Archive for the ‘conversation’ Category

7Growing up, I was always embarrassed by my mother’s ability to chat up strangers everywhere. But I seem possibly to have become That Woman. Not a lot, but in service to a greater good: information for Nutmeg about baby gear.

An adorable baby and his mother came into the coffee shop where I was working yesterday afternoon, and right away I noticed the brand name of the stroller. It looked nice. I found myself smiling at the baby, because he was so adorable, and I said something about his adorable-ness to his mother as she pulled him out of the stroller and sat down at the table next to me. We got chatting a bit about babies — I told her I was expecting my first grandchild, and she told me that this baby was his grandmother’s THIRTEENTH — and I figured I had to extend the conversation just a tad longer, to find out whether she liked her stroller.

Of course she did. People always like whatever equipment they’re carting around when you ask them about it. (I found the same thing happened when I stopped a guy in the supermarket parking lot to ask if he liked his Toyota Rav 4, the car we were thinking of buying.) I dutifully passed along that info to Nutmeg, and then listened for a while longer as this young mother chatted about returning to her job as a school therapist, hating the job and hating missing James, finding another work arrangement, and on and on. It reminded me how boring and lonely it can be to be a new mother; you glom on to anyone who seems interesed in what you have to say. And then of course, if you’re a certain kind of mother, you find that all you have to talk about is the mothering itself.

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techmeme-tagsWhen Nutmeg and Southpaw announced that they were having a baby — something I was surprised by, since I hadn’t allowed myself even to hope that they’d start trying to get pregnant so soon — just about the first thing they asked was what iDaddy and I wanted to be called. Not having thought much about imminent grandparenting, neither of us had much to say.

On the subway ride home, though, iDaddy came up with a name he liked: Grumpy. It’s funny mostly because he’s such a thoroughly un-grumpy man, even-tempered and kind-hearted and so glass-half-full in his perspective that I often make fun of him and call him Polllyanna. (You might not believe it, but it can be very annoying to be a pessimist living with a perennially sunny guy.) If anyone in our pair should be Grumpy, I told him, it should be me.

But Nutmeg and Southpaw loved it, and Grumpy it will be.

I had some thoughts of my own for what I’d like to be called. If it were to be a name true to something in my nature or my interests, yet also a kind of “grandma” name, how about Grammar? I’m a writer, I love grammar; I can go kind of nuts over a misplaced apostrophe. Or how about Gamma, the kids countered, since the thing I write about is science.

Both of those names sound okay, I guess. But what I really want is a variation of a Grandma word that the baby herself invents, when the time comes. If I managed to avoid getting ahead of things when it came to wondering when Nutmeg and Southpaw might start trying to have a baby, I should be able to avoid getting ahead of things now, when I try to aniticipate what I’m going to be called when that baby finally arrives.

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old woman & shadow of ladyI had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that “Like Father, Like Son” would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: it was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 am on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then — keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics Ur-Momma has always loved to talk about — nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies, and to be out with iDaddy and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film — a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told — she turned to me and said, “I was lost; I couldn’t follow it at all.”

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library’s copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn’t follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her the most about aging, she’s always told my brother Avuncular and me, is the prospect of losing “my head.” That’s what worries me, too. “If you don’t have your head, who are you?” she occasionally asks. That’s it, exactly. If you don’t have a lively interior life, and a recollection of all the escapades that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought — that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with Ur-Momma, it seemed to me that the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The article described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident, and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person’s fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans, and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn’t exactly what I’m worried about in Ur-Momma’s case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn’t a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to Ur-Momma. If she can’t read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can’t follow even the most basic movie plot, she’ll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I’ve known her, have made it worth living.

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I love Ira Glass (the face on that weird tattoo to the left) and all the other folks on the public radio show This American Life; the chance to listen to podcasts of their wonderful show is one of the main things that gets me out doing my exercise walks in Riverside Park on cold winter mornings.  I’ve never really understood people who find Ira and the rest of his crew cloying and self-centered; if they were all that self-centered, how could they find so much about the world around them — the parts of the world that are NOT themselves — so damned interesting?

