Archive | October, 2011

Apron Strings

17 Oct

When I turned 18, my mother gave me an apron. After I opened the gift, she took it from me, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the apron strings. She said, “I am doing for you what my mother never did for me.”

With those words, she sent me on my independent way. I was halfway through my senior year of high school at the time. For Mom, the apron strings had great meaning. I understood and appreciated Mom’s gesture, and for good reason. My grandmother was overly protective and never able to let go of Mom. Up until the time she had her first bad stroke, Grandma was always there, hovering over Mom like she couldn’t take care of herself. She meddled in Mom’s adult relationships and always criticized her.

Mothering is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Grandma, whose husband left her to willingly fight in WWII despite flat feet and a bad asthma problem. He served her divorce papers at Christmastime midway through the war. My mom and uncle ate lots of ketchup sandwiches growing up, from the house my grandma ran in the South End for “unwed mothers.”

Grandma was smart and artsy. She also worked setting up the window display’s at the downtown department store, which in the 50s was “the place” to be. But she also smoked liked a chimney to manage anxiety issues and life in general. She was a hypochondriac. And she hated seeing men in uniforms. She did have issues, and goodness only knows what her married life was like. I’m sure there was fair blame on both sides.

I grew up being the one responsible for calling Grandma to come over to our house for dinners, because Mom just couldn’t deal with her. She treated Mom like she didn’t know anything. I think she was trying to protect her from getting hurt, too. But it didn’t work. When I was about 8, Mom started having severe agoraphobia. She was immobilized by fear when she left the house and had violent panic attacks. At her worst, she spent years confined to her bedroom. This from a person who loved being out and about. Occasionally she would try to go out, and I would accompany her as the one person she felt safe leaving the house with. Or, with her spatial memory, she would write out the grocery list for me to follow, aisle by aisle, and fixed me up with a blank check to the cashier at the corner store. Dad waited in the parking lot. He wasn’t much help.

One of my favorite things to do as a kid was go to Grandma’s and spend the night. At Grandma’s, we sketched or walked around the neighborhood and talked. We played card games, Trouble, Scrabble, pool, and a board game that her German dad carved and handpainted. Grandma was crafty in more ways than one. She made up rules for the game on the fly…rules that sometimes worked to my benefit and sometimes to hers. I always had favored status with her as the only granddaughter among five grandsons. She never dominated me the way she did with mom.

She did annoying but cute things like hide money in my pockets–despite being a case study for someone who would have been on the street without Social Security–and send me away from her house with grocery bags of government cheese and rice that she never ate, because she never ate anything. She called herself “Snake Hips.” We made each other laugh. We both wore goofy hats. She kept me apprised of the daily status of her “bowels” and once informed me that things had recently been “explosive.” Grandma was a fan of Metamucil.

When Grandma died, I was the saddest I’ve ever been. Mom was on vacation when it happened. I will never forget when the nursing home staffer told me, “Mrs. Foltz has expired.” Grandma would not have been happy to know that her life was given the same freshness metric of a Twinkie.

Mothering was not easy for Mom, either. I was an obedient kid but a rebellious teenager–typical but not a walk in the park. After she cut those apron strings, I had a total of five hotel parties with my friends during the rest of my senior year. I knew when it was going to happen the first time, because I could see her bright blue trench coat through the open curtains as I was waking up in the hotel room. She tried to let me go completely but had to set some limits on my behavior, being the parent and all. Mom kicked me out of the house twice during those six months, and I stayed at friends’ houses. Their moms were extraordinarily supportive without getting in the middle of Mom’s and my issues. It was a nice vacation, but by the end of the school year, I was living back at home, by my own choice.

Looking back, I think I wanted to be more mothered. Mom would be surprised by that after her own experiences with Grandma, and by my stretching the limits of what she could condone. But it’s true. I’ve developed friendships that give me that unconditional acceptance.

As I’ve grown up and seen for myself how difficult mothering can be, I have more appreciation for the challenges Mom went through. And Grandma. As a result of being mothered by both of them, I probably have by default landed on an in-between approach for my own kids. I am not always the best at being emotionally there, but I am very good at being in the moment with them when I’m “on.” I’m not perfect, but I’d like to think that I’ve taken the best of what both offered.

I guess the point of the apron string symbolism is this: You can cut the strings, but they’re still your kids. Yeah, they’re your kids, but you can’t control what they do, say or think. No cutting, or holding on too tight. May be best to put on the apron yourself and give them their own, and make the best of it in the middle ground.

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Get Smart

12 Oct

This is how Merriam-Webster sees it.

I have a bumper sticker on one of my cars with a big American flag and one word: THINK.

