Wednesday, September 17, 2014

View from the Middle

It’s a non-milestone year for our family. No one is graduating this year. None of the four kids is new to his or her respective school. No one is being adopted, baptized or receiving their First Communion. Bill and I have been at the same workplaces for about a decade each, and while we’re thinking of buying a new couch for the family room, we don’t have any other exciting home-improvement projects on the horizon. He and I, out for our twenty-first wedding anniversary (another non-milestone year, when compared to twenty or twenty-five) reflected over dinner how intensely “in the middle” we are.
            “If only we knew somehow, that this was all going to turn out, this would be so much easier,” Bill said.
            I understood exactly what he meant. In the early days of marriage, when we were in our twenties, with pudgy toddlers and early careers, anything was possible. Age 40 seemed impossibly far off and I couldn’t quite imagine having a child who could speak in full sentences, let alone one who would actually finish high school, make it to college and live a couple hundred miles away. Even into our early thirties, each year brought new possibilities—Bill jumped out of his marketing career and went back to school to become a teacher; we leapt into foster care; we built a deck on the back of our house with help from our still-childless friends and a brochure from Home Depot.
            Now, fifteen years later, having surged past the once far-off age of 40, we are deep into the family life we began as early-marrieds. With four kids ages 11, 12, 16 and 19, the question marks in our marriage have shifted from ourselves to our children. Each question has a different child as its center. Will Jacob find a major that can lead him to meaningful work?  Where will Liam go to college? Can our parenting of Teenasia make up for her difficult early years? What will Jamie’s strong personality look like in adolescence?
            We are in the middle of parenting and middles are difficult. When I ran cross country in high school and college, the middle was the most challenging part of the race. Adrenaline carried me through the first half mile, and sheer will brought me to the finish, but the middle of the course — with hills and woods and sometimes streams to jump over--  that was where the real work was. The middle was filled with tactical decisions—if I pass now, will she pass me back later? If I pick up speed now, will I have enough energy to finish? The importance of tactical decisions is true with parenting in the preteen and teen years, as well. Do we address the messy room or let it go? If I put more energy into the relationship, will it pay off, or will I collapse from fatigue? Do I give the second reminder, or allow natural consequences to prevail?  As with cross country, the middle of the parenting course requires both endurance and faith. Bill’s question from our dinner is the question of every runner who has passed the water station but can’t yet see the finish.  We know our position now—the question is how will it affect the outcome? The only way to answer the question is to keep running hard, keep parenting as well as we are able.

            We are in the middle. We’re sweaty and breathing hard and we’ve got mud splattered on our legs from the last puddle we couldn’t quite jump over. But we’re running together, Bill and I, through the middle of our marriage, the middle of our parenting. If the first half of the race has shown us anything, it’s that we’re loyal teammates. And as the course veers up a hill or into the woods, we’re ready for it, because we’ve been training together. Sometimes Bill leads. Sometimes I do. And sometimes the course is wide enough that we can run side by side.

