About Me

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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, December 29, 2010

Yes I Did Work at the Arch

As I came over a rise today on Page Avenue, I was able to see the downtown skyline, and the Arch, for a couple of seconds. I always forget that this high point exists on Page, so it always surprises and delights me. There is just something really wonderful about seeing the Arch, in the distance or up close. It is a marvel.

For two summers during college, I had a great job at the Arch as a motion-picture projectionist. They paid me prevailing union wages, which was good money for a college kid, and I didn't really have a lot to do other than start the film, switch reels, and manually rewind the film.  So after closing the theatre doors and starting the automated projector to play "Monument to a Dream," I often wandered around the place. Sometimes, I found myself sitting on the steps under the Arch, just staring up at it.

From every angle, the design is captivating. As a non-mathematician, I often wondered that it didn't just fall over. I read an article in the Post-Dispatch once in the early 80s that depicted with graphic detail what would happen to the Arch if downtown became ground zero during a nuclear attack. It would essentially fold backwards into the river with the force of the blast.  Short of a cataclysmic event, however, the engineers who designed it expected it to stand for hundreds and hundreds of years.

More recently, the Post-Dispatch has investigated and reported on some serious care-taking issues at the Arch. One article, "Corrosion Goes Unchecked," was accompanied by photographs of rust and pools of water at the base of the legs that maintenance crews try to keep cleaned up. This occurs in an area workers can access. Other corrosion, higher up and on the outer side of the stainless steel skin, is more difficult to reach.

The problem was first noted in 2005. A structural engineer told the Post it was possible that corrosion inside the steel walls is “bleeding through failed welds and staining the glimmering outside surface." It could be an aggressive corrosion, the article said, but there is no way to know because no maintenance records exist. The 2005 report recommended regular photographs be taken to document the problem over time, but apparently this has not been done.

There are plans in place to overhaul the Arch grounds, build access to downtown across Interstate 70, and add amusements and other things to the riverfront. But the anchor for all this is supposed to be the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, that structure we lovingly call the Arch. It doesn't take a genius to see the futility of planning to improve the grounds if you don't first make sure the Arch will remain standing.

My two summers working at the Arch coincided with the first two years of Fair St. Louis, then called the VP Fair. The early years of the Fair were problematic. In 1982, severe rain and huge crowds reduced the Arch grounds to a gigantic mudslide. People waded in the reflecting ponds, killing the goldfish. The grounds were covered in trash and broken glass. The irrigation system was damaged.  Trees and grass had to be replaced, at a cost of about $120,000 (in 1982 dollars). Eventually, civic leaders promised to repair the damage and put plans into place to make sure it didn't happen again.

Our boss at the time, the park’s superintendent Jerry Schober, wrote a letter to Arch employees. The complete contents of what he said are now lost to time, but the part I remember is this: "I know how much you all love this park." The funny thing is that I didn't realize how much until I read his letter. I do love that park. I think most St. Louisans love it. Ask any native and he or she is very likely to have a story about the first time they took the tram to the top, or the first wedding they attended under the Arch, or how wild the river looks from the top of the staircase when it's at flood stage. Or maybe they will tell you, as I would, about the Chuck Berry concert under the legs of the Arch during that 1982 VP Fair. Any native will tell you they love this city, they love Chuck Berry, and they love the Arch.

Fixing the corrosion problem may not be easy.  The original engineers made no plans for exterior maintenance access.  Use of scaffolds, cranes, ropes, or a helicopter all have serious drawbacks.  Here's what I think: We are a smart species. If we could figure out how to build such an amazing thing, we can figure out how to fix it, and we can figure out how to pay for it.

I remember seeing the partially built legs of the Arch when I was four years old. My children have never known a time when the Arch wasn't there to welcome them home from a journey. I would like to know that my great grandchildren will be able to tell their children stories about the first time they rode to the top and what a majestic and beautiful thing it was.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Man in the Wheelchair

[Parts four and five in my Opinion Shaper career - transferring this column over here before it its deactivated on the Suburban Journals Website]

OPINION SHAPER: Man in wheelchair offers lesson in government

OPINION SHAPER: Man in wheelchair offers lesson in government

We live in an era when people from different political perspectives spend a lot of time squabbling over who's right, who's got the higher moral ground, and what's better for our nation and our planet - bigger government, less government, higher or lower taxes, etc.

I know what I feel personally, but I admit that I don't always have the answers or a solution to what ails us.

I do, however, know when I see something that works. Today, I saw a man in a wheelchair in the grocery store. He seemed to have some kind of muscular condition. His arms were bent at the wrist, and he didn't seem able to use his hands. He also wore some kind of breathing apparatus, and he needed assistance in the store. I saw him several times, and I noticed people were helping him, which was cool, but not what got my attention.

As I left the store, I saw the guy again. He was tooling along in his motorized chair, by himself, cutting through the store's parking lot and then through a restaurant's lot, to get to the sidewalk on Olive. I drove slowly so I could watch his progress.

He had a backpack on his chair but no bags, so he clearly did not buy very much, but he was speeding along, enjoying the 88-degree weather and the sunshine, rather than taking any number of public transportation vehicles that are no doubt at his disposal. He must live close, I thought. Then I checked the sidewalk to see if it had wheelchair access. It did.

In fact, all along Olive there are sidewalks with wheelchair access. They all looked fairly new. I work in city government, so I know how much it costs to rebuild a sidewalk. And then it hit me: We did that. We built those sidewalks. As a nation, as a society, we decided a few years back that we needed to make our world more user- friendly, more accessible to folks in wheelchairs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was initially passed in 1990. I looked it up. Here is just a little bit of what the original bill, which was updated in 2008, says under "Findings": "Some 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities … Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate [these] individuals … [who] continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including … relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities."

These were the findings of Congress, which essentially said: Shame on us. But here's the best part: "The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency … to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous…"

This part reminds me first that we are a nation and second that as a nation, we have ideals, beliefs and goals designed to ensure our common prosperity. The problem is we can't agree on how to achieve that. The fight has gotten so loud and so negative that it looks increasingly like we may never agree on anything again.
So maybe what we need to do is remind ourselves of what we have done in the past, what we have achieved when we worked together on a common goal.

