The Lion King at 20: Reject Cougar, Choose Lioness


In the circle of life, it’s the wheel of fortune. -Elton John (Tim Rice)

The circle of life is a wheel that gets stuck in a rut. -David Wax Museum

On a rainy day, Robin and I picked through the kids’ movies at the library. Nothing good on the shelves, aside from Nick Parks claymation. I wanted a movie to lose myself in.

Enter a 20-something library employee with a stack of returns. I rushed him, and he held out spines of his stack for inspection. “The Lion King! I’ve never seen this.”

Robin groaned. Neither had he. “It’s part of the canon,” I told him.

“It is the canon,” the library aide smiled. “Can you believe that movie is 20 years old this year?”

“Wow,” I answered, more to myself, but aloud. “I could drink legally when The Lion King came out.” (Sigh.)

And there you have it: The Circle of Life.

When I heard Elton John belt those lyrics, um, 20 years ago, I rolled my eyes. Always cynical of public swells of emotion, I was unmoved by this idea, this circle of life. Vanna White was in her prime, turning letters on Wheel of Fortune and all I could think of was the absurdity of game shows and the uncritical stupidity of a nation.

So I was surprised to enjoy the movie so much. It resonates as I consider my own aging, the generations, and mortality. I couldn’t have fully appreciated its themes when I was finishing college. Now, I find its message of responsibility and succession profoundly moving.

As I face middle age, things like legacy matter to me. I am over 40 now. How did this happen?

I think about the conversation with the library aide. Did my remark sound tawdry? I was 21 when the film was released. Now I am an aging woman with a young kid.

I want to be OK with my advancing age. To wear it honestly and embrace it. Even without Robin in tow, I am often mistaken for younger.

The first time I dropped the 40 Bomb was inadvertent. I chatted with the carpenter who repaired our porch rails. When he admitted to being a Luddite, I told him “I didn’t really start using Facebook until I turned 40.” His jaw dropped. Literally.

It’s better when I get the look of shock from someone younger than me, like a bouncer at a bar. I don’t want to love these moments as much as I do.

I have almost no gray hair, though I would likely dye it if I did. I don’t wear make-up, though I marvel at how my face looks more like my father’s with each passing year. My glasses hide bags and crow’s feet.

I hesitate to wear certain things, even when they still flatter me. The C word lurks in the back of my mind. I want to look and feel attractive, but I never want to look like I am trying too hard. I won’t be mistaken for what some asshole would call a cougar.

I hate that word. Absolutely. Hate. It.

I hate people who use it. I hate the idea of it. I hate its sexism and implore everyone, especially women, to not use it. Not even in jest.

There is so much to embrace in this stage of life. All the hard work and pleasures of family. The challenges and accomplishments of a developed career. The wisdom that comes with making mistakes, living mindfully, thinking critically, and forging a life.

It’s been 20 years, and I’ve made the most of them. I’ve lived in 3 cities and traveled to 11 countries on 4 continents. I’ve also reached some common but profound milestones: marriage, home ownership, childbirth. I have ridden waves of excitement and boredom along the way, and my sense of self has evolved.

I want to think big. Forget concerns about a sagging chin and consider legacy. What am I teaching my child? What kind of world will I leave him, and what tools will I give him to navigate it?

What does he see when he looks at me? A strong woman who is comfortable in her own skin?

As I watch animated scenes of Africa, I marvel at the strength of The Lion King’s heroines. All hail the lioness! She hunts. She protects. She cares and provides for her pride even and especially as she ages. She is mighty. Regal. Powerful.

I am a middle aged woman. I am not immune to vanity and pride, but it is a small part of who I am and what I do. I have learned much on my journey of life. I am beautiful. Wise. Strong. I provide for my family and raise my young. I am a feminist who reluctantly likes Disney movies.

And I implore my peers: Embrace the Circle of Life and enjoy your aging.

Reject cougar. Choose lioness.


Holding Back the News: protection from the media, if not the world…

lego man

I had not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened… I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.  
– James Foley, on his captivity in Libya

How do we protect our young kids from the news without shutting out the world?

Is it possible an NPR head like me can hold back the news? There are plenty of things that would rock my sensitive, highly perceptive 5 year old’s world, but I know the perils.

