In the strange way that life has this tendency to bring you back to your jumping-off point, I am back where I started my journey as an adult.
One year ago on Labor Day I accepted a job with a former client, and I moved my family north, forward in our collective narrative but back into mine. We are now living in the suburbs of Kansas City, the place I held my first job, bought my first car, rented my first apartment, and had my heart broken for the first time.
In a moment of naked honesty I must tell you that my memories of Kansas City are not altogether fond.
It is not really my kind of place.
I am a fundamentally a born Easterner, more comfortable with Eastern cities. I am happiest in cities where things are repurposed, not rebuilt. Cities whose old bones show through whatever new veneer is thrown up on top of them. Cities where three generations live within five square miles of each other, and houses expand with the size of the family, instead of being traded up every seven years.
But if St. Louis is the westernmost Eastern city, Kansas City is the easternmost Western one.
Kansas City fairly pulses with change and growth.
It is a city that is constantly reinventing itself, constantly building, constantly expanding. It is the picture of urban sprawl, as it reaches out greedily and gobbles up towns as it leaps from economy to economy. From my personal outsiders view, it struggles to maintain any other identity than prosperity.
However, in a second moment of naked honesty, perhaps sometimes Kansas City feels too much like a reflection of myself.
I am the poster child for upward mobility.
The oldest child of a working class family, I grew up shuffled between family farms and small post-war suburban tract homes. Half my brothers and sisters are in union trades. I went through college and graduate school on a combination of work, scholarships and the tolerance of my first husband. I moved from city to city wherever the next opportunity took me, not really intending to go anywhere, as long as it was not backward. I turned down jobs in academics to sell out to Big Pharma, a steady paycheck and a house in the white collar world of subdivisions and home owners associations, in an area of town where upscale retail establishments pop up like mushrooms.
I have at least SIX organic supermarkets within ten minutes of my house.
In truth, there are days when I wonder if it is the city I am uncomfortable in, or if it is my life.
I chose this world. I worked for it. I reached out for it with greedy arms and I embraced it. The house I live in offers more than a thousand square feet for each human inhabitant. There are days when I walk around it and it feels obscene. I am uncomfortable inviting my old friends into it because it feels like wearing a designer dress to a barbeque picnic – overdone and out of place. But I guiltily admit that I love it, and I suddenly can no longer raise my eyebrows at the owners of gas-guzzling SUVs without smelling of hypocrisy.
It’s strange, this life. The years and the miles stretch out behind and I can barely recognize the person I was when I struck out on my own as a newly minted adult, not 10 miles from where I am now. I look back on the days of ramen-fueled idealism, the painful drama that comes with trying on each new self to see if it is the one that will finally fit, and belatedly realizing that the only answer to life is to occupy the person you are at that very moment. Because if you lock yourself into one self, you will miss all the things that life has in store for you. You will miss all the things you can become.
So in the end, this city and I, we are not so different.
We are both still getting there.
A bit of a minor crisis on the media front actually forced me to pay attention to the fact that I have a blog (Hello, blog! Long time, no see). The service provider that actually hosts the images I use on my blog has become a tad less reliable than they had been in the past – in fact in a rather alarming way. So I am going to be migrating the images over, one by one, to my paid server space. This is a bit of a job, so please have patience with the broken image links while I get things redirected.
While I am here, I guess I might as well try to actually SAY something. Since it’s pretty much starting over again, there’s a certain freedom in that, I suppose, but I think the overall theme is going to say the same as it was.
And it was… What?
The everyday is a pretty profound place, filled with wonder and majesty, if you walk through it with mindfulness. There’s no need to look at the grand epic of history or the immense sweep of the stars to find it. It’s all here – in something as simple as walking to the mailbox and watching the hiss and steam of rain on the warm pavement and smelling the must of wet earth and hearing the white noise of a hundred random raindrops on the metal of a car hood.
I try to find it – the wonder – and the hysterical irony – of the everyday. And I hope you’ll stick around to read about it.
It has been six months since my last post. I have thought about coming here many times. But procrastination is a downward spiral. After a while, the guilt gets too overwhelming and it becomes easier and easier to lose yourself in the business of everyday life and let things fall further and further away from you. There is always some new reason not to face the fear.
