, paste and glitter. I have fond memories of addressing valentines to all of my grammar school classmates and bringing them to school in the tissue box “mailbox” I’d decorated with hearts and flowers. I made sure to choose just the right greeting for each child (nothing too mushy or romantic for the boys!).

Love in all its forms should be the focus of today. After all, it’s really a saint’s feast day. St. Valentine was known not only for bringing young lovers together but for helping the poor and downtrodden of society. So let your Valentine’s Day spirit overflow with hearts and joy and love for the people in your life. I guarantee that love will come back to you many times over.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

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Feeding the Soul

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Although I don’t really like to cook, I love to feed people. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to set out a meal and have my friends or family members enjoy it. And while I myself have a tendency to pick at my food, I love hosting a person with a hearty appetite, one who cleans his or her plate and asks for seconds.

There’s something fundamental about meeting a human being’s need for food. Mothers the world over begin the process with their infants almost from the first moment they are born. I loved the close bonding of nursing my biological children, but I also loved bottle feeding my adopted child. In fact, one of the most frustrating parts of having young children is how difficult they can be about mealtime at certain phases of their lives. They thwart their parents need to nurture them with food.

Communal meals have been a feature of every human society from time immemorial. Families and clans have always gathered around campfires and tables to share food and companionship, to bond and feel safe and nourished. Every celebration involves food, and food is the focal point of holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and even the Fourth of July. At my parish Bible Study, we always have a table full of treats. If someone forgets to bring them, we get downright cranky.

The joy of feeding people can extend outward to those in need. Most communities have thriving food pantries, and many have soup kitchens, places where the homeless, the underemployed, and the struggling of our society can go to receive sustenance. Of all the charitable acts I can think of, nothing comes close to the fundamental gift of nourishment through feeding people.

During the recent government shutdown, business owners and ordinary Americans opened their hearts, their wallets and their doors to furloughed workers in order to provide them groceries and hot meals. Say what you will about the divided state of our nation. When push comes to shove, Americans will step up and help each other fill our most basic human needs.

If you come to my house, chances are good that I will try to foist some kind of food on you. It gives me such pleasure to watch people enjoy the food I’ve made – or even just bought and unwrapped. As Elizabeth Berg writes in her wonderful novel The Story of Arthur Truluv, “It’s something to feed somebody who is so in need of eating. It’s something to feed somebody, period.”

 

Death Notice

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636554126949761516-1404230167000-candledeathnoticesI thought I was a little weird and morbid because I occasionally read the obituaries in my local paper. Then yesterday I read that the late Russell Baker once wrote, “Obituaries often provide the only pleasure to be had from the daily newspaper and should be savored slowly, for leisurely reading over the last cup of breakfast coffee.” I hope he didn’t mean “last cup” literally.

I haven’t reached the age where I peruse the obits looking for people I know. But there is something beautiful about reading about the legacies left behind by ordinary people. Most death notices give lists of surviving family members. Often the accomplishments of the deceased are detailed, and the obituary provides a kind of homage to the life of a loved one.

Today I read about a 93-year-old man named Jack who was still vital and active, attending Mass every day and always having a project to do. Jack died after falling on ice, proof that winter really can kill. Most of the people whose stories grace the pages of the death notices were elderly. Often, though, I read about the death of someone my own age or younger, and the realization shakes me a little. Sometimes I find myself in tears reading about the untimely death of a young adult or child and try to imagine the grief their loved ones must be experiencing.

I’m glad there is a place in our society where we honor our beloved dead. I’m grateful for a glimpse into the lives and loves of ordinary people who existed for what is only a brief moment in the history of time. I reflect on my blessings, too numerous to count, and vow not to take my loved ones for granted.

I may be weird and morbid, but reading the obituaries makes me just a little more human.

College Craziness

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img_4718_42College craziness has hit my little world. I’m not talking about older adolescents doing jello shots and dancing on the roof of the fraternity house. I’m talking about the craziness that comes with trying to get into college.

When I was a teen, the process of getting into college was a lot more straightforward. The average kid I knew took the ACTs and SATS, sent the scores to their state schools, and waited to see if they got in. Some of the more elite students might apply to a private school or two, but no one I knew applied to upwards of 10 different colleges.

Today, the college application process is so fraught. My daughter is overloaded with honors and AP courses and frantically trying to prepare for the ACTs, all while participating in sports and extracurricular activities in an attempt to show colleges what a dynamic, interesting, and passionate person she is. It’s exhausting, and not just for the teens.

A case in point is the process at our high school for becoming a member of National Honor Society. NHS has been around since I was in high school. Back then, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were automatically accepted into the organization and the designation became a nice little addendum to your grades and test scores on your college application. For my daughter, applying for membership in NHS has entailed a laborious process that includes performing 20 hours of community service and completing essays on one’s character, scholarship, leadership, and service.