I limit not only screen time, but exposure of all kinds. I shush Randy when he mentions crime at dinner. I turn off the news when I pick Robin up from school. I even audit our language for violent expressions. We finish the ketchup now; we no longer kill it. But can I really hold it all back?

The other day we were swinging in our neighbor’s hammock, which doubles nicely as a pirate ship. Robin was in eye patch and black hat, hanging a net over the side to catch fish.

This middle-aged mom is all for imagination games that involve sitting or lying down to participate. Pirate ship is perhaps the best, as I am comfortably prone and cloud gazing as he hauls fish, spies land, and steers. I need only blurt out rude arrrrrrs and rock us periodically to simulate stormy seas.

It was a placid, temperate summer afternoon when he blurted it out.

“I am going to cut your head off, Mom!”

A week after captured freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria.

Robin wielded a plastic sword we did not buy him. No one, in fact, bought it for him. I think it was left at our house by an adult, part of a Halloween or Renaissance Fair costume, long before Robin. At some point it migrated into his make believe kit.

I’d never buy him a toy gun. Swords, on the other hand, feel like folklore and fantasy, not front-page reality. At least, they did. I guess it is the end of innocence for us all.

Maybe I should have seen this coming. I am so shocked and horrified by these recent events, it is hard to keep perspective. If Robin had been around when Somali pirates hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama, would I have censored his pirate play altogether? After all, pirates are real.

I took the toy sword from him immediately. “Don’t ever say that again, honey. Okay?”

The sword is back in the basement now. I wonder if news coverage informed any of this. If the news of decapitation breached the protect-his-childhood force field, or if it was just an ill-timed blurt out.

(But then when is a good time to hear your only child threaten to decapitate you?)

“Did you know him?” Randy’s dad asked us. I’ve been so busy turning down the volume on the story, I didn’t even realize. James Foley did his undergrad at our university and graduated two years after I did.

I’ve wracked my brain and looked at photos online. Did he write for the off-campus news magazine I edited? The one that refused to be censored by the Jesuits? He’d seem the type. I don’t remember him.

In a piece in our alumni magazine, he wrote “With Marquette, I went on some volunteer trips to South Dakota and Mississippi and learned I was a sheltered kid and the world had real problems.”

I’ve been on the same eye-opening volunteer trips. How our paths diverged in the intervening years! I majored in journalism, while he studied English and history and went on to become a journalist later.

Now he’s part of history, and jihad. At least I hope he is part of history, not a name lost in a growing tide of extremist violence.

The waves of history rock this boat, though mine is only canvas and string, planted in a small patch of grass, a world away. Safe. Simulating stormy seas, my intentions are good, but my world is shrinking.

It is only appropriate to protect Robin from knowledge of the cruel realities of our perilous world. But I hope that as he gets older, I will know how and when to let in the world.

I love my boy. I want him to be safe.

I also want my son to grow up to do important things.

James Foley worked on development projects in Iraq. He reported from the front lines of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq while embedded with US troops. He covered the uprising in Libya, and was detained and released by Gaddafi loyalists. He was in Syria tracking the civil war, the brutality of the Assad regime, and the rising menace of the Islamic State when he was captured. Before all of this, he spent years working in American inner cities with Teach for America.

While I swing in a hammock on a sunny day, fretting about how my sweet boy came to threaten me with his toy. The world is so much bigger than all of this.

Now, stop indulging me and go read the news instead.

Human technology

Pinch Me, I’m Streaming

TV land

Why do female cartoon characters always have long eyelashes? Is that really my gender’s defining characteristic? Where do those cute bunnies, shaggy puppets and cartoon dogs get the mascara? I haven’t worn it since middle school.

Dinosaur Train, for God’s sake. Pteranodons! Even the smart shows do this. Which brings me to my point: I just realized there is smart TV for kids. I don’t think screen time will increase my kid’s IQ, but if I select it more wisely, it may not stunt his growth!

I’ve always considered TV a bad thing, like candy. So I haven’t given much thought to what Robin watched. My only impulse has been to limit it. But as there are carob-covered raisins and yogurt pretzels, so too is there better-for-you television.

Mighty Machines. All About. The Wild Kratts. (OK, Robin finds these guys lame.) Even Dinosaur Train, with its manic, fast-talking characters, has the redemption of smart, bland Dr. Scott the Paleontologist and his calm explanations. He’s informed Robin’s thinking on dinosaur extinction and has taught him that forest fires are good.