Because it is a fear.
I started this blog as a form of therapy after Katrina. Drifting and disjointed, I needed a way to process the great enormity of having my entire life uprooted and plunked down in a place I had neither planned for nor wanted. Then I kept it fueled on the pains of infertility and life as an older mother, and finally it nursed me through marital crisis and into career ambivalence.
And life took over from there.
Life – messy and busy and beautiful started happening without asking my opinion and I was moving too fast to keep up with it and write it down. My thoughts on my own life became complicated and the same clear voice I heard in my head when I sat down to write with my baby son in my lap is now muddled and hard to pin down now that he’s a walking talking reading and full fledged boy.
This is no mystery to me. My life has also become muddled and hard to pin down. Like most of my life, I straddle two worlds, one foot in each, but never wholly in both. I am a professional with a busy career. One that takes me away from home frequently and requires me to work independently and manage a staff of people. But, truth be told, I am not the hard-driven executive type. I bank most of my earnings. I buy most of my business clothes at J C Penney. I don’t have a single pair of shoes worth over $100. I don’t vacation in Europe, or even the Bahamas. I refuse to take my work home if I can AT ALL help it, and I don’t spend every off moment of my time engaged in career enrichment activity. My cars are old, but paid off. I have a small house in a modest neighborhood – also almost paid off. I don’t have a maid and my carpet is in dire need of replacing.
But when I sit down with the mothers of my son’s peers, I am the odd out. I am not a classroom mom. I don’t volunteer at the school much, because I commute to work everyday and I am often on the road. I am not up-to-date on the neighborhood gossip. I spend my days immersed either in regulatory guidance or pharmaceutical toxicology and I have no opinions on any controversial child raising topic. Not one. I have no commercial television, so I have no common cultural references. I don’t follow any sports teams. My understanding of intelligent or even polite conversation is skewed to the point where I know I must come off as faintly autistic to a normal person in casual conversation.
I am younger than many of my business colleagues, but I am older than most of the other moms, and some days I feel it. I am lucky to get dinner on the table, homework done, and the dishes washed and clothes cleaned every night, let alone spend one second of time on anything approaching interior decoration. Some of the mothers see my son more at school than I do. My house is, generously put, lived in. Clean, but worn; happy but a wee bit disheveled.
I had a beautiful house once, I really did. Straight out of Better Homes. Then I had a kid. And a storm. And my priorities were completely and utterly upended.
So here I am. An over-educated underachieving intellectual. Living in a working class neighborhood and jetting to Washington to discuss public policy every few months. Neither here nor there, but stuck somewhere in the great in-between.
And trying desperately to find a new voice.
And desperately afraid that I won’t.
Science doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t really even have to be hard. We are all prewired to be scientists – every single one of us from the time we are infants. It is, in fact, our evolutionary heritage, one of our most advanced survival traits, and easily the one that has allowed us to practically overpopulate ourselves. We observe. We hypothesize. We test. We revise. We test again. And the beat goes on. It is how we learned to talk and walk and what hurts and what doesn’t. We have an implicit understanding of cause and effect (even though we often confuse correlation with causation, but, hey, it’s a complicated world). We do this every single day of our lives, like breathing. The only difference between me as a scientist, and people in every other line of work is that I am actually conscious of doing it, and I expand it beyond the things that affect my everyday life directly. My survival trait has become my passion. But we all DO it. We are all amateur scientists.
I know this both implicitly and by watching my son. He is at the age where is entire vocabulary is an endless string of “what ifs?”. I will admit there are times when I collapse in frustration and resort to the refuge of “well, that’s never going to happen, so let’s not worry about it, eh?”, but for the most part I try not to discourage the convolutions of his imagination. The foundation of science is built on “what ifs”. Einstein was a horrible mathematician, but he possessed a highly honed ability to visualize. My son, who wanders in a vivid world of his own creation, shares this gift. I want him to travel the universes of his “what ifs”. I want him to follow them to their logical conclusions. I want him to tweak and rethink. I want him to observe and see if his “what ifs” fit the world outside his head, and if not, to try and figure out why. Because reality, my friends, is a wondrous thing.
But don’t believe me. I am going to recommend a few books that will convince you that the world you live in is possibly more incredible than your imagination ever dreamed.
