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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Way We Were

I am officially an empty nester. My college-age son lives with his father and my college-grad daughter has moved to Seattle.  I live with my domestic partner (aka boyfriend), two dogs, and a cat, in a home we just purchased and are still fixing up and settling into.

I have a demanding job that I love.  I travel often.  I work out five days a week and play tennis on top of that. I go to lots of social events, some with friends and some that are connected to my career.  I read a lot, see movies, and have committed to seeing some interesting theatre this season.  In other words, I have a full life, and the demands on my time are many, so why do I still look longingly at families with small children?

It's not like I have the energy for young children.  When great nieces and nephews visit, I love playing with and spoiling them but am happy when their parents take them home and I can tidy up. When colleagues bring their babies to the office, I hold them for a couple of minutes but gladly turn them back over once they start to fuss.

I seriously considered having more children in my 40s but am eternally grateful now that my body had other ideas.  My typical day goes like this:  Up at 5am to run or work out, home to shower and eat, out the door by 7:30 to fight traffic, working at my desk pretty much non-stop until lunch (at which time I eat at my desk and then run errands), back to the desk for another four hours, and then it's tennis two to three days a week or an after-work meeting or event, and then home to make dinner, take care of the animals, sweep up dog hair, talk to my significant other about his day, and then maybe - MAYBE - if I'm lucky, settle in to watch an hour of television or read a few pages of the novel I've been trying to finish, before I crash at about 9:00.  The weekends are equally full with friends and trips and dinners out and shopping and laundry and cleaning.  This is a full life.  There are days when I forget to touch base with my kids (usually by text message), and if I go two or three days without touching base, I feel really guilty.

And yet...and yet, I look at younger women with toddlers in tow and remember those days with a fondness that borders on yearning.  Intellectually, I know I'm done.  Emotionally, images of other families conjure up memories of my own children and simpler days.  Days when we got up whenever we felt like it (I didn't work when they were little), had a leisurely breakfast, went to the park or the mall, took naps together, read books, watched Sesame Street, made finger paints, and did all the things I have absolutely no patience or energy for anymore.

I live in the world of adults now, including the worlds of my two adult children.  The magic of the early years is behind me, and on some days, that just makes me sad.  It was so much fun.  Of course, the only way to stay in that world is to find a way to not let your children grow up, and not only is that unfair to them, it's unfair to the world and to ourselves.  They need to make their way.  The world needs them now more than I do, and I need to get back to all the things I gave up when they were little (even if I didn't see it that way then).

It's all good, as the saying goes.  It's a good thing that they are making their way in the world.  It's a good thing I have a full life.  And it's a good thing that a part of me will always be that Mom who baked cookies and spent weeks sewing Halloween costumes together.  It's just that once in a while, she sticks her head out and wonders where it all went.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Running on Empty

This year marks my 15th year of running, give or take a few periods when I was recovering from a broken bone or had lost my running mojo due to extended illness or bad weather or some other reason.  When I tell people I run three to four miles, three to four times a week, I'm sure they take one look at me and think, wow, she is a pathological liar.

It's true that running has never helped me to shed the pounds I gained during two pregnancies, but it has allowed me to keep eating pizza and chocolate while not keeling over from a heart attack (so far). [Here's an article on fitness and fatness.]    It's kept me in good heart health and in good mental health (I get my best ideas while running), and it got me a job once.  The woman who hired me, Karen, who is also now a good friend (and a marathon runner), insists she hired me for my skills, but talking about running led to talking about other things that helped us both to realize we were a good fit.

Over the past three years, my running has become inconsistent at best.  A relationship break-up, a new job, the loss of a beloved pet, my brother's battle with leukemia, and an empty nest demoralized me.  I tried walking and swimming, but walking bores me, and chlorinated water irritates my eyes.  My complete failure at exercise over the past year means the pounds were piling on, since I didn't match my lack of exercise with a commensurate reduction in calories.  In January, however, we started a "Biggest Loser" contest at work, and I'm one of the organizers of the contest, so I couldn't very well sit in my office with my feet up, eating Ding-Dongs and yelling "carry on - you're doing great," now could I?