There is a danger in letting any characters in. Perhaps I’ve misspent energy gate keeping, steering us away from the current Pixar movie or shows with ubiquitous branding. Trying to stave off the inevitable.

Robin recognized Elmo a full 18 months before he ever watched Sesame Street, or any TV. The characters and branding are in the air we breathe (hyperbole) and on the cereal and toothpaste we buy (fact).

A chatty nurse once asked Robin about his stuffy: “Is that Kung Fu Panda?” Robin looked at him blankly. “No, it’s National Zoo Panda,” Randy replied.

(Take that, Dominant Culture!)

I know at least one local preschool that forbids kids to wear clothing with movie or TV characters’ images. I thought twice before I bought Robin his first character shirt: Curious George. He’s a literary figure, after all!

Cars jammies hitched a ride in with my mother, and the nighttime Pull-Ups advertise Monsters Inc., Toy Story, Cars, and some pirate guy that Robin knows from a friend’s lunch box. He recognizes Angry Birds, though I hope he makes it to puberty without playing a video game.

The predictable thing about innocence is its end. Enter the real world, with its ads and influence. Sponge Bob toothpaste, and worse yet, commercial TV when we travel: Nickelodeon and its parade of cool commercials cultivating want. Can I really shut it out?

We all know that person who grew up not watching TV–the smart one with hippie parents. As adults they may watch TV but are just as likely to tell you (a little too eagerly) “I don’t own a television.”

(Incidentally, this is the whitest thing you can say that doesn’t involve golf or mutual funds.)

These pale, intellectually superior children were, of course, robbed of their pop cultural heritage. They don’t get your Monkees jokes and Brady Bunch references. Do I want my kid to miss this? To be a cultural outsider?

Or worse yet, might he gorge on his first exposure? Skip college classes to watch a Bridezilla marathon?

I’ve relented. We have Sesame Street T-shirts. We collect Cars like Jay Leno. We have enough Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia to open a small museum.

I’ve found smarter shows on PBS and Netflix, dodging commercials and letting the animated guys do a little teaching while they babysit. (For 30 minutes a day, anyway.)

And just as this happens, the next wave starts: Robin asks to watch music videos for Happy and What Does the Fox Say? The only thing scarier than lush-lashed kittens is real women with mascara, in music videos.

After all, who wants to eat carob-covered raisins?


How the Dinosaurs Got Dead

before and after

by guest blogger

Robin Francis

And then the dinosaurs was alive. And they growed taller than the clouds. And they pooped the biggest poop.

And then the big rock struck the earth so hard, and then it landed on the earth so hard it scared the dinosaurs. And dirt got in their eyes. And it hitted the dinosaurs in the head.

And the dirt, no the dust. It got in the dinosaurs’ ears and the dinosaurs’ mouth and they couldn’t eat.before after 2

And this time the dinosaurs got on the rock and they got dead. And the dinosaurs fell down and so did the plants. All the plants died and it changed the weather.

And then the earth settled down. And the sun started to shine again and then it was quite beautiful in the neighborhood. And then the sun shined, and then the plants came alive. And then the people came alive.

Robin Francis is an amateur paleontologist and a frequent contributor to conversation. His pieces have appeared in The Atlantic, Science Magazine, and the journal Nature. Follow him on Twitter.


Verbosity: The Gift of Language is Mine’s

As a lover of language, I’ve enjoyed watching Robin’s verbal skills evolve. I still misunderstand him sometimes, but at 4, he is able to rephrase or clarify. He is even able to think me lame for all that I misinterpret, and to verbalize his low opinion of me, sometimes quite creatively! So lest you be mistaken for an idiot too, here is a primer on 4-year-old speak, straight from my Robin’s beak.

Motor Mouth20140412-220221.jpg
Why say it in 10 words when you can say it in 30? What a gift, after all those months of futile crying and mumbling shyness. To wake up one morning speaking in complete, run-on sentences, able to narrate each thought and idea with a paragraph! Some mornings it is hard to get the toothbrush in. My sudden chatterbox!

