Family Time

Yesterday, I was with my three nearly-grown children, and we stopped at Panera for lunch. At the table next to us was a young family. Mom and Dad were there with two young daughters—one about nine or ten going on sixteen, and a younger daughter of five or six. In the middle of the meal, Dad said good-bye and left to go to work. Mom stayed at the table with the girls while they all finished their lunch. As they sat there, it was hard not to notice that Mom’s cell phone was sitting on the table, loudly and regularly letting her know she had messages and notifications. Each time the phone alerted her, she looked down and responded.

Lately, I have noticed more and more parents interacting with their phones rather than their children. And I have heard from my children that many of their friends are on their own to make food at home, eating on the run, in their bedrooms, or in front of the television. So here’s my question: when are you spending uninterrupted quality time with your children? How do you show them that they are important and worthy of your time and undivided attention?

I have written about this before, but early in my parenting—and even when our family structure shifted, and I became a single parent—I established dinner together as a deeply important part of our day. This is the time when we come together as a family—and we are together for an important purpose: eating our evening meal. But dinnertime has become so much more over the years. Dinnertime is when we connect. We check in on each other. We talk about life, issues, morals, values, and what is happening in our individual lives and in the world. This meal has become a regular and expected time together as a family.

Now, I have two children in college, and they are home for the Christmas/winter break. Still, each night when I get home from work, we sit down together to consume our evening meal. We laugh, we talk, we eat. And now that they are older, we hash out political issues and share our views, we discuss environmental dilemmas, and we weave together the fundamental pieces of our day into an intricate tapestry that solidifies our family connection.

The unwritten rule, and one that is mostly followed, is that there are no devices at the table. This is family time, and devices are a distraction. Constantly looking at a device and responding to notifications demonstrates that we are not giving others our undivided attention. And it pulls us apart rather than bringing us closer.

And so… about childhood—this is time you will not get back. Establish a daily time to put away your devices and sit down with your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are amazing little people who will grow up to become wonderful adults. And those adults will need to know how to connect—deeply and meaningfully—with others. Scheduling some daily time to connect with family can make all the difference.

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Navigation

Apparently, underneath my smoldering reluctance to use GPS is an amazing truth—not only in who I am, but in the way I have chosen to approach navigation and directions. My reluctance to use GPS and my fascination with maps—even the unwieldy ones that unfold and unfold and unfold into something that is far more than a driving distraction—has been working parts of my brain that are dying off in those who rely on a computerized voice to tell them where to go.

This realization came when I was listening to a story on GPS technology on NPR’s OnPoint. While the program focused on digital mapping technology, the guests also touched on our increasing reliance (in fact, dependence) on this technology. When we need to navigate unfamiliar territory, we simply turn to our phones, as we do for many things these days. Regardless of the convoluted directions we seem to be following, we trust our digital navigation systems to get us where we want to go.

However, humans have a built in ability to navigate the world—to figure out how to get from one place to another using things such as celestial bodies, earthly forces, our own knowledge of our surroundings, the maps that have been created of those surroundings, landmarks, and our own instincts. These things together give us a broad picture of what is around us and where we are heading.

The technology we have now, while convenient, allows us to navigate in a passive manner. Essentially, we have a tool that leads us, and we don’t have to pay attention to anything but the tinny, computerized voice emanating from the small box we hold in our hands. “Turn left in 100 feet,” it tells us, and we do. If we look at the unwieldy map, we might see that straight through the next four intersections we would come to an incredibly cool pink lake that would be awesome to see before we turn left on a different path that will still lead to our destination.

In this same NPR story, one of the guests referenced a study done in London on GPS navigation versus the use of maps and navigational techniques to find our way. The navigational part of the brain was fully lit up in those who were using a map to navigate the streets of London, but it was completely dark in those relying on GPS navigation. Completely dark. As in not being used. Where brains are concerned, that is not good news.

So the next time my children say, “Mom, just turn on your GPS,” I will just say, “No thank you.” There is a time and a place for GPS. If I am lost in a strange place and need to get somewhere by a certain time, I might turn on my GPS.

But getting lost is actually an adventure that can lead to amazing places. Unfolding a map and using my brain is the more active way to get where I am going. And maybe in the wandering, I will do some sightseeing, discover a new path, and make some new friends along the way.

Forbidden

I have all manner of items—ranging from helpful to slightly odd—stuck to my refrigerator with magnets. I have magnets with helpful information—the non-emergency number for the local fire department, the hours for the dump, my plumber’s contact information. I have photos of my kids when they were much younger, the rehearsal schedule for the high school theater department, information for an upcoming summer camp job, a small calendar, and various magnets and magnetic clips.

Some things have been on my refrigerator for so long that they have become invisible to me. For example, one day last week, I suddenly noticed I still had a 2017 full year calendar stuck on the refrigerator. It had obviously arrived as a Christmas card in 2016, and it hadn’t been moved since. Until last week when I re-noticed it.

