Sunday, May 29, 2011

See the Boy, Know the Man

More than a decade ago I saw a television show on PBS, a documentary about a group of kids from England who were studied over several decades at seven-year intervals. It was called something like, "From 7 to 21 Up."

For a woman who has trouble recalling her natural hair color, it seems strange that a TV show would stick with me for so long.
But this show hit me like a shot of permanent dye with a peroxide chaser.
The premise of the show was that the boy (or girl) at age 7 reflects the man (or woman) he (or she) will one day grow to be.
Sure enough, in most if not all cases highlighted, that’s what happened to the little Brits.

If a boy was unstable, unmotivated, lazy, aimless or indifferent at 7, he was still struggling with life at 14, 21, 28 and 35.
If he was focused, efficient, confident, inquisitive and hopeful at 7, he was on track at 14, 21, 28 and 35.
Sure, it was just another theory of early childhood development, like the critical “wonder years” theory, or birth-to-5 pre-conscious memory type stuff.
But in hearing the boys’ world view at 7, then again at 14, and so on, it became clear to me that there might actually be something to this hypothesis.
Of course, I know there are many things that can happen to a boy from 7 to manhood that will affect his outcome, one way or another. But the show satisfied some questions about nature and nurture. Both matter, but without nurture, nature has no safety net.
What prompted me to think about all this was my younger son’s 8th birthday, which was Sept. 30.
From birth, Billy has been a catalyst in many ways. He brought me back to primal motherhood after nearly 11 years of evolving with my former baby, Neil, and the baby before him, Aimee.
Billy has always challenged me to look at the world from his point of view.
But that’s not all.
He then insists on answers, explanations, conclusions, balance and morals to every story.
Not unusual demands from a little kid, perhaps.
But what other boys might only think about or barely ponder, Billy would explore in full spelunking gear.
Sadly, it’s a trait that’s suddenly waning. Perhaps that’s why 7 is a pivotal age. Maybe it’s the beginning and ending of something irreplaceable in our development.
Anyway, in all his inquisitive glory days, Billy often reminded me of the boy Neil used to be.
Of course, Neil has nearly tripled in age since 7 and certainly qualifies for manhood by most standards.
Still, he’s a work in progress.
Over time I’ve witnessed his emotions ebb and flow, sometimes lost in tidal waves of frustration.
Other times, his childlike enthusiasm takes me over like the chicken pox.
But at 19, I sense Neil’s returning to the boy I knew at 7, the one who shared his dreams with me, always, in fine detail; the boy who sensed he was destined for something big.
The boy who held my hand in public long after it was a matter of his safety, and vowed he’d never grow too big or too cool to be my baby.
If the boy-to-manhood experiment meant anything at all, perhaps it’s that the future is not so random as we might think and that, for everything we’re fortunate to gain in life, there are other things ingrained from birth.
Which means to me that we should be conscious of how our sons are growing up, paying attention to how we respond, or don’t, along the way.
And if at 7, the boy we see before us is the least bit unstable or indifferent or unsettled, then we should know which way to push.
See the boy at 7 and know the man – that was the message of the documentary, as I recall. In some cases, it was encouraging to see how each little boy grew. In others, it was disturbing, even painful, to see the boy at 7 and know – before the camera started rolling – the direction his life was going to go by the next installment of his life.
I’ll never know, for sure, if that documentary affected the way I’ve raised my sons. But at this point, I’m encouraged.
I see the boy Bill is at 8 and somehow know the man who will be honest, compromising, meticulous, confident and loving.
And the boy in Neil I knew at 7 as wise beyond his years is the man I see now at 19 – hopeful, adventurous, determined, sincere and still growing.