The failure of logic
I’ve struggled to learn some Italian and pity anyone learning English. Robin’s errors are predictable. They run on perfect logic and expose every exception and failure in our complex language. His choices make more sense:
Goed (gode) – past tense of go; went: “I goed to the store.”
Tattoon (tat-TOON) – tattoo, though usually a temporary one of a character he likes
Heared (heerd) – past tense of hear; heard: “Mommy, I heared you! OK?! Stop talking.”
See also: builded (built), runned (ran), puted (put)
Leafes (leef-EZ) – plural of leaf; leaves: “I picked some leafes for you.”
Mine’s (minze) – first person possessive; mine: “Don’t eat that cookie, Mom. It’s mine’s. No, mommy. Please! It’s mine’s. You already eated the other five.”

When I heard a friend’s daughter say mine’s at a barbeque a year ago, I expressed relief. Oh yeah, she laughed. Everyone’s saying it. Pretty reassuring that the child of two PhDs is stuck in the same grammar tar pit. (Of course a year later my son is still saying it, and I’m pretty sure their daughter has moved on to writing sonnets or concerti for violin.)

The thing about mine’s is it’s impossible to eradicate. While I trust Robin will outgrow the bad grammar, I do repeat things back to him conversationally, slipping in the correction so he hears it. “Oh, you went to the store? That sounds like fun.” But I can’t repeat mine without a turf war.

This word is a fixture of Gen X speech. Over the years I’ve chided Randy: “Honey, you just said actually twice in one sentence.” We were bound to hear our offspring echo it. When he used it a couple years ago, he sounded precocious. (Surely thus would follow.) Now that he says it so regularly, he just sounds like us. Why do we overuse this word? Is it because my cohort bridged the actual-virtual divide? Or because we were reared on sarcasm and irony?

“Escoose me” and other attempts at nice
Oh the words are (almost) right, but the tone… These days excuse me is his conversation starter, even when he is not eagerly interrupting me. It is pronounced escoose me, or escoooooose me when he urgently needs my attention, or EH-SCOOSE-ME (!) when he is flat out exasperated. Similarly, sorry is sometimes barked and please is sneered menacingly. We’re working on it.

Proper word order really is arbitrary, if you think about it. A few of my favorites:
Here comes me!
What letter starts with ball?
Give me some couple of those, please.
I love you how much a diplodocus weighs.

a is forThe failure of Awesome
“Um, honey, our kid just said awesome.” Nooooooo! It happened way before The Lego Movie, so it must be our fault. As much as I’d like to blame those kids at school, I have to look in the mirror, or at least glare accusingly at my husband.

By teaching him awesome, we’ve contributed to Awesome Inflation. A 4 year old is even less capable of using it properly. The Everything is Awesome song only fuels it. He’s too young and literal to get the joke: “Rocks, clocks and socks! They’re awesome!”

R: The Final Frontier
The day Robin got the L sound he stretched it out in a llluscious, exotic way, like a flirtatious Frenchman. I could tell he enjoyed the feel and sound of the letter. All of his words have come into focus, but still the R sound eludes him. We started calling him Boston when he entreated us to “tickle my ahmpit!”

I’ll miss this last vestige of toddlerhood when it leaves us. For now, I enjoy these gems:
Gwehwel (gwehwel; kinda rhymes with squirrel) – girl
Caw (cahw) – car, not to be mistaken for cow (Context! Use context!)
E-wings (EEE-wings) – earrings; “Dogs don’t wea(r) e-wings.”
Gwanilla bow – granola bar
Pawty (PAHW-ty, NOT potty; please don’t mistake it for potty; I mean for chrissake, why would he want to have his friends over to eat cake in the potty?)



City living, Family, Food

A Certain Accommodation


My mother just stayed with us for 11 days, at our invitation. She is a gracious guest and has acclimated to our hippie ways. She has come to not mind and even enjoy (she claims) some of the differences in our households.

It wasn’t always this way. When I lived downtown, her arrival was always accompanied by a storm cloud of regret, about the traffic on the expressway, the challenges of driving cross town, the impossibilities of parking. “Why do you have to live in the city?” was the question, either implied or blurted.

The fact that I had no cable in my bachlorette flat only complicated the matter. “How do you know what the weather is?” she wanted to know.

“I, um, look outside the window or open the door.” (Or call the weather hotline–pre smartphone–or watch the local news, with rabbit ears balanced for passable reception.)

Questions followed her out of the bathroom: “Why does your toothpaste taste funny?”

