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The Homecoming

folger

Thanksgiving is the most unique of American days. It is a holiday celebrated primarily in the home and centered entirely upon food and family. And it is the latter that can become a wee bit problematic. Any venture that is steeped in expectation and sentimentality has an increased probability of going off the rails. When we add forced congeniality things can get messy indeed. People, related by blood or the law, who may not see or have any contact (perhaps by choice) throughout the year are sequestered in overheated, crowded, booze filled homes with carving knives. Even when there is no extended family, things may get testy. One of the frequently overlooked potential land mines is that of the returning college student.

Thanksgiving is often the first time a college student is coming home since the start of the semester. Parents and younger siblings most likely have been anticipating the return of the prodigal son or daughter. Parents and siblings have fantasized or actually planned outings and activities, hoping to make up for lost time. Even the parent who has been in constant communication with the college student may have his or her heart set on “really connecting” come the Thanksgiving holiday. And who knows it may go splendidly and put every sentimental holiday commercial to shame (Peter you’re home!) But for everyone else it might be helpful to keep the following in mind:

• College can be exhausting. Whether your student is working hard or playing hard, they most likely are pooped. Spending 24 hours, 7 days a week with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people is hardly relaxing. Excessive sleeping should be expected (and you should establish that it is not happening at school and possibly an indication of something amiss.)

• A cranky or petulant student is perfectly normal as well. Remember they’ve spent the last 3 months (and your money) discovering that they now know everything. Do not be surprised if your cherub challenges Uncle Dave at the dinner table. Don’t shirk from challenging him/her right back either.

• Your student might also show signs of regression: fighting with younger siblings or being a thoughtless slob. This too is normal. Living amongst so many people and wearing an “I’m keeping up I know what’s going on” persona is taxing. Knowing they don’t have to be grown-up or fake being grown-up all the time is important. However they can let their guard down and clear their own plate at the same time.

• Having reasonable expectations of your student’s time is fine, but not if you spring it on them. If you expect them to spend the entire day (and night) of the holiday at home and socializing, do let them know ahead of time. What of the student who is bringing someone home? If you have expectations (which you are entitled to have) about sleeping arrangements or meal contributions, express them ahead of time. Nothing breeds disappointment more than silent expectations.

As with any event (particularly one involving family) the best approach is one of gratitude. Eliminating glossy images of perfection is prudent. Focusing on the gift of time and connectivity produces far more joy. Before you know it that student arriving on your doorstep with dirty laundry, a tinge of arrogance and little indication of appreciation will be hosting you at their own Thanksgiving. You will sit at their table as they tell their own family the stories of Thanksgiving’s past. And that is why we give thanks.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Childhood, Holiday, Well-Being

 

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Let Your Heart Be Light*

charlie brown

The days are getting noticeably shorter and carbohydrate cravings are growing stronger. By mid-October there’s no denying that there’s a change a coming. The first scattering of little costumed people and dogs have appeared (either going to pre-Halloween celebrations or having trick-or-treating dry runs.) By this weekend the streets will be alive with all manner of elaborate costume. Children will take on the mantle of popular movie, cartoon and video game characters. Young (and not so young) women will dress as slutty; nurses, waitresses, devils and angels. It will all build to the crescendo that is the Village Halloween Parade, an event that celebrates wit, witticism, irony and drag. And then ladies and gentlemen the party really gets started.

Before the last candy corn has been eaten (or tossed) it will be time for “the holidays.” As you pull the fake cobwebs down from your walls you will be implored (by television, radio, podcast, website, magazine, and newspaper) to perfect your turkey. Every year the “experts” come out to tell us the failsafe way to remedy our annual poultry failings. Personally I have never known any Thanksgiving that hinged upon the perfection of the bird. There is way too much family drama (not too mention side dishes) to really focus on grading the turkey. Besides, isn’t gravy’s job to democratize and flavor? But never us mind, the airwaves will blast with brining, frying, boning promises. Tips for new and exciting ways to invent old favorites will appear. As if Thanksgiving is a cocktail party not a holiday celebrating tradition and very specific foods. Let’s face it the only help any of us need, short of an invitation to someone else’s house, is the Butterball hotline. Those little holiday angels make up for every bad customer service phone bank everywhere. We love you Butterball!