Originally Published: 
Oct. 3, 1999 
Bucks County Courier Times
Levittown, PA

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Considering Romance, Parenting and a Fruit Fly with 14 Eyes

This mutant fruit fly has two small ectopic eyes in the place of antennae, seen here between 
the large red compound eyes. PHOTO CREDIT: EYE OF SCIENCE LIBRARY.
I remember reading a short but interesting science article in a 1995 Time Magazine. This kind of mutant-breeding information was right up the alley of my older son, Neil, who back then was 15 and a dedicated X-Men comic book collector and connoisseur of news stories about oddities of nature.  So I figured the article might present a great opportunity for a quality mother/son conversation:
ME: "Did you see there was a neat article in ... "
NEIL: "I read it."
He was, as usual, short on words and way ahead of me.
The article, "Jeepers! Creepy Peepers!" appeared in the April 3, 1995 issue of Time and described the latest scientific adventures of researches from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
In a "serious effort to understand how nature fashions something as magnificent as an eye," these scientists created a swarm of fruit flies that had multiple eyes -- not just on their heads. These gnats sprouted eyes on their legs, antennae, wings -- the article says some of these test-tube flies had as many as 14 eyes.
Fourteen eyes! I find that as repulsive as it is intriguing,
I guess it could be that Neil inherited his interest in science from me. After all, I've always been one to linger just a little too long at circus sideshows featuring bearded women and dog-faced boys.
Anyway, I was just wondering what Neil thought of the whole thing. So I asked.
ME: "So, Neil. What did you think?"
NEIL: "I don't really get it. What's the point?"
Well of COURSE Neil didn't get it. He hadn't lived LONG enough to get it. But this mother of four and student of life saw the possibilities, even then. I understand the value of a mom genetically predisposed to actually having eyes in the back of her head, which is how I know those Alpine developmental biologists are standing in some mighty deep and fertile pay dirt.
First, of course, it helps if you understand the origin of this scientific breakthrough.
As the article explained, it seems there is a gene known as eyeless. Fruit flies lacking this gene don't develop eyes. That's why the gene is called eyeless. (And you thought science was so technical.) So they take these eyeless genes, insert them into teeny tiny fruit fly embryos and  -- poof! It's a family of bugs with more eyes than Mississippi.
The thing is, the experiment worked just as well when they tried it with an eye-related gene from a mouse instead of the eyeless fruit fly gene. The result was the same: Fruit flies with multiple eyes.
This is amazing news for all of us.
For scientists, it suggest that mouse genes and fly genes are so similar that they must share a common ancestor -- a "sea-dwelling worm that lived 500 million years ago."
To molecular biologists, it means we are all basically just big flies.
And while I'm not certain how you go from mice and fruit flies to prehistoric worms, I do see the mammal /worm connection. It's believable, even from a layperson's point of view.
After all, haven't we all met our share of people we could accurately refer to as sea-dwelling worms?
But what makes this even more amazing news is that, with just a little imagination, science can use this "eyeless" research to benefit the entire human race.
For example, you know that guy who cut you off in traffic yesterday? The one you called "brainless?" It's not what you really called him, but it's what you meant. Scientists could simply isolate his brainless gene and -- poof! Before you know it, a new and improved breed of driver is born with built-in common road courtesy AND the ability to parallel park.
Or that person you just phoned for assistance at your favorite utility company? The one who was rude? The one who kept you on hold for five minutes only to disconnect you? One successful Swiss-scientist procedure on her tactless gene and you are practically guaranteed a Utopian world where people who answer business phones are never rude.
But it doesn't stop there, folks.
Suppose your kids won't help around the house. Get some professional gene splicers to isolate their choreless gene and before you know it, a generation of children is born instinctively beating each other with brooms for first dibs on household chores.
You say your husband hasn't sent you flowers or surprised you with reservations at a nice restaurant since -- well, he's just never done it? It's not really his fault. It's that damned romanceless gene. Send him off to the University of Basel so they can reconfigure his DNA.
Oh sure -- it will take a generation or two for romantic husbands to flourish. But it's worth the wait.
And think of it this way: While you're doing your part to create perfect husbands for your children's children, imagine, just for fun, how it would feel to have the following conversation at a party:
PARTY GUEST: "Where's your husband these days? I haven't seen him around."

