Ups and downs, ins and outs, curve balls and random collisions. Who said Life was going to be easy? As I sort it out, here's a collection of my essays, newspaper columns and mental meanderings about family, friendship, ecology, politics and a world that goes bump in its fright.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Equal Time for Austin

The photo accompanying this post tells you why I don't have as many lovely photos of my son as I do of my daughter, even though they both occupy equal real estate in my heart. From the time he was 4, I couldn't point a camera without him contorting his features into a facial pretzel -- and believe me, he could come up with some doozies, as this one demonstrates. I'm not entirely certain what that impulse was about -- maybe a way to avoid the domination of Mom's doting. Maybe a way to show that he wasn't soft or sentimental, that he was a real guy and guys don't have much need for serious photos or anything that would make him look, God forbid, well-behaved. Or maybe he's just a goofball. He is, after all, my kid, and I was the first person to teach him to make some of those faces.

At any rate, in the interest of equal time, here's the column I wrote when Austin got his license -- a much more harrowing experience for me. He is my firstborn and I was a lot less experienced at letting go back then. I finally had to turn his driver's education over to a friend, lest I drive my son and myself completely round the bend with my worry and overreaction. Sometimes the best parenting is realizing when you've reached your limits and being willing to call in reinforcements.

Life is usually more difficult than it looks
By K.C. Compton
This is so bizarre. I am sitting in the front seat of my car next to this tall, handsome kid with the great grin and the weird sense of humor. We've been here a thousand times before, only this time, the seating arrangement is reversed.
How could I possibly be the mother of this person in the driver's seat of my Toyota? The last time I remember really thinking about my age, I was 26. That was just a few months ago, wasn't it? It certainly couldn't have been more than a decade ago. Or could it?
Here he is sitting behind the wheel, shrugging sheep-ishly and saying 'Sorry, Mom," as the transmission takes a bite out of first gear. And here am I, remarkably calm as I think, "This is the part where I give him his first driving lesson. This is the part where I take deep breaths and don't shriek in wild maternal panic when he gets too close to the curb."
We're on a deserted street, the car has plenty of gas, and I figure there isn't a lot he can do to damage the car since there are no nearby trees or other large, immovable objects to rearrange. In a window of the lone house in the neighborhood a curtain slowly raises and an ancient face peers out.
"Martha, I think those children are doing drugs," he mimics in a wobbly voice as he glances toward the window. The curtain flops back down as if the observer had heard the kid's joke. The Toyota hippety-hops down the street as Austin attempts to conjugate the verb “to clutch.”
"This is harder than it looks," he says as the car dies for the tenth time in two blocks.
It is, indeed. I'm having a remarkably good time, though, considering that my firstborn is teetering on the rim of the nest, about to wing his way out of the shelter I've spent the better part of my adult years constructing for him. I'm letting go, even rejoicing as I do so. I've raised him well; I trust who he is. I know I can back out of the picture and let him take the wheel of his own life, even if only a block at a time.
But it's so much harder than it looks. I worry about other people's role in his future much more than I worry about him. I know if he can see what's coming at him, he's competent enough to handle it. But what if someone or something — a drunk, a disease, a bomb — blind-sides him and he's caught off guard for one vulnerable moment?
A part of me wants always to be riding shotgun in his life, looking for hazards he might not have the experience or the vision to see. An impractical impulse, I know, since steering down my own path in life frequently takes all the resources I can muster. Still, the urge to cover for him grips me and I know I'm not ready to turn him over to the Out There quite yet.
Letting go is a discipline, a learned skill in some ways as mechanical as the interplay between the car's accelerator and clutch. I let out or, the rules, and increase the personal accountability. I pull back on my control of his situations and accelerate my faith in whatever gods may be. And sometimes I must slam my foot hard on the brake to prevent catastrophe.
Learning to release my child to his own future has been a gradual education, one that probably began when he took his first step. Still, letting go is an uneasy process, and I know my efforts are sometimes as clunky as his fledgling attempts at driving.
My hope is that he'll forgive my insufficiencies as I forgive his. By fits and starts he's arriving at his destination. And so, I suppose, am I.
Some things you only learn by doing