Together we decided, as a nation, that even though it was going to cost an awful lot of money to rebuild sidewalks and make them handicapped-accessible, it was the right and smart thing to do.

Together, we made it possible for the guy in the wheelchair to get outside, enjoy the nice weather on a beautiful fall day and experience just a fraction of the independence that the rest of us take for granted every day. We did that. We did that together. There is something to be learned from that.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Grateful Life

Last year on Facebook, I started writing a daily status update on November 9, with the goal of writing one each day until Thanksgiving about something or someone in my life I was thankful for.  This year, instead of redoing  that, because I think I hit all the major points the first time around, I'm simply going to repost it here in its entirety in my blog (having painstakingly copied each post into a Word document last year; sometimes it pays to be anal). In re-reading these a year later, what I like most is that they cover the gamut of life, from every day inventions, such as space heaters, because sometimes it's the mundane that touches us the most, to ideas and (of course) the people I love.  Some were hard to re-read, especially the one about my dad. (Note:  There isn't an entry for my mom, because I wrote a whole blog post about her, which I posted on Thanksgiving last year.)  I thoroughly enjoyed writing each and every one of these.  Starting at the beginning...

November 9:  Borrowing from Kate: "Let's see how many people can do this. Every day this month until Thanksgiving think of one thing that you are thankful for and post it as your status." Today, I am grateful for:  Kate.

November 10:  Today I am thankful that tomorrow I am going home. I love traveling, but I like going home even more (and in fact I wrote a blog post on that subject on the plane here but when my wireless thingy died...aarrgh...guess I need to buy a flash drive before I ship it off to Asus)...okay, back to being thankful :).

November 11:  Beth is thankful today for all the women and men who serve in the armed forces currently and for all those who have done so in the past, my father and my Uncle Fred included. I'm also thinking about their families, especially the families of the soldiers who come home wounded and broken and need a lot of care. Heroes, all. Happy Veterans' Day.

November 12:  Today, I am thankful for my dog Molly who faithfully scares away potential intruders with her big booming ferocious bark, even though she wouldn't hurt anyone (but they don't know that, as my mom used to say), and who is usually more happy to see me when I get home than my kids are. Good doggy.

November 13: I’m a day early but inspired by Laurie's friend Vicki, who posted a video of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," I want to say that on Friday I will be thankful for the members of Monty Python and all the laughter and joy they've given me over the years, in this amazing and expanding universe. Eric says it so much better than me [link to the Galaxy Song].

November 14:  Beth is thankful for my Aunt Virginia, who taught me the importance of spoken language when I was about eight or nine years old. One day, in front of her, I said, "I seen," and she corrected me. Nobody had ever done that before, and I have made every attempt, ever since, to treat spoken language as if it were the holiest gift, which it is.

November 15:  Beth is thankful that my brother Jeffrey has beaten back the leukemia monster and seems to be doing very well. Robust, even. (Photo with his wife Nancy on Halloween - he didn't wear a costume; she did.)

November 16:  Beth is thankful today for my brother Michael who periodically just jumps in and fixes something on one of my cars. Yesterday he replaced the serpentine belt in about two minutes on the old Buick. Two years ago, when I was unemployed and getting ready to take Sara to college, he replaced the timing belt on the Elantra. He also brings laughter and foolishness into my world when I need and least expect it.

November 17:  Today I am thankful for my other brother Jeffrey, who keeps up with me in the wise-ass-remark department quite efficiently, who is always there when I need him, and who shouldered the other half of the burden of our mother's caretaking in the last years of her life right alongside me. Not too bad for the baby of the family.

November 18:  Beth is thankful today that somebody once upon a time invented the space heater, two versions of which have kept my son and me warm for the last two nights as we first waited for a furnace repair and now await a fuel line repair and a re-inspection and (hopefully) our gas being turned back on. I can kinda understand why my grandparents liked electric heat.

November 19:  Beth is thankful today to have a great job. So many don't have jobs at all, and I have one where I get to do the things I love (write, talk, plan, create, develop, and write some more). And I do it alongside some pretty amazing folks. Good job. Great colleagues. I am thankful.

November 20:  Today I am thankful for coffee.

November 21:   Beth is thankful today for weekends ... so I can reduce my sleep deficit.

November 22:  Today I am thankful for my sister-in-law Nancy, who keeps my brother happy and sane, and who is hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year (my first one without my baby girl at home). It's nice to have a sister, especially one who's funny and a good cook.

November 23:  Today, I am thankful for my dad, who married my mom when I was seven months old and adopted me, giving me a name and a home and a wonderful, loving extended family who accepted me and never let on that I wasn't one of them. I cherish my memories of Saturday afternoons spent watching Charlie Chan movies with him and all the political arguments we shared over dinner. He taught me to think for myself. I miss him.

November 24:  Today I am thankful for my son, Simon. It has given me the most unexpected joy to raise a son, now teetering on the edge of adulthood, and to watch him grow into a compassionate and thoughtful young man. From the little boy who couldn't sit still to the funny, laughing teenager who swims miles every day (and who came in 5th at conference - yay!!!), he has been a delight every day of his life.

November 25:  Today, I'm thankful for my daughter Sara, who brought magic into my life when she was born and who continues to transform my life as a person and a parent with her imagination and creativity and insight. She is just an amazing kid. Simon and I will miss her this weekend but she'll be home for a month very soon...yay!!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Remembering Mr. Adams

A discussion with my daughter the other day about how bad public schools are, as evidenced by how poorly most of the population writes, led to a discussion of sentence diagramming. My daughter and I are in that peculiar, geeky segment of the population that not only enjoyed diagramming in school but still likes to talk about it. I admitted to geeky already, ok?

We then proceeded to compare our experiences, and she humored me as I launched into a description of my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Adams. Charles Adams was a cool, middle-aged, black man who didn't hide his cultural blackness to fit into what for him must have been an overwhelmingly white world. It was 1971-72, and our school district was pretty well integrated. Even so, he was the only black teacher I have ever had, from grade school through college.