This pretty much sums up my thoughts on what it means to be American. I respect anyone’s personal opinions about religion, politics and other controversial topics when they can back them up. Repeat rhetoric to me, from either side of the aisle, and I’ll lose patience. Anyone can parrot back empty words. Put your mind and your heart behind them, and then I’ll bother listening.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of media consumption: watching television news and reality shows results in zero thought process. It’s easy to get sucked into…I’ve had my own binges with Project Runway, Dance Moms and Russian Dolls. The first is at least somewhat intellectually stimulating. The last two are complete wastes of time.

Thinking requires discipline. Here are some things that I try to do to keep my brain in shape.

  1. Read the news. My own personal scientific studies (okay, not scientific but bear with me) indicate that WATCHING the news results in very little recall and no critical thinking whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s CNN or Fox. Most of it is designed to lure me into more watching–not more thinking. By reading the news, I have a chance to learn something new, because most written news stories go into more depth than TV news. I also have a chance to reflect on what I’ve read, re-read it if needed and come away with some new thoughts of my own.
  2. Consume news that is not aligned with my opinions and/or perspective. I try to listen to talk radio occasionally, even though it makes me angry. (Extreme opinions on either side just don’t make sense to me. I just want to tell them: Calm down, people!) I also try to read foreign news. If you can read in a foreign language, this is a real benefit on this front. In particular, taking in our own political process through the lens of foreign media can really be an eye-opener. I was in France in 1989, during the Beirut hostage crisis when they were showing the American hostages on television, speaking. Chilling really, but also different when interpreted by foreign newscasters with another take on America.
  3. Have conversations with people who have opinions different from mine. How simple is this? And how difficult? Safe to say that I am a conflict-averse person. Also safe to say that my opinions may not always be aligned with the everybody’s. Add to that a mainstream that prefers to think of their opinions as facts and “right.” All of this makes having conversations difficult, which pushes people further into the extremes–or perceived extremes. I like having friends with different opinions on all of the hot-button items. It makes life more interesting–and I think it makes me more educated about the world around me. Seeing things through others’ eyes is not always easy, but I think it’s worth the hard work.

America at its core is a place built by and for people with different, and at times differing, opinions. I’m a believer in civil discourse that keeps us “true Americans.”

Flour Sacks, Ketchup and Thrift

12 Oct

Reflecting back on this post from a year ago….branding in a time of thrift, aka the “spend shift.”

________________________

I’ve heard stories about the Great Depression and WWII economy from my family. Losing the family farm just before President Hoover changed policies so that loans were more accessible, my grandmother later described feeling “very lucky” that she never had to dress her kids in flour sacks. It could always be worse, as they say.

Eating ketchup sandwiches sounds like a novel idea to my kids, but it was less than romantic for my mom in the early 1940s when nutritious food was rationed. Ketchup is not a vegetable, despite what Ronald Reagan and the USDA said in 1981.

But this post is not really about flour sacks or ketchup sandwiches. It is about a set of hard-core self-determinism and conservative (I am not talking politics here) values that got us through those tough years. And apparently the American consumer is returning to a model of saving rather than spending, focusing on time with family and friends rather than outward-oriented and ambitious ideas of success, and more consciousness for community benefit rather than self-aggrandizement.

What’s really important in life: continued acquisition or living more simply?  Is it better to encourage my son to save his money for the newest video game system or sock it away for something he may need in the future? Does it matter, in the end?

I heard an interesting talk by consumer expert John Gerzema at the Inc. 500 conference in D.C. over the weekend. Look at my twitter feed or search on #werthinc for my posts on his talk and others’. His discussion prompted me to buy two of his books, Spend Shift and The Brand Bubble. This is a man standing atop mountains of data gleaned from tens of thousands of consumers, all telling a story about buying behavior in the past and predictions for the future. It’s fascinating stuff.

This quote stood out for me: “As we stopped acquiring, we became more inquiring.” Apparently, 68 percent of Americans now have library cards — the highest number ever. I like this, although browsing in a library is different now. I like browsing books online and “buying” the free books from Amazon for Kindle. There are a lot of classics there gratis.

Here’s another: “The badge of awesomeness means being more nimble, adaptable and thrifty.” I’ve been on both sides of the coin here. I’ve had my moments of being shopaholic. Once I spent three hundred dollars in one trip at a Banana Republic for things I really didn’t need. My three hundred dollars didn’t take me far, but that was three years ago and I’m still wearing the stuff, except for one wool sweater that mistakenly was washed and put into the dryer. My daughter could wear it for a year, but soon it was too small for both of us. It’s been relegated to the doll-clothes container.

On the flip side, I decided that I wasn’t going to break the bank for the Inc. 500 conference formal. Not regularly attending such highbrow events, I needed to buy a gown and all the trappings. So here’s how I approached it:

  • From Clintonville consignment shop Rag-o-Rama, a black taffeta one-shoulder full-length clean line gown, not a designer label: $10
  • Dry cleaning the gown at Caskey Cleaners: $10
  • Patent leather shoes, beaded silk purse and black velvet/silk wrap from Grandview consignment shop One More Time: $30
  • Same earrings I wore for the rest of the conference
  • A seed beaded cuff I bought for $15 from the Columbus Museum of Art gift shop several months ago.

