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Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

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Home of the IndiansThese are pretty big days in our house, at least for my soon-to-be 16-year-old son. Last week, he started his first job at a local grocery store, and this week he starts driver’s ed. It’s not so hard to see that, in many ways, these are significant milestones in his life, milestones that mark a time when his circle — his entire world, really — begins to expand at a pretty dramatic pace. This is just Point A, and I spend no small amount of time wondering what other waypoints he’ll pass in his lifetime, and what he will make of it all.

Usually, it’s pretty hard for me to remember that far back in my own life, back to a time when so many possibilities stretched out before me, and so few had been ruled out. Maybe that’s why, when a handful of my friends from those days took the time and trouble to put together a reunion for the Portage High School Class of 1975, my initial interest didn’t really go beyond a passing curiosity. Most of my memories just didn’t seem strong enough to warrant the 12 hour drive north from the mountains of Virginia to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as the days passed and the friend requests kept coming in, I felt something stir, something that went beyond curiosity. Names that held only a glimmer of recognition for me began to coalesce around newly discovered memories — ill-advised road trips to Michigan, long summer days on the Lake Michigan shore, two-a-day football practices in the thick summer air, hanging out in Jungle Hall. My friend Gail played a key role here, bolstering my fading recollections with a reasonable incredulity — “How can you not remember her?” — and remarkable grace, supplying me with bits and pieces that pulled up memories from some pretty obscure corners of my brain.  And with each new recollection came the pleasure of rediscovering something I had long ago treasured, and then somehow misplaced.

That pleasure only magnified when I arrived at the country club for the reunion. There they were — my first serious crush, some teammates from the football team, the girl next door, and the pal that I roamed the streets with summer after summer after summer. Some I recognized instantly, but some I didn’t recognize until a particular mannerism or pattern of speech lifted the veil that three decades had drawn between us, leaving them there before me as clear-eyed and hopeful and young as they had been so many years before. I heard tales of triumph and tragedy, loss and gain, happiness and heartache, sickness and health. Some of these tales left me stunned, characterized as they were by uncommon courage and sacrifice. Some left me doubled over in laughter, as I had been so often growing up. And some of them left me with a profound sense of gratitude that I should know someone so loyal, so true, and so resilient.

More than 35 years have passed since our Point A — the time when we got our first jobs and slipped behind the wheel for the first time — and while we may well have felt our world expanding, I doubt that many of us could have foreseen what that actually would come to mean — how our lives would be shaped moment by moment, decision by decision. Of course it’s easy enough to look back three and a half decades later to see what went right and what went wrong, what we would do again and what we wish we had never done. But after all this time, does it really matter? Are we not, for better or for worse, precisely where we are meant to be?

Thanks in part to having reconnected with so many old friends, I’m more convinced than ever that I am, but maybe that’s just me. I am, as I’ve said before, one lucky man.

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Like most parents, we’ve made the rounds of talent shows and recitals and such. So Sunday night, as we made our way to a talent show presented by my son’s church youth group, I felt like I knew pretty much what to expect: note-for-note renditions of some recital pieces on the piano, a few beautiful young voices (practically) perfectly pitched, maybe a couple of feats of strength or dexterity — all punctuated by some skits that only a teenage mind could craft … or appreciate.

And, for the most part, I got exactly what I expected. Someone played the theme from “The Lord of the Rings” on the piano. One girl played and sang “Misty,” a very cool surprise. A brother and sister did an admirable job with a pop song. One young woman was even bold enough to try dancing en pointe on the carpeted stage, an attempt that, while earnest enough, probably would have been better on a more appropriate surface. So when my son, a pretty talented kid, sat down at the piano to play and sing “Walls,” a song by The Rocket Summer, I figured he’d fit right in.

But I was wrong.