I learned a few years ago that he had died of a massive heart attack, and it made me very sad. Mr. Adams taught me how to write a decent sentence. I was an okay writer when I entered his class, but his emphasis on the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure, which he illustrated by forcing us to diagram our sentences, dramatically improved my command of language. It is because of him that I was tracked into accelerated English in high school.

He clicked his heels as he moved around the chalk board and spoke in quick, punctuated sentences, with a rhythm to his speech that I can only describe as jazzy. I have a vague memory that he liked jazz music and couldn't stomach the pop sounds of the day. He wore a short afro and a mustache, with just a hint of a beard, which I like to think he grew out during the summers.

I suspect if I hadn't been at such an awkward, self-obsessed stage in my own development, I might have appreciated him more at the time. I wish I had more pronounced memories from that year, but I know I enjoyed his class a lot, and today, almost 40 years later, I still hold him in the highest regard, and I still love to diagram sentences. What a nice legacy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

One Year

525,600 minutes, goes the song. "525,000 moments so dear."

I love that song, and clearly I'm not alone. People walk around singing it. It's catchy and rhythmic, and the title isn't bad either: "Seasons of Love."

I've been singing it a lot lately because I find myself with a one-year deadline. It's a deadline I've known intellectually was coming for 17 years but emotionally have assumed would never arrive. In one year, give or take a few weeks, I will send my second (and final) child off to college.

Just three years ago, I sent his sister off to college, and that was excruciatingly hard, but next year, 525,600 minutes from now, she will be living somewhere on her own (Europe or Los Angeles, she tells me), and he will be away at college. They will both be gone, and I will be here.

Just this past week, I found myself filling out paper work for school and commenting out loud that this was the last time I would ever do this. The paper work started the year the older one started preschool, which means I have been completing these ridiculous forms for 18 years now. The last contact information sheet, the last school photo order form, the last health form. I don't think I will miss any of that.

In fact, I won't miss the chaos and stress of school at all. I won't miss dealing with awful teachers or the cruelty of other children. I won't miss arguing with public school bureaucracy. I won't miss the fundraisers or the committee meetings or the peevishness of other parents who think their own children are saints.

I will miss him.

But I still have this last year. "How do you measure, measure a year: In daylights. In sunsets. In midnights. In cups of coffee." I will measure it in the morning when I make his breakfast and take it in to him. I will savor that sleepy look on his face, under the covers, up on his bunk, when he asks for two more minutes. I will measure it in the annoyance in his voice when I tell him nope, he cannot have that friend over who I know drinks and smokes. I will measure it in the stress we both experience as we journey through the college application process together and try desperately not to miss any deadlines.

I will measure it in the look of joy on his face when he wins a video game, or talks to his girlfriend on Skype, or realizes I've made his favorite pasta meal after a long, hard afternoon swim practice when he is clearly exhausted. I will measure it when I watch him bake cakes with his friends, or hold his cat, or pry the contacts from his swollen eyes after sleeping in them too many nights.

I will measure it when I come home to find he has fallen asleep on the sofa, and I will sit in my rocking chair and watch him sleep, as I have done his whole life.

The irony of the next year is not lost on me. I would slow it down to a snail's pace, while both of my children would like it just to be over. They are ready for the next big thing. They were ready yesterday.

So how will we spend our last 525,600 minutes together? I will probably make him have dinner with me more often than he would like, and I will no doubt force him to build one final snowman with me, chop down one last Christmas tree together. I will sit anxiously with him as we await acceptance letters, and I will help him pick out a suit for his senior picture and a tux for prom. I may let him get his other ear pierced. I will certainly want the privilege of driving him to register to vote next June. We have four seasons left to us, and I intend to savor and measure as many of those minutes as I can.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Please Don't Ask Me to Hold Your Baby

I hate babies. Okay, don't get me wrong. I don't actually hate babies. I just don't always love them. I love them in theory. I think they are adorable. Mostly. You gotta admit there are a few ugly ones. But mostly they are cute and cuddly and we ooh and ahh over them, and everybody wants one or two. Except me. I never wanted any and could be heard saying, for years and years, I am NEVER having children.

Of course, I did have kids, and I love them beyond words. Beyond sanity even. I have done and would do anything for them, including throw myself in front of a moving train to protect them or pick up their moldy dishes and disgusting socks. And if early results are any indication (they are 17 and 21), I did a pretty good job at this whole mothering thing.

But other than my own adorable offspring, I have really never loved babies. I am quite unusual in that regard in my family. Nobody waited as long as I did to have kids. My second child was born when I was 35, and my cousin, who is just seven months older than me, became a grandmother a few months later. In my family, I am the black sheep of motherhood.

When I was a teenager and forced to go to those family events that I now force my kids to attend, and the babies were rolled out, I oohed and ahhed and gushed with the best of them. I believe there even exists a photo someplace of me, at 17, holding one of these babies. I remember it fondly because it was a really good photo of me, unusual in those days and, well, ever since, but I couldn't tell you who the baby was. That's because I did the gushing and holding out of a sense of duty and to save my mother embarrassment. Not because I liked babies.

From a very early age, I can remember my mom expressing great concern and worry that I would never propagate the species. She had good reason to worry. I never played with dolls, which frustrated my mother, who believed that all girls loved dolls. She LOVED to play with dolls, so every birthday and every Christmas, I got new dolls, black ones, white ones, Indian ones, big ones, little ones, soft ones, rubber ones - dozens and dozens of dolls over the years, in the hope, I assume, that they would look adorable and cuddly and I would throw aside all toys to play with them. I was a great disappointment to her.

Then, as a teenager,I did my best to devise clever excuses for not being available when asked to babysit. This was partly about the money. I understand the going rate today actually exceeds minimum wage in some areas, but in the 1970s, that was not the case. My first job, at 15, involved washing dishes in a nursing home, for ten cents over minimum wage. So it made no sense to me to agree to change some kid's disgusting diapers, listen to him scream at me when it was time for bed, or eat those really awful TV Dinners his parents left for me, for HALF the money I could make in a real job. Of course, it wasn't just the bad pay. It was also because I, well, I really just hated babies. I had absolutely no interest.