But the most unusual item on my fridge—depending on your perspective—was brought to my attention over the weekend. C was home from college for spring break, and while he was waiting for his bagel to toast, he was studying the items on the fridge. I had gone to the basement to get something, and when I returned, he said, “Hey Mom?”

“Yeah?” I responded.

“What’s this note on the fridge with the phone number that says ‘Do Not Call’?”

I burst out laughing because something that seemed so harmless to me suddenly took on a much more ominous and taunting quality. A post-it note with a phone number that we were not to call. Perhaps I was provoking my kids to see if they would take the bait and call this forbidden phone number.

Really, that was not it at all. I had been at work one day when I received one too many robo-calls on my cell phone. I contacted my carrier, and they gave me the number for the national “do not call” list. I had called, but now my kids needed to call from their own numbers. I had scrawled the number on this paper, and carefully labeled it, so I wouldn’t forget, and then, I stuck it on the fridge, so it wouldn’t get lost.

But my son’s interpretation of this note has given me an idea. If you suddenly find a note like this around your house, it’s probably not the national “do not call” registry, so I would suggest you not call it. Just don’t ask me where the note came from….

Courage

I am at that point in my family life when my children are starting to wander farther, stretch their wings, and take on more responsibilities and adventures of their own. As I send them out into the world, I often think about advice I would like to give them. What I wish for them is the same thing I wish for everyone: the courage to take on the challenges they will face. And so, as you head out into the world, this week and in the weeks to come…

I wish you the courage to pursue your passions with persistence. Now, pursing one’s passion doesn’t mean being irresponsible. It’s important to go after what you want in life, especially if it matters to you. If your passion doesn’t [yet] allow for financial stability, you can still pursue it around the work that does bring the paycheck. Or better yet, you might work to figure out a way to weave your passion into your gainful employment.

I wish you the courage to be true to yourself. But in order to be true to yourself, you need to know who you are. That knowledge requires connecting with your very core. If you can connect to who you are on the core level, you will be able to connect with others in the most authentic way. And if you connect with people who know who you are on the deepest level and are okay with your core identity, the rest will fall into place.

I wish you the courage to stand up for the causes you believe in. I wish you the courage to step in when needed and step up when challenged. The causes you truly believe in will connect with your core identity and help to strengthen it. And hopefully, they will promote justice and freedom and peace—maybe on a personal level, but maybe on a global level. Either way, if you stand up for the causes you believe in, you will promote your authenticity and make way for a better, brighter world.

And finally, I wish you the courage to stay in the present. In this day and age, it is so difficult not to focus on the future at the expense of the present. And it is also difficult not to get caught up in electronics and devices and social media, so much so that you don’t enjoy the here and now and the experiences that are right in front of you. But if you don’t focus on the present, you may miss out on a valuable moment with those who mean the most.

As you head out to start a new week, don’t forget your courage!

Painfully Obvious

Yesterday morning, I awoke from an odd and somewhat unsettling dream. At first, I wasn’t really aware of what was unsettling, only that something wasn’t right. The dream was one in which I was interacting with people—one, a friend from childhood who I hadn’t seen recently, and the other, a woman I knew of but had never met.

I was sitting between the two of them. The woman to my right was wearing a bright sweater—striped in bold blues, yellow, and teal—and I noted that it was knit from the same yarn I had used to make a scarf. This fact intrigued me, and I got stuck on the bold colors and the coincidence. I listened as she talked, and I responded, but through our conversation, I never looked directly at her. Somehow, I just knew who she was.

As I looked back on the dream, I realized that I was unable to look at either of these two people, unable to see their faces. It wasn’t that they didn’t have faces in my dream. It was that I couldn’t look at their faces. This one small but important fact made the dream very unsettling.

As I moved through my day trying to process this strange dream, I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed Smartphone addiction and its effects on us and on our children. Sherry Turkle, a social scientist, “found that children now compete with their parents’ devices for attention, resulting in a generation afraid of the spontaneity of a phone call or face-to-face interaction. Eye contact now seems to be optional” (Popescu). If we are not making eye contact, if we are not looking at the people we are interacting with, we are not fully experiencing the moment, the conversation, the relationship.

And this article brought me back to my dream. No doubt, the dream emerged from the stress of adjusting to the hectic schedule of a new teaching assignment added to my other responsibilities. The need to juggle so many different pieces often takes away from my ability to be in the moment, experiencing interactions and relationships as fully as I might. This juggling ties me to my computer and keeps me connected to technology.

If we pay attention, our dreams can tell us things we didn’t already know, but sometimes they hit us over the head with the painfully obvious. The other night, I had one of those dreams and I woke up confused, but as the day wore on, I began to see how this dream fit into my life and the message I needed to gain from it.

I am a creature of habit. I do things because they work in some important way. Or maybe because they have worked at some point in the past, in some other iteration of my life. Perhaps, if I were to really examine what I have been doing, these things might not be addressing my current needs. They might not be feeding my soul. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate and restructure in important ways that will permit me to grow with the changes in my life.

