So Proud of Our Son, Proud of All of Them

I’ve been spending a lot of time with some very proud parents this week. During the Move In Day Parent Welcome event last night, I met so many proud parents bursting with enthusiasm about the accomplishments of children. Have you ever noticed, that just like cops, parents get younger and younger when you work at a University? When I started, they were roughly my age, because our children were the same age. Now, their children remain the same age, but the parents are all getting younger. It’s sort of alarming, but in a grandmotherly sort of way. I’m getting used to it, after 15 years in the institution of teaching.

Oh yes, I need to define who the Our is from this post’s title. By Our, I mean Sean’s, Chris’s birth mother, Jimmie and me, his adoptive parents, and ultimately, too, Chris’ birth father, who remains a mystery to me.

Our son turns thirty this week, and he is definitely someone to be proud of. By thirty he has:

  • Focused first on his family and made choices that support them
  • Dedicated himself to bettering his skills as a hockey coach and to his players’ growth
  • Nurtured enormous integrity and self-awareness
  • Taken enough risks to make choices and decisions that advance him professionally and personally.
  • Made enough poor choices and decisions to know that they lead in a direction he doesn’t want to go.
  • Incorporated knowledge of those choices to better counsel young people about the perils of that path
  • Taught himself how to coach, recruit and inhabit the skin of a hockey coach.
  • Found and married the most perfect and amazing partner to spend his life with
  • Parented two beautiful girls, one into a fearless bug-loving, mud-slinging, brash and confident almost four-year-old, and the other, as of yet to be defined, but exceptionally calm and happy almost five-month-old.

Yes, clearly I’ve drunk the KoolAid on this young man. But believe me when I tell you that he is warm, charismatic, observant, funny, sardonic, intelligent and living life in a very large way.

You can blame this blog on him. Not just this post, but the entire blog. During his stint as a fisherman, he started a blog on WordPress. In a typically competitive pattern which began when we played tennis together, he at age eight or so, me at thirty-seven, I began my blog, causing him to abruptly drop his. I feel pretty safe telling you that because I’m 99% sure he will never read this. Neither of us play tennis any more either, much to my chagrin. Hey, son, I challenge you to a game next time we’re together.

Some more fun stats on our son: We’ve spent at least 40 hours (a full workweek) in various ERs with him.

  • Broken collarbones (2)
  • Injuries to hands and wrists (4)
  • Hand surgeries (1)

That doesn’t include the injuries he sustained out of our supervision. I once unsuccessfully pitched a book he should write to be entitled Scar, the cover art for which would have been a picture of him with various Post-its near the visible scars annotating dates and cause. I thought he’d go for it because of the innumerable hours I’d spent driving him and his friends to places while listening to them all heroically recount their injuries and display their scars to each other while I giggled in the front seat. I thought it could have been a best seller in the 14-17 year old set. Or for the Moms of that age group.

Other scars less visible, but certainly equally impactful are those left from his loss of his birth mom and the resulting cavity in his origin story. I didn’t understand, no matter how much our adoption social worker tried to prepare us, the gravity of that loss. Leave it to our son to have searched and found his birth mom and reconnected not just with her but with his step sister. This alone demonstrates his intrepid curiosity and commitment to self-knowledge. I’m so happy for him to have found his other family.

Back to my USC Move in Day Event. I love this event, not because I sit on the panel, though I feel honored and pleased to do so, but because of the radiating pride that is emitted from the audience seated before us. Their questions are focussed, and discerning and candid. My favorite question last night was to the students on the panel, “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” What a great question! The students responses were mature, and worldly and impressive, even for those of us who’ve witnessed their journeys. We’ve witnessed some of their “failures,” though to me, there is no such thing. I chalk them up to character/intellect/heart building experiences (which I remind myself every (mostly) morning at the gym as I pant to myself “You can take it easy here. Just coast it in.” Nope. The clarity I gained from hearing them self-assess their pitfalls was great. And that was just one of the questions.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I (and probably all those parents) am asking myself the very same question, now. “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” Which is really directing you to look at the future four years to see how you might change the course of them now, from the starting gate, from the Move In Day, if you will. This is the greatest question we can all take forward in our lives. So thank you to that perceptive parent in the fourth row last night.

To Our Son, Happy Birthday, and as you move forward, keep asking yourself about how those earlier stumbles have formed you to be the amazing and strong man you are today, the one who can talk to your players so that they have dubbed your coaching “Chrisicisms,” the most loving tribute that chokes me up every time I think of it. You are a role model, someone who lives your life with integrity and power. I had a long history of skepticisms that you’d grow up, like the trenchant belief that you would never learn to tie your shoes, or skates, or might be 30 and still wearing shorts. I can now confess, somewhat sheepishly, that there were moments I wasn’t sure how you would turn out, but you have made yourself someone of whom we can all be proud.