My niece will hate me for telling this story, but when she was about a year old, and my mother was babysitting her during one of my visits, my mother asked me to change my niece's poopy diaper. Now, I dearly love my niece, and she is the most beautiful young woman today, but at 12 months old, she could fill a diaper with the most foul-smelling excrement. Seriously foul. Reader, I tried. I really tried. And I gagged. I got about halfway through the diaper change before I ran from the room with my hand over my mouth, gagging, and screaming that I would never have kids. My mother finished up. And she told me something that I have never forgotten and that has turned out to be completely true: It's different when it's your own child. What she really meant was, when it's your own baby, well, their s@#t doesn't stink.

She was right. I don't know if it's because we share the same DNA, or if it's because I carried them inside my own body for nine months, but truly, my children's poop has never made me gag.

Not only did I change their diapers with joy and a certain degree of, um, eagerness, I did a couple of other things that surprised my entire family, and we are talking jaw-dropping surprise here. I breastfed both kids until they were ready to take their SATs (well, actually only 2.5 and 3 years, respectively), and I quit working to stay home with them. I was the quintessential SAHM (that's stay-at-home-mom for you neophytes). I baked bread with them, built houses out of blocks, and made valentines from scratch. We had a playgroup and I joined La Leche League. The whole nine yards. Devout feminist that I am, I could actually be heard, during those years, criticizing daycare kids and working moms (i.e., wage-earning moms). Sad but true. I guess my college professor was right: The reformed types are the worst.

I remember my brother, who has for years told anyone who would listen that I am the educated one but he is the smart one, saying to me one day that he always thought I would do more with myself, that I would do great things. I tried to explain that staying home to raise my kids was the greatest calling I could think of, but I could see that he didn't get it. This is the same brother who caught me in the kitchen at my mom's house when I was seven months pregnant, shoeless, and scrounging for food in the fridge, and said to me: I finally get to tell you that you are barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Yes, some things never change.

Including my inability to love babies. As my kids got older and I went back to work, I began to realize that once again, I had absolutely no interest in holding babies or taking care of them or being anywhere near them. I could and do admire them from a distance. Babies are beautiful. I love taking pictures of babies. I even love hearing their squeals of delight (you never get over loving that sound). But do I want to hold your precious baby? No I do not. Please don't take offense.

There likely is a very good reason for this. I am menopausal. This means I no longer have those mother-baby-feel-good-let's-nurture-everybody-in-sight hormones flowing freely through my blood stream. I am, in some ways, back to being pre-pubescent. The human body is an amazing thing.

My daughter, who loved to play with dolls as a child, much to her grandmother's delight, has picked up my mantra. I AM NEVER HAVING KIDS. She cites lots of reasons. "They stink. They scream. They are selfish and time-consuming and we don't have enough resources on the planet for more babies. It's the selfish thing to do. I may adopt. No, I won't adopt because babies are hard. And they stink."

And what do I say to her in response? You know what I say.

It's different when it's your own child.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Wonder of Unstructured Time

My mother was very good at robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep our tuition paid at the Lutheran grade school my brothers and I attended. It was the 1960s and she did not yet work, so every extra penny went into our education, which meant there was no money for summer camp. In fact, when I was a young adult and began reading about other people's experiences at summer camp, I was mystified and jealous that they had had such great childhood summers.

Our summers were pretty much spent sleeping late, riding our bikes, playing ball, swinging and sliding on the rusty swing set in the back yard (and building a fort under the slide), climbing trees, and watching TV on the ever-revolving set of black and white televisions that my dad would buy cheaply and keep in working order for a while. Once in a while my mom would spice things up with a little barbecue, and for two weeks every summer, we would visit our grandparents in southeast Missouri, where our summer "vacation" really took off (my grandmother had a real soda machine on her carport, a way for her to make a little spending money off the neighborhood kids, so we got more soda at her house than we ever did at home).

There were no video games, cell phones, or computers (we "googled" at the library). I spent a lot of time reading in bed and daydreaming at the top of the tree in the back yard. We didn't complain of being bored because if we did, some kind of physical work in the house or the yard would be found for us to do.

When I was a young parent and had stopped working to be home full-time, I would hear stories from working moms about how difficult it was to get a summer camp schedule all plotted out and arranged. Most camps didn't run all summer, and the best ones offered two-week sessions, back-to-back, but with separate themes, registrations, and requirements. One mother told me, with a great sigh of exasperation, that she kept a calendar on the refrigerator beginning in March and filled it in as she filled up each week with camp, vacation, or time with grandparents. I had a hard time not looking at her in horror. If it's hard on you, I thought, what do you think it's doing to your kids?

It was often difficult to arrange play dates for my kids with school friends because they were literally booked up, and you know, if you're paying several hundred dollars a week for a camp, you don't want to interrupt it for a two-hour play date on Tuesday. So since our family could not afford these gold-plated camps, we improvised. We went to the pool a lot (an improvement on my own childhood, when there was no pool close by and no money to join the Y), and we slept in, played ball, painted with finger paints, rode our bikes, went for walks, cooked together, read books, went to the library, built fortresses out of couch cushions, and watched TV (color, with cable, another improvement).

And it was wonderful. I wouldn't trade my childhood or my kids' childhood for anything. As a kid, I had a lot of "down" time to think and play and to just be. Even today, I find myself craving those moments when I know I am scheduled to do absolutely nothing. I am productive at work, spend time with friends, write a lot, work out at the gym, talk with my kids throughout the day and spend as much time with them, now that they are young adults, as they will give me.

But...but I would not be able to do any of these things very well, if I didn't recharge, if I didn't give myself time to be alone, to do nothing, or to do nothing important. Everybody needs that. I have had people tell me that they don't need it, that they hate being alone or they hate having nothing to do. They try to fill up every minute the way that mom from years ago filled up her kids' summer calendar. They make me want to reach out to them, take them by the hand, and walk them to a park where they can sit and do nothing but watch the kids play on the playground while the church bells peel in the distance.