Hyphenated name

April, 2014

Our son Liam, 15, has a jersey he wears over his jacket to play pond hockey in the winter. On the back is spelled out “Scobacheck,” a nod to his hyphenated last name of Scobey-Polacheck. More than 20 years ago, before Liam was even a twinkle in our eyes, his dad and I got engaged and decided that when we married, we would both hyphenate our names and so would any children who might come our way. Our decision, made by a couple of 23-year-old idealists, was made with both intention and reflection, but without detailed thought to practical issues, such as the fact that a hyphenated name would be too long to fit on the back of a sports jersey.
            At the time of our marriage, I could not imagine changing my name to Polacheck. I loved the name Scobey. Something about the two syllables, the “b” in the middle and “y” at the end made it feel bouncy. Bubbly. Boppy. Happy. “Scobey” was fun, while “Polacheck” was more serious. Eastern Europe is not known for its zippy, easy-going last names.
            Unlike some couples who each retained their own names, Bill and I, both English majors with an affinity for the meaning inherent in word choice, thought a hyphenated name best represented what we wanted our marriage to be about—the joining of two lives.
            One of the most immediate gifts that hyphenation offered was experiencing the grace with which Bill’s parents accepted a decision that they didn’t agree with. The day after we announced that we would hyphenate, Bill’s mother called to tell him that she and his father thought this was not a good idea. Bill thanked her for the call, explained some of our reasons and said we were going to go forward anyway. His parents never brought it up again. In the 20 years that would follow, every letter, card and thank-you note they sent was addressed to us using our hyphenated name. Bill’s parents could have written “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Polacheck” to make a point, but they chose instead to honor our decision, and in doing so, they gave us confidence that they trusted us to do what was best for our relationship and our family, even if it would be a different choice than they would make for themselves.
            Bill and I believed that if were going to be successful at having a long and unwieldy last name, we’d need to retain both flexibility and a sense of humor. It didn’t help that I have a double first name. “Your name is Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck?” I remember a dad of one of my children’s friends saying, upon our introduction. “Are you sure that’s just one person?”  Bill pointed out that my name had the same number of syllables as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
            When we named our sons, we purposefully chose short, easy first names and skipped a middle name, knowing they could add a middle name at Confirmation if they chose. Our biggest complication came upon the adoption of nine-year-old Teenasia. Teenasia was a difficult first name (her name pronounced ten-asia, rather than teen-asia, as it is spelled). Bill and I stayed up late in the weeks leading to her adoption, wondering if we should take the moment of her adoption to legally change everyone’s name to Polacheck. Finally, we had our friends, Cliff and Machell√© Brown, over for dinner and asked them what they thought. We thought the Browns, an African American family who had chosen uncomplicated first names for their own four children, would be able to advise us on whether it would be unfair to give Teenasia such a unusual last name on top of her difficult first name. They were incredulous.
            “What?” Cliff said, putting down his fork. “You are the Scobey-Polachecks. That’s who you are. That’s who Teenasia will be. She’ll handle it. It will be fine.”
            Teenasia herself declared her commitment to the name by proudly writing it in bubble letters on her school folders once she was adopted. She has since stated, amid Jacob’s discussion of dropping a name, that she plans to be hyphenated forever.
            Twenty years after our decision to hyphenate, I still have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes, when I tell a new person my last name, I apologetically add, “It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were very young when we got married.”  But overall, I have felt that our name suits us so well — it’s complicated, yet balanced — our very own brand. Hyphenation is our imperfect solution to a difficult question of identity, custom and why the male’s family name trumps. Each of our children will need to take their name into adulthood and make their own choices going forward. And like Bill’s parents before us, Bill and I will trust our children to follow their hearts as they make their decisions. And that’s a family tradition we’re proud to carry on.

Yoga: Lessons from the mat

Yoga: Lessons from the mat

March, 2014

When I was a little girl, I failed beginning gymnastics three times. I loved the idea of gymnastics—the way I saw the other girls float in the air doing their flips and handstands. The problem was I couldn’t get my legs far enough apart to do the straddle roll; I could not walk across the balance beam; I could not even touch my toes. So eventually, when I was about a head taller than any others in the beginner class, I stopped going.

            In high school, I found a sport that required neither flexibility nor upper arm strength—distance running. My too-long legs served me well and my non-muscular frame was actually very light to carry around for any given distance, providing me with an advantage in terms of endurance. No one asked me to touch my toes as I passed them in the final mile. My competitive running career ended in college, and recreational running took its place. For the past twenty years, aside from an occasional pick-up volleyball game or a bike ride, running is the only exercise I have done. Running is free and convenient, and I had never given thought to augmenting my almost-daily run with another form of exercise.  

            Until now. As part of an uncharacteristic New Year’s resolution, I decided to join a yoga class held over the lunch hour at my workplace. Yoga, I read, had similar benefits to meditation in terms of producing inner strength and peace. By the end of 2014, three of my four children will be teenagers. I decided that this year, I would need all the inner strength and peace available to me.

            So, dressed in my running shoes, tights and a free t-shirt from a local fun run, I arrived at my first yoga class. The instructor played soft, soothing music as everyone sat serene, barefoot and cross-legged on his or her mats. I suddenly realized that yoga is done without shoes. Struggling to sit cross-legged, with my knees closer to my ears than to the mat, I had a sudden flashback to my childhood days of failed gymnastics. As my colleagues breathed deeply around me, I concentrated on not rearranging my burning legs and wondered when we would move onto something easier.

            The rest of the class was a series of impossible poses. While the employees in the class had differing levels of bendability, strength and skill, each one of them could do a version of the demonstrated pose. Except me. With a mixture of embarrassment and horror, I realized I could not do even the most basic yoga pose properly. The more complicated poses looked to me like something out of Cirque du Soleil. I was so much more noticeably inflexible than anyone else in the class that the teacher approached as I was straining toward my toes, fingertips a foot off the floor, and whispered to me, “Runners have tight hamstrings. It’s okay.” I had never told her I was a runner. I wanted to fold up my mat and simply watch the class and applaud at appropriate times.

            But I kept going back to yoga, partly because Karen, a co-worker two cubes down attended each lunchtime session and would ask me if I was coming with her. Karen is as flexible as a warm soft pretzel.  When she bends over in the triangle pose, her hair grazes the mat. My own triangle pose looks more like a rhombus.