“I dunno. Ask Tom. From Maine.”

I’ve been there myself, in college, fresh from her tidy household, visiting friends in off campus apartments hastily mopped with Dr. Bonner’s, smelling vaguely of beer and Christmas and patchouli. (And freedom.) Who can forget their first encounter with handmade soap in the shower, the surprising tingle and sting of peppermint oil on your genitals? Good morning!

Mom is a good sport, and of course her horizons have broadened as everyone else’s have since the 90s. She’s opened her mind to lots of things, some because of me, some despite me, most in ways and for reasons completely unrelated to me. It’s all good.

She is always sure to bring a good book along for her visits now, as we watch so little TV. She says she doesn’t miss it when she is here, though we encourage her to flip on the TV anytime she likes. Even without cable, we get a good 8 or 9 stations. But she relishes the quiet. We’re not so Amish as she thinks. The stereo is often on, more for music than NPR when she’s in residence.

And we accommodate too. There’s bottled salad dressing in the fridge, no fat yogurt, diet soda that my husband also enjoys on her visits. She graciously tries my braised greens, though she prefers a spinach salad. She can pronounce quinoa, though she’d rather have rice.

More importantly, we’ve learned not to challenge each other or over read. Just because I choose obscure root vegetables and whole grains I never knew as a kid, doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy a tuna noodle casserole. I am not too uppity to remember where I came from, nor am I a snob. I love cheesy broccoli and other unsophisticated dishes of yore.

My mother’s signature dish has changed with the times. She wowed us so profoundly with her stuffed acorn squash some years ago. Now whenever she visits and wants to bring dinner, we beg for it. She makes mine with meatless sausage and doesn’t even cringe or smirk anymore when her mouth forms those words.

(In appreciation, I promise I won’t ask her to try seaweed or eat Indian food.)

Mom came around on my city living even before I left my downtown walk-up, over a decade ago. On a shady bench in Rittenhouse Square in the 90s, as she munched on a scone from Metropolitan Bakery and watched dogs and children parade past, she admitted she saw the city’s charms. She could understand why I wanted to live here.

That weekend we shared a meal at a favorite Italian BYOB in the neighborhood. She ordered the stuffed squid in saffron broth and turned to watch my jaw drop as she handed her menu back to our server. “Don’t look so shocked. I’m not as parochial as you think I am.”

We’ve since left the urban core for a leafy neighborhood with sidewalks, trees and more ample (parallel) parking. She’s relieved to avoid the city traffic here and to have a guest room all her own, albeit with the same futon couch/bed that’s been with me since I was in my 20s.

I’ve grown up in these years. We have a bed frame for our box spring. Our papasan chair is long gone, replaced with a comfortable leather (sorry) club chair. The remaining second hand furniture is mixed with just enough Crate and Barrel and original art to create the illusion of an intentional aesthetic.

Randy and I were nested comfortably by the time our son came along. After an unexpected cesarean section, mom stayed with us for over a week here. She was an angel of mercy, cooking vegetarian meals, keeping the laundry going in our weird little front-loading machine, running the steps when I couldn’t, and caring for me and her new grandson. For my part, I watched Dancing With the Stars with her, and even for a week or two after she left. It was a tender time.

Having a child has demanded a new, more profound round of accommodation. I have more plastic in my household than I’d ever imagined. We still favor wood, organic, hand-me down. But we graciously accept well intentioned gifts. And the little guy has his own demands, for Cars and Thomas and all that branded crap I swore I’d never buy.

He calls me on my old hippie habits too. I’m still prone to let yellow mellow on the night shift, but he scolds me in the morning, flushing the potty with contempt.

As for my mom, we meet in the middle, I suppose. I try to accommodate, though she is more adaptive than someone her age should be. She tries my bok choy, and I stock the diet Pepsi. She empties the dishwasher, cooks comfort food, and shoos us out on badly needed date nights. Now that’s worth grilling some burgers for!

City living, Family, Winter

Snow Day Craftiness


It’s a little like The Shining, I tell my mother. She’s in Florida for the week, and we are on our weekly snow day, the first of two in a row this week, the fifth in a month of heavy snow and ice storms. This is before the thunder snowstorm starts.