I readily admit that there is no secret formula to raising kids, and I would never claim my parenting style was the best way or the only way. In fact, I'm absolutely certain my kids have watched too much television, eaten too many frozen pizzas, and played too many video games. I'm also sure that my friends' children who spent their summers in camp got a great deal of benefit from those experiences, and I know that some families just have no choice. But I truly believe that happiness lies in finding some way to have the kind of unfettered, unstructured time I and so many of my generation enjoyed as kids, when the only deadline we faced was waiting for darkness and the arrival of "lightning bugs" that we captured in jars and then released...

It was wonderful.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Caveman Life

One day last week I found myself driving to nowhere after I missed my turn. That sounds like a cool song lyric, except that it's less about finding a metaphorical path and more about forgetting what I was doing in the middle of doing it. I literally, not figuratively, forgot to turn, forgot that I had a destination, forgot, in fact, that I was driving.

This week, I sampled some bread and butter at the grocery store and decided that it really was excellent butter and I should buy some. It was on sale AND there was one of those immediate coupons (55 cents off in this case) for extra savings, which sealed the deal. I am enjoying that butter this week, but I completely forgot to use the coupon at the check-out lane.

I could go on and on, listing things that should have been easy to remember that I completely forgot to do. Or I could just let my kids write this post. I keep them in stitches with this stuff.

I have only really JUST entered mid-life so of course my big worry is, well, if it's this bad now, how bad's it gonna be in 10 years? Or 20? So I find myself reading all those magazine articles about keeping your brain in good shape and what to do to minimize your chances of early dementia.

Turns out that our ancestors, those hunter-gatherer types, were on to something. It turns out that some of the best things you can eat to keep your memory in good shape are, you guessed it: Nuts and berries. Blueberries, strawberries, walnuts, and almonds are great at reducing inflammation and protecting the brain.

Of course, fish, chocolate, and wine are all good for us too. Fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, eaten once a week, will help to keep Alzheimers at bay, and chocolate - containing at least 70% cocoa - will improve blood flow to the brain. (Source: MORE Magazine, June 2010). We've been reading about fish, chocolate, and wine in lots of magazines for several years now. But berries and nuts? Really?

I find it amazing that primitive man (and woman) was so good at eating the right things, while we - modern man (and woman) - can't seem to figure it out. With all our gadgets and leisure time and gym time and our ever-increasing life span, we still need magazine writers to tell us that all we really need to do to keep our brains healthy is to eat like a caveman.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Thoughts

“He takes men out of time and makes them feel eternity.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don't go to church, and I am not a religious person, but I do find meaning in two particular religious holidays, or observances: Passover and Good Friday. I learned about Passover during college from my friend Ellen, who taught me that it was, in a way, a civil rights observance. Ellen gifted me, a novice to Jewish tradition, with containers of her grandmother's mouth-watering matzo ball soup. She also told me that Passover was the one time of the year when she actually enjoyed being the youngest of four daughters (because it is the youngest who gets to ask the four questions during the Seder).

I attended Lutheran grade school, and while everyone else was getting excited about new Easter clothes and getting a couple of days off from school, I was captivated by all the black that got draped over everything in church for Good Friday. The purple of Lent would be stripped from the altar and replaced by black, and the wall-mounted crucifix would be covered in black as well. Imagine walking into church on Friday morning and being greeted by a building shrouded in black. It had an appropriately solemn effect on me.

Apparently, it is no coincidence that my two favorite holidays fall so close together on the calendar or that Good Friday frequently occurs during Passover. Many theologians believe it was a Passover Seder that Jesus was celebrating when he was captured during the "Last Supper." Also, the date for Easter, as established by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (according to Wikipedia), is not a fixed date on the Gregorian or Julian calendars, such as Christmas is, but is instead a "movable feast," the date determined by a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar.

As a non-worshiper, I appreciate the literary and symbolic meaning of these two important events on the Christian and Jewish calendars. This makes me a bit of a pagan, I guess. I think of Christmas as an end-of-year rite of passage, but also as the pagans saw it - as a warding off of the coming darkness of winter (thus the candles and lights of Christmas). Easter, of course, is just the opposite - a celebration of life and rebirth. But before we get to Easter, we have to get through Good Friday. Unlike Christmas, this passage is a somber one.

For practicing, faithful Christians, Good Friday is the holiest of days because all that God does for them is predicated on the sacrifice he made on this day. For me, it is a reminder that the gift of life is not without pain and suffering and sacrifice. God gave his only son. Likewise, Passover is no party. The Jews delivered by Moses suffered greatly, during captivity and after. In the end, only their descendants actually got to live in the promised land.

Of course, Good Friday as a stand-alone observance would not fulfill either the religious or the literary requirement of resolution and catharsis. It is a sacred day to Christians because of what comes after: Resurrection, salvation, forgiveness. For the faithful, Easter is about the sacrifice God made for them. For me, the story of Easter is an affirmation that life has meaning and love can save us.

Still, you don't get to Easter without passing through Good Friday. No get-out-of-jail passes allowed. It is a day to be felt. Even non-believers such as myself can appreciate the importance and mood of the day. So, I won't wish you a happy Good Friday, but in two days, it will be a different story.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Medium is Our Life

I sometimes wonder what Canadian-born media thinker Marshall McLuhan would think of today's Internet-based culture. I like to think he would be fascinated and captivated, and I wish he were still around to tell us himself.

I first learned of McLuhan in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall. Woody is standing in a movie line listening to a pseudo-intellectual in front of him talking about McLuhan's theories. Allen, no pseudo-intellectual novice himself, disagrees with the man's interpretation and then, because he is the omniscient filmmaker, produces McLuhan (in a cameo) on the spot, with the comment "I have him right here." McLuhan proceeds to back up Allen's interpretation.

Annie was made in 1977, and McLuhan died just three years later, so by the time I started reading Understanding Media in college in 1980, his body of work was a fait accompli.

After his death, and with the changing complexity of media communication over the next 30 years, McLuhan's theories fell out of vogue. Still, even if you disagree with everything he wrote, he remains the father of media theory, in the sense that we talk about media theory today because McLuhan said we should. He is the guy.