So after two months of slowly transitioning back into exercise, I am finally back to running about 10-12 miles a week (and I am down 11 pounds - yay!).  On dark, cold days, I use the treadmill at the gym, but on weekends, or if it's sunny enough after work, I head to the park, which brings me to the point of this post:  Other runners are STILL making the same dumb mistakes they were making 15 years ago. I am routinely amazed at some of the things I see other runners do.  It makes me want to pull my hair out (or stop them on the track and lecture them like their high school gym coaches SHOULD have done). Instead, I've vented by writing down my suggestions here. So, for anyone who would like to still be running into their 50s and 60s, instead of recovering from knee or hip replacement surgery, read on.

1)  Stop running on the balls of your feet. That is called sprinting, and it works brilliantly if you are running a 50-yard dash.  For anything longer, and if you don't want to destroy your feet, knees, or back, your whole foot needs to hit the pavement, starting with the heel, and rolling forwards as you come up again.

2) Stop stretching before you run.  You should never stretch cold muscles unless you really want to hurt yourself.  If you really must, if it makes you feel better, or if you think you look pretty cool doing it, do some jumping jacks first to warm up your muscles before you stretch.  Or run for five minutes, stop to stretch, and then take off again.  (It is extremely important, btw, to stretch AFTER you run.)

3) Don't bring your dog with you to run.  They have these HUGE olfactory cavities, and they like to stop and sniff and do other bodily things, so if you don't want to stop too, come alone.

4) Buy some running shoes.  Every day, I see at least one runner, sometimes more, running in boots or flat Keds or Converse basketball shoes.  It pains me to see this.  Running shoes are designed for running and will prevent serious injury to your knees and back. It's a simple thing.  Really.

5)  Dress for the weather, not for your fan club. Everybody starts pulling off clothes after they've warmed up, so it's a good idea to dress in layers (some scouting wisdom never gets old), but don't START OUT running in your Speedo unless it's 101 in the shade (and even then, really?).  There are tons of companies out there making money off of your foolish athletic-clothing choices, but here's what you really need: Clothes to fit the weather, so sweats and two tee-shirts plus a warm, hooded running jacket will do fine in the winter, while shorts and a running bra (or topless for men) is fine in the heat of the summer. Other options include a baseball cap to keep the sun out of your eyes and to catch your sweat (wear the jacket hood over the cap in winter); sunglasses as appropriate; good shoes and socks; a bandana if you sweat a lot; gloves and a neck warmer if it's freezing outside.  For women:  After running shoes, there is no better investment for female runners than a good running bra. If you're heavy up top, you may want to wear two.

6) Drink water. I see so many runners at the park who don't carry water with them and never stop to take a drink.  They must be heartier than me.  I could probably run three to four miles without passing out, but I'm an open-mouth runner so my mouth gets pretty dry.  I don't know how anyone can run for an hour and not have a drink of water.

7) Smile.  If you've chosen to run in a park, then you must have figured you'd run into real people.  I don't need you to stop and discuss the World Series or the presidential election with me, but would it kill you to smile?  Just sayin'.

That's pretty much it.  It's not brain surgery.  People tell me all the time that they "could never run."  This includes my fitness-obsessed friends who work out for 15 to 20 hours a week and do workouts I would never survive. And yet, while a 50-minute spinning class would KILL me, I find running to be as easy and natural as eating pizza and chocolate.  My sense is that everybody has a sport or fitness routine that works for them, and you just have to find yours.  And if it's running, well, I hope you'll leave the dog at home.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Technology Life We Lead

If you had told me at 18 that technology would be an ever-expanding, not to mention crucial, part of my life over the next 35 to 40 years, I probably would have lumped you in with all those loonies who thought they heard "Paul is dead" backwards on some Beatles album.   At 18, "technology" was a term reserved solely for history class, evoking images of cavemen and tools.

In retrospect, my first battle with technology was waged as the 17-year-old co-editor of my high school newspaper.  We produced the paper using machines that had clearly been manufactured during the Jurassic era, including the Varityper Headliner (see photo).  This particular machine was bigger than our washing machine at home and came with tire-sized font reels you turned manually to "write" headlines that were then kicked out on photographic paper and slapped onto copy boards with rubber cement.  This machine's counterpart was the two-headed monster we used to produce justified copy: You typed on one machine, which produced a ticker tape that you then threaded (or tried to thread) into the other machine, which produced copy on white paper that you also rubber-cemented onto copy boards. Painstakingly.