Swearing off the hysteria of local TV news, I’ve elected to get my updates from social media instead. Everyone seems to have power, and apparently all of my friends are closet pastry chefs, eager to photograph their creations. They make more beautiful cookies than we do. Some of the heart-shaped ones belong on magazine covers. It’s scary outside, but the world is rose colored on Facebook. It’s like Martha Stewart hijacked my news feed.

I am tempted to post the art project Robin improvised from the contents of our under sink cabinet (above). He was in the bathroom for a long time, wasn’t he?

Oh, he made valentine cardImages too, some downright precious ones. I was so pleased with myself for remembering to stock up for his classmates. The one time I don’t blow off this vital Pre-K ritual is the V-Day when School Is Cancelled Due To Inclement Weather. F-ing figures.

I’m snowbound at home with 10 homemade, hand-decorated and cut hearts taped to the coolest heart-shaped plastic straws to give as gifts. (You know, the kind that are all curled up and trap stagnant water in them that grows bacteria. The kind you would neeeeever let your kid drink milk from and would be unwise to reuse more than a couple times, even for water?)

The boys made cookies, but they are too embarrassing to photograph: curiously hard M&M studded peanut butter lumps, inexplicably gluten free. The dough was so unwieldy, they didn’t even get a dozen, so none to share with neighbors.


On the day before this 12-inch snow dump, I’d stocked up at the craft store. Pipe cleaner hearts are on the list for later, along with bear mask making and a big glass of prosecco. (Adults only.) Previous favorite snow day pairings include safety trampoline and Afropop. And my personal favorite, Pixar and a growler. (Child optional.)

We are all a little insane here, but getting better at managing all this unwanted free time. Randy’s home and we are fighting for work shifts on the computer. I stagger a 3.5 hour work session with shoveling and his internet conference call with the state. An angel neighbor takes Robin for a play date, but we are both too busy to even consider romance.

I guess with all the zigging and zagging, we are not so sick of each other yet, even on this second snow day in a row. No one is homicidal. The lights have stayed on. We’ve shoveled snow with and for friends. Out front there are swelling snowmen two storms old, a few inches taller than when we went to bed last night. It is all starting to feel normal.

When a thunderous crash startled my reading yesterday, I was relieved to realize it was merely the thunder they had predicted with our second round of snow. Not another gutter-breaking rooftop snow slide. Just thunder and lightening. Funny times when this realization calms you.

pipe cleaner heartsValentine’s dinner is Indian take out. Though we should have had time to cook today, Randy got out for a run and I passed time hanging out with neighbors, watching Robin and his friends climb the freakishly tall mounds of snow piled into our tiny front gardens. When I caught Robin licking the snow off of a neighbor’s car, I knew it was time to head in for dinner. Prosecco and sag paneer. Belgian chocolates for dessert. (You know, the kind you grab with some reticence from the stack of orphaned gourmet food near the check out line at TJ Maxx.)

A happy holiday indeed.

Family, Human technology

Phone Free Sunday: The Ultimate Impulse Control

20131110-210604.jpgParenting a four year old is all about teaching impulse control.

I am patiently explaining to my son over a board game that he cannot scan all the cards to find the one that allows him to rocket his game piece ahead. This is Candy Land and there are rules here. He needs to draw cards blindly, and in order. He seems to be getting it when my phone buzzes with a text message from a friend, and I immediately pick it up to respond.

Smart phone. Dumb parent. With this much information and distraction at our fingertips, who can resist?

For a long time, Randy and I tried to ignore our phones from 6-8pm on work nights, but we quickly forgot ourselves. First came minor trespasses, like a check of weather or some Pandora on the dock. But as work bled into home life, we found ourselves answering e-mails after dinner or getting a quick RSVP off to a neglected friend.

No, Robin, you cannot get up from the table until you are excused. Now let me check Facebook quickly while you doddle over your broccoli.

In response to a recent and unexpected bout of bad behavior, we took a moment for reflection and revisited our own ground rules, priorities and bad examples. Life steers off the tracks periodically. We use these little bottom-out moments as a chance to reboot our parenting, and occasionally our personhood.

