Thursday, June 24, 2010

When he was 3 and just like Woody...

I'd mentioned that my son, who just graduated high school, once emulated Woody in "Toy Story." I came across this photo of him at age 3, asleep in his car seat, wearing the felt cowboy hat he rarely doffed, and holding tight to his firearm.  It should be noted, however, that the character Woody wore an empty holster.  I'm not sure if that was a nod to the non-violent toys crowd, or just a creative touch, for it's certain that Andy, or any kid who really plays with his toys, would quickly lose such a small accessory.

Toy Story does feature a set of green plastic molded soldiers who hold rifles.  I love that in the film they move by jumping, stuck to their thin plastic platforms.  And violence is hardly eschewed in the three Toy Story movie plots.  In fact, in the latest, there were moments when I hid my eyes, all the while telling myself that this was a cartoon.

In any case, here's my angelic cowboy son, dreaming of some preschool escapade.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Toy Story 3" Parallels Real Life: Relinquishing Childhood

My children chide me for choking up over a print review for Toy Story 3.  I saw the movie at a preview this week, a feat of emotional fortitude given my son's high school graduation the day before.  In the Pixar masterpiece, Andy, the boy to whom the dozen toys are eternally dedicated, empties his room for his move to college.  Wait while I clear a tear.
But the review captured why this film is not only a visual achievement (especially in 3D as I saw it) but a dramatic one:  the emotional complexity expressed by its animated characters abuts reality.

The line that broke me in Joe Morgenstern's Wall Street Journal review was parenthetical, but capsulizes the loss my own son's graduation represents:  "The production is strewn with visual and verbal zingers, along with silent moments of great eloquence. (As a young man about to go out into the world, Andy takes Woody and Buzz from his toy box for one last time and, gazing fondly at them, relinquishes his childhood.)"

Relinquishes his childhood.  I hardly admit I've relinquished mine, but I certainly don't want to let go of my children's.  Their childhoods were not only happy, but made me happy.  My children as adults are people I respect, who I enjoy, but never again include the flights of imagination that Andy (John Morris), and in Toy Story 3, little Bonnie (Emily Hahn) create with their toys.  My son's own Buzz Lightyear and Woody were his favorites.  I must've heard "There's a snake in my boot!" hundreds of times.  My son even prized a felt cowboy hat that he wore incessantly, just like Woody's.

My children think it bizarre that I'm so sentimental.  But on the other hand, like Andy, they refuse to part with their dearest childhood toys. In the film, Andy's mom insists he sort the playthings in his long-untouched toybox into piles earmarked for a nearby preschool, the attic, or college.  In determining the toys' ultimate fate, issues of loyalty, emotional wounds, separation and death receive attention with great sensitivity, seamlessly woven into some of the most breathtaking and innovative scenes and angles on screen.

The night before the screening, at graduation, my husband and I were treated to a different film, a collage of my son's high school class, which included not only highlights from their four years together, but a baby snapshot and current photo of each of the 26 students.  The music for the video had been recorded on multiple tracks in my son's bedroom--his voice singing Vitamin C's "Graduation Song" accompanied by his strums on ukulele.

Part of the emotion is the parting of the generations.  I shared my children's childhoods, but I can't share their adulthoods.  These kids not only have Toy Story to remember the past, but they've got their own playlists, hard-drives of photos, Facebook pages, You Tube channels and all sorts of other permanent record of every moment and whim of their present lives. They manage their own images, presenting their persona to hundreds of "friends" in an instant (but of course they won't "friend" me!).

Nowadays, expectant parents create websites to showcase their ultrasounds--and from then on, endless documentation of every burp and giggle is available for anyone to click.  This not only stamps each baby with his own sense of importance--which may or may not be a good thing--but it preserves for today's kids their own lives, readily available for re-living anytime.

I've got a few faded photos from my childhood, but not much, really.  I didn't even get a digital camera until 2003, when our children were 16, 14 and 11.  On the other hand, how many reminders that those lively little children are now just shadows do I really want ?