And for me as a really empty nest parent, many of those whom I also met yesterday, revel in the clearing of your charges from that nest, feather it again the way you want, for you, for the next phase of your life, and enjoy living your best life, mistakes and stumbles and all.

Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

Keeping Us In Stitches

A few years ago, shortly after our son Chris returned from a year long sojourn through Europe, living the dream, as it were, I joked that he and I should write a book. It would be an adult Mommy and Me book, the format of which might be text, as in traditional text, alternating with texts, as in the sporadic digital conversation he and I have had over the last five years via our phones as he has attained maturity. And I do mean attained. It has been a bit of an uphill slog at times, but he has arrived at what I’d call the tree-line of adulthood. If he stands there, he can turn back and see the forest, mysterious and dark and dank; looking forward, a path more clearcut, less encumbered with obvious trip hazards, but now a matter of planning his next steps, footholds and handholds, avoiding gravel slides and icy patches.

Over the years our texts have been personal, confessional, irreverent, insulting, loving, funny, heartbreaking. We have hiked through the woods together in a continual conversation about loss and redemption, self-sacrifice and self-sabotage.

Chris has, since the time he was about five, had an impulsive side, which resulted in a parade of random events and many many trips to the ER. We’ve been to the ER more times than one family deserves to go. I joked with Chris that our book should be entitled “Scar” featuring on the cover a full body photo of Chris, with little arrows pointing to all the scars on his body, annotated with post-its

IMG_6810
Image cropped to minimize the “yuck” factor

 

Last night he added another one to his collection. During the adult hockey game after the adult hockey game he went to play (a decision he derided as the reason he’d been injured -“I could have been on the couch at home, Mom”) , he made contact with his inner left thigh and his skate, resulting in about a 2 inch gash on his inner thigh. In typical gritty form, he called me on the way to the ER, then texted me the before and after pictures of the wound and stitches. I’ve become sensitive to any nocturnal conversation with Chris that begins with the words

Mom, you aren’t going to believe what happened…

I had just plugged in my phone to charge for the night, and when I picked it up, Jimmie’s eyes followed me back over to the couch, tracking my worried looks and listening intently to my subtle repeat of the gory details to fill him in.

It may seem creepy, but this is a ritual of bonding that the three of us have practiced for 24 years. Looking back over the years, in more or less descending chronological order:

  • 1 gash on the left inner thigh- hockey accident, age 27 (8/24/16)
  • 1 left shin gouge from pole on the dock – fishing accident, approximate age 24
  • 1 cut on the inside of his left arm – the broken glass had “nicked” a small artery which required a small surgery. He had a cut under his right eye requiring 3 stitches and another one needing 2 stitches on the top of his head. June 26, 2012 Barcelona Beach Bash
  •  1 tear of left hand between thumb and fore finger, car accident, age 17
  • 2 broken collarbones – hockey accident, age 15
  • 1 left wrist laceration requiring extensive hand surgery – hockey accident, age 12
  • 1 right pinky laceration causing damage to nerve – razor blade incident, Age 8
  • 1 injury to legs from jumping off the roof, age 5

See what I mean? That’s a hell of a lot of bonding. We are probably lucky to have not been called before the Department of Childrens’ Services for child abuse.

Some of our texts veered toward discussions of automotive injuries. The car I gifted to Chris did not take so well to the Fisherman’s Wharf environment resulting in many many trips to the Automotive ER. I considered at one point buying stock in Honda just to increase my ROI.

But the most important texts have been about the discoveries and growth in Chris’ life, including his pursuit of and discovery of his birth Mom in March of 2015, the gestation and birth of his own baby, and the flourishing of his daughter Skylar and fiancée, Whitney.

March 2015 text to Chris (edited somewhat)

Me: I was just filling up the feeder when a spider crawled over my hand in the sink.

Me: dropped half of the stuff in the sink

Me: Even worse I don’t know where the f—ing spider went

Me: I had an epiphany today in spin class – I know, how SoCal of me; but it was this; why would a mother disclose in the first conversation with her newly discovered son such dark details about his parents’ misfortunes? (Both Jimmie and I had asked ourselves this question when Chris told us about his first conversation with his birth mom.)

Me: But the more salient question, I realized, as I sweated and strained up the “hill” today, was “Why would Chris share that information as the very first information we received about his long lost family?”  “Wasn’t that really the question he had asked us a dozen times over the years with decisions that were reckless and dangerous and self-sabotaging of his own life path?

Me: The question was  – will you (adoptive Mom and Dad) still love me if I show you what I’m made of? What darkness and depths I am capable of reaching? Will you have my back? Legally, medically, financially? How much do you really love me?

Isn’t that the question we all ask ourselves in our life journeys? How true to us will our parents, friends, spouses, children remain? How much will we allow ourselves to cherish our bodies and psyches?

And the answer is, we are in it for the long haul. Thick and thin, we’ve got your back, son.