            As I showed up for yoga every other day, it got a little better. Not because I could do any of the poses, but because the instructor recognized that I was a special needs yoga person and began to bring me props—like a foam brick to put under my bottom while we did “Pigeon” or a long strap to attach to my feet and hold onto while we rocked on our backs in what they called “Happy Baby,” but felt to me more like “Cranky Toddler.”

            At home, my family delighted in my stories of my challenging yoga classes. I would explain a terribly complicated pose, and Jamie and Teenasia, ages 10 and 12, would immediately enter the pose on our kitchen floor and hold it for a minute before collapsing in giggles that I could not do it. Liam, 15, who inherited my non-flexibility, was more sympathetic, and suggested I just stick to running.

            But even as I measure my improvements in yoga in millimeters and nanoseconds, yoga is bringing me a gift that I had not expected. I am realizing, as I show up to yoga class, that yoga is making me more compassionate towards my children and their individual struggles. Childhood is a series of new and sometimes seemingly impossible tasks. From sitting still in church to complex word problems in math to managing emotions at home, each day Bill and I expect our children to try their best at tasks that may not come naturally. How often do we expect the same of ourselves? Adulthood brings the luxury of choosing comfort over challenge. I stay with my job because I’m successful at it; my home life and activities outside of work are usually within my reach. Yoga is different. Tipping over in the “Tree” pose as the rest of my classmates stand motionless reminds me that this may be how my daughter feels when she’s unable to do something than most kids consider simple. Yoga has made it possible for me to be kinder to my children when they flounder.

            So, for now at least, I’m continuing my yoga classes. I’m awkward and stiff and not graceful at all.  During the class I feel frustrated and wonder when it will be over. I’m doing something new and different and it’s so difficult. And I’m so thankful.

Pope Francis thoughts

On a camping trip this past summer, I was sitting around the fire with some friends after the kids had gone to bed, and someone brought up how different regions of the United States have their own culture and personality. I commented that even though I had lived in Milwaukee almost my whole life, I didn’t think there was anything about me that was especially Midwestern. This caused my friend Frank, who was born and raised in Texas, went to Georgetown for college, lived out East and then moved to Wisconsin, to burst out laughing.
            “You are so incredibly Midwestern, you have no idea,” he said. “Everything about you is Midwestern. We could drop you anywhere in the U.S. and within 15 minutes, anyone who has traveled to any degree at all would identify you as Midwestern.”
            When I pressed him about what made me so obviously Midwestern, Frank said it wasn’t one thing—it was a thousand subtle things— from my make-up (or lack there of), to my values, to how I dressed, to what I cooked, to what I chose to talk about.
            “It’s not bad that you’re easy to identify,” Frank finally said, no doubt exhausted from all my questions and unable to find a polite way to tell me I was not nearly as sophisticated as I fancied myself. “We’re all products of our culture.”
             Webster Merriman defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.  If I am recognizably Midwestern (as I have come to accept), am I also perceptibly Catholic? What does it mean to think, behave or work as a Catholic so much that you are recognized as such?
            Within the organization of the Catholic Church, those who have positions of leadership define what it means to be culturally Catholic — what it means to  think, behave and work as a Catholic. Those of us who sit in the pews or whose children attend Catholic schools absorb the messages of the leadership — sometimes without even realizing it — and think, behave and work accordingly. The baby boomer jokes about “Catholic guilt” came from a pre-Vatican II Catholic cultural emphasis on sin. Today’s Gen X and Y Catholics, now in our 30s and 40s don’t carry the same type of Catholic guilt that our parents do. By the time we came along, Catholic leadership had changed direction, giving less emphasis to sin, and more to community, reconciliation and peace.
            Pope Francis’ focus on the poor is defining our current Catholic culture, pulling us rightfully back to our roots — to Jesus, who said nothing about Canon law or establishment of a church hierarchy, and everything about loving our neighbor and helping the marginalized. Pope Francis, by repeatedly speaking of service to the poor; of more equal redistribution of wealth; of the protection of the most vulnerable, is defining the culture of Catholicism. To be Catholic, Pope Francis says with both his words and his actions, is to allow our faith to propel us to serve those who are in need. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service,” he said in one of his first homilies as Pope, “and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.”
            Just four months into his papacy, Pope Francis was dubbed the “slum Pope” for his work with the poor and a visit to the shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro. On World Youth Day, he urged young Catholics to make a “mess” of their dioceses by taking their faith to the streets. "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!" Pope Francis said.
            As Pope Francis outlines what it means for us to be Catholic; as he calls us back to our most basic mission of joyful service to the poor, I pray that our cardinals, our bishops, our priests, our sisters, our parish council members and all Catholic leaders will understand and absorb his message and bring it to their dioceses and parishes; to their Catholic schools and institutions. Culture change within any organization begins at the top, but in order for the world’s 1.18 billion Catholics to lift up the poor, give voice to the voiceless and truly build the kingdom as Jesus intends, we are going to need our local Catholic leaders to cascade the Pope’s message—through both words and action. As bright and beautiful as this Pope is, he cannot help the poor alone— and he needs us to understand that it is not he who is calling us to change the culture of our church. It is Christ.  