But I had a moment, listening to their rather self-congratulatory 400th show from this past weekend, when I realized that maybe they really are a bit self-centered after all.  The conceit of the show was that the producers would take turns doing stories based on the brilliant ideas their parents had suggested — ideas they had previously rejected as not quite good enough.  I know the feeling; as a journalist who writes a lot about health and medicine, I’m frequently told “you really should write an article about X,” X being whatever health issue the speaker or the speaker’s next-door-neighbor’s aunt’s best friend is suffering from.  This used to really really bug me when I was young and insecure about my career and where it was heading.  Now that I’m 56 and can pretty much see where it was heading — or, more accurately, where it didn’t head — I think I’m a little more gracious in the way I deflect these well-meaning but always-odd article ideas.

The This American Life crew, though, wasn’t all that gracious.   Yes, they finally were getting around to doing the stories their parents had suggested, but was I alone in thinking that they did it with a bit too much attitude?   “You should really do a story about the Erie Canal,” said someone’s father, not as dumb an idea as they made it sound, and the daughter then proceeded to write and sing a snarky song about the “Canal to the Moon.”  And there was one other thing about this show that rankled me: the parents were never introduced by their names.  They were “Nancy’s father” or “Ira’s stepmother,” as though that was the only thing about them that mattered.

Come on, guys.  You’re grownups now.  Your parents have names, and identities apart from you, and they’re tired of putting those names and identities on the back burner as they bask in the glow of being your parents.  And could you really fail to see how much of a kick it would have been for them to hear their OWN names — instead of always YOUR names — mentioned on national radio?

Side note to Meta and Nutmeg: I truly, truly love meeting your friends and co-workers.  When you introduce me to them, could you please follow the “This is my mom” with my actual name?  Thank you.

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Nutmeg and her boyfriend broke up today, and suddenly the whole mood in our own apartment turned somber.  Nutmeg is a big girl, more than capable of taking care of her own needs or finding friends who can offer support, but the thought that she’s in pain and we can’t do anything about it has really colored our day.   What had started out as an afternoon in which iDaddy and I were just lazing around, doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle and thinking about when we should brave the cold to head downtown for Opera Night at Caffe Taci — an event we used to go to all the time when it was in our neighborhood, but which we’ve only been to a few times now that it’s relocated to Midtown — suddenly turned sad-by-proxy.   And I’m having flashes of other weekend afternoons, when the girls were teenagers, feeling on call for them, poised to be available at a moment’s notice to retrieve them from a shopping mall or drive them to a friend’s house or just TALK to them, never really feeling like we could settle into doing whatever it was the two of us we wanted to do.

Worse than that, really — because now we’re poised for something that’s so much more vague. We’re on pins and needles, but it’s over something emotional rather than logistical, and it feels a bit unearned and inappropriate.  When the girls were little, they objectively needed us to get them places or buy them things.  Now, Nutmeg is 25 years old, with friends of her own, a life of her own, problems of her own.  How much of a role should iDaddy or I even play in this?  Should we hop in the car and drive the half-hour to Brooklyn to keep her company, which was my first thought when I rushed to the phone to call her this afternoon?  (She didn’t pick up.)  Should we rescue her from the real estate headache the breakup will inevitably produce, offering to pay her boyfriend’s half of the rent on their one-bedroom apartment until the lease is up and she can move somewhere cheaper?  Should we help her buy out his half of the couch?

Nutmeg is already protecting herself from this kind of reaction, I think, by keeping us at arm’s length as she tries to work out her heartache on her own.  She first told me this past Monday that she and her boyfriend were having a rocky time, after I hadn’t heard from her all weekend and had assumed she and he were busy doing fun stuff together.  But in truth Nutmeg wasn’t with him at all, but was with her best friend, visiting from Boston, trying to find consolation over what she was sure was an impending break-up, talking and drinking and talking and going to a movie (which turned out to be the wrong one to have chosen at such a moment) and talking some more.  I was hurt that she hadn’t turned to me at all over that weekend, but I shouldn’t have been; I’m not her friend, I’m her mother.  What really hurt me was the suspicion that she hadn’t called me because she was pretty sure I would say the wrong thing, and she needed to brace herself for it.  I pride myself on always saying the right thing to friends who are in pain, but I know that when I try to console my daughters, I often blow it.  No matter how many times I’ve learned that offering, however obliquely, to rescue them is absolutely the wrong response, that’s almost always the response I offer.