So I wonder. Would he think the Internet is a cold or a hot medium? McLuhan said that movies are a "hot" medium because they require less effort to participate - we use one primary sense - vision - and we don't really have to fill in the details much. In contrast, television was a "cool" medium because it required more engagement on the user's part to understand and interpret the message. It's more complicated than that, and frankly, I never really understood this part of his theory very well (or maybe I just didn't agree).

The part of his stuff that I liked best was his "medium is the message" theory, his complicated assessment that the medium used to convey the message affects society in fundamental ways because of the nature or characteristics of the medium. For example, when Gutenberg first developed his printing press, the impact of the medium (greater mass production of books) on society had the effect of dramatically increasing literacy, which, of course, changed the world.

Fast forward 574 years, and ask yourself these questions. How many hours a day are you on the Internet? Where do you get the majority of your news - television, radio, newspapers, or online? When you need a new pair of shoes, do you go to the mall or do you visit macys.com? When you need to remind your teenager of something important, do you scotch-tape a note to his door or send him an email?

Most of us probably do a combination of these. For work, I still read the daily newspaper and I still run to the bathroom to wash off the newsprint (I will miss that experience some day), even though I spend much more time reading online news sources. I use Facebook to send out event invitations, group-message friends or "chat" with "peeps," and for content from unusual sources, such as NASA and the American Film Institute. I am more informed today, I'd say, than I ever have been in my life.

I do probably 75 percent of my non-food shopping, pay all of my bills but two, and bank online. If I could see the doctor online, I probably would.

You might think that all of this ease-of-access would be shaving hours off my day and that as a result, I'd have more leisure time, and I probably do, but guess where I spend a good portion of that leisure? Uh huh.

So what would old Herbert Marshall McLuhan think of this Internet stuff. Would he say that the Internet is the medium that proves his theory? Well, wait a minute, I have him right here...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Opinion Shaper: Parenting by Text Message

I am an "opinion shaper" for The Suburban Journals in St. Louis. So far, I have written three columns for them, and we'll see if they want me back in 2010. After they publish the column, we writers have the option to re-publish elsewhere. So, I am re-printing them here on my blog, before they disappear forever from the Journal's Website. This was the first one I wrote, back in June 2009. If you would prefer to jump to my personal blog posts, click here.

OPINION SHAPER: Parenting by text message has its advantages

Monday, June 1, 2009 5:11 PM CDT

Text from daughter: Got 87 percent on the German Cinema test.

Response from mom: Not too shabby.

Text from son: We flooded the darkroom today by accident.

Response from mom: Did you help clean up?

When I first re-entered the workforce after five years at home, my kids would call me frequently with a new question or complaint about their sibling. "Can I have a cookie?" or "She won't let me watch Blues Clues." Later it was "He won't get off the computer and I have a paper to write" or "It's her turn to load the dishwasher and she's making me do it."

I call this period in my professional life the "parenting by phone" years. It often felt like a high-wire balancing act. Projects at work were interspersed with calls from home and trips to school to pick up sick kids. I had amazingly patient and understanding bosses, or it never would have worked.

Today, one kid is in college and largely self-sufficient, while the other is in high school with multiple commitments he manages with minimal reminders. And yet, the shorthand parenting I put to good use during the early years continues to serve me well, but in a new context. I call these the "parenting by text message" years.

I have friends and family members who think text messaging is for kids or is a hassle and refuse to add it to their cell phone plans. Others never use it even though they're paying for it. Some people I know get messages from their kids, but the technology confounds them. I am not in any of those camps.

As soon as I discovered it, I instantly loved text messaging and the ability it gave me to communicate a quick idea without the need to make a phone call that might turn into an hour-long conversation. It was also the perfect way to graduate from being the mom of children to being the mom of teenagers and young adults who may have lives even busier than my own.

I'm not exactly what marketers call an early adopter - someone who buys new technologies as soon as they are available. Early adopters serve as a kind of guinea pig for companies, working out the early kinks of products. Remember the people who stood in line for days waiting for the first iteration of the iPhone? I would never do that, but I do gravitate toward technologies that make my life easier.

And I'm not alone. The Obama presidential campaign announced its vice presidential choice by text message.

I originally thought texting was a waste of money and overly cumbersome, but with the aid of a QWERTY keyboard, it makes communication both more portable and more immediate. I can take my phone anywhere, so I can reach my kids at any time, including when they're in class or when I'm in a meeting. My son recently texted me from a friend's house at 1:30 in the morning to tell me he was sick.

I like that I can contact my kids surreptitiously when they're visiting friends without their peers knowing they're being checked on. I can text them from the grocery store to see what they'd like for dinner or send them quick reminders that make all of our lives easier. Best of all, I can send them little notes that let them know I'm thinking about them when they're away or experiencing stress, such as during final exams. "I love u" takes just a nanosecond to type.

Beth von Behren of Olivette is one of 17 West County area Opinion Shapers. Opinion Shapers are guest columnists who submit a column three times a year on areas of interest to them. von Behren is a public information officer for the city of Kirkwood.

Opinion Shaper: The Cool New Thing

This is Opinion Shaper #2, published in September 2009:

Opinion Shaper: The cool new thing

Thursday, September 24, 2009 12:15 PM CDT

As I was leaving Trader Joe's, I noticed an elderly couple entering the store. They were carrying their own reusable grocery bags.

This surprised me somewhat because my experience with the senior members of my own family is that they tend to carry out mundane tasks, such as grocery shopping, in the easiest manner possible. I have always assumed that this reflected the common-sense attitude that they had paid their dues and worked hard and were entitled to be cut some slack.

But here was an older couple who had assumed the arduous task of purchasing, keeping up with and remembering to use their own grocery bags. "Aha," I thought. "This has caught on." Using your own grocery bags is clearly the cool new thing to do.

There have been lots of cool new things over the years, some of which have benefited us individually and globally. Certainly, using reusable grocery bags is one of those.

In the '80s, when the fitness craze was the cool new thing, and everybody was buying Jim Fixx's running books and Jane Fonda's work-out videos, the cool new thing served a great purpose. We got in shape. Or at least, we knew we should get in shape.

Of course, there have been many cool new things that turned out to be not so good for us. It turns out that anti-bacterial hand soap, the cool new thing just a few years ago, kills off good bacteria too. So the really cool thing is to simply wash your hands for 30 seconds or more and any soap will do.