It was barbaric.  But it was also precise. To this day, I cannot see an extra space in a newspaper article - or a painting that's not straight on a wall, or a headline that's not centered perfectly, or a book that's not lined up with others on a shelf - without fixing it.  It drives my co-workers nuts.  Drives me nuts too.

Over the next ten years or so, I used a variety of ever-advancing photo-typesetting technologies and, eventually, even computers.  Then one day, in my first professional position as an editor of warehouse inspection reports, I received my first email.  It was 1986, and while most companies were still on mainframes, my little company (50 employees) had moved us all to networked PCs.  Most of my work for them was still done by hand, in notebooks, and our typists still used memory typewriters, but I did love using that first PC.  So one day, out of the blue, a box popped up on my screen and there was a message in it from our IT guy.  He used me as his guinea pig because we had talked about what email was and because he figured I wouldn't start screaming about ghosts in the machine when it happened.  I remember smiling and thinking, wow, this is cool, as I hesitantly typed out a reply.  (And the rest is history...)

I left the workforce to have babies at about the time PCs were becoming the standard in many offices (1990).  My husband at the time was learning DOS and "hypertext" and spending a lot of time in "news groups" (none of which I understood) while I was going to playgroups and changing diapers. By the time I re-entered the workforce, Windows95 had been introduced, so I managed to skip the whole DOS period. I "learned computers" in a Windows environment, so by 1997 or so, I knew more about Windows than my computer-expert husband, who had to relearn everything (yes, there was that much of a difference).  When I wasn't looking, he would close Windows on our home PC and open DOS because it was easier for him (true story).  And if you think DOS is easier than Windows, I have a bridge I can sell you...

Today, when one discusses technology, you're more likely to be talking about phones and tablets and apps than PCs or fonts, and does anyone even know where you can buy rubber cement anymore?  (Actually, I bought some about a year ago for a poster project, so indeed it is still available.)

I used to marvel that my great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s and lived until the late 1970s (97 years), had witnessed so much change in her lifetime. She was alive for the Wright Brothers' first flight tests and lived until the first space shuttle was under construction.  I imagine that some day my own great grandchildren may marvel at the changes I have witnessed.  From rotary dial phones and black and white televisions with antennae to full-length movies on my hand-held computer (phone) and who knows what next.  Teleportation, anyone? 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moving On...

We are now a month into a major transition at our house.  My son has started college at UMSL (University of MO-St. Louis) and has moved into his dad's house, which is a stone's throw from campus (and only about five miles from me). He moved for a variety of reasons, including spending more time with his dad, needing to feel like he was really "going away" to college, and needing to be close to campus in the probable event that his 14-year-old car breaks down.

I suspect that his father's much more lenient approach to household rules also played into his decision.  I don't blame him for that. In fact, I was the same way at his age, itching to get out of the house and away from my mother's ridiculous rigidity, but just because I understand it doesn't mean I was willing to back down and let him stay out all night or throw loud parties in my basement.

The move has been amazingly more complex than I would have imagined. He moved some things to his dad's house, left some things in storage in the basement here, and together we packed up a lot of stuff for Goodwill.  Of course, I cried through a lot of that, and even today, when I walk past something in the grocery store that I would not buy for myself but that he loved, I can still get a bit teary.

Now that his move is done, the other part of the transition has started.  My daughter, who had been away at college for four years and who we expected to be moving to Los Angeles has unexpectedly (and delightedly, for me) decided to stay put in St. Louis for a bit.  She is a writer (here is her blog), so she has settled into her brother's room to write her first novel.  Until he had finished moving out, she was living partly in my room, partly in the basement, and partly in the dining room, so both moves have resulted in a much less cluttered home, and the joy that brings me is not insignificant (and just in time for the fall holidays too).