Our new idea this time? Phone Free Sundays. It is our family day after all. Why not strip away the distractions? We may place or receive a call, or even check the weather or hours for the museum or orchard or restaurant we plan to visit together. But otherwise, no texting, no social media, no e-mail, no web surfing.

skyWe feel a little bit Amish at first, and the day stretches out before us with a big sky sort of expansiveness. In practice, there is plenty to fill our time, and not the cleaning and errand running we reserve for Saturdays. There are art projects to conquer and meals to prepare. Plans to hatch and songs to sing. Bubbles to blow and train cars to push. Gardens to weed and trails to hike.

We have never been TV people, but I miss my little screen. It has become a sad sort of default for me. When I want to veg out, it is where I go now, sometimes instead of book. One night, too restless and zonked to read, I find myself watching snippets of Louis CK on youtube. He rants persuasively. You will never watch those videos of the moments you missed with your kids, he tells me. You shoot them to share on Facebook, but you aren’t actually there, living them.

Inspired, I turn off my phone. I actually power off the damn thing. I have the same feeling I got on those first screen-free Sunday evenings, after Robin was in bed and the house was quiet. Like a disembodied soul, unconnected. Randy went digital a couple years ago, so I am unequipped to read his books now, and too busy to get to the library for some paper ones.

Later, as insomnia hits, I resist the temptation to fire up the laptop and scratch the shell of this essay into my journal instead. You know, the paper kind. I think of all the ways my phone has made me dumb and dull. I can’t spell anymore, and my typing has gone to hell; auto correct has made me lazy. I don’t need to remember anything or search my knowledge banks to recall information when I have the worldwide web in my pocket. I am doomed to early onset dementia, preceded—I can only hope—by a good decade or two of bad spelling.

Still I am a lot better off than most. I am young enough to embrace the technology but old enough to have grown up without it. I understand boundaries and don’t hit up Zillow to see what my friends paid for their houses, or interrupt an intimate conversation to fact check on my phone. I have basic competencies that many 20-somethings lack. I can read a map, for instance. And calculate a restaurant tip in my head.

I can listen.

I want to raise Robin with this discipline, with these skills and sensitivities.

So I pledge to never put family life on hold, or even on vibrate. Instagram can wait. The only image I want to see is my son on his balance bike, following my direction to come in for supper, though he really wants to do another lap in the alley.


The Final Days

These final days before a death are as fraught as the days before a birth. It is all so much more trying on those loved ones surrounding the life in question. I’ve been part of a powerful circle of family, people who love my grandmother and are with her in these last hours.

Or I was…20131110-141728.jpg

Somehow she is still living, a week later. Sleeping and relatively pain free, requiring little medication and with pretty strong vitals. Do I stay? Do I go? I am writing this from a recliner in my living room. At some point I had to leave, to return to work, to routines.

We held vigil before Robin’s birth. I waited for labor to begin, paced the creaky wood floors night after night. He was a week late. I walked the neighborhood to stay sane and help him drop. I abandoned my post at work because I couldn’t focus with all the nerves and anticipation.

My mother was on call across the state, ready to jump in her car and drive to me at the first contraction. It is the not knowing that challenges us all. You cannot schedule a life’s beginning or end, but so much must happen around it. It is hardest on those surrounding it, the family who will mourn or welcome the soul that crosses the great divide.

That passing, in or out of life, is natural. It takes care of itself somehow. It works on its own timetable. But it leaves so much uncertainty for the spectators.

In my grandmother’s case, I see things clearly. It is a strange thing, anticipating a death. And a death without tragedy is a rare gift. It is sad she is dying, of course. I have shed many tears and will miss her terribly. But she is 93, has had an amazing life, and is revered by all who know her. It is the best possible way to die.

I feel guilty when the kind aids in her senior living complex express their sympathy. Surely there are people who need it more. This is sad, but it is a natural and good passing. And hospice is a slow and merciful end, death’s rough equivalent of a home birth. The lack of tragedy in this slow departure allows me the luxury of philosophy.

Death happens slowly but surely, with its own protocol. It is like Apgar in reverse, this quiet cataloging of the physical signs of dying: the pulling back of the earlobes, the mottling of skin, the changes in her nail beds.

And this strange dance with death. I have seen her dip and rally over the many hours I spent at her bedside. We felt sure Monday was the day. My cousins rushed over. We encouraged Grandma to hang on for my aunt and uncle’s arrival, for the end of their long drive to her.

Listening to her breathing, we heard disturbingly long pauses. Then a reassuring rise in her chest. We hung on each breath as the pauses grew longer. I told my mother I felt like I should be timing them, like contractions.