Our Baby Daughters Do Grow Up

Speaking of letting go, this is the column I wrote when Ariel got her driver's license. As you can see, detaching is an ongoing process:

Sixteen years ago I sat on a hospital bed holding in my arms the most perfect baby girl in the universe. I was filled with awe, speechless with wonder over what I had done to earn such bounty. I got to be this miraculous creature's mother.
What blessing, what honor.
Now, she's standing before me, proudly holding a laminated card with her photo and the words "driver's license" on the upper right-hand corner. The braces came off her teeth a few weeks ago. She glances down to talk to me when we're standing face to face.
The signs are everywhere: My little baby daughter isn't such a baby anymore.
The blessing and honor multiply.
I know this is anathema, this bone-rattling affection I have for my teenager. In our society, "teen" has become synonymous with "problem." I'd change this situation overnight if only I could, because it is such a treacherous falsehood. My teenager is wonderful; yours probably is, too.
This child has always instructed me. She still does. She came into this world with such a quiet serenity and easy dignity. At the time of her birth, those were not adjectives I could readily apply to myself. But this quiet, smooth child came from me. If deep calm was her birthright, perhaps somewhere in me was its source. Over the years, with her as a guide, I've found it.
She instructs me in other ways as well. In a recent spat with one of her teachers, I heard both sides of the story and it seemed to me she was being unreasonable. Serenity or no, she was being obstinate, unpleasant and rude.
We hassled back and forth about the situation for a day or so and I simply couldn't imagine why she was being such a stinker about it all. Why couldn't she just capitulate to what the teacher was asking and be done with it?
Then I actually listened to her again. And, although she wasn't articulating it directly, this is what I heard: Her sense of fair play was being transgressed and she was willing to fail the course rather than give in.
Hmm. Right or wrong, that kind of ethical stand requires some sturdy stuff. I wish I had more of it. I wish most of us did.
"You know, Snooks," I said, "When your sense of justice is violated, you turn into a tiger." She smiled and ducked her head. I'd nailed it.
"I love that you're strong-minded and spirited," I continued. "I just hope you'll learn to pick your battles. You're the only one who knows, really, if this one's worth fighting for. Do what you think best — you'll do it anyway — but try to have some sympathy for your teacher."
I try not to influence my children's career choices too much, believing that only they really know what will make them happy for a lifetime. But I do hope when my daughter gets older, she'll use that ardent commitment to fairness to go after the bad guys. Her clarity and passion could move mountains.
At any rate, this situation is typical of the arrangement we seem to have worked out over the years. She teaches me strength; I teach her compassion. She teaches me to focus; I teach her about the bigger picture. She's taught me to be serious; I've instructed her in the ways of silliness.
We never sat down and signed any contracts, but on some level a pact keeps getting made between us. I have a hunch it's a healthier bargain than many parents and children develop together — certainly healthier than the one I had worked out with my own mom and dad.
More often it seems the transactions are thus: The child is disruptive; the parent, long-suffering. The child gets to be a pain in the neck; the parent gets to be right about how rotten children are. The child is kept helpless and weak; the parent gets to be strong and omniscient. It’s a lousy bargain for each.
From the very beginning with both my children I've felt as though I've been given temporary custody of angels. That might sound sloppy and sentimental. So shoot me: I've been an indulgent mother.
The balancing act is to indulge and permit in all the right places, and to come down like a ton of bricks when the situation requires.
So she's asking for my car keys and wants to drive out of my life. She stands in front of me saying, "Just for 30 minutes," and from somewhere behind me I hear voices whispering, "Let go; let go. This is what it's all been leading up to."
I fork over the keys and try to remember to breathe as I watch her go.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

It Does Get Easier

A quick conversation with my daughter and once more, I'm smack in the middle of prying myself loose from fear, dread, and horrifying, meticulously detailed scenarios of how badly things could go wrong.