I should have known better. There were certainly clues. First, while he’s always — and I mean always — singing or playing the piano or the guitar or listening to his iPod, he’s going even further this summer, thanks to his new band, Suite 325. A product of the Music Lab at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Suite 325 is a group of six hand-picked young musicians who are getting taught — no kidding — how to be a rock band. It’s a very cool idea, and one that I think is going to have a big influence on those lucky enough to be a part of  it. (Their first show is June 5th at Kirk Avenue Music Hall in Roanoke.)

The other thing I should have considered is that we had spent the evening before in the front row at a Warren Barfield show. You probably don’t know Warren Barfield, though he gets a bit of airplay from time to time. He’s a Christian pop/folk artist, and we’ve been listening to him in our house for a few years now. A lot of his recorded music is quintessential hook-laden pop, pretty easy on the ears, but a far cry from the cookie-cutter praise music you often hear from Christian artists. But Warren Barfield live was something else. Lots of funky rhythm, a heavy backbeat, and a kind of Dave Matthews improv feel to it. Simon and I were both pretty spellbound.

So here he was, less than 24 hours after that experience, sitting down at the piano, adjusting the mike, fiddling around. I knew something was up when he leaned forward, then paused for a moment before beginning, his hands resting on the piano keys. He pulled in a deep breath, then blew it out off-mike. I’ve seen my son perform in all kinds of ways — in martial arts, singing, dancing, even playing the lead in Macbeth — but I’d never seen him do that before, and wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

But after the first couple of bars, I knew. He wasn’t there just to play the notes. He was there to perform.

I sat very still, stunned by what I was watching. I’m no stranger to his ability. I’ve seen it showcased before. But this wasn’t about ability. This was about passion. This was about watching him find another gear, one that required him to dig a little deeper and become more mindful of the music, and less mindful of the moment.

I’m not sure if he hit all the right notes. Frankly, my tin ear wouldn’t be able to discern if he was “pitchy” or not. And, unlike a Hollywood ending, the room did not erupt into thunderous applause that echoed off the walls for long moments after he stopped playing. (It did seem a bit more enthusiastic than just polite acknowledgment, but that could well be my bias.)

But I am sure that something else happened last night, something that maybe he’s not even aware of. I’m also sure that we’re both pretty excited to see what comes next.

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Virginia’s powerhouse NPR affiliate, WVTF, recently aired a version of one of my blog posts that I recorded for them. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.  You can find it here.

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This is a yellow tang, I think.I had a great conversation with my daughter tonight. She’s now well into her fourth week at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and by all measures, is thriving. Straight As in all her academic classes, getting lots of support and praise from some of the world’s best ballet instructors, making friends from around the world.

One of those friends is a boy her age from Russia who sits next to her in math class.

“I think he likes me, Dad,” she reports.

I stifle my first impulse which, as every father of every daughter knows, is to drive directly to D.C., seek the boy out, and have a little chat with him.

“How do you know that?” I ask, innocently enough.

“He told me today that I was pretty, but his English isn’t so good, so he told me I was pretty like a fish.”

How nice it is to laugh with her, my only girl, now growing in ways beyond measure and beyond my reach.

The costs of sending her away are high: the sharp pang of sadness when I pass her empty room in the morning; the absence that fills our house, nearly as tangible as her presence; the difficulty in trying to make our phone calls and texts pass for real face-to-face interaction; the financial burden her education has placed on us all. And yet …

It’s hard not to see how much the world is opening up before her. She’s on the path to becoming the dancer she has long dreamed of becoming. She has classmates and friends from Russia, Japan, China, and other far-flung spots around the world. Such opportunities are rare, and she has worked — and continues to work — hard to take full advantage of hers.

And in the end, isn’t that what we are supposed to do as parents — prepare our children for a world of possibilities and then turn them loose in it? We certainly never planned that we would be doing so with our youngest so soon, but there it is. She’s there. The world is opening up before her. I can only wonder at her promise and potential, catch her when she falls, and pray that she will forever be safe, smart, and pretty like a fish.