Perhaps the charm of all three Toy Story movies is that certain classic joys of childhood remain consistent.  Mr. Potato Head, slinky dog, Barbie and the etch-a-sketch were primo Boomer toys that survived to link generations.  Now Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the three little green aliens will link today's graduates with their own children. In TS3, even the toys have computer expertise, surreptitiously using Mapquest to find their location.  Technology will change, but imagination and creativity continue.

Somehow, though, it's better being on the other side of the generation gap, with the thrill of reaching for a future still ahead of you.  The parental view is a vicarious one, desperately wishing the best for the ones to whom you've unreservedly given your heart, but sadly being unable to shape the future the way a mom determines and smooths life for her youngsters.

"Es la vida," shrugs a good friend--that's life.  But when you see Toy Story 3, you'll be transported to those magic years when you just knew that toys came alive when you went to sleep.  And even the toys in the attic are waiting patiently for childhood to return.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Commencement 2010: Launch for Grads, Loss for Mom

I got teary-eyed in the Dollar Store today, crouched at the 2/$1.00 Graduation Cards rack.  We have two children graduating, one from college and our "baby" from high school, and when I see the mortarboards and diplomas, the globes signifying the world is theirs, I just lose it.

Our eldest daughter has already marched to to the podium twice, and now attends graduate school in New York City.  That means my husband and I now earn a peculiar status: "empty-nesters."

"Empty" acknowledges a change that is, no matter how you slice it, sad, especially for the mom.  The brain-diagram of even busy, working mothers shows a large chunk devoted to personal activities, but a larger chunk to the schlepping, scheduling, keeping track-of, laundering, picking up-after, sports, lessons, caretakers and performance of her children.  Then there's the emotional chunk that enlarges it.

So, when the last child is gone, it's not just an adjustment--though that, too--it's a loss.  Grocery shopping becomes a different experience when you include picky children--along in the cart, and later, with their food eccentricities and desires in mind.  My son eats three pounds (!) of pasta per week, with one particular type of sauce, and mozzarella cheese, for nearly every meal.  He likes three types of cereal, drinks a gallon of milk over a few days, likes only strawberry jam on his Eggo waffles-and-peanut butter, wants one of three types of soup served for our Sabbath dinners...  All this synapse action in my mind will cease.

It's replaced with worry. Several years ago I wrote a book about happy American families. I won't forget what a Mexican-American father of four young adults said in wistful reflection: "There's no feeling of peace like knowing your kids are all sleeping safely in your home in their own beds."

Consoling friends try to soothe me.  "They'll come back!"  Nice try.  Once they leave home, they're gone.

Sometimes they're physically here, but only as fleeting guests and visitors. Unless there's a financial crisis or something goes wrong, they'll never again consider their parents' their "permanent address."  When my middle child moved into her sorority, she denuded her room of her posters, souvenirs and bulletin board photos, leaving an anonymous shell she uses for Sabbath touch-downs when I "get to" do her laundry.  Our first daughter keeps her room as a museum to her high school self.  Occasionally, she'll fly home, live out of her suitcase, and leave only her unnmade bed as evidence. Her unneeded books, pix of smiling groups of friends, trinkets and old clothes remain as dust-collecting testimony to her absence.

Last summer, we bought our high-school-graduating son a cool new teen bedroom set. Grasping at straws.  His room is just the way he wants it, with his guitars and ukuleles and amplifiers and posters of tropical beach scenes. Every morning when I come in to waken him for school, I'm intensely aware that few opportunities to see his sleeping face on his pillow at home remain.  Today was his last day of high school.

Before he left, I made him pose for photos in our back yard.  I have the one I took when he went off to his first day of preschool, in his little overalls with his truck lunchbox. In today's photo he carried his computer under his arm and his lunch in a small paper bag.  No more shifting my schedule to pick him up from school.

Those same consoling friends say "But you raised them to go off and be independent!  That's what you want!"  Well, that was supposed to be far off in the future.  Because I like doing all those kid-centric things, like volunteering in the classroom, reading to them, crafts and homework and buying school supplies.  When you're doing all these things with and for your children, there's a special pleasure and connection and pride.  I love hearing them sing. I love when they dance and ask for help and get bored enough to play Boggle with me.  I like knowing they're here at home.