Designer flip-flops with sequins and animal-prints have been the rage for several years now. Then just last month somebody reported they weren't really good for your feet. Now there's a big "Well, duh."

It also turns out that while organically grown produce remains less toxic to our bodies than produce grown using pesticides, it's not so good for the planet. If you factor in transportation and the carbon footprint of bringing organic peaches to your table from California, locally-grown may be better for you than organically grown.

My personal list of cool new things that are not good for us would include reality TV and the iPod. I find it painful to watch people making fools of themselves while they eat spiders or to watch extremely talented people performing mediocre music.

And I guess I'm entrenched enough in my generational values that I still enjoy hearing an artist's work in its entirety and in the order and context in which he or she intended for me to hear it. I don't like it shuffled. I know, you don't have to shuffle it, but most people do, and that - along with buying a song at a time rather than an album full of songs - has been the cool, new thing to do with music for a couple of years now.

While we're making lists, let's not forget all those cool old things that we thought were bad for us until we realized they weren't. Eggs, red wine, chocolate, avocado, salmon, and even coffee, apparently, contain nutrients that, if consumed in moderation, are good for our hearts. Go figure.

So when a cool new thing spreads like wildfire, does that tell us that we are a culture of wannabes, or that we know a good thing when we see it? I don't know, but maybe someday I'll figure it out. I'm actually too busy to think about it right now because I have to finish uploading photos to my Facebook page.

Beth von Behren of Olivette is one of 17 West County area Opinion Shapers. Opinion Shapers are guest writers who submit a column three times a year on areas of interest to them. von Behren is a public information officer for the city of Kirkwood.

Opinion Shaper: The Pursuit of Creativity at Mid-Life

This is Opinion Shaper #3, published in January 2010:

Opinion Shaper: The pursuit of creativity at mid-life

by Beth von Behren

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 1:15 AM CST

One of the best books I've ever read, "A River Runs Through It," by Norman Maclean, was published when the author was 74.

It was his first work of fiction, written at an age when many people are pricing retirement homes on golf courses. Maclean spent his life in academia, teaching others how to read and write and find their creative muse. He had been an avid, life-long storyteller, but he did not pursue a writing path of his own until late in life.

When he retired, his children encouraged him to put pen to paper. He continued to write fiction until his death in 1990. I find his story as inspiring as his writing, which is lyrical and beautiful. He didn't stop living at retirement. He found purpose and joy on a new path. He found his voice.

My friend Kevin Renick found himself on a similar journey over the past several months. A friend from college, we had lost touch, but reconnected this year on Facebook. I remembered Kevin as a creative guy, a writer, a poet, a musician and a journalist. We had many discussions about music, and Kevin always seemed knowledgeable.

Of all my classmates, many of whom were talented and ambitious, Kevin was the one whose name I fully expected to see in lights some day. As I raised kids and pursued a career of my own, I often wondered where he had ended up.

It turns out that like so many of us, his life didn't exactly turn out the way he may have envisioned it. He suffered through a series of disappointments - a lost love, a failed musical partnership, several dead-end jobs, some bouts with depression - but eventually did become involved in several creative enterprises.

He continued to write songs, and he did some freelance writing for local publications. Eventually, he became a driving force behind Noisy Paper, a local alternative monthly magazine, and when it folded, he co-founded Playback:STL, which still exists in an online version.

In 2000, he started working for a local company and threw himself into it, setting aside outside creative goals in an attempt to find some professional and financial stability. He was laid off last year, just about the time the movie "Up in the Air" was filming in St. Louis.

It was at about that time that I reconnected with Kevin, who in the wake of unemployment had started writing songs again. I saw him perform and followed his posts on Facebook during what turned out to be both the worst and the best time of his life.

Kevin had written a song called "Up in the Air," about finding purpose and meaning in the aftermath of losing a job. He wrote the song long before learning about the film of the same name, which is about a man who flies all over the country handing people their layoff notices.

Realizing that there was huge synchronicity afoot, Kevin attended a speech by the film's director, Jason Reitman, at our alma mater - Webster University. He handed him the song on a cassette tape - a technology so out-of-date that Reitman had to track down a car stereo to play it on - and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. It's a history that has now played itself out in both local and national broadcast stories, and yes, in lights: Kevin's name appeared recently on the marquee over Vintage Vinyl.

The worst part of the story, the part you won't hear about on NPR, happened just a few days after Kevin's fateful meeting with Reitman, when his mother took a bad fall, from which she never really recovered. She died two months later, before Kevin got the e-mail from the film's producers saying they wanted to use his song in the movie.

So, at the age of 52, in a year when he both lost and found inspiration, when the worst happened, but also the best, when the weirdness of celebrity turned his life upside down, Kevin Renick found his voice.

He has penned dozens more songs - two albums' worth, the first of which is titled "Close to Something Beautiful," and he continues to perform locally, where if you're lucky, you can hear him sing the song that changed his life: "I'm up in the air ? choices drifting by me everywhere. And I can't find the one that would help me do the work I've left undone. 'Cause I'm up in the air." - words and music by Kevin Renick. I think even Norman Maclean would be inspired.

(Note: Kevin will perform at the Iron Barley restaurant, in their downstairs club, Fred's Six Foot Under, on Feb. 26. You can download the title song from his first CD at his Website www.kevinrenick.com).

Beth von Behren of Olivette is one of 17 West County area Opinion Shapers. Opinion Shapers are guest columnists who submit a column three times a year on areas of interest to them. von Behren is a public information officer for the city of Kirkwood.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why I Love Science Fiction TV

Of all the arts I enjoy, movies and rock music being at the top of that list, I get the most unique and unusual delight from watching science fiction on television. TV sci-fi shows are at the top of my list of things I probably shouldn't be spending so much time on, along with playing on Facebook and eating chocolate chip cookies.

