Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Keep Up Speed

“A woman must walk into winter gracefully,” her mother had often said, “or she’ll look the fool, wearing her summer hat to an ice-skating party.” From Agnes Somerset

I admit it--sometimes I watch Dr. Phil. The other day his energetic wife co-hosted the show to tell us about her new book, which is seemingly all about staying young through the proper use of hormones. There is no reason, she said (in her short, sleeveless black dress) to not look great and feel sexy once you enter menopause. I felt immediately like I had to explain myself.

Men are under the gun also. Both daytime and prime-time television air ads for products to "enhance" (every marketer's favorite word these days) a man's sexual performance. The reassuring script is read over shots of healthy, slightly aging couples smiling at each other as they dance slowly around the kitchen with sunlight softly streaming in (cut to product).

This is all certainly good news for people who have struggled with true physical or biochemical problems and can now enjoy a normal level of energy and ability. But what is normal now supposed to be? I am hearing messages all around me that a normal 55 should feel like 35--maybe even 25. It sounds like slowing down a little is not only out of fashion but really out of the question.

Of course, for a long time marketers--and sometimes husbands--have tried to convince women that there's no good reason to look old. One woman I knew in her late sixties was candid enough to tell me that she dyed her hair because her husband insisted on it; he didn't want her to look old. He, of course, had long been reduced to half a head of gray hair and was anything but the picture of youth. Anti-wrinkle creams are getting more sophisticated all the time, and surgery to correct the relaxed look of age has blossomed into a huge business.

Now that our pharmaceutical and herbal supplement companies have devised their clever concoctions, we are not allowed to feel older either. I am uncomfortable with this demand. To every season, as the Good Book says, there is a purpose. My appearance, my stamina, my knowledge, my relationships, my priorities, my timeline--they all work together. I may have to just pull off on the shoulder, spread a blanket, and let the chemically enhanced traffic pass me by.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stumbling toward peace

"The sign of spiritual progress is not so much never falling as it is being able to lift oneself up quickly after one falls." --Father Jacques Philippe

I told my religion teacher that what I wanted most to learn was how to achieve peacefulness. How to not be riled and churning, even when things are going very wrong and nothing seems right. He dove into his book bag and brought out a small paperback whose binding was falling apart and whose worn cover was nearly detached. This must be a very good book, thought I, one he has frequent recourse to. I was right.

Father Jacques Philippe, in his slim and modest volume Searching for and Maintaining Peace, patiently explains why personal peace is so important and some simple advice on getting to it. I myself was looking for peace because I knew it must feel better than turmoil, and it will surely make me a nicer person to be around. But Father Jacques said that the real point is that God does not work in the middle of chaos. Smooth the water and then you will discern the current (my analogy). In a churning whirlpool you can't find direction--you can't be effective in whatever way God wants you to be.

I'm still not sure how to get to that state of stillness. But I am studying the maps and in time may arrive. In the meantime, Father Jacques pointed out a couple of detours that keep us from crossing the border into the land o' peace. Do you fall for these? I sure do.

(1) The well-meaning person is often disturbed by the thought that he is not doing enough good things, or that they are not big enough. This actually is Satan's way of keeping us turned in on ourselves and not just happily doing the small things we are able to.

(2) When we fail God, why are we so upset? Is it just because we let Him down, or does our pride have something to do with it? Maybe the biggest part of our chagrin is that our stumbling has chipped the image we had of ourselves. I should have been smart enough to avoid that, or stronger, or braver, or kinder . . . Instead we can accept that we will fail now and then in all sorts of ways because we are not, after all, God. Take his hand, scramble to your feet, and keep going.

This last thought I find especially helpful as a parent, and a flawed one at that. Although we do our level best, every parent makes plenty of mistakes with her children. But to brood over them robs us of the peace and energy needed for today. I hope I can remember that by this afternoon.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Beware the new religion

Through sex, mankind may attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform the world, which will light up the only path to an earthly paradise.--Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood

At long last the day comes when a parent faces that most dreaded of all decisions: If my child is going to college, which one will it be? This question might get simpler if your budget, or your child's unusual major, constrains your choices sharply. Or does that only make it harder? For us, it comes down to the state school. But our day spent at New Student Orientation for that university last week opened my eyes to what that institution has in store for my daughter. And this has led to a whole new round of hand-wringing.

Yep, they've got the Asian language courses she's after, as well as countless programs to ensure her success in the world. Rest assured, a vice provost told us, that academics are our emphasis, first and foremost. After several hours of hearing all the glories of this school detailed, I was feeling fairly good that this might turn out OK for our girl. But as I checked out from the event in the 4th-floor lobby of the beautiful, new student services building, I stopped in my tracks. How had I missed it earlier? There in a lighted display case were a multitude of full-color posters advertising an upcoming presentation. A snappy black T-shirt, imprinted boldly with the name of the event, was also on display. What enriching lecture was this that I should jot down place and time to let my daughter know? Nothing less than "I Love Female Orgasm." The posters, featuring a sassy-looking young woman in a head wrap, said this special event was presented by "sex educators."

