Making a Difference

Typically on Sunday mornings my husband and I share articles from the New York Times. He’ll often read me pieces while I prepare breakfast or visa versa, and we’ll discuss the ones that pique our interest. The year end edition of the Sunday Magazine runs detailed obituaries on a handful of famous and infamous people who died that year. Though many are well known—actors, x-presidents and the like, some are more obscure, but they all share one thing in common. They all had [at least] 15 minutes of fame.

As my husband read on from person to person I began to feel more and more irritated. Where was the balance with the everyday hero—the dad who worked his life to support his family, or the career woman who slated her ambitions to be a mom? Their stories are equally interesting as some one hit wonder, or marginal actor. Even the most common among us had lives that mattered, that touched many, and deserve to be told.

On my mother’s death bed she asked me “Did I make a difference?” She stared at me with sunken eyes, her skeletal face practically begging me for an affirmative answer. And I gave her one. And, of course, it was true. She was my mom. She made a difference to me.

She turned me on to love, light, color, beauty, nature, music, art. She would often point out a vibrant flower, stop everything to view a sunset and be truly awestruck by its magnificence. She genuinely liked people. She was open to most all ideas as long as they weren’t filled with hate, or born of ignorance.

My mother was a humanitarian, and without prejudice, and she taught me to respect all things equally.

She was a wife for nearly 50 years. My father used to call her his ‘sunshine.’ Laughter and joy came easily to her. She exposed him to simple things—good talks during long walks, exploring new places, trying different foods. She sang all the time, had a beautiful voice that blended perfectly with my father’s melody.

My mom was a passionate and devoted teacher. She created a magnet ocean science program she taught to underprivileged and gifted kids that is still active today. I’d met several of her students, decades later while with my mom in the market or mall, who claimed they became oceanographers and biologists because of her influence. She loved kids. They were uncomplicated—what she pretended to be, even wanted to be, but wasn’t. She was childlike in many ways, always curious and loved learning.

As I sat on her bed and ran through her list of accomplishments, her expression became sadder and sadder, and my “turn that frown upside down” mother started to cry. She wanted to give so much more. She had so much more to give, but she realized, laying helpless in bed and gasping for every breath, her time had run out.

Two weeks later I stood over her grave and refused the dirt filled shovel the Rabbi handed to me. I knelt down and scooped a handful of moist, sweet earth from the freshly dug ground, smelled its musty richness, then let it fall off my hand and run through my fingers as I released it onto her casket. And then I silently thanked her for teaching me to recognize natural beauty and engage with it at every opportunity.

My mom died of cancer at 73. Over 100 people attended her funeral. Another hundred or more have contacted our family since her death to give their condolences—lives she touched, who will touch the lives of other, and so on.

Andy Warhol was wrong. Most of us live and die in obscurity.

But we make a difference.

Summer Viewing 4 Kids

Put together an #educational #video viewing list 4 my kids, 4 summer. Feel free to add to it in comments: J. Cafesin: SummerViewing4Kids http://jcafesin.blogspot.com/2014/06/summer-viewing-4-kids.htmleducational

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Ready to START YOUR OWN GIG? Step by step instruction to take your idea from #whiteboard to a #startup @ #Cal #Berkeley:
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Parental ADD

ADDsmMy cousin has two children. Her oldest, 15, was diagnosed with ADD when he was nine and has been on Ritalin since. He’s failing out of the private high school he attends in Manhattan. He lies, cheats, and steals when it suits him. He is volatile (way beyond normal teenage angst), and often violent with his mom and sister.

Her daughter, 11, also has trouble in her private school. According to her mother, she too has learning disabilities. She has very few friends, and is often cutting and cruel. She also lies constantly to get what she wants, and does whatever she wants regardless of opposition from authority.

The three of them live on the 10th floor of a posh apartment complex, in a huge flat overlooking the Hudson River in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty, holding the torch of truth stands boldly in the bay and can be seen from almost every room of their home. My cousin and her ex-husband are very successful in their careers. She broke the glass ceiling only a few years out of graduate school and is now a top executive at the New York Stock Exchange. He is an architect. His style is distinct, and sought after, and can be seen all around Manhattan. Since both claim to be busy professionals, the maid of the month raises their kids during the long work week.