I had fully expected to be living the life of an empty nester this fall, so these changes, unanticipated a year ago, have led me to rethink a few things.  For one, I'm eating more of the foods I like since I no longer have to spend so much time cooking for a teenage boy with limited culinary interests.  For another, I have a young roommate who has grown out of the habit of cleaning up after herself (four years of college living will do that to you) but who likes to watch the same kinds of TV and movies I do and, even better, likes to talk about them afterwards.

Also, all of the moving has made me realize that we have TOO MUCH STUFF.  I have saved a ridiculous amount of crap from their childhoods, and while I plan to keep some of it, I need to whittle down the piles so that the hoarder police don't pay us a visit. (Lest you think I exaggerate, here is a photo of my garage I took, in an effort to capture my cedar chest on film.  Alas, I could not get close enough to it to take a better picture.)  So in addition to writing this blog post and saying, wow, I'm okay, I'm also gonna use the space here to sell some stuff.  First, I'd like to sell my son's loft bed (with attached desk), and here is a picture of it:






I also have a desk to sell, but that requires a bit more storytelling.  When my daughter was three years old, I quit working to be a stay-at-home mother.  I was very excited about this big change in our lives, but I was also worried about losing my intellectual and professional self to be a full-time mommy.  I planned to do a lot more writing, so what was needed, I decided, was a desk.  A space of my own.  I started looking in the newspaper ads (this was the pre-Craigslist era) and finally found one for $75 that sounded like it would meet my needs. I went to look at it before borrowing a truck and rounding up some mover friends, and what I found was actually quite amazing.

The desk was huge (and heavy, I admit, five moves later), but the woman selling  it had an extremely familiar face, one I had seen recently.  On the phone, she called herself Mona Thurston, but as soon as she opened the door, I blurted out: "You're Mona Van Duyn!"  Mona was a local poet and I had seen her give a reading just two weeks before, so her face was fresh in my memory.  This was 20 years ago, and she was old then, but a few months after I purchased her desk (how could I not!), she was named Poet Laureate of the United States.  She was the first woman to hold the post (and actually only the sixth ever, the post being somewhat recently established - see the link for more history) and the second St. Louisan, after Howard Nemerov. (This region has a long literary history - both T.S. Eliot and William Burroughs were born here - and a strong, world-renowned community of poets so the St. Louis component should not be surprising.)

I'm sure Mona was as surprised to see a poetry fan at her door as I was to see her opening the door.  As we were moving the desk out a few days later, I mentioned that I was starting a new stay-at-home career and that I hoped to do more writing, and it seemed to please her that her old desk was finding a new home with a another writer. I never saw Mona again - she died in 2004 - but I have felt her spirit with me over the years, and her desk has stayed with me and inspired me, even though it has been a monster to move and has largely, in recent years, become a magnet for clutter. However, at this point in my life and writing career, I do most of my work on a laptop computer, in a rocking chair, so it's time to let another writer's spirit find a home with my and Mona's huge, old, green metal desk. I'm sure she would approve. I am posting a picture here, but buyer be warned:  My garage is overrun with STUFF, so getting close enough to get a good shot (again) was impossible.  From the picture, it looks like there are some rusty spots so it may need to be painted, but seriously, if you will give me $5, and move it, it's yours!!

Finally, I have a cedar chest for sale that was my very first piece of furniture. I bought it for a song during college. It had been marked down at JCPenney, where I worked, and my employee discount cinched the deal. My  boyfriend (now ex-husband) and I had just started living together, and other than his twin-sized bed, we owned nothing other than our books and clothes.  Over the years, I have used the chest to store holiday decorations and miscellaneous junk, and it provided great kid seating at the table for holiday meals, but it has never really been used for its intended purpose - to keep winter clothing moth-free. It still smells incredible (and will definitely safeguard your clothes), but the seat needs to be reupholstered and the knobs replaced.  Again, if you will come get it and make a small donation to my household fund, it's yours (picture above, amidst all the garage debris).

These last two items are heavy (the buyer must remove them) and I don't expect them to produce enough revenue to buy dog food, but it is important to me that they find a good home, that I get to move on, and that I do not have to move them again.

I also have two or three 20-gallon tubs full of record albums.  I have great taste in music so you will find some amazing things in this collection.  Alas, the covers may not be in great shape, but if you've always wanted an original copy of George Harrison's orange, boxed "Concert for Bangladesh," look no further.