But is it possible that a tiny piece of them, no matter how grown-up and independent they are, wants rescue?  When Nutmeg and I finally spoke last Monday, she told me that the only fun part of the weekend had been when she and her best friend decided that if Nutmeg really did break up with her boyfriend, the only rebound guy worth getting excited about would be Zach Braff, an actor she’s admired ever since she saw his movie “Garden State” years ago; I happen to know his parents.  Today, the way that she told me the break-up was a done deal was with a plaintive one-line text message: “Set me up with Zach Braff please.”

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Two encounters yesterday, both of which indirectly involved Nutmeg, strike me as the kind of thing I’m going to have to get used to.  They’re the result of being at once the proud mother of an amazing young woman, and a slightly vain, slightly insecure middle-aged woman clearly past her prime.  (Don’t disagree; I know what I look like — and if I could figure out how to link to a photo on my computer of my wrinkly eyes, you would know, too.)

Encounter one: I was meeting Nutmeg for lunch at a place near her office, a cafe called ‘ino in Greenwich Village.  I got there first and told the waiter I was waiting for someone, and even though the cafe was tiny he said I could sit at a table, as soon as he cleared off one for me.  A few moments later, as I stood near the door, a tall good-looking guy, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, his ears stuffed with the inevitable ear buds, came in and said he was waiting for someone, and the waiter said he could sit at a table as soon as one was cleared for him, too.  Then the waiter gestured to the two of us, questioningly, and wondered if we were strangers who didn’t realize we were waiting for each other.  Like what, a blind date?  “Oh, no,” I chuckled, as did the good-looking guy.   Then I guess he thought that seemed a little rude, and he said something like, “Not that you wouldn’t be a pleasure to have lunch with, I’m sure.”  And I quickly said, “Yes, I’m sure, too, but I’m waiting for my daughter, which is something completely different.”

Umm — completely different?  What’s THAT supposed to mean?  Am I really so flummoxed by a good-looking guy saying something vaguely flirtatious?  I went straight to the line that would cast me clearly as older than him — I’m waiting for my daughter, who almost certainly has to be an adult on her lunch hour —  to make it clear that . . . that what? That I know I look middle-aged, and I don’t want to seem somehow pathetic, don’t want him to get the idea that I was getting any ideas?

It seemed that I was hiding behind that “my daughter” line way too quickly.  Our kids are always a reflection of our place in the world, and these days I mostly love how my own kids reflect me — except for the fact that they broadcast my age.  It feels like only yesterday that I was walking little Nutmeg to school in first grade, holding her little hand and thinking that having a six-year-old daughter beside me made me look kinda young.  Flash forward a mere 20 years, and Nutmeg makes me look old.  How did that happen, exactly?

The second encounter was professional — and in a way, it led me to do the same thing I had done at ‘ino Cafe, anticipating any private thoughts on the part of my interlocutor about how very very OLD I must be by invoking my daughters and getting there ahead of him.  In this case, I invoked both daughters.  I was meeting a young editor for the first time, at a magazine I haven’t written for before — he, too, was probably about late 30s, also tall and good-looking, and we were meeting at City Girl Cafe, which I walked to after lunch with Nutmeg.  Within minutes of sitting down with my espresso, I brought up that my daughter had recently joined the same gym the editor had just come from.  Then, for good measure, five minutes later I brought Meta into the conversation, mentioning that it was she who had turned me on, years before he was popular, to the cult of a singer-songwriter the editor and I were discussing.   I settled down after a while, and as we talked about story ideas I didn’t hesitate to make it clear that I’ve been around covering some of these stories for a while — God, practically since before this editor was BORN.  But it’s as though I had Nutmeg and Meta in my back pocket, and pulled them out when I wanted to give myself youth cred.