While all this media “filler” (or should we call it “stuffing?”) occurs, the rumbling of the real “holidays” train can be heard. The “holidays” as we now seem to call Christmas, begin to be feverishly pitched earlier and earlier, but still subscribes to a certain; Thanksgiving first, etiquette. At 11:58 AM EST Thanksgiving Day, Santa Claus heads into Herald Square signaling that it is now polite to discuss his special day. (By the way, if there is any confusion over the overt euphemism of “the holidays” pay close attention this year. Chanukah will be over on December 5th yet dollars to donuts the talking heads will still be referring to last minute “holiday” shopping and “holiday” gift ideas until December 24th.) There is actually much to be said of this time of year. People’s spirits (outside of shopping malls and large toy stores) are lifted and light. Everything looks prettier as Christmas wreaths and trees pop up in even the most secular of locations. If you’re lucky, invitations and chances to dress up increase and there may even be presents.

For some however, it’s mostly frenzy. Even if you don’t work as a Christmas elf, chances are your workload dramatically increases before “the holidays.” Deadlines and meetings get squished into that après Thanksgiving, pre-getting the hell out of town, period. People (and by people we mean mostly women) who feel it’s their responsibility to create the holiday, don’t necessarily bask in the sights and sounds of the season. There are many people whose activity or responsibilities don’t seasonally increase, but their loneliness or sadness does. Even those not mired in loss or illness, may find this time of year triggering a short-term discrete melancholy. Memories can be haunting as can unfulfilled dreams. Whether we’re leading the holiday charge or feeling the parade is passing us by, it’s important to keep in touch with how we’re feeling. For people who love nothing more than a 4-page to-do list and arms filled with shopping bags, there’s not much internal checking in that needs to occur this time of year. But those little Santa’s helpers are in a great position to check-in on those around them. Everyone knows someone who’s suffered a loss or is naturally fragile. This time of year provides ample opportunity to reach out. Issue invitations or drop by with small gifts or treats. All that matters is that you connect. For those who have a hard time, know your triggers. Step away from the television, especially when It’s A Wonderful Life comes on. Stay away from places that feel overwhelming or lonely. Do less that you don’t enjoy and more that you do. Plan lovely things for yourself. Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read, a place you’d like to visit, a food you’d like to try? Now is the time to plan gifts for yourself. It may seem as if the whole world is trimming a perfect tree, clinking egg nog glasses and singing carols. But the truth of the matter is that very few people actually live in a fantasy world. Most of us struggle in one way or another, and knowing that can be a great comfort.

The best we can do, this time or anytime of year, is to not get ahead of ourselves. Christmas and the New Year are four days of celebration two months away. There are over 60 days worth celebrating until then.

*Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1943) – Ralph Blane & Hugh Martin

 

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Empty Nesting

nest

Empty nests aren’t what they used to be. In fact you might be hard pressed to find a nest with vacancies. This isn’t exactly news; we’ve been hearing about dismal job markets and diminished economic opportunities for young adults for quite some time now. It’s commonplace to hear of households that include adult children (and even their children.) What is rarely mentioned in these discussions is that it is often quite an agreeable arrangement. Modern parents and children (of all ages except perhaps peak adolescence) enjoy spending time together.