After a long phone call to the above-mentioned vice provost and two emails to his colleague, during which I tried to explain why such an advertisement was both offensive and unwise and not a subject most parents were paying many thousands of dollars for their children to be educated in, I got only the usual defenses. They talked about free speech, opening students' minds, and no topic being off limits; and I was assured that most students would leave college with the same values, after all, that they entered with. (Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.)

Why, a parent asks herself, do these seemingly intelligent professionals so vigorously defend the area of sexuality? Why is nothing considered too provocative or too private to be plastered across a main lobby of the university? Why, given the epidemic of STDs and other damaging results of lively sexual activity among our students, would these administrators allow such an event (although I'm told it's wonderful and all about "healthy" sexual choices) and its titillating promotion?

Only one answer is possible, and I am not the first to stumble onto it: Sex is the new religion. The free practice of it, and the required instruction in it, have redefined our culture. If you are raising your children to believe in something else, something higher, something harder, beware of the message in our public schools and secular universities. The current, as you have surely noticed, is against you.

I hope my discussion with the university is not over. I'd like to believe that I am not the only parent calling after noticing the orgasm display--but I doubt it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To dye or not

Hey, that's my egg! Yours is the broken one. --All children dying Easter eggs

My mother hated hard-boiled eggs. She was also frugal and could not allow two dozen of them to be thrown away. That explains why my sister, brother, and I never dyed Easter eggs. I did not know what I was missing until I became a mother myself and plunged into the endeavor one Easter. Despite the dripping dye and stained mugs and accusations of egg tampering that accompanied the project, my children looked forward to it every year. I considered skipping it some years when, as a paycheck mother and very pressed for time, I groaned inwardly at the additional work and the fussing. But I never could let it go, and Holy Saturday always found me boiling up a pile of eggs in the big stainless steel pot and spreading newspaper over the table.

Children value traditions more than they let on. It may not be until they are far too busy to dye eggs that they will start telling stories around that same table on a holiday visit about how their brother always tried to corner more than his share of boiled eggs or about the striped one they made that no one could duplicate. Whether it's bedtime stories or Easter eggs or birthday candles, remember that children remember.

And here's an easy way to make homemade egg dye. I use disposable plastic cups and set them inside coffee mugs to keep them from tipping and to protect the mugs (and I keep the plastic cups after rinsing them for next year). In each cup, put 4 ounces of water, 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and 3 or more drops of food coloring. Have fun.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Test of wills

The heritage of values which has been received and handed down is always challenged by the young. --Pope John Paul II

It's a lot easier to find advice about dealing with small children than with teenagers. That's because no one has found what actually works with teenagers. They are big, loud, and strong. Many appear to have made it their mission to disagree with every single thing their parent tells them. And if they cannot intimidate Mom into giving in to their demands, they will try to confuse her into it with stunning feats of illogic. Let's admit it: they can be downright scary.

My advice: On bedrock issues, hold your ground. Sure, a teenager or adolescent needs to be able to decide some things for himself. But stick to your guns on the big stuff. They'll survive the disappointment, and you won't lose respect for yourself. Here's an example. My middle-school son was desperate to attend a co-ed party held at a motel. It included--you guessed it--a sleepover. I told him he could attend to swim and play pool, but at eleven o'clock I'd be there to bring him home. He was outraged and mortified. "But everyone else is sleeping there!" I showed up at eleven and brought him home.

The next day, to his credit, he told me how relieved he was to leave the motel. Up in the bedrooms boys and girls were engaging in activity that made him supremely uncomfortable. He was glad to have an out.

So don't be afraid of the conflict when you say "sorry, but no." Be sure to let them know that you sympathize but need to do your job.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The essential thank-you note

Children love to get gifts from Grandma and Uncle Henry, but few volunteer to sit down and dash off a thank-you note. Indeed, many adults drag their feet on this task. But these simple notes are so cherished by the gift-giver, and they teach a child that generosity must be acknowledged.

Be sure to have your child write it himself. Most can manage something by second grade, some much earlier. Don't fuss too much if misspellings creep in as long as the message will be understood. Just a few lines will do the job. If you have a special-needs child who cannot write, she might tell you what to say and she can decorate the card. (I have found packages of blank notes with matching envelopes at Hobby Lobby that are perfect for this.)

Some card companies are now offering preprinted thank-you notes for children. These brightly colored cards say things like "Dear ____, Thank you for the _____. Love, _____" While I applaud the good intention of the companies, this is a bad idea. A child should learn to write a note from scratch. Show them also how to complete the envelope. It's surprising otherwise how old a child can get without knowing how to address an envelope, where the stamp goes, or why she should put her return address on it.