This response first introduced itself when I let her walk with her brother to the playground down the street from our house. It reappeared when she asked to spend the night at a friend's house and again when she entered junior high school in a new town. In fact, I can safely say that every transition in my daughter's life, all major and many minor, has been accompanied by her mother's hyperactive imagination freaking smooth out. For the most part, I've done a good job of keeping it to myself, although she would dispute that.

(Trust me, baby, I have. You might think I've been a worry wart, but you don't know the half of it. I might have been saying, "Are you sure you know how to cross that street?" but inside I was screaming with certainty that life was getting ready to place-kick you into a terrible, terrible storm and I needed to STOP IT RIGHT NOW!!!!! I just kept my mouth shut about the very worst of it and let you hear what I simply couldn't suppress.)

The initial reaction hasn't gotten any less intense, but I'm happy to report that at some point, it becomes easier to hear fear's static and move on to the next station on the maternal dial.

Except every now and then. Like now.

My daughter, who is a healthy, successful and actually sort of gorgeous adult now, called a few weeks ago and reported that she and her boyfriend have sold her car, bought a used truck, which they are outfitting with a camper shell and maybe a bio-diesel converter, and they are driving from their home in Berkeley to spend four months in Costa Rica, surfing. They will take their boards in the truck and surf all down the Pacific coast.


I mean ... unh ... couldn't you just fly down there and send the boards?

No, they can't. Some of their other surfer buddies (my daughter, raised in the desert of New Mexico, now cannot be kept out of the ocean) have made the trip regularly and say it's safe. They've read books, studied maps, talked with experienced travelers. It'll be OK.

I was just finally beginning to make peace with the fact that she shares the ocean with sharks and now, this? Maybe SHE could fly and her boyfriend could find a Spanish-speaking friend and they could drive the boards down and meet Ariel down there?

"Good one, Mom," she says in that voice that tells me this is going nowhere. "That would sort of defeat the 'me-surfing-all-the-way-down-there' part, wouldn't it?"

Oh, lordy. This makes me crazy. There's only one thing to do. I call or email each of my friends and I fret, loudly, long and often. I ask them what they think. "Well," my friend Tim says, "I had a nephew who was going to do that and at the last minute he broke his leg and couldn't go." And I think, "hmmmmm. .... "

When I catch myself seriously thinking that her breaking her leg would be an improvement, I know it's time to rein myself in. I call her.

"Is there anything I can do to dissuade, discourage, distract or just outright prevent you from doing this?" I ask. "Nope," she says. "Not a thing. We're going."

"OK, then," I say. "I support you completely. What do you need from me?"

Because, you see, she actually is one smart cookie. She's also serene and kind-hearted and a wonderfully cool head in emergencies. A registered nurse, she's exactly the kind of person you want standing by your bed when you regain consciousness. And her boyfriend Jereme is also smart and capable and kind. Neither of them has the tiniest shred of the Ugly American to them, no arrogance, no sense of entitlement that says the world owes them something just because of who they are.

And yes, things can happen. Bad stuff. But the way I tried to raise my children, and the way I try to live my life, is that at any given moment, there's an even greater chance that something truly wonderful can happen. Looking back, I can see that not one of those terrible things I imagined actually did happen. Not one. So, expanding my vision beyond my worrisome obsession, I can see that this stands a very good chance of being the adventure of a lifetime. And it's exactly the kind of thing that I would do. In a heartbeat, if only my arms were strong enough to pull me up on a surfboard and I weren't worried about cellulite and losing teeth to a bad wave.

So I bless them on their journey. I'm sending phone cards and sunscreen. And maybe one of those Global Positioning thingies on their truck.

See? That wasn't so difficult, now was it?