YOU: "Him? Oh, he was a real nice guy, but he wasn't genetically predisposed to romance. So I donated him to science.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Of Wishes, Hoop Dreams and Simple Prayers

Wishing stars: overrated.

Wishing stars, Y-shaped poultry bones, fountain-strewn pennies, birthday candles – my Billy’s not buying any of it, anymore.

“Mommy, know what? Wishing is fake. All of it,” he declared during a recent car conversation.

At the time of his revelation he was breathing heavily on the passenger-side window, tracing the letters of his first name in the fog with his finger.

“Whatcha mean, Bill?”

“I mean FAKE! You know, PHONY!?!,” my son was looking at me as though I’d just questioned the true identity of Batman.

His emotion caught me off guard. I made eye contact and smiled generously in hopes I could head off the tears that were lodged in his throat and, by my calculations, six seconds from his tear ducts.

“No, Sweetie – what I mean is, how do you KNOW wishes are fake?,” the surety of his words still stuck in my craw.

“Because all my life I been wishin’ to be a famous athlete and it hasn’t happened. So I’m through with wishes!”

And with that, Billy was smearing his carefully formed letters into a blurry fistful of car window smudge.

“Billy – you’re only 5. How many famous 5-year-old athletes do you think there are?”
All my son could do was shrug. To him, a wish is a wish. There are no loopholes or hidden clauses that should preclude a 5-year-old from becoming a famous athlete, if he wishes for it hard enough.

I had to think fast.

Because wishing falls into that huge vat of complication we parents concoct when we encourage our kids to believe in things they can’t slide into their pockets or hold in their chubby little fists.

And we all do it.

Like the airborne fluoride sprite who will exchange a worn-out baby tooth for its fair market value, in cold cash, at the drop of an incisor.

Or the irrational connection between bestowing your heart’s desire onto a Lincoln-head penny and tossing it into a chlorinated pool at the mall.

We coax them to wish on stars, to dabble in dreams.

But we fail to provide a safety net for their errant wishes – the ones that float away, leaving them to plummet, face first, into some dark place, beyond wide-eyed innocence, we hoped they’d never have to find.

Right then and there I didn’t have time to invent the right glue to mend my child’s broken spirit. First, I asked God, “Why me?” Then, I settled on a simple prayer: “Get me outta this one gracefully. Just send me the right words.” Then, I reached over and intercepted the tear stuck midway down Billy’s cheek.

“Well, if you’re thinking of famous athletes like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal – I’m pretty sure they had to do way more than wish on stars.

They had to practice dribbling and shooting. They had to learn the rules of the game and how not to be sore losers. They had to grow up into men before they got rich and famous.”
My wisdom was falling on plugged ears. Billy’s fingers were wedged tightly into his ear canals, the thing he does whenever he doesn’t like the way I toss advice his way.
My words landed like dead fish near a nauseated seal. They were stinking up his half of the car, too. I could tell by the sour look on his face.

I pulled out my big gun, a whopper of a phrase that sometimes coaxes sensibility from my stubborn son.

“Billy – do you want to be right or do you want to hear the truth?”

And on cue, my queasy little sea mammal was getting his appetite back.

“All right, Mom. I want the truth.”

“OK, the truth is that you’re right: Wishes are fake.”

He was all ears, sans the fingers.

“There’s nothing wrong with making wishes, because they come straight from your heart. As long as you understand there’s no magic; no place for wishes to go that make them come true.”

And then came the words I’d more than wished for, the spiritual Krazy Glue my fragmented son needed to repair his NBA dreams of grandeur.

“You know, wishes are a lot like prayers. Only we know prayers have someplace to go. You send a prayer to God and have faith that he hears it. Then, you do your part. You wanna be a good athlete? Be patient. Practice and work hard.”

“All right, Mommy.” Only Billy was distracted by a fresh batch of window fog. Still, I think he was happy to know the truth about wishes.