The truth is, though, they don’t give me youth cred — they give me youth anti-cred.  They make it clear that I only know about the things that interest young people second-hand, refracted through the good fortune of having daughters who don’t mind educating me about the state-of-the-art fine points of the profession we’re all part of.  This is journalism, after all, and everything I know about it is getting rapidly outdated.  (At lunch yesterday, for instance, Nutmeg very helpfully explained the concept of the content management system, something she uses on her magazine’s web site; she made the analogy to WordPress, which is the CMS I myself am using for this very blog.  Who knew.)

How long do I think I can keep this up, hanging on by my fingernails on a wire stretched between the old way and the future?

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Kids are now spending more time with their screens and electronics than they are awake (you can double-count hours for multi-tasking).  That’s the news from the latest survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M.”  I guess Generation M is as good a name as any, at least for now, for these media-crazed 8- to 14-year-olds.

But reading about the study in The New York Times this morning made me feel like these kids, who spend tk hours a day online, aren’t all that different from my own kids (Generation X? Y? Millenium?) or even, truth be told, from me, Ms. Baby Boomer.  The article, by Tamar Lewin, has the headline, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online.”  I hate to say this, but if I’m awake and in the apartment, I’m probably online, too.  If iDaddy is awake and even NOT in the apartment, he’s also probably online, thanks to the iPhone he carries around with him and whips out of his pocket at the slightest provocation (not necessarily to phone or text anyone, since he’s not super-social, but to check out google or imdb for an answer for just about any question that arises in conversation).

As for the girls — phew.  If their g-chat status is to be believed, and I think it is, Meta is online just about round-the-clock, and Nutmeg is online whenever she’s either at home or at work, which is just about always.  Now that both girls also carry smart phones with them, the perpetuity of their plugged-in lives has become entrenched.  Sometimes I think I’m g-chatting with Meta imagining her at a laptop somewhere, sitting on a desk or at least on a couch, and it turns out I’m communicating with her on her phone while she’s on the Metro or in the passenger seat of a car.  (Lord, I hope it’s the passenger seat, and I hope whoever is driving isn’t ALSO engaged in an online or text conversation.)

So is this a bad thing?  It depends.  It depends on what it replaces.  iDaddy has been on sabbatical this year, spending his weekdays on his own in another town, so I’m alone during the week and left to my own devices. (Interesting phrase, that, created in the era long before devices actually meant iPhones and iPods and all the other i’s.)   So it’s been interesting to watch how much time I spend with what.  I’m pretty device-deprived — we own one TV, though it does have TiVo, and my cell phone is an old-fashioned one that doesn’t even have a camera — and the only things I own that would qualify as part of the plugged-in stuff the Kaiser Family Foundation is concerned with, besides the one television, is my MacBook and my iPod, both a couple of years past their sell-by dates.  In this relatively low-tech environment, I had high hopes for the things I would get done when I was on my own in the evenings — lots of reading (at the moment I’m enjoying The Unnamed by the wonderful young writer Joshua Ferris, though his first book, Then We Came to the End, was probably better), lots of organizing (do I really need all these pieces of paper in all these bulging file folders?), lots of socializing one-on-one with people I feel guilty about spending time with when I know I’ve left iDaddy home alone in his study watching TV.  But it turns out that the TV in the study is awfully appealing, even to me.  And a sense of connection to the world outside my walls when I’m home without a drinks or theatre invitation — well, the idea of young people doing this to excess, I get it.

What I don’t get is why they do these things when they’re NOT alone.  It’s the people, no matter what letter is attached to their generation, who insist on staring at their mini-screens when they’re at the dinner table or sitting on the Acela or DRIVING A CAR who really perplex me.  Being out in the world, eavesdropping, noticing, potentially even interacting — all that is so cool.  Why is it that a cold hard screen has greater allure?

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