I love my iPhone: That's why you can't have one

I love my iPhone. That's why you can't have one.
November, 2013

I love my iPhone. I love the ping of an incoming e-mail and the double ping of an incoming text. I love how it keeps me in relationship with two of my friends who each live 100 miles away. I love how it’s allowed me to answer questions from work while laying on the beach and field questions from our kitchen while I am finishing up at work. I love how I can take photos and quickly send them to grandparents, friends or Jacob, away at college.  My phone keeps me closely connected to all the people who matter most to me. I rarely go anywhere without my smart phone.
            And my strong positive feelings about my phone are precisely why neither of my daughters—ages 10 and 12—will get a phone anytime soon. My strong positive feelings are why my two sons—ages 15 and 18—had to wait until eighth grade and freshman year of high school respectively, to get their own non-smart, no keyboard flip phone. They had to wait even longer for Facebook accounts.
            Managing my phone has little to do with managing technology and everything to do with managing relationships. I treasure my relationships, and I know this is why I have such fond feelings for my phone. It’s like carrying all the people I love (plus those I work with) around in my purse and having access to them all the time. I have no doubt my girls would feel similarly attached to their phones, if they had them. But Bill and I believe that for children in grade school, primary relationship efforts need to go toward family members, not friends. Our daughters need to build a strong connection first and foremost with my husband and me.  Our voices and values need to be loud and clear now because our time at center stage is limited—high school brings with it less time with the family and more time with friends, and more potential to move away from what we’ve spent all childhood teaching. Every minute texting a friend is a minute not spent being present to the people in the home. We’ve got about thirty months with Teenasia and fifty-four with Jamie to help them become so deeply the girls that God means for them to be that they will be strong enough to hold to their true selves, even in the face of high school peer pressure. I am happy to share these final months before the teen years with my girls’ friends—through playdates, activities, sports and church. But we will not give our girls away to unsupervised time of texting or online social networks.
            A phone that allows instant and constant access to friends and acquaintances requires the phone’s owner to have both wisdom and self-discipline, neither of which exactly run rampant among the grade school set. For middle-school girls, gossip is a constant lure as children jockey for social position within a class. I was a middle school girl once myself, and I still remember my horror when my seventh grade teacher intercepted a snarky note I tossed to my friend about another girl. I am still embarrassed about my unkind words about that girl and am thankful that the teacher ripped up the note, so that the girl would never know what I said about her. But a note from a 12-year-old today, written not on a scrap of paper, but texted impulsively, could be repeatedly forwarded and cause hurt beyond anything that was possible before. Our girls need to be protected from themselves. They do not need any device that makes it even easier to compare themselves with others; to gossip; to move up or down in the social hierarchy of the class. Girls will find enough ways to do this on their own. They do not need a phone more advanced than the computers that took men to the moon to help them with their clique-development.
            In a friend’s daughter’s sixth grade class last year, Instagram was all the rage. Instagram describes itself as “A fast, beautiful, fun way to share photos with family and friends.” But boys in the class were using it to send inappropriate photos and girls were using it to take pictures of gatherings where other girls weren’t invited. The parents eventually found out and most took the app away from their children’s phones, but the damage had been done.
            Studies show that both adults and children will say things online or in texts that they would not have the courage to say out loud, in person. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, explains it this way: “We're less inhibited online because we don't have to see the reaction of the person we're addressing. Because it's harder to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other.”
            We are in our infancy as a society in learning how to manage advancing personal technology. Just as it took numerous fatal automobile accidents in the early twentieth century before society caught on that drivers should need to go through a licensing process, and even longer before sixteen was chosen as the minimum age to drive, so it will be with today’s children, phones and online access. As a society, we will likely need to live through a generation of children damaged by texting and risky online behavior before we understand the true danger. Perhaps when this generation of children grows up, they will look back on 2013 and say to their own children. “Can you imagine—I grew up back when parents still gave phones to 10-year-olds?”
            The parents holding out now will be shown to have been ahead of our time.