One of my most highly recommended science-for-the-layman books was written by a layman, Bill Bryson. Despite his lack of scientific training, he wrote one of the most cogent books on science for popular consumption that I ever had the great joy to read. To be sure, the first few chapters, where he, by a series of comparisons, drives home what a miniscule portion of the known universe our world is a bit of a slog. Trust me, if you push through that first grind, the remainder of the book is well worth the time. We forget that science is pursued by people, and it is truly amazing what it owes to the quirky personalities that have influenced it.
Written by a neurologist who is an acknowledged expert in the treatment of phantom limb syndrome, this book is an amazing journey into the very heart of what it is to “occupy” our own bodies. This exploration on how the mind manufactures the sensation of being the “self” and the intricacies of how our minds distinguish it from the “other”, and even from the divine, will completely change your view on what constitutes reality. This is one of those books I could not put down, and had a profound and long lasting impact on how I saw myself, and my world.
Our instinct is to trust our common sense, right? But what happens when that sense is manipulated by fear? This books explores when real risk and our perception of risk are at odds, and how we make poor choices by relying on our “common sense” and instant instinct. Instinct is a function of self-preservation, but that innate gut-feeling of imminent danger can deceive us into making poor choices. Furthermore, this gut instinct can be manipulated to feed social and political agenda. Learn when to stop and assess when our fear is well-grounded, and when it’s just our inner ape talking.
As a life scientist, trained in molecular and population genetics, I can tell you that there is no scientific theory that has been more misunderstood, maligned, and misused than Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Beautiful in both its simplicity and in its intricacies, it is the story of life from its earliest molecules to that incredible, intertwined ecosystem that we call our home today. There are few better tellers of the evolutionary tale than Stephen Jay Gould. Not only is he a master at walking the layman through the theory of evolution, the real theory and not the popular misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest”, but he is one of the most eloquent whistle-blowers on how Darwin’s theory had been used to justify the most criminal human abuses of man to his fellow man. I recommend two books by Gould – “Bully for Brontosaurus” is his most accessible, but “The Mismeasure of Man” is a must-read to understand the social impact of Darwinism on modern history.
Happy reading, and prepare to be amazed!
Otherwise titled “How parenting strategy backfired and turned my son into a vegetarian.”
Eating is a giant interruption in my son’s day. To my observation, he derives little pleasure from eating, rarely comments on his food except when he decidedly does NOT like what is offered, and has an expressed preference for lunches his mother packs over what is served in the cafeteria (okay, a certain amount of motherly pride, there).
And he will not eat meat.
Which is, most likely and entirely, my fault.
While I do not require him to finish his plate (a childhood requirement that almost certainly is largely responsible for my own struggles with weight), and I do not use food as a comfort device (no cookies at the end of a bad day), I do require him to at least taste a bite of each offering, and I do NOT like profligate waste. I hate ANY waste – particularly of food. I consider it shameful to throw away food as long as there are people going hungry. It’s disrespectful and disrespect is a big sin in our house.
It’s not only disrespectful to those who do not have enough food, but when the slaughter of animals is involved, it’s horribly disrespectful to throw away something that an animal gave its life for. I am not fundamentally against the eating of meat, but it has always sat uncomfortably with me. I consider it a luxury, indulged in at the expense of a life, and should not be taken for granted. I can certainly survive on plants alone, but I LIKE meat. Genoa salami alone will prevent me from ever really considering vegetarianism. Aaaaah pigs. If you only weren’t so darned tasty.
But I only can justify my carnivorous tendencies by endeavoring to respect the sacrifice. By buying parsimoniously and by NOT WASTING.
I explained this philosophy to my son when I picked up his untouched plate of roast chicken. “A chicken gave his life so that we can have this food, and doesn’t it seem disrespectful to simply throw it in the garbage?”
As I said, disrespect is a major sin in my house. The giving of respect is the root of all ethical behavior. All of the commandments and sins can be explained in that one word.
Respect the feelings of others.
Respect their possessions.
Respect their personal space.
Respect your parents and your teachers.
Respect exclusive relationships.
Respect your Partner.
Above all, respect Life, and its right to exist. Take no life unnecessarily. Hurt no being if it can be avoided.