My kids and I polished off the entire 10 year run of Stargate: SG1 on DVD (which we own) last year, and that was on the heals of catching up on all the episodes of Battlestar Galactica (own). Previous years have seen us breezing through the entire seven-year run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (own). Of course, I have seen every episode of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation and many episdodes of the other Trek franchises. My son and I are finishing up the first season of Stargate: Atlantis (own), the subsequent seasons of which I will be Netflixing.

Add to that list the new series, Caprica, which just debuted on the Sci-Fi channel on cable and which brings me to the motivation for this blog entry. While watching Caprica, I have been salivating over the previews and promotions for other Sci-Fi (or SyFy as they now prefer) "original" offerings that are currently on hiatus but will be coming back, specifically Eureka and Warehouse 13. SyFy also runs Doctor Who. And if you have never encountered the Doctor, well, you really do not know what you are missing.

I don't think I'm your typical science fiction fan. I have read a few sci-fi classics (can't recommend "Stranger in a Strange Land" enough). I have read almost everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote and consider him one of my earliest and most important influences, and Michael Crichton is also on my list of best reads ever. I'm no slouch when it comes to sci-fi movies either (you have to see "Brother from Another Planet"). Still, I've never thought of myself as a sci-fi nerd. I totally dig NCIS, for example.

But when I say that the promos for Eureka got my heart racing, I'm not exaggerating.

Which brings me to my point: I love a good dose of "what if" in the stories I read or watch. I also like a good mystery and an upbeat ending (with said mystery solved). Most of my favorite sci-fi stories have involved both. Doctor Who, for example, is always trying to figure something out (and it usually results in saving the known universe). Jean Luc Picard, in stark contrast to his counterpart James T. Kirk, uses the muscles in his brain more than the ones in his arms (yeah, I know, no muscles in the brain, it's a metaphor, get over it).

I also tend to like stories that teach us something, or reinforce something, about human behavior and the importance of doing the right thing. So Captain Kirk will always be a hero, as will Ian in the Jurassic Park franchise ("Life finds a way").

The sci-fi I gravitate towards, then, captures all of these elements. Thus, while I could appreciate Battlestar G, I wouldn't put it at the top of my list. Too dark. Eureka, on the other hand, is pure delight. Lots of really smart, nerdy scientists working on ideas that will probably never come to fruition in my lifetime, but which seem to pretty consistently get their creators in trouble. And who saves them? The dumb sheriff who may not know the difference between string theory and single-stream recycling (they sound alike!!), but he saves their asses every single time, and sometimes he saves the planet from destruction too. And they love him for it. In fact, they depend on him saving them, which leads them to even greater risk-taking. I love the characters (the brave, dumb sheriff; his exuberant, ninja sidekick who is also beautiful; the thoughtful, serious scientist-leader who is also a mom; the list goes on). I also love that their connections to each other is also what saves them.

And I love the gadgets, because that's where the "what if" comes in. As a culture, we Americans love to ask "what if." We love crazy ideas. We love heroes, both the military and the scientific kinds. We love risk-takers, especially when they succeed. We also like to know that the future holds greater promise than the present. Right now, we face an uncertain future, and our leaders keep disappointing us. But in the world of science fiction TV, the leaders get it right, and the heroes are us. What could be more fun to watch.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Parenting Life

As parents, we devote 18 years of our lives to one goal: Getting our child(ren) into college. We work hard at it. We investigate and select the best preschools. We choose a dwelling for our household on the basis of how the neighborhood schools will treat our child (or we live where we want and spend a fortune on private school tuition). We sign them up for soccer and ballet and scouts and then worry if we've over-scheduled them. We fight with teachers. We wrestle with mathematics homework we don't really understand. We miss movies we'd like to see because they need us home with them. We advocate for them. We encourage them. We put their needs above our own.

And then one day we realize the fruits of our labor. They leave home to go to college. And we beg them to come back.

Don't deny it. We all do it. Many years ago, my mother dropped me off at college, helped me move my possessions into my room, and then stood there weeping, annoyed at herself because she'd sworn she wouldn't. She rushed herself and my brothers out of my dorm room, blubbering the whole way, and then waved at me from the truck she'd borrowed from my grandfather, parked in the unloading zone seven floors below, and I waved back, never even beginning to fathom that I would repeat her performance just 30 short years later.

I was the first in my family to go to college, so my mother had no real role models for what she was about to experience. She had no way of knowing that sending me to college and thrusting me into the middle class would create a divide between us that we would spend the rest of her life trying to understand and bridge.

What she did know was that college was my ticket out of poverty and toward independence. So she persevered. She started prepping me for college before I even started kindergarten. We did numbers and letters on a chalk board, and she coached me: "Beth, you are going to college so you will never have to be dependent on a man."

Years later, my middle class existence firmly in place, I realize I have done much the same thing with my own two children, one of whom was successfully admitted to an elite college three years ago and is now a junior at Wesleyan. The other is a high school junior trying to pass AP Gov while figuring out majors and colleges and prepping for college entrance exams and all that jazz. The parent-child divide, however, is no less intense. The older one plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation to make her mark in films, and the younger one just slammed his door at me when I told him he could not go to South America alone over summer break. The words are different, but the tune is the same.

I cried today after I waved goodbye to my daughter, who is driving herself back to school, a two-day drive from St. Louis to Connecticut, during which I will be existing on coffee and nerves. Her college experience is very different from mine. I attended a public university, and she goes to one of the most expensive private schools on the planet. We share a love of movies, which we watch on Netflix with lots of interruptions to discuss acting, dialogue, set design, and whatever. It would drive my mother nuts. Still, her politics are way to the left of mine, which are already fairly left-leaning, and I can hear "you just don't understand me" in her tone when we disagree.

My son is a swimmer and an absent-minded student. I remember the day I realized that he did not share my intellectual curiosity or my love of learning for learning's sake. His motto, "why do I need to learn this - I'm never going to use it," still brings tears of frustration to my eyes. Still, he is good at math and enjoys astronomy, and did I mention he swims miles every day? I could never do that, but I love to watch him do it. Our divide exists, but it is not as deep as our love.

And that is essentially what my mother taught me before she died. We want our children to do better than us, to have better lives. The test of our success is theirs. Sometimes their success takes them away from us for a while, but if we do it right, if they know we love them, they will always come back.