Sunday, August 26, 2012

Of Protecting Cyclers and Making Family When Needed

Friday was the birthday of my dear friend Elena who died five years ago, and yesterday was the annual picnic to celebrate her life. I have written about her before. Today I have some new thoughts to share in a two-direction blog post as the anniversary of this tragedy rolls around again.

The first direction. On Elena’s birthday Friday, in a spine-chilling coincidence, a prominent psychiatrist in our community was struck by a dump truck while biking to work at 8AM and he was killed. He was 56 years old. He has been described as “the heart and soul of mental health services” in our county. For most of his career he spearheaded the county mental health services program and in this capacity helped countless individuals. Just recently he left his county job and took on the role of psychiatric services provider for veterans through our local Veteran’s Administration. His name is Dr. Doug Rosoff. I did not know him, but his death has caused me to have flashbacks to the loss of Elena, also biking to work, also struck down at about 8AM, also by a dump truck, and a few weeks shy of her 56th birthday. I see articles in the newspapers regularly about cyclists struck down by motorists and killed. How long will it take for city planners, traffic planners, public officials, communities to find ways to better protect our bicyclists? My 20-year-old son Sudi cycles all over the Bay Area on his street bike (Elena would be so proud of him for it). I pray for his safety every morning when I take my walk behind the lake.

The second direction. Yesterday I saw Elena’s parents who flew to Berkeley from Chicago to join us at the picnic. Candy and David raised three children and all three died without marrying or producing grandchildren. Elena was the last of the three. They are now in their mid-80s. Since Elena’s death, many of her friends have remained in regular contact with Candy and David and have formed close relationships with them. I call them every week to chat and have become very close to them, especially Candy. I am not the only one. At least half a dozen friends of Elena my age call them weekly and another half a dozen call them at least once a month. Whenever they visit Berkeley, they are kept pretty busy visiting with one after another of Elena’s friends. And when I call them, Candy gives me all the latest news about Elena’s other friends who remain in touch with them. I think this web of relationships that we, Elena’s friends, have formed to embrace her parents is most unusual. They have become like family to us. While Elena lived, we did not know them all that well. But since Elena has died, many of us have become deeply attached to them and an integral part of their lives. It is almost as if we have become their adopted children. And we talk with each other about them the way people our age talk about our own parents. Concerned about their health. Telling funny anecdotes about them. Humoring them. Loving them. We have fallen in love with them. We have made the family we needed in Elena’s absence.

Elena and her godson Sudi (being silly).

Elena showing the love for her godson Sudi.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seeing Our Own Stuff

One moonlit night, walking on the beach during a family vacation about ten years ago, I had a conversation with my ten-year-old son and his friend (whom I will call Lawrence). There’s something about the ocean in the moonlight that seems to inspire us to wax philosophical. The boys and I talked about the things we liked and didn’t like about ourselves. Finally, Lawrence said, “But you know it’s always hard to see your own stuff.” A good insight about human nature from a child. I have been thinking of that conversation lately and wondering how come we so easily see what’s going on with other people but have such difficulty seeing our own stuff (as Lawrence put it).

I notice things about other couples, other families, other relationships that make me wonder why these people can’t see what I find so obvious. I know a couple who is miserable together and I can see that it’s time for them to separate but they don’t see it yet. They would be so much happier if they just got a divorce, but they are not ready to go down that road. I know a family where the mom puts on a stern countenance with the children and she doesn’t even realize that she is creating a mommy-persona for herself that runs counter to the loving person she really is. I wonder why she feels compelled to behave this way in her role as a mom. It’s bizarre to me. She loves her children dearly, and yet she is evolving into a bossy and hypercritical mother. I know a young man who is narrow-minded in his vision of what he does for a living. He is unwilling to consider expanding his horizons and locks himself into a job situation that isn’t working for him. Here is a couple where one person monopolizes the conversation and the other person never speaks. There is a mother who always eats from the same plate as her small son while he is clearly anxious that she will eat up the things he wants. She doesn’t see it.

I witness other people engaging in self-destructive behaviors or going in directions that are bound to make them unhappy. Sometimes people know these things about themselves but are unable to take the necessary steps to change course or transform their lives. But oftentimes people don’t even see what they are doing, don’t even recognize the changes or transformations open to them that would improve their lives. It’s a little crazy how blind we can be to our own stuff.

What a shame that we can’t successfully or effectively help one another to see this stuff more often. I would never criticize a friend’s parenting practices for fear of offending her. It’s not my place to tell a couple that I think they should get a divorce. And even if I did do something that socially inept, why should they listen to me? I have no right to criticize or advise on certain deeply personal topics. I would be overstepping bounds. It makes me wonder what there is about me, about how I conduct my life, to which I remain blind. I wonder what I don’t see that might transform my life or improve my life. Even if someone were to be bold enough to tell me what they see about this, I doubt that I could hear it because I’m inside my own reality, my own perception. I would think they are off-base and don’t understand the complexity of the situation. And I might take offense, become angry; so then what is accomplished?

If only we were as good at seeing our own stuff as we are at seeing someone else’s.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

21st Century Family Communication

For parents of adult children who embrace technology and social networking, this is a fabulous time for family communication. Yesterday, as most days, I touched base with all three of my children in one way or another. Sudi texted, Akili phoned, and my girl posted on Facebook and tagged me (fun flurry of comments ensued). And yesterday didn’t even include an email from any of them. Each of my children has their preferred way to communicate.

Sudi is fairly impossible to reach via any method other than texting. So texting it is. And if we need a conversation I text “call me” and he texts back “why mom?” – OY! But then he calls. I rarely use my cell phone (I work at home and there’s a perfectly functional phone on my desk) plus it doesn’t have a keyboard so it’s clunky to use for texting (it’s an old flip phone). However, if I need to reach my youngest I turn the phone on and text. It never ceases to amaze me how swiftly he responds to a text and how slowly he responds to anything else. He never listens to his voice messages so that’s useless.

Akili calls me all the time. Whenever he has dead air in his life, like when he’s stuck in traffic or walking to the grocery store, he calls me. During the four months that he was recovering from his broken ankle in early 2011 he called me every day, often more than once. Then he got a job and he called me every evening at 4:30 when he was stuck in commuter traffic. These days he calls at least four times a week, usually more. He sometimes emails us a link to a funny vid or image, or to a movie trailer. We rarely text unless I’m out of town. He responds if I email him, but I don’t need to do it much since we talk so often.

Then there’s my daughter, who rarely calls. But she emails me often and she frequently communicates via Facebook, where she posts hilarious images and jokes on my wall or her father’s or her own (and we exchange comments). Akili took down his Facebook account last year and Sudi has no personal account. If I text any one of my children, I get a reply immediately. It’s as though they go through life with one eye constantly on the cell phone. Everywhere. Online in the grocery store, at the movies (it vibrates silently), in the dentist chair, restaurants, clubs.

Meanwhile, my husband and I email each other throughout the day. I sometimes feel as though I’m at “family central” here in my study with my computer and cell phone, communicating with everyone. And even though Ron and I live miles away from our children, we remain part of each other’s daily lives as if we lived down the street. It’s good for them because we are not near enough or involved enough to cramp their style or meddle in their affairs, but we remain connected and know right away if something terrific happens or a challenge arises. Good deal.