You can strip away all the trappings of our legal and moral systems, and they come right down to teaching us to Respect One Another. Fail in teaching that, and you have failed in teaching morality.
The next time chicken came to the table on the plate, Harry took one look at it, and declared “I won’t eat anything that hurts an animal.” Apparently Harry decided he didn’t want to take the moral responsibility for the sacrifice – it simply wasn’t WORTH it to him to eat something that he was indifferent toward. It wasn’t, in his mind, a necessary hurt.
I have had other parents tell me that the point would be moot in their house. That the child would simply eat what was placed in front of him. But the thought of making him eat something that he has declared he is morally opposed to seems akin to committing religious blasphemy. I would no longer make him eat a ham sandwich than serve a Jewish friend a pork chop.
But more than that, the entire point of moral teaching is to give our kids the internal compass and fortitude of character to make their own decisions. It is to instill, not a set of rules of right and wrong, good and bad, but to give them the tools to make correct choices. And if I don’t allow Harry to do that, if I supersede him because he actually takes a HIGHER moral path than I do – what message is that sending?
Our lives would be easier if our little vegetarian actually liked vegetables, but we have managed. He has had momentary lapses where a chicken nugget or his mother’s mouth-watering pork roast has caught his momentary fancy (I pride myself on the ability to produce tasty pig), but in our nightly exercise to find things we are grateful for, Harry recently thanked God for making soy chicken nuggets so that he didn’t have to kill chickens.
I am still not a vegetarian. But I will admit that my son has instilled a bit of mild discomfort with his purely innocent and instinctive grasp of the sanctity of life, and the need not to waste it. His decision was simple and immediate. There was no equivocation (except over the beloved chicken nuggets), and only the occasional rationalization. In this, I feel more like his student than his teacher.
Harry may not remain a vegetarian. He has become more intrepid in his eating habits in the last few years, and it is possible that animal flesh may again have a place on his regular menu. I am not sure if this eventuality will make me a little bit sad or a little bit relieved. And relieved not because that I will no longer have to make two meals at dinnertime, but because I won’t have that disquieting feeling that he has in some way passed me by.
On February 6, 2012, Dr. Susan Niebur passed from this life. She leaves a beloved husband and two young sons behind her.
We have all lost an eloquent voice and a tireless advocate on behalf of mothers living with cancer.
And the heavens have gained another bright eternal star.
“All that survives after our death are publications and people. So look carefully after the words you write, the thoughts and publications you create, and how you love others. For these are the only things that will remain.” Susan Niebur
Susan, author of Toddler Planet, and I started blogging at about the same time. There was a natural affinity – we were both new mothers, both career scientists – and we communicated through our blogs and emails. She was a font of encouragement to me in my early days of blogging, and I have dedicated more than one post to her over the years.
Ultimately, she continued on blogging, advocating, exploring, while I have foundered. She found inspiration in her diagnosis, and reached down into a wellspring of courage to reach out and to do what is as natural to her as breathing. To educate, to comfort and to love.
Susan is “just” a human. She has struggled with deep fear and the unfairness of life. She has had days where she has questioned her ability to cope. And she has shared it all with us, in black and white and breathtaking prose, so that we know that it is okay. It is okay to doubt, to feel fear and to feel alone in the face of something so big it takes your breath away. Her ability to express the journey of being human at our most vulnerable has given comfort to so many in need of a hand in the dark.
So I grope out with my hand, here in the dark, to hold hers. To give back the gifts she has given us – to live in the moment, to love fully, to follow your passion, to squeeze everything you can out of the time given us.
And she knows, as a scientist and as a writer of artistic eloquence, the vast beauty of the universe. We are indeed the stuff of stars, a momentary collision of matter that takes form and breathes and lives. We will live on through the imprint we make on everything around us, but that form, that fallible form, will disperse and remix and become another thing of infinite beauty in timeline stretching out from the moment of creation.
To Susan – I wish you peace and comfort and great love in your journey. I pray for your family around you, holding you close in their love. And know that part of you that will live on, that will always live on, is a thing of aching loveliness.
I am just a little bundle of cheerful today aren’t I?
But actually – I am feeling better than I have in a while. Which is why I can write this with any kind of perspective, so bear with me and it will all be okay.