That leadership requirement is the one that really gets me. Don’t even try applying to college unless you can demonstrate what a leader you have been in your school and community. These are teenagers, for crying out loud. And how can they all be leaders? Don’t leaders need followers?

The entire college application process has become hopelessly complicated. Most students apply to numerous schools, each with their own application requirements (not to mention fees). And don’t be fooled by their acceptance of “the common app.” Most schools will have additional essay requirements above and beyond the one required in the common app.

Why has applying to college become so complex? The answer is competition. So many more students are applying to college today, and the Baby Boomers have left a legacy of overpopulation when it comes to the pool of applicants out there. So colleges can demand anything they want. High school students are left feeling that they have to design a unique computer app or find the cure for cancer in order to be attractive to some of the more selective institutions.

Then these very same institutions turn around and chastise parents and schools for stressing out their kids. In the documentary Race to Nowhere, which was required viewing at many schools, a UC Berkeley administrator bemoans the fact that kids are burning the midnight oil and becoming suicidal over academic expectations at their schools. This from a university whose acceptance rate was 16.9% in 2015.

Of course, we do have a choice to opt out of the craziness. I have no doubt there are many good colleges that do not have such insane expectations for their incoming students. But like many parents, I want my daughter to be able to dream big. I want to encourage her aspirations, not curtail them. What this means for my family is a participation in the craziness for the next several months.

I don’t even want to think about what she’ll be doing when she actually get there!

Make America Good Again

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The Covington Catholic boys didn’t have a chance. Once videos of their confrontation with a Native American leader on the Washington D.C. Mall made it onto TV and social media, their images and actions were pounced upon by an American public that has become too swift to judge and condemn.

Initial videos appeared to show the boys taunting Nathan Phillips as he performed a traditional Native American song. With their MAGA hats, their whiteness, and the “smirk” on the face of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington boys were quickly painted as white supremacists in training. The subsequent release of further footage, however, showed that the boys themselves were being verbally attacked by a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites and that Nathan Phillips approached them, not the other way around.

I’m not defending the boys from Covington Catholic. They may very well be entitled brats  who like to stir up trouble. On the other hand, they may have been in an uncomfortable position and were acting out to make themselves feel less powerless. I just don’t think I can judge them based upon a video, not having actually seen the incident. And I don’t think others really can either. What is remarkable is how quick the Right and Left are to leave their corners and spar over every incident, large and small, that comes into the American consciousness.

There is a reality to the concept of too much of a good thing, which is the case in our digital information age. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips but very little understanding. There is no filter for people. They jump before considering all the facts and nuances of a situation.

As for the MAGA hats, I personally don’t understand how any thoughtful person can support the agenda of Donald Trump. That doesn’t make wearing one akin to donning the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan, Alyssa Milano. Making statements like that undercuts legitimate criticism of many things Donald Trump has said and done since entering the race for president in 2015.

But that is the state of discourse in America. We are shouting into the ether and hoping someone latches onto our pronouncements and validates our thoughts. Truth, compassion, and understanding be damned.

Overshadowing the hysteria about the incident between the Covington boys and the Indigenous Peoples Marchers is the total lack of judgment on the part of the boys’ adult chaperones. In a situation that could have escalated and potentially become violent, these adults stood by instead of acting to remove the boys from the confrontation. The march was over, and they were merely waiting for transportation to leave the Mall. Why not shepherd them away from the madness and diffuse the situation? Covington is a Catholic high school. Why not step away and initiate prayer? If I were a Covington parent, I would have been incensed at the adults’ poor judgment that day.

As Mike Pesci writes in Slate, “The bothersome teens of Covington Catholic aren’t heroes or horrors.” (“Covington Boys: the Difference Between Jerks and Monsters,” Slate, Jna. 24, 2019) They just have the misfortune of growing up in an age where everything they say and do can potentially find its way into the public eye. I hope the incident has served as a learning experience for them and that leaders at their school, as well as their parents, use the opportunity to teach the boys about tolerance and compassion. They were, after all, in Washington to espouse their Christian love for the unborn.

We need to find a way back to rational discourse in America. Beyond the problem of fake news, we need to consider the multi-faceted nature of most issues and strive to look at all sides before jumping in to praise or condemn. Let’s summon our better angels and try to resurrect the values that truly make our country great.

 

 

Minivan Mom

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Of all the cars I’ve ever had, the minivan was my favorite. Back at the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that), we owned a “denim blue” Toyota Sienna XLE, the Rolls Royce of minivans. I’d roll up in the school drop-off line, slide open that side door with the push of a button, and deposit my precious cargo onto the sidewalk. Oh, yeah: Minivan Mom.

I loved everything about that minivan. Its color was so distinctive, and it was so decidedly NOT an SUV, that it was easy to find in a parking lot. The inside was spacious, even for three or four children, and the space between seats made it easy to separate squabbling siblings. At the time, Toyota refused to put DVD players in their minivans, reasoning that they’d prove a distraction to drivers. So my kids were left to the radio, their little books on tape, or – perish the thought – talking to me and each other. One of our favorite things to listen to in the minivan at Christmastime was my brother-in-law Dave Rudolf‘s album Completely Cracked Christmas. The album features parodies of well-known carols, and you could hear us warbling for miles: “What’s that smell? I can tell/We’re getting fruitcakes for Christmas.”