I sent my smile heavenward, along with a silent postscript to my earlier prayerful S.O.S.
“Thanks, God. And one more thing: Next time let it be Jim trapped in the car when Billy needs the truth. I’m drained.”

Originally published Sept. 1997
Bucks County Courier Times

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mother's Day Gift Like No Other

Amy Marturana, left, and her mom, Joan, Sea Isle City, NJ, summer of 2010.
"Is this Carol?" said the voice with the familiar Bucks County twang. "You used to write for the Courier?"
It was a man named Dave Marturana, of Newtown. He remembered me from my years writing a weekly column for this newspaper. He found me, long distance, in Manchester, NH, where I've been living and working for the past decade.
He had a story to tell me, and I'm still a sucker for a good story.
Occupational hazard.
"Do you remember writing something called 'Happy Birthday, my Beloved"?
I still had one eye on the TV as I sifted through my unreliable memory banks.
"Well, I wrote a lot of stories in my life, Dave," I said. "Can you give me a little more to go on?"
He said it was something I'd written on the occasion of my daughter's 21st birthday.
"That makes sense, because I have a daughter named Aimee, and Aimee means 'beloved' in French, so yeah, I'm sure I did write something like that," I said, moving into the kitchen for a quiet space.
"Right. I know that because I also have a daughter, Amy, only we spelled it differently," Dave said.
"When you wrote that story it really touched my wife. She cut it out and saved it so she could give it to our daughter on her 21st birthday. She said it really captured everything she felt about motherhood, and expressed all the things she wanted to say to our daughter when she turned 21."
I was really starting to like Dave.
"Aw, that's so cool," I said, still wondering why someone would travel across 10 years and 350 miles of airwaves to remind me that I have a way with words.
"In fact, our Amy is going to be 21 on Thursday," and as Dave went on, I did the mental math, concluding that I must have written that column back in 1997.
"My wife actually has the same birthday as our daughter. Unfortunately, she died a few months ago," said Dave, collapsing my ability to subtract in my head or wallow in the glory of my lingering fame as a memorable columnist for my hometown paper.
"Oh Dave, I'm so sorry," I heard myself saying, still not sure where we were going.
Then he explained how he'd come across the yellowed newspaper clipping in a box of stuff he had been sifting through, things left behind by the woman he'd married not long after meeting her back in 1981, on the job at Betz Laboratories. She was a lab technician and he was an engineer.
"I was going to throw it away. My wife was a real collector. But then I started reading it, and it was like, 'Oh my god, I remember when she cut this out, and why she cut it out. I have got to give it to Amy for her birthday. I've got to do what her mother intended to do with it ."
At this point Dave didn't really need to finish his story. My mind had already raced ahead. I knew exactly why he'd called me.
"My wife had also bought a birthday card ahead of time -- that was Joan -- and it was in the box, next to the clipping," said Dave.
I couldn't say anything. My heart was in my throat and tears were taking me over.
"Anyway, the reason I'm calling is just because I wanted you to know how much it meant to my wife, how much it means to me that, even though Joan can't be here for Amy's birthday, I have this to give her, a last gift from her mother."
Dave told me that in a couple days he was going to drive to Syracuse University, where his daughter is a journalism student, and hand deliver the card.
I learned that Joan Marturana was only 55 when she died on Valentine's Day, just two years after her cancer diagnosis. She also left behind a son, 23.
I thanked Dave again for finding me, and we hung up.
Now, I needed to know what it was that I had written about motherhood that was so important.
My own four kids are mostly grown now. Yet, after 34 years in the trenches, I still find myself questioning my ability to get it right.
I knew my old Courier Times clips were in a shoebox in the basement. Despite my disorganized attitude toward most everything, I had filed the little manila envelopes chronologically before stashing them, which made it easy to find the one marked September 1997.
I unfolded my own yellowed copy of the column that, turns out, was a letter to myself. I read it and cried again -- not just for Joan, but for all the moms still in the trenches, who are never quite sure if they're getting it right.