I was recently diagnosed with stage 1 hypertension and placed on blood pressure medications. Of course, my first reaction was that I was far too young to be running around with high blood pressure, because I don’t think, as much as I joke about it, that my age has ever really held any reality to me. I think I am still somewhere in my early thirties. At least that’s what I feel like most of the time. I have had someone who is in their seventies tell me much the same – you see your face age in the mirror, and in almost undetectable increments it gets harder and harder to roll out of bed in the mornings (despite the fact that you stop sleeping through the night). And yet inside you are the same person you ever were. That is the frustration of aging – it is inevitable and as much as you want to do it gracefully, the person your body wants you to be just isn’t YOU anymore.
Whether it is some strange PTSD after-effect of Katrina, or normal middle-age paranoia, over the last few years I have developed an almost obsessive terror about death.
It is an obsession to the degree that I avoid the death-drenched news, with its constant list of casualty counts. The news of every distant relative who has developed some kind of serious or terminal illness sends me into a near panic-attack, as my mind rushes to add the difference in our ages and see how old my son would be if I were to suddenly (and prematurely if it’s anything less than my own carefully planned death at 98) leave him to fend for his innocent little self without me. I don’t know if late motherhood fuels this morbid obsession, or only adds accelerants to the flame, but I know without a doubt that it plays a large role. I don’t want to leave before I am done.
I have a vague idea what “done” means, when it comes to motherhood, but I have this internal conviction that I will know it when I get there. I have nightmares that I will be torn from life, clutching with bared fingernails to the last shreds of my mortality because I am leaving my son without his fiercest protector, or more important, the keeper of THIS normality. The normality that I have fought since before he was born to establish and nurture, waiting for the right husband, the right father, buying a good home to raise him and fighting SO hard to keep a home after Katrina. He has good home, tidy if not immaculate, with two engaged parents. He wants for little (although sometimes, passing the toy lanes in the store, Harry would disagree). His sun rises and sets on a schedule that is stable and loving, and I want to be there to keep it that way until I know he’s going to be okay.
Unfortunately, this obsession about dying is interfering with living. The net result is a kind of forced in-the-moment attempt, like I am trying to dance faster to get the entire movement in before the final chords are played. I am struggling to gain a peaceful acceptance about mortality.
We are all dying.
It may be at 98, 29 or 9, but we will all certainly die. And counting the hypothetical years I have left with my loved ones is a meaningless exercise, because the number of my days and the manner of my exit are unforeseeable. Counting my blessings instead of my days is a much harder task than I anticipated.
But I feel if I can just come to some sort of agreement with the idea of my own finite-ness, I can move on in some undefinable, yet monumental way. I can jettison those things that I am only doing out of obligation and habit and really learn to live the time that is allotted to me. There is a transition that is waiting to happen; I can feel it coming and I am poised on the brink, clinging to a past I need to let go of – a past where I saw an endless span of days and possibilities ahead of me. I need to embrace dying to remember how to live.
But letting go seems so very much harder than just holding on.
I used to be invisible, a shape changing magic kid.
I could move at the speed of thought and frequently I did,
But my greatest accomplishment was a slow and looping glide.
I saw the tops of everything, back when I could fly.
~Trout Fishing in America
Somehow, when we weren’t paying attention, my son turned into a big boy. While he never had anything approaching “baby fat” or “toddler belly” or any other spare body mass of any dimension, his face has thinned and the brown eyes that stare up at me stare out of a face that is starting to show the dimensions of the man he will become. He’s still a “little boy”, certainly, but the glimpses of his future become more concrete.
And he reads.
Somehow that one cultural passage has seemed to catapult him out of babyhood.
He reads confidently and voraciously. He has started out of the reading gate like a pure thoroughbred, in a rush of full sentences and multisyllabic words that astonish me. There was no “See Jack run” for Harry. With a very few stumbles (owing more to the illogical spellings of English, the great thief of other languages, than to his own command of phonics), he reads everything from billboards to the backs of cereal boxes. He eagerly grabs the comic pages from the Sunday paper. He has even read my clinical protocols over my shoulder, faltering only when he stumbles over drug nomenclature I cannot even reliably pronounce.