So, if you're interested, send me an email: evonbehren2@yahoo.com, and I promise not to talk your head off about the history of these items (that's what this post was for) or my kids or politics or movies or anything else other than the stuff I have to sell.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Ties that Bind Us

In exactly a week, I will attend my high school reunion.  It is our 35th.  If that seems like an odd year to celebrate, you should know that since our 20th, we have met every five years.  Apparently, we genuinely like each other.

People who have moved to the St. Louis region from other parts of the country seem stymied when they are asked where they went to high school.  Contrary to popularly expressed opinion, I don’t think we ask this question to assess each other’s socioeconomic backgrounds.  I think it’s because we tend to connect with others starting with which football team we cheered for as teenagers and continuing with how many kids we have, where we like to vacation, and which coffee shops we frequent.  For St. Louisans, asking a new acquaintance about their high school is a starting point in a conversation about community.

I realize that for many people, high school is a memory they would like to obliterate.  To be sure, there were popular kids in our school who were both resented and admired.  As time has passed, however, those distinctions have become largely lost to memory.  As for bullies, I’m sure they existed, as they always have, but I have no idea who they were.  I tend to think we were nicer to each other than my children’s generation is, but that too may be a measure of diminished memory.

I sometimes wonder if the era in which my classmates and I started our high school education had something to do with how well we get along today.  It was 1972. We grew up seeing war and riots on the evening news every night.  Social unrest was the language of our childhood.  We were literally the children of the 60s.  Martin Luther King was more than just the name on a holiday to us.

We entered high school just as the racial issues that had plagued our school district were dying down.  We spent four years together, walking the halls, sitting in the quadrangle, going to homecoming dances and football games, and generally just being kids together.  When we graduated, our class was down-the-middle, 50/50, black and white.  It never occurred to me that our experience was not the norm, but it has influenced my belief that integrated education is the best way to overcome our nation’s racial divide.  Spending my formative years in such a diverse environment taught me to see race very differently from the way my parents’ generation did. When I see a black person, I just see a person.

When I entered middle school (when did we stop calling it junior high?), the first real friend I made was Janice Hollis.  She was the smart, funny black girl who sat in front of me in math class.  She has recently reminded me that we first met at the bus stop, where we discovered we were both “new” kids on the block.  I had come from a Lutheran school, so this was my first public school experience, and she had come from another school district.  We have now been friends for 41 years.

Just as so many other Americans have done, many of my classmates (Normandy High School, Class of ’76) have reconnected on Facebook, but even before our generation stole that social networking goldmine away from our kids, my high school classmates were getting together every five years.  Janice has spearheaded many of those reunions, including this year’s, because in addition to (still) being smart and funny, she is also a great planner.

So, in a little over a week, we will get together at Cardwells in Clayton to eat, dance, and be merry.  We will show off pictures of grandkids this time around and talk about our empty-nester vacation plans.  We will welcome many classmates back who have moved to faraway states.  Hugs and cameras will be everywhere.  We will take a minute out of our reverie to silently remember the classmates who are no longer with us.

The ties that bind us, fused in an era marked by assassinations and protest, connect us, but they are not all that we are.  New generations, 35 years of history, a changing world, and personal stories of loss and growth too intricate to explain in paragraphs, are part of who we are too.  And it’s all part of the conversation that started so many years ago and that continues when we reunite next week, as a class, as a community, as friends.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Family Coming Together

Most families have colorful stories that get passed down from one generation to the next.  In my family, there is the one about my great-grandmother who allegedly crossed the Arkansas River in a covered wagon as a baby, across the frozen river. No bridge was available, or so the story goes.

Then there's the other one we can't authenticate, due to conflicting census records (according to my brother, the family genealogy geek) that says my great-great grandmother's father was a native American Indian (tribe unknown) who took his wife's name after marriage (John Kelly) and who disappeared at some point and was believed to have been murdered by a pair of "maiden aunts."  Nobody is really sure whose aunts they were, but they apparently then raised my great-great grandmother.