No matter what those well-meaning consoling friends say, when the last child leaves, Mom loses a big focus--and a big pleasure--in her (my) life.  There's plenty to do to fill the time and attention, but all those re-inventions and accomplishments will never be centered around the needs of my own kids.

Then there's the hopeful, "but it gets even better with grandchildren!"  Don't go there.  In my mind, "grandmother" translates into "old."  I do not embrace aging.  Denial isn't just a river in Africa.

So when I hear--or even think about--those measured notes of Pomp and Circumstance, I dissolve.  I wish the graduates of 2010, and especially my daughter and son, pride in achievement, happiness in accomplishment, and fulfillment of all the opportunity those greeting card vignettes of diplomas and mortarboards and world-globes imply.  Just hand me a kleenex, because I hate to see this era end.

Friday, June 4, 2010

An Inconvenient Divorce

Al and Tipper Gore, once so mutually ga-ga over each other that Al claimed they inspired the best-seller Love Story, are splitting after 40 years of marriage.  The prevalent reaction isn't just shock, but "beyond shock," "shock of shocks," shocking like a bolt of globally-warm lightening.  Focus on the Family has come forth with offers to help the couple patch it up; bloggers are speculating with not much to go on beyond a terse email to friends saying the Gores' long-considered decision to separate was a "mutual and mutually supportive" response to "growing apart."

As a psychologist who wrote a book on the negative impact of divorce, I'm struck by the way people make consequential decisions to part based not on justifiable, unresolvable issues (drugs, abuse) but on cooling of passion or the ability to get away with "chopping and running" to what seems a greener-grass life.  When marriages are so cavalierly discarded, kids and society have no continuity, nothing to count on.

This is definitely an inconveneint divorce, for a couple who contrasted their romance with the far more distant marriage of Bill and Hilary Clinton.  It suggests to me that the Gores face much more than simply increasing indifference; there must be something truly irreparable, or the most face-saving course would be quiet counseling and reconciliation.  Rebuilding a relationship isn't simple, but for 40 years the Gores nurtured their image as a romantic and close couple.  Was that a political ploy?  You don't just turn around and look at a lifetime together and parenting four children and say "it doesn't feel good any more so we'll chuck it all."

Or, maybe you do.  When Al Gore entered politics, the electorate was generally older, and hadn't all embraced the Boomers' sexual revolution. To get elected you needed respectability. You needed marriage and family and even religion.  Al's got his Nobel Prize, he's "been there, done that" with politics, and found a niche in global warming...uh, "climate change."  Heck, he's even had his own movie and his own Oscar--the only human in history to earn both a Nobel Prize and Academy Award in the same year.  No need to stick around with Tipper.  On the other hand, a marriage is a complex thing. It could be Tipper who's had it with Al.

In either case, from the information available, it appears that if the Gores wanted to fix their problems and work on their marriage, they could.   Even they know that if you can "grow apart," you can "grow" back together if you're determined.  Love is a moment-to-moment decision; it's not "never having to say you're sorry."

That they consider it "mutually supportive" to ditch each other is one more illustration of the devaluing of marriage, an institution once the bedrock of every society and revered as the best place to nurture children while creating a bond like no other: the combining of the male and female soul, each with a unique contribution that only together form a whole.

Proponents of gay marriage (and I assume Al is one) seek to redefine marriage not as a permanent commitment to combine opposites into a fundamental family unit, but as a declaration of love.   So, when love fades, there's no marriage.

Al and Tipper's very public union not only produced progeny, but at their cultivation symbolized that even after 20, 30 years of teamwork, romance could prevail. Their lingering kiss on stage at the 2000 Democratic Convention was a public statement of their attraction and dedication.  And now what? A mutually-supportive shrug?

The norm in divorces is to look backward for signs that it was flawed all along.  Or that the split was inevitable.  Or that the personalities never really meshed properly.  I wonder if the Gore children would now say that Mom and Dad weren't really that close.  Or that they're glad Mom and Dad get to live out their separate lives.  Because they're "progressive," they probably have to.  Isn't it wonderful they had such a great ride for 40 years, and now can unclasp hands and walk into their individual sunsets?

No. It's sad, and tears apart not just two people but the edges of our most basic and important institution.