And so, with permission from my former editor, Pat Walker, I'm sharing Dave's story -- and that old column, which seems like a fitting Mother's Day tribute for Joan Marturana, who couldn't be here this year to soak up the love and gratitude from the family that must somehow find the strength to go on, without her.
Happy Birthday, My Beloved
If only I'd known then what I know now, I could've written myself this letter 21 years ago and saved myself a lot of guesswork, not to mention guilt:
September 12, 1976
Dear Carol:
It's a girl! But then, you knew she would be, somehow, didn't you?
First things first: Stop looking, because there's no owner's manual, no deposit, no return and no money-back guarantee.
Pick a name that seems to suit her. It should be meaningful and, hopefully, pay tribute to someone special in your life. Something like Aimee Jeanne -- Aimee because it means 'beloved;' Jeanne, for your sister who, with any luck, she will grow up to favor.
Now, let the fun begin with your first bonding moment.
Take her gently, apprehensively into your arms and size her up.
Make sure you hold her firmly by her fragile pink blanketed body and kiss her no less than 10 times, covering cheeks, mouth, nose and forehead thoroughly. She will instinctively root around for anything that feels like a food source. It's OK -- let her gorge herself on your chin. It's a phase that won't last long enough.
When no one's looking, check for digits -- 10 extraordinarily long fingers, 10 incredible toes. Then, take off all that hospital garb and open up that diaper. See for yourself what a full-bodied miracle looks like at close range.
This would be a good time to thank God for your perfect, wondrous child -- and let Him know He's officially on call until further notice.
The next year will be hectic. You'll spend most of your spare time informing your friends and relatives of how truly gifted she is. They'll want to know about all her firsts. First burp, first smile, first solid food, first saliva bubble, first unintelligible babble. Write everything down in her baby book. Believe it or not, you'll forget the particulars.
Also, you'll need no less than one roll of camera film per week. It's an expensive habit, but there's just no other way for you to capture every average, expressionless moment for posterity.
In two short years you'll learn the difference between spirited and spoiled. The definition of discipline will become suddenly, strangely ambiguous. She'll destroy every theory on child rearing you subscribed to in your childless years.
Fasten your seatbelt.
At 5 she'll impress you with her maturity on the first day of kindergarten. She'll baffle you a week later when she buries her head in your lap, begging you not to make her go back.
Make her go.
You'll cry through her first band concert, the melody of "Hot Cross Buns" barely recognizable above the din of squeaks, toots and misplaced quarter notes. But that's not what prompts your tears.
It's the way she's straining to find your face in the sea of parents. It's the self-satisfied smile she flashes during the roar of the crowd. It's the indelible song she's given you that will resonate on your heart strings for life.
And just when you think you're handling things pretty well, puberty strikes.
For the next five years nothing will look familiar, from her hairstyle to her bedroom decor.
Though you swore things would be different between your daughter and you, suddenly uncomfortably familiar one-liners are spilling forth from your gut. Once you catch your breath, you'll despise the sound of your words as much as you did the first time you heard them -- when your mother spoke them to adolescent you.
But you'll survive.
Go ahead -- enjoy her youthful spirit. Marvel as she overcomes the pain of growing -- her first romantic heartbreak, her bad hair days, her bad decision days, the days you wonder if she'll ever straighten up and fly right.
Then comes graduation. As your daughter walks the walk, clutching a delicate rosebud, you'll have trouble holding back your tears. It's everything -- the road you've traveled, the road ahead. It's more a beginning than an end -- and yet, it's not easy to watch her so ready to sprout wings and fly off, direction unknown.
All it not lost, though, because at 18 she's still your woman-child.
Out more than in, her phone messages pile up faster than her laundry.
Don't take it personally. She's just preparing you for adulthood.
And 21 will come with no mercy.
Now, your job is done.
It's time for the final, selfless act of motherhood: Accept her for who she is. Forgive yourself for the things you could've done better. Love her unconditionally. Find the strength to gently, apprehensively, let her go.