The generations share interests, activities and even clothing. They are often in constant communication and know a great deal about each other’s lives. In generations past this was rarely the case in traditional American families. A child had his/her circle of friends and interests and upon reaching adolescence rebelled against all that his/her parents represented. The politics, music and literature of the younger generation were unrecognizable to that of the older. The clothing, hairstyles and lingo were equally foreign and perhaps infuriating. Who would want to spend time with someone they couldn’t understand? An adolescent’s primary goal was to get out of the house and away from the hopelessly old-fashioned parents. College served that purpose well, as did first apartments (filled with like-aged and minded roommates.)

Something has happened in recent decades to blur the lines between the generations. The most intriguing aspect to the change is that it’s both the younger and older moving towards each other. If we were to jump in a jeep with our binoculars and pursue the average American nuclear family in their natural habitat, we would spot this morphing phenomenon. Parents and children (of all ages) look an awful lot alike. They dress alike, they groom alike, they text alike. The fact that this happens in public proves that everyone is okay with it. Daughters don’t mind (or perhaps even enjoy) their mothers appropriating their dark/cadaver like nail colors, sons enjoy/tolerate sharing their baseball caps with their fathers. From the back (if weight wasn’t a factor) you’d be hard pressed to determine which generation was which. It’s been a long time since we’ve witnessed a unified family look, in nature that is; it happens in Christmas cards all the time. Surely there’s a more recent example of this indistinguishable appearance; but it is Little House On The Prairie that comes to my mind.

If we were to hop out of the jeep and (lawfully) enter homes, we might discover that there is no “adult” space (formally known as the living room) and “child” space but instead “family” space. Unless a parent engages in a delicate or dangerous activity, there is probably no “off-limits” space within the home (for fun, check to see if there’s a lock on the parents’ bedroom.) The music, movies, social media, gadgets, and fitness regimes are most likely shared. This average family probably socializes together and often vacations together. They will attend all school and family events as a unit as well. To the novice jeep rider this may appear novel. But it is actually a very old phenomenon (see Little House reference.) Back when we were forging new territory and had little if any connections to the world, our nuclear family was our world. One’s fortunes and survival depended on the strength of the nuclear family.

It is slightly ironic that in an age of such instant and ubiquitous connectivity we revert back to an isolationist mode of living. But if we take a closer look (back in the jeep everyone) we will see that we are anything but connected to the larger world. When is the last time you had friends over for dinner? How often are you invited over for drinks? When was your last block party, potluck or open house? How many times a week, or even month, do you go out with friends (without children in tow?) How long have you been at your current job? Do you lunch or happy hour with your co-workers? How often do you attend religious or community events? Can you recall the last time you dropped by a friend’s home unannounced?

Some of our disconnection to the larger world is our own doing and choice, but some of it is not. A job isn’t life sentences any longer, nor is marriage. We move (by choice or not) and we start over. We lose contact and perhaps the confidence to make new contacts. We are so electronically plugged in that isolation can feel like a reprieve. Our work life is so heavily in favor of extroversion that off-hours cocooning is a sanity saver. The reasons we choose to enmesh with our nuclear family could be many. The affects are probably always the same; nests are less empty. What is indisputable is that if we stay in the jeep long enough (and refuel a few hundred times) we will see this phenomenon shift once again. In 25 years or so we will start hearing the ancient strains of; “What are you wearing?!” “Turn that noise down!” “That’s not a word!!!”

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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We Are Family

There are many ways to make a family and some of them involve legality. The broadest definition of a family is that of more than one person committed to building a life together. You can imagine the many variations that live within that parameter; parentless siblings, romantically connected adults, friends, one adult and children, generations of the biologically related. Within those examples are even more variations; adopted siblings, romantically connected adults of varying genders, religions, races, ages, abilities, one adult and adopted children, donor/surrogate children, foster children. Generations of the biologically related can include any or all of the categories just mentioned. That’s a whole lot of variation.