(As always, if you’d like to write Claire a note of encouragement or contribute to her scholarship fund, you can do so at One Dancer’s Dream, P. O. Box 11141, Blacksburg, VA 24062)

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Digging out

Okay, so let me just admit it right up front. I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to having a clean driveway in the winter. I’m not sure what that’s all about, though I like to tell people it’s because I want to be able to get out if I have to. You know, be prepared and all that. The truth is probably a bit more complicated and a bit less practical. I just like the thought of my driveway being clean and clear, even after — no, especially after — the biggest and messiest snowstorms. It’s like my small and pitiful stand against the elements, a sign of industriousness and purpose in the face of adversity.

So around 5:00 or so last Saturday, when the snow had finally stopped falling, topping off at about a foot or so, I couldn’t resist it any longer. My wife, my son, and I had spent the whole day in the house, a welcome respite from our normally demanding schedules. But as the credits rolled on the last movie of the day, I knew it was time.

It probably won’t surprise you that my teenage son, Simon, doesn’t share my compulsion for a clean driveway, but those of you who have the good fortune to know him will also not be surprised that after some brief perfunctory grumbling, he went upstairs to suit up to come out and help.

We tackled the hard part first, the only sensible thing to do. The driveway is about three cars wide at the base, great for shooting hoops in warmer weather, but not so great when you have to clear it of snow. There’s no easy way. You have to pick up a shovelful, walk to the edge, toss it, then walk back. Shovel. Walk. Toss. Repeat. It’s laborious, and for a time, we muttered under our breath, complained about our cold hands, yanked our hats down even further.

But after 20 minutes or so, we began working in rhythm, not speaking, not complaining — just working. We had formed a kind of silent pact — man to man — that we were bigger than the challenge before us. Even our movements were synchronized, the man with the empty shovel circling behind the man filling one up. We went on like this, without stopping, for some time until the driveway was nearly cleared. Then Simon spoke up.

“Dad, look at the sky.”

I looked up, and over the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, the sky was a deep rich purple, almost iridescent, a color I don’t think I’ve ever seen. We took a breather for a few minutes, just looking, as the chill crept under our jackets and clutched at our damp shirts. Two partners really, leaning on their shovels with a clear blacktop driveway behind them and an impossibly beautiful sky overhead.

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The tears have begun, as I knew they would sooner or later.

Sunday afternoon, at the close of a big open house we hosted. Scores of folks — teens and adults in nearly equal measure — have dropped by to welcome the new year, and wish my daughter Claire well as she heads off to the Kirov Academy of Ballet to pursue her dream. The party is winding down, with only a few of Claire’s dearest friends remaining. She’s saying goodbye to one such friend while the parents watch, one set already in heavy coats hovering by the door, and my wife and I at the top of the stairs by the landing. I’ve been streaming cello music the entire afternoon — thank goodness for Pandora — and at what is possibly the worst (or best?) time, a mournful air from a string quartet swells from the speakers. It’s as though scene has suddenly been scored, and for a few moments we are all frozen there — our emotions amplified by the music in a way that it sometimes seems only music can do. The girls are holding one another and crying. It is nearly unbearably sad.

It’s not so much about loss, I don’t think. After all, they are standing here together, and as most hyper-connected teens do, they are sure to be in touch — perhaps even more than they are now.

But yet it is about loss in some way, for surely they understand that they will lose their relationship as they know it. From this moment forward, things will begin to change, and their lives — while still no doubt connected — will be on decidedly different paths.

Later, as I’m running through all the things I still need to do with Claire, I imagine that I can maybe get to some of them next week, and then a moment later I am struck dumb by the sudden notion that next week she will not be here. She will be living hundreds and hundreds of miles away from my outstretched arms, from my face-to-face counsel. She will be taking the first steps on her own path, a path that her mother and I can guide or alter perhaps, but a path that will also be decidedly different.

Thank goodness there was no cello music at that moment. I don’t think I could have managed it.

As always, I am grateful to all of you who have asked after her and wished her well. And, as always, if you’d like to send Claire a note of encouragement or make a gift to her scholarship fund, you can do so at One Dancer’s Dream, P.O. Box 11141, Blacksburg, VA 24062

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