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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Competence Trumps Self Esteem Any Day

My daughter recently let me know that she has applied to go to Haiti to assist with the recovery efforts there. On the one hand, my maternal instincts instantly went into protective gear and I wanted to physically restrain her from leaving her nice neighborhood in Northern California for the hell that is now Haiti.

On the other hand, I am full of admiration and respect. She wouldn’t be the young woman I know and love if she didn’t feel compelled to offer her service. As a mother, I don’t want my baby to suffer; as a human being, I can’t imagine anyone better qualified to offer compassion than my highly skilled, deeply kind kid.

In fact, if I were in a heap of trouble of just about any kind, I can’t imagine anyone I would rather see coming over the hill than my son or daughter. Useful, capable, competent, neither is inclined to helplessness or handwringing. When there’s work to be done, they are both pretty much a drama-free zone, looking for what needs doing, rather than proclaiming their unhappiness or discomfort to anyone who’ll listen.

My daughter has a master’s degree in nursing and works as a labor and delivery nurse in a big urban hospital. My son is master carpenter for a professional repertory theater that does challenging, interesting work. Each of them has been smart enough and lucky enough to find mates who are exactly right for them and equally competent, useful and generally nonplussed.

I consider my children’s competence to be the greatest possible acknowledgement of my parenting skills. As a single mom, I didn't have the energy to fret much about their self-esteem—although my son did have some dark days in high school that had me praying incessantly for a solution. That solution turned out to be … more competence. He wasn’t having a very successful time of it in regular high school, although he was certainly smart enough to do well academically. But as soon as I relented and let him slip out of the academic track and into the technical track, his outlook began to improve. He learned to weld, to do carpentry and engineering, he started feeling useful and began to see a future for himself.

As a newspaper editor for many years, I had the privilege and sometimes the curse of dealing with a number of interns who were still in school or “baby reporters” just out of college and in their first year on the job. I could tell very quickly whose families and schools had focused on building the young person’s self esteem and which had insisted on competency. The ones who were competent were confident. The ones for whom self-esteem was the prize were an endless eddy of narcissism, complaint and need.

If I could pass along one value to parents and educators now, it would be this: Stop worrying so much about whether that child is happy and start making certain she or he knows a thing or two and has the internal resources to accomplish useful tasks. Once a person is capable and knows how to produce results, self-esteem tends to take care of itself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We keep looking in the wrong places

A few weeks ago, my cat, Ace the Ferocious Hunter, brought into my house what I thought was a large mouse. After much skittering and chasing around the kitchen, where the still-quite-lively creature took up behind the refrigerator, I finally decided I had had enough. So I bought one of those terrible, deadly zappers and within an hour had dispatched what turned out to be an actual rat to that Big Kitchen in the Sky.
My cat checked out the places the rat had been--apparently he skittered from behind the fridge to a little space beside the dish washer and, when he thought the coast was clear, to the bowl of dog kibble and water on the opposite side of the kitchen. This happened in the middle of the night, at which time the cat would hear the skittering, the dog would hear the cat and, for a few minutes, all hell would break loose. This is not my idea of a good night's sleep. Thus, the rat electric chair. I felt bad, but ... it's all over now.
So the cat investigated a time or two and immediately got the idea: the rat is gone. Case closed. My dog, however, to this day dashes expectantly over to the space beside the fridge and sniffs enthusiastically, digging at the tile beside the fridge. Or he passes the dish washer, is reminded and starts trying to dig the rat out from under the dish washer. I have pulled both appliances out and thoroughly mopped, so most traces should be gone. And besides, if any of us is going to keep trying to get the rat, it seems it ought to be the cat. But no, he gets it. Game over.
Most of us have more in common with the dog than the cat, at least in this regard. We keep looking for love where it used to be, revisiting life as it has been, eager for a new experience, but looking along familiar pathways trying to find it. We think if we only dig a little deeper into what has been, or approach it from a different angle, we'll see another outcome and recapture what we've lost.
I haven't posted anything on my blogs for a while. I went through a long period where anything I could say would be so maudlin I wouldn't want anyone to read it. Within a three month period two years ago, one of my dearest friends killed himself, my 18-year-old cat died and my mother passed away after a lengthy series of illnesses that defined how I don't want my passing to be.
I entered a kind of paralysis that I now recognize as the way I process things. I keep working--my salvation when things get rough, and they've been that way a bit, so I've created a great career for myself with all this marching on--I only wear my heart on my sleeve for a very small circle of friends, and then only enough to let the pressure off. I just carry my sorrow along with me and keep doing life and eventually, the fog lifts and life starts coming back again.
What I notice is a profound temptation to keep looking back, wishing for what will never be again. My friend who died was one of my best music buddies and certain songs have simply disappeared from my life since his death. I realized recently that I was, in some illogical part of my heart, saving them until we could sing them again. I've been holding my present cat at arm's distance (which to people who haven't ever been friends with a cat might not seem so bad) because he just wasn't the same cat I had come to know so well. He's a cute cat, and a sweet cat, but he wasn't my cat.
And my mother? I keep wishing for a few do-overs. I don't have a lot of regrets, but death inevitably drives those that exist directly to the surface. So, even while knowing utterly and absolutely the futility of the desire, I've been wishing to revisit some events and conversations and have things turn out different.
Watching my misguided mutt as he enthusiastically visits the rat's old haunts reminds me how goofy such impulses are. Time to move on, to learn different songs and to find love in unanticipated places.