Yet for all of our ‘we are the world”liness we are not all that comfortable with uniqueness. It’s not necessarily a shortcoming on our part. We can only process so much information. We are wired to take in information quickly and make instantaneous decisions (‘is that a friendly lion coming toward our cave or a hostile hungry lion?’) We have room for subtlety and idiosyncrasy with our friends and family; but the world at large is just too large. So we look for categories, boxes, and classifications to avoid a mind that would thrill a hoarder. And it wouldn’t matter a smidge until something goes awry.

When a family breaks up there can be a lot of rubble. If the latter part of the 20th century taught us anything; it’s that families can dissolve. For better or worse (pun intended) and for the most part, people no longer need each other for survival. However, through the beauty of human nature; new families can be created. Complicated? Not really, or not until the 5th grade teacher assigns the archaic “family tree” assignment to her class. Family is what you make it and its level of fluidity is what you choose.

Lovely sentiment but what about those step-children left behind in the prior marriage? What of your child’s step-grandparent who is now not? Who gets invited to what? Who gets to see photos or updates? What if the ex-spouse has remarried and there are new steps? Do they get invited? The first step is to drop the label maker. I’m not going to get all Carol Brady and suggest that the only steps in this house are the ones in the living room. But I will offer that when it comes to determining what and who is important to us; labels only obscure. What matters is how you feel, how the children feel and how a new spouse/partner feels (and NOT necessarily in that order.) What we want for our children is for them to have the love of as many people as they possibly can. We want them to have consistent and reliable relationships with people who are not necessarily related to them. It’s one way they grow strong roots. If there has been heinous behavior (i.e., violence, or criminality) by any ex-family member it should be taken into consideration. But overall whatever works for everyone* most involved is just plain okely dokely. (By “everyone” I do not mean the child(ren) are allowed to insist their parents behave as if they never split up and spend all holidays and recitals as a unit.)

Life can be messy, chaotic and at times horrific. Having people who love you and feel obligated to take you in is what makes it all manageable. Yes, the broader we define something the more complex it gets. And no, there isn’t a greeting card to send on Mother’s Day to the woman who is now partnered with your ex-step-parent. But that’s a good thing isn’t it? Do any of us (in our heart of hearts) want to think of ourselves as able to be reduced to a mass market sentiment?

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Childhood, Marriage/Wedding, Well-Being

 

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Seizing Semantics

Have you noticed that once widely available words have been appropriated and winnowed down to the most streamlined of meaning? Take the word; family, for instance. Family once meant people one was connected to who did not fall into the category of friends. Hence the phrase; friends and family. Family could mean one’s family of origin, including generations past. Family could also reference those brought into the holiday fold year after year. Family could also be self-constructed, augmenting a loss of familial connections. The word was open to subtle interpretations but maintained a overall meaning of connectivity. These days you might hear several phrases touting the word ‘family’ that have nothing to do with human connection. For instance:

  • Family Values – Whose family values? Have you MET my family!? Or do you really mean ‘conservative values?’
  • Family Friendly – I think the phrase you may be searching for is “Child-centric” no? I assure you, your themed restaurant is not friendly to my family, it is our 7th circle of hell.
  • Working Families – Now if the children are actually grabbing their briefcase and headed for the 7:15, you have my full support.

Of course the same wholesale take-over of terminology is not new. “Faith” and “patriotism” have come to mean very specific beliefs and practices. Believing in the potential of human beings to be their best selves and to reach out and help up is a definition of faith. Believing that how we treat others is directly connected to the health of our souls is faith. But when we hear the word being bandied about it’s meant to communicate an adherence to an organized religion. When we hear calls of “patriotism” it most often is in reference to military support or flag waving. Those fighting; to separate church and state, or for freedom of speech or press are rarely referred to as patriots.

Politics and verity make strange bedfellows, that’s certain. But there’s no reason in the world the rest of us need follow and adopt the constricting definitions. Language is many things, including contagious. If we commit to using terminology that strikes us as more accurate or inclusive, others may very well follow. Our words are the most lasting and telling clues to our inner self. Our ability to create meaningful language is what in fact makes us human.

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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