Every time we get together they virtually drop off their kids to my care. Dad, before and after the divorce, has always been a marginal part of the scene, off to work, or squash, or rollerblading along the waterfront. Mom stays with us, but she’s not really with us. She’s on her Blackberry texting her secretary, or on her cell phone chatting it up with some high powered executive about market trends, or on her laptop writing reports. She goes out for a two hour run, or off to the store for diet soda. The entire time we’re together she has little to no contact with her children.

My sister also has kids, a boy and a girl, a couple of years apart. During their formative years she was a stay-at-home mom, sort of. Her husband, a successful real estate broker who used his limited free time for cycling, skiing, rock climbing, provided his family a McMansion with all the trimmings in a desirable suburb north of L.A. He hired a live-in maid to clean house and handle the mundane aspects of child care so my sister could pursue her many muses. And pursue them she did. She played tennis several hours a day. She went out with friends; shopped, and shopped; redecorated her house every year. She took classes in cooking, massage, religion, exercise, went to music camps back east for the summers, and left the kids with grandparents, or the revolving housekeepers. She was one of those soccer moms who sat in the stands and gossiped, or read People or Jane, or was on her cell phone every other minute, attending the game but not really there.

Unable to manage her son’s disruptive behavior, my sister took him for counseling when he was ten. He was diagnosed with ADD. He took Ritalin from 12 until he was 20. Now 27, he smokes pot every day, pays his rent and bills with poker winnings and a small stipend from an inheritance trust fund, has not gone to college and has little prospects for the future. Her daughter, 24, is still only a junior after six years in college. She’s had few friends over the years, even fewer dates, and only recently her first [very] short term relationship. She lives on the money her parents provide without a clue how to make it on her own.

These two sets of kids struggle in life because their parents consistently catered to their own needs over those of their children. In doing so, they abandoned their kids to their own device, and left them to strangers, relatives, and society at large to raise them. Restrictions on behavior came from teachers, religious leaders and caretakers as commands—discipline imposed without love. Their parents didn’t bother to invest the staggering amount of time or thought required to help their kids decipher feelings, or examine abstractions like morality or values, or why they are important, or impart to them the seemingly endless list of rules we all must follow to get along.

The other day I was at the neighborhood pool watching my kids swim and play. All went well until a well-known rowdy kid arrived with his mom. She stood with her back to the pool and chatted on about her job, the upcoming hundred mile extreme run she was training 20 miles a day for, and the third Bruce Springsteen concert she and her husband had been to that week. She did not notice her nine year old son shoving kids into the pool, holding them underwater, pouncing, splashing and causing general havoc. Most everyone agrees her son, and six year old daughter, have severe ‘discipline’ problems. Though their mom labeled them ‘passionate,’ she admitted she was seriously considering her colleague’s suggestion to have her kids examined for ADD, or the latest variant: ADHD.

Even Wikipedia, can not state without dispute what ADD actually is, though a wide cross section of sources seem to agree it’s a behavioral disorder. Symptoms include Hyperactivity—like working all day, everyday, never putting your cell phone or Blackberry away; Inattention, the lack of ability to focus for an extended period of time—like creating multiple distractions such as tennis, classes and vacations for your entertainment instead of following through with any one thing. Impulsiveness is also an indicator, like going to see Bruce multiple nights in a row instead of doing the responsible thing and being at home with your kids.

Though they possess the symptoms, these parents do not have ADD, have never been diagnosed or even suspected of the disorder, even though most have had at least some experience in counseling. Their kids did not inherit their lack of focus. The Attention Deficit Disorder they ostensibly suffer from by and large comes from parental neglect, adults who haven’t figured out that once they produce children, most of their own priorities must become secondary to the needs of their kids.

Rich or not, working—having to or not, parenting is about paying attention, being attentive and present— being there when you’re with your kids. Certainly, rules need to be continually taught and enforced, but also discussed at length, not handed down as edicts from on high. Kids need detailed explanations, reasons to partake in our code of ethics, and out of desire, not disdain. Society is not sustainable filled with resentful children who grow into parents that never mature beyond self-interest. Children can not raise themselves above solipsism without example from those who have.