And maybe it’s time we all recognize that by not interacting with others—over dinner, over the phone, standing in line, etc.—we are doing our children a disservice. It is up to us to teach them how to interact with us, with each other, and with the strangers they will encounter on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that technological connection is minimal and human connection… it’s everything.

Road Rage Cure

If everyone was required to drive around with something silly in—or on—their car, people might be less angry as they drove around. And after a couple of recent incidents with road rage, that would probably be a good thing.

Most recently, over the weekend, we suddenly—and unintentionally—took a detour into the creepy and frightening land of road rage. I’m not exactly sure what set off the driver who was behind us at a stoplight. It had something to do with my oldest child, in the backseat at the time, who made eye contact with the driver of the other vehicle. She was a middle-aged woman.

Now, I don’t want to meddle in her life, but perhaps she had bottled up too much of the week’s negativity. Whatever it was that set her off, it was very clear that she had a profound need for attention, and she was willing to compromise the safety of everyone else on the road in order to get it.

At the next light, she pulled up beside us and tried to get me to roll down my window. But thank you anyway, I know better than to engage with a crazy stranger. Through the window, I could hear her screaming and cursing, and my peripheral vision was catching her wild gestures.

The light turned green. “Go!” I instructed the fifteen-year-old driver (who remained amazingly calm), and he turned left around the corner. The woman swerved her black Mercedes from a non-turning lane, and that’s when it was clear we weren’t going to lose her any time soon. At the next light, she again pulled up beside us, this time on the left, her hands still waving as her passenger window lowered.

I picked up my phone. We had just passed a cruiser, so I knew there were police in the area. I debated calling 9-1-1, but opted instead for the non-emergency number. But this was not my town, so I had to go through directory assistance, all the while, the woman was in hot pursuit and my son continued to drive.

In the back seat, my daughter was audibly hyperventilating at the same rate that I was silently hyperventilating. As the adult in the situation—and clearly the only adult despite the middle-aged woman in the car beside me screaming obscenities—I was responsible for displaying an impression of utmost calm.

“Police Department, can you hold?” the voice said.

“Uh, not really,” I responded, my heart pounding in my chest. “I’m in a road rage situation.”

Bit by bit, he took pieces of information, and I updated him on my location. One mile. Another. Finally, as the woman pulled up beside me, I was able to read her license directly to the dispatcher, and I think she realized what I was doing. It was at this light that I heard her scream, “Is that your son? You should teach him some manners!”

I have never been more relieved than I was when she turned right onto the side street at that light. She was probably trying to disappear before the police caught up to us.

But the police had her license number and a description of her car. I really hope they found her. It seems she might benefit from a lengthy discussion on, well … manners.

And I would definitely benefit from carrying a silly inflatable animal in the back of my car.

Changing views

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Yesterday, I was having coffee with my boyfriend, and we were planning a future day-trip to Boston. Because of my daughter’s art and her interest in art supplies, I suggested to my parents that they give her a gift card to Blick Art, a place where she has never been but I have (and love!). The main point of our trip will be to visit this amazing artists’ supply store, an awesome excursion for both my daughter and myself. And my boyfriend—he’s a trouper for coming along with us!

We looked at dates and other possible activities, and I pulled up the bus schedule. Sometimes, we take the train into the city, and other times, we drive part way and take the T in. However, because it’s winter, we decided this time, we will take the bus. That way, we won’t have to worry about navigating the narrow, snow-clogged streets. Or parking. And we can relax on the journey.

We chatted and planned, and I began to reminisce about the times I traveled into Boston with my sister when I was a teenager. My parents would take us to the “bus station” in our small town (really, it was just a glorified bus stop) early in the morning, so we could catch the first bus. From my hometown, it is a 2½ hour bus ride into Boston. My sister and I—and sometimes a friend or two—would spend the better part of the day in the city, sightseeing, shopping, and grabbing a bite to eat. Then, we would catch the last bus home, arriving close to 11:00 pm.

In those days, there were no cell phones, and no way to keep in touch or check in. It is possible that we made a quick collect call home from a payphone just to say we had made it to the city, but the specific memories are foggy. I just remember I was in high school, and this was a great adventure.

As I reminisced, I thought about putting my own children on a bus for such a day trip. Would I be content to let them go? Were we more “worldly” than the children of today? My children have cell phones and would be able to check in with me on such a trip.

I looked up from the bus schedule and said, “Is the world really that different—,” and my boyfriend opened his mouth to answer. But I continued….

“—or are we?”

He paused and closed his mouth. He looked at me, and didn’t say anything for a moment. “You know,” he said, “I really don’t know. That last part… I don’t know.”

Perhaps we have been jaded by what the world has become. The constant deluge of media focuses on what is wrong with the world. It plays and replays and replays the same stories of violence, death, and destruction with graphic images and videos until we believe that we are doomed. At the same time, we have become accustomed to constant contact, not only with our children, but with our spouses and partners, our families, our friends, and even our acquaintances.

Maybe the world really hasn’t changed as much as we like to think. Maybe… just maybe… we—along with our views and expectations—are the things that have changed the most.