This comes to mind because that segment of my family, descended through the Hardin lineage, will come together again in September for our annual family reunion.  This year, in addition to barbecue, gossip, and photo-taking, we plan to produce a family cookbook, complete with recipes, photos, history, and anecdotes.  None of us is getting any younger, and in fact, everyone from my grandparents' generation is gone, with just one exception, so before we lose any more history (or memory), it's time to start documenting.

The project started as a simple collection of recipes, but my cousin Sharon was unable to generate much enthusiasm.  Then last year I foolishly volunteered to coordinate.  Now that I have started to seriously think about it, and after reading this great article about reunions and family history by the legendary former Post-Dispatch writer and editor (and now Beacon editor) Robert Duffy, it has become something else.  Something bigger and, admittedly, much more ambitious.

There are stories I think we need to tell, both the ones we can't substantiate and those we heard firsthand.  My grandmother really did pick cotton during the depression, and she did so with the most recent baby (she had five) nearby so she could nurse if the baby needed her. My grandmother also repeated eighth grade, not because she was held back, but because there was no high school and she wanted to stay in school. As the first-ever college graduate in my family, that story in particular always brings tears to my eyes.

Our family is both better educated and more affluent than it was 50 years ago, which means that much like other families, we are increasingly spread out.  Most reunions see only a smattering of each generation of each branch.  Every time I go, however, I am astonished at how many children under the age of 10 there are to whom I am genetically related.

For the past four years, my daughter has been away at college and unable to attend so this will be her first one in as many years.  She will be bored.  She will beg me to leave after an hour.  She has better things to do (I can hear already).  No doubt she is right.  She and her sibling did not grow up in as close proximity to my maternal family as I did.  As kids, my siblings and I spent summer vacations hanging out with cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.  We went to the homes of second cousins for family get-togethers fairly often. We had about 15 first cousins.  My kids have two (on my side).

Someday, there will no longer be a sufficient number of people left who are interested enough to go to all the trouble of organizing this huge event we call the annual Hardin Family Reunion (named for my maternal great-grandmother, Laura Jane Hardin).  It is already a shadow of its former self.  Someday, too, my children will be older and they may have kids and grandkids who may have questions about their heritage.  I'm hoping the Hardin Family History and Recipe Book will be there to help, so that they too can hear the story about the maiden aunts and the Indian named John.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

This Very Special Mother's Day

I've been teetering on the brink of depression for months now at the realization that my days as a hands-on mom are just about over.  I loved being a mom of little kids.  I gladly and without any regret left full-time employment to stay home with my babies and only grudgingly rejoined the work force as they approached school age and we needed the income.  I love my career, and in many ways it allows me to be creative and to walk a path I feel privileged to be on, but I loved being a mom more.

I even loved it when each of them entered adolescence, because I was ready for that maturational stage too.  The funny thing about parenting is that you grow up with them.  You are really ready for school when it happens, and if you’ve done it right, you’re probably ready for high school when it happens too.

But I was not ready for college or for the leave-taking that followed.  Wiser people than me have said it takes about six months to get over being sad when the first one goes off to college, and that is partly true.  I found, however, that every time she went back to school after being home for a week or more, I re-experienced the sadness and tears that I’d experienced that first September in 2007.

Now she is graduating from college, ready to move on to the next stage of making her dreams a reality, and her younger sibling is graduating from high school and preparing to start his college experience.  They will both be gone by September.

I’ve been pulling together photographs to use on Facebook and in graduation announcements and the result is I’m remembering how incredibly happy those early years of motherhood made me.  I never expected to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom.  As a teenager and as a young adult, I always assumed I would have a career and put the kids in daycare, but when the time came, the reality hit me like a sledgehammer.  I couldn’t do it.  I had to work for the first few years of my firstborn’s life because we had not planned on me not working, but I managed to finagle night-time shifts and part-time work, so I could be home with her during the day, before eventually quitting completely.

BEST THING I EVER DID. It surprised everybody, myself not the least, that I wanted to be a full-time mom, but still:   BEST THING I EVER DID.

So, I am celebrating this particular Mother’s Day with gusto. I know the future holds great things (I can see it through the tears), and that this is just the next stage in our (mutual) development.  I am happy for both of them, and I am grateful that they gave me the time they did.  I will hold it in my heart and treasure it forever.

Happy Mother's Day!