Lessons Learned from my Daughter: Arts vs. Sciences

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Heard a teen singing in the talent show at the Alameda County Fair last week. Her voice was one of those rare gifts, full of resonance and richness as she sang to the sparse crowd stuffing their faces with fried foods. I was walking past with my family and her voice stopped me, as it did the diners the moment she started singing. Maybe 16, in ripped jeans and a tiny t-shirt, she sat onstage and strummed her acoustic and sang like an angel, everything from Greenday to a few of her own beautifully melodic tunes. I, my kids, my DH, and the entire crowd hushed as we listened to her singing. She captivated all of us for maybe 20 minutes until her set was up. Two older teens took the stage after her, and sounded pretty much like most rockers. Everyone went on with their eating and I walked away with my family to explore the rest of the fair.
     Later on at the fair I saw her walking with her family and briefly stopped her to gush over her voice, assure her of her very unique talent. Her proud mama told me her daughter plays all the time, and in fact her daughter agreed music was her passion. Her dad chimed in right then that his daughter was a diligent worker, strove for excellence in most everything she endeavored, and as good at math as at music. He proudly informed me and my family that she was slated to pursue the sciences in college, and his daughter confirmed she had plans to become a doctor.
     Been thinking a lot about this girl the last few days. A voice like hers comes along once every million (or more) people. And while the pursuit of music is a risky one, with her voice, success would probably come a lot easier to her than most. In her ripped skinny jeans and tiny T, she had the body, and the stunning face to solidify the star image, making her chances of success in music even better! Yet, by all common wisdom, becoming a doctor not only made her parents beam, but is perceived to be a greater gift to society at large than music.
     I’ve been on that page myself. I mean, what is the point of a painting, or a song, or a piece of fine writing anyway? It’s not like curing cancer. A painting sits on the wall. It doesn’t help anyone, cure anything. A song, well, we may sing along with it, lift us up when we’re feeling sad, or share it when we’re happy, but it’s not going to extend our lives, like being a doctor will. And fiction writing, ah, what is that worth other than a few hours of entertainment. It’s not going to change the world or anything, right?
     Spent my lifetime searching for my value, if I have any, so very often feeling like I don’t. All I’ve ever really been is an artist (in one form or another, drawing, designing, building, writing). And unless I’ve use these skills in the commercial arena such as advertising or marketing, I’m left with little recognition and even less income when I practice the fine arts. So what the hell good are the arts, anyway?
     Society measures our value by our perceived contributions. Doctors, professors, executives make a lot of money by the perception that they give a lot to society as a whole. Value of medical pros is easy to understand, caring for the sick, curing disease. Teachers, who are actually paid quite a bit only working part time yet making full time salaries with benefits and pensions, are not only rewarded financially but sociologically with accolades and kudos from the media, politicians and society at large. High level execs manage businesses that employ many, ostensibly.
     Telling people about this teen singer, and asking what is the most contributory path this girl should take—doctor or musician, hands down the answer is “doctor.” Understandably, achieving success through music is difficult at best, but that was not my question. Assuming she could become successful with music, most people still insisted a doctor saving lives, potentially curing cancer was of greater benefit to society. Me, too, until asking my infinitely wise 11 year old daughter this question.
     “She should do whatever her passion is,” she told me on the way to drop her off for a week at Girl Scout camp last weekend.
     “What if she has a passion for both?” I asked. “I mean, if she could potentially cure cancer, wouldn’t that be of greater value to the world then music?”
     “It’s her choice because both are equally valuable. Music can stop wars, soothe feelings, be shared across the globe to build bridges between people where there were none before. I mean, look at all the concerts that raise money for hurricane victims, or money for medicine for poor countries. Music helps me deal with my feelings everyday, keeps me in touch with what I’m feeling, reminds me I’m not the only one feeling like I do. It connects me to everyone, knowing we’re feeling basically the same things.”
     Every part of me was humbled by her insight. Not only was she validating the Arts, my daughter was validating me.
     “Sure, curing cancer is important. It’s why I want to be a doctor. And I love music too, but I’m not great at it, and probably never will be. But that girl at the fair was, is. And if she can turn the world on, like she did us, and all those other people sitting there, than maybe she should do music instead, no matter what her dad said or wants her to be.”
     Touche!