Grand total: $65. And I will totally wear that dress again. It fit great and made me happy because the price tag was my secret. Both my grandmothers would be proud.

So there you go, John Gerzema. I am looking forward to reading both books, but as you might guess I’ve started with Spend Shift. I’m hoping to unlock some new learnings to help communicate with this new brand of consumer. I can see applications here for work and home life.

Contemplate This

7 Oct

A nice picture of Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama, both quite ecumenical.

When I was in my 20s and had the luxury of time on my hands, I hung out with a group of people who were into contemplation.

Not the thinking kind of contemplation; it’s a form of prayer in the Catholic tradition practiced by Benedictine (Trappist) monks and is related to Buddhist meditation.

At an area church connected to a nursing home, there lived an actual Benedictine monk with responsibilities outside his monastic community. I think he’s still around Columbus, Ohio but have lost touch with him. He hosted weekly gatherings at his house where a group of us, called “lay contemplatives,” would gather for this particular form of prayer. The idea is that you do this at least once a day, as a lay contemplative, to extend the dedication to prayer built into the discipline of Trappist monks at monasteries all over the world.

The best way I’ve seen it described is “prayer of the heart.” Instead of praying FOR something and thinking about the conversation with God, the purpose is to open your heart and quietly be open to God for a period of time every day. Trappist monks pray through contemplation and chanting at least seven times a day (at specific times called “offices”) in addition to daily practice with the rosary and a daily mass.

For we humans who try to overthink everything, the concept of contemplation is both very simple and extremely difficult:

Stop thinking and doing. Be alone with a quiet knowing.

Several times per year our group of lay contemplatives traveled to Kentucky, home to the closest “mother ship” of contemplation: The Abbey of Gethsemani. This is a place that’s mostly silent, so that retreatants can converse with “God Alone.” There’s a large retreat house, acres of trails and a chance to pray and sing with the monks, beginning as early as 3:15 am. Amazingly, a stay at Gethsemani, like all monasteries and in the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, is free–by donation only.

I’ve tried to practice this life of quiet and unassuming prayer as life has become more complicated, with husband, kids and career. In concept it doesn’t require a huge time commitment; only a few minutes per day. I haven’t always done it well, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be comfortable in the unknowing of this silent prayer.

This prayer by Fr. Thomas Merton, who lived at Gethsemani prior to his untimely death, is a good guide for those of us seeking but not feeling quite perfect along the way:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani

Worth a view is this video of the recently deceased Fr. Matthew Kelty, poet and mentor of Merton’s, reading that prayer. I had the pleasure of hearing Kelty speak on dozens of occasions and was charmed by his Boston accent and cowboy boots worn below his robes. Kelty was also a gifted poet.

Steve Jobs: Making Technology Cool

6 Oct

Last school year, my 10-year-old son did a science fair project involving some research on Steve Jobs. Last night when I told him that Jobs had died, he cried.

How powerful that a man’s influence can be felt by so many generations. Even some of my older friends who just started using computers are really only doing so because of Jobs. Face it: He’s the guy that made computers useful and useable for regular people.

And he took us beyond the geekly image of a loser with big glasses tinkering with a mainframe to a culture that wants technology because it’s a mark of being cool. Being without technology is uncool. No young person today is without a mobile device.

The coolness comes from a combination of three things, all created or enabled in some way because of Jobs:

  1. It helps us to get things done, in particular things involving other people. Jobs saw the social power of technology, to connect us and help us to communicate in a multitude of ways. Paradoxically, Jobsian technology helps us to be more human.
  2. It feels good. I have not moved up to the 4-series iPhone yet, largely because I have so gotten used to the feel of the rounded edges and smooth casing of my 3-series. Technology has got to be something that we enjoy touching, and that gives us that tactile response that feels good. Case in point: The swoop sound when I send an email. Again, like the feeling of popping bubble paper or eating cherries or ghosts when playing Pac-Man, using Jobsian technology just plain feels good.
  3. I read something recently that a market study on Apple users described their visceral reaction to seeing the Apple icon as religious in nature. Same kind of response as seeing a cross or a spiritual icon. An interesting finding…that the Jobsian technology has created a devotion far deeper than brand dedication.

This clip is making the rounds, and you may have already seen it, but if not I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch. I’d read the speech a couple of years ago but didn’t see the video. And how ironic, that the man who created the technology most of us are using to view this, is the same man whose life that it helps us to celebrate.

“Stay hungry, and stay foolish.” Indeed.