But my aunt and uncle arrived. And somehow she rallied. Her vitals, taken a couple hours later, were stronger than they had been in days. The nurse speculated that she relaxed when she knew her son was there.

We all know she was aware of their planned arrival: a body letting go. Relax. Breathe.

Are we in the Braxton Hicks of death? Is this false labor? Or the long and painful work of dying. Labor is long, messy, uneven. Its duration is unpredictable. Why wouldn’t dying work the same way?

It is abstract to me now. I sleepwalk through a couple work days and my weekend of mundane household chores. I am six hours away. Not knowing when the time will come, my thoughts are totally consumed with my grandmother. My cell phone is in my pocket, the ringer on and cranked up.

I have no idea how long this will take. I have no idea when. I need to save my time for after.

My heart is heavy and my thoughts are with my mother. I cannot wait to go to her when it is all over, to hold her and help her heal. To say my final goodbye to Grandma.


From Cradle to Grave

My grandmother looks so small. When I see her in the hospital bed the hospice service has moved into her room, my impulse it to climb in next to her. I spoon her and stroke her back as she goes on sleeping her deep, drugged sleep. She has lost so much weight, and her body is failing. I am startled by her fragility.

As we enter this life, so we depart it. Like the first days after my son was born, everything is more sharply defined now, more laden with meaning and metaphor. Every small kindness shown me is magnified. My Grandmother is on her death bed. I see her body changing, her constant sleep, the agitation we fumble to sooth.

I curl up with her in bed as I did with my own infant son, in awe of the life still in her body, the precariousness of it, the small miracle that her heart still beats at age 93, that her lungs work, though they are full of fluid.

We never co-slept with Robin. I always felt he was too fragile, I was too full of fear. And I shift around carefully, not wanting to jostle Grandma’s oxygen tube. I will pass my night watch in the recliner next to her, dozing if I can but vigilant for any change in her breathing, any sense of pain or discomfort, any departure.

Like Robin within days of birth, I watch intently for the rise and fall of her chest, for evidence of breathing. But it is not SIDS I fear; it is the inevitable. When I am unsure, I place my hand gently on her side. I am reassured by the movement, by her warmth.

The smells in the room are as pungent as in a nursery, though different. Her eyelids are so swollen, her eyes hardly ever open. Like a newborn, I don’t think she can see clearly when they do. The sound is of the oxygen machine, not the sound machine. But its hum soothes me somehow.

This night is sacred. I was relieved when my mother agreed to go home and let me sleep here. She spent last night with Grandma and only slept an hour. Nurses were in and out. Grandma was agitated as different pain medications were administered. And all of this was new. Hospice had only been set up that very afternoon, and in such a rush, the bed arrived before the papers had been signed.

I feel so happy to be trusted, to have this quiet closeness with my grandmother, to share this intimacy. I get more from it than my mother realizes when she thanks me for taking the shift. I will never get this time back. I have never had such a deep sense that this was where I needed to be–at least not since Robin’s infancy.

It was so hard for me to leave Robin when he was so young, so tiny and fragile. But at a certain point I realized my mother needed the time with him as much as I needed the relief of him. I was up over long nights, feeding him every hour or two. I needed to step away as badly as she needed to come in and hold him, to have time alone with him while I rested.

Yes, I do hope my mother will sleep well tonight, or at least rest and recharge. It could be another day or two before my grandmother passes, and mom needs her strength. But more than anything, I feel grateful for this time.

I know to expect disruptions overnight. Staff will be in to administer medication and check vitals. I remember the drill from my first days as a mom, recuperating in the hospital from my C-section. Like clockwork, every time I started to rest, a resident or nurse or doc of some sort was entering to check me or the baby. Robin resisted as Grandma does, a low groan of discomfort coming out of her deep slumber as the nurses struggle to turn her body.

In the place of midwives and doulas, there are hospice nurses and social workers. So much thought and planning is put into the beginning of a life, but rarely is the end of life so well orchestrated. Thankfully there are these angels on the other side of it, helping facilitate a graceful exit from this world.

We all move steadily from cradle to grave, but in this case it seems to be handled more gracefully on the back end somehow. Good night, Grandma. I love you. I hope you slip peacefully away soon. But not on my watch.