About Me

My photo
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).

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.