Somehow, those long, confident words falling from his mouth, give him a worldliness far beyond the little voice that they are spoken with. It has become easy for me to forget, that behind it all, he is still a little boy of six.
My best friend’s son had a similar problem, but for slightly different reasons. He was born premature, at NINE pounds. A nine pound preemie. Not only tall for his age his entire short life, he also has always looked indefinably older than other children his age, exacerbated when he soared to 6’2″ at 16 years of age. Like my husband, also always proportionally larger (his adult height almost 7′), people expect behavior more appropriate to a much older child. Either they spent their lives under unreasonable disapprobation, or they simply conform to expectation, and age beyond their years.
Harry is in no danger of that kind of physical expectation. Small for his age, with delicate features, he still looks very young at a glance. That is, until he opens his mouth.
Being my only child, and my only intimate experience with raising one, I have no scale for childhood milestones. Harry is simply Harry, and we have blundered through child-rearing with only the haziest gleaned-from-parenting-books expectations (notoriously vague) about what a six-year-old-boy is supposed to act like. So it isn’t until a volunteer day at school that I realize how different Harry is. While there is a spark of pride at that realization, there is also a bit of frustration. His teachers are often flabbergasted at what to do with a child who has not a concept of peer pressure, who is so unlike the other children that he doesn’t really see them as examples of behavior. And there is a slight, deep, sadness, a fear, that Harry, much against my firmest held hopes and dreams, will be as I was: A lonely child who keenly felt the “apartness” of being different. Who never shook the feeling of separateness, of being the perpetual observer, always there, but never quite participating in society.
May you have a child just like you. That oft-spoken parental curse.
But it’s only the mild paranoia of a parent that sees the widening crack.
For Harry whole new doors have been flung aside. Open eyed, his world has just expanded by orders of magnitude, and he is joyous in his pursuit of it.
My big boy.
I am, emphatically, not a “Tiger Mom”. At first, I was a bit ashamed of this, being a PhD myself. Now I have embraced my slacker mom status fully and defiantly, like a black-nail-polish-and-pierced teenager with an upraised middle finger and a sneer. I am the anti-establishment punk-version of motherhood and I have decided that I am pretty okay with that.
My son is not going to summer school.
When I was a kid, when dinosaurs roamed the earth before the comet came, summer school was for those kids who were in danger of not passing grade, strictly remedial only. Having passed 22 years of official adulthood sans child, and another five before formal schooling became an issue, it was to my astonishment to find out that summer school had become the province of over-achievers. Summer was no longer time to “catch up”, but to move to the head of the class, and guarantee the coveted Ivy League college slot before the kid is off of training wheels.
I was a good student, near the top of my class, but rarely number 1. The tracked New York school system guaranteed a class peer group that could kick my academic butt from 7th grade onward. I don’t remember any of us voluntarily participating in summer school. Summer was a coveted time of long, lazy days spent on bicycles, in backyard pools, in street baseball games or stretched out on the lawn with reading material NOT assigned or sanctioned by the school district. I remember a summer when we took over an abandoned playground concession stand, vividly painted the inside with tempera paints, and made it into a clubhouse for the summer. Many a childhood drama was played out in those abandoned and adult-unsupervised walls.
Harry does not go to summer school either. He goes to a “summer daycamp”. Yes. It is a glorified daycare, but he goes to the pool at least 2 days a week, has water-wars and craft projects, a “sundry store” where he has an account to buy himself summer snacks (lacking the mom-and-pop corner stores I enjoyed as a child), and he comes home flushed and tired and smelling of little boy sweat mingled with the undefinable scent of hot summer sun. Little boy dramas are recounted, and what he lacks in lessons on math and vocabulary, he gains in working his way, in fits and starts, through the complicated social navigation of his world.
I value education. Highly. Everything I have I owe to hard academic work and persistence. But there is more to life than school. There is more to life than work, no matter how meaningful or worthwhile it is. And there is definitely more to the human experience than relentless pursuit of socioeconomic status.
I don’t think I have abandoned my desire for my son to have a successful life. But I have over the years redefined what “success” is, and by what scale I would like the value of my own life to be measured.
I have come to the conclusion that success has room for a little bit of summer. Especially for little boys.