The much-maligned minivan has been the subject of mockery and condescension for years. Owners of the much chic-er Ford Explorer, one of the most popular SUVs at the time, would look down their noses at the Dodge Caravans of the world, as if to say, “We know you’re a harried mother of 6 with your hair in pin curls and your bunny slippers still on at 4 in the afternoon.” But I never cared about the image of Minivan Mom. I drove that baby for over 100,000 miles until its untimely demise.

It happened one warm summer day in June. My teenaged son had left the house in the Sienna, headed to the gym for an early morning workout. Literally on the next block, he ran into an old electric pole, which cracked and thudded onto the roof of the van. Luckily, my son did not get hurt, and we never did get the straight story as to what precipitated the accident. But due to its age, the insurance company declared the minivan totaled, and we had to say goodbye.

We’ve never owned another minivan, but I still miss having one. It was so nice to be able to drive the whole family to Grandma’s house or out to dinner. Now we have to take two cars. Our kids are more likely to argue about who gets to ride shotgun because the back seats in our other cars have never been as spacious.

I’ve heard that affluent families have started gravitating toward old-fashioned station wagons, a relic from my youth that I do not miss at all. Who wants to spend life facing backwards in the way, way back? Maybe the minivan will make a comeback in time for me to drive my grandkids around and teach them twisted Christmas carols.

 

The Kids Are All Right

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Millennials-stock-image-e1479316113621Everyone loves to bash Millennials. There seems to be no end to the stories and complaints about how soft, spoiled, and pampered these children of the 80s and 90s are. My husband likes to call them “the shared plate crowd” and mocks the way they are always taking pictures of their food.

All kidding aside, though, Millennials do seem to have different characteristics from their hard-charging Baby Boomer parents. They have grown up surrounded by advanced computer technology, and their comfort with and reliance upon it has surely shaped how they see the world. They want things fast: information, consumer products, general gratification. They don’t seem overly concerned with privacy in the way earlier generations do when faced with the ever-increasing sense of “Big Brother” watching us through our phones and laptop computers.

Unlike their parents, most Millennials have not known great want. Nor were they raised by Depression-era parents who harped upon their own deprivations during the 1930s. Critics like to point out how Generation Y (the lesser known name for this cohort) has grown up receiving participation trophies for sports and thus been deprived of a killer competitive edge.

But I think we are selling our kids short. If anything, my older two kids have faced a way more competitive workplace as children of the giant Baby Boom generation came of age in the early part of this millennium. They have faced a changing landscape in our country as traditional types of jobs become obsolete and the need for advanced technological knowledge requires even more education than earlier generations needed.

I also think many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials because they are frankly a bit jealous of them. Millennials are changing the workplace and society in general by demanding a better quality of life. For instance, after unseating longtime Congressman Joe Crowley in the House of Representatives, New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez drew mockery for saying she was going to take some time for self-care after the whirlwind of a political campaign. This is a particularly Millennial outlook and one I feel will benefit future generations. There is nothing especially heroic about killing oneself for a job, yet Baby Boomers still insist on carrying this trait as a badge of honor.

Millennials have also brought a degree of social enlightenment with their more open and tolerant attitudes. It’s no surprise that as they have come of age, acceptance of gays and gay marriage has increased in our culture. And as widespread social media have highlighted racial injustices in our society, it is our young people out front demanding change. This trend seems to be continuing with Generation Z, Millenials’ little brothers and sisters. Think of how the Parkland High School activists have developed a high-profile presence to protest the horrible scourge of school mass shootings.

My biggest criticism of Millennials is that they don’t vote. And because there are so many of them, their voter apathy has real consequences. With more election participation on their part in 2016, we might have seen a Bernie Sanders presidency. However, the Trump presidency may be waking up many Millennials who have been too cynical and disengaged to participate in politics in the past. Their new cohort in Congress may be a first step toward their greater influence on the political scene.

Every generation disparages the ones that follow. It’s our age-old fear of becoming irrelevant. (Remember how Greek god Cronus deposed his father Uranus and then suffered the same fate at the hands of Zeus?) And the older generation can feel judged when their children make different life choices. We don’t want to think there might be a better way.

But I see Millennials as a bit more self-centered, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We Baby Boomers wanted a better life materially for our children. Millennials seem to be looking for more balance in their lives. They take themselves less seriously – although not, apparently, their food (see above)!  I’m hopeful that Generation Y will usher in a more healthy and open society. And if so, I think it’s to our credit – we Baby Boomers – who gave our kids security and tended to their self-esteem in a way that was not available to us.

So mock all you want, but I think the kids are going to be just fine.