Yup, it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m Giving Thanks

We became Thanksgiving nomads shortly after my brother died. For a year or two my sister-in-law continued to gather everyone for the holiday. Then there was a while when we’d go to my parents in Massachusetts and I’d take care of everything there. That stopped when my parents decided to begin their annual snowbird flight to Sanibel before the end of November. So somehow we joined the gang at our friends Marjorie and Doug’s–their parents, in-laws, cousins, cousins’ kids and any strays without a Thanksgiving to attend, because that’s the way Marjorie and Doug are. Generous. Everyone makes something: Marjorie’s cousins Susan and Larry make this scrumptious sweet potato dish that has evolved over the years–the recipe calls for condensed milk. I think they now use skim. Yummy anyway. I make cranberry sauce (in the pot in the photo above) and a scrumptious pumpkin chocolate chip cake. Ask me and I’ll give you the recipe.

The Thanksgiving Parade was baked into the tradition during the early years, when the kids were young. We live right off the parade route, and Howard and Doug would set off early to secure a spot on the sidewalk curb. A couple of hours later I’d join them with the well-layered children, blankets, a large thermos of hot chocolate, and a bag of homemade blond brownies. (One year it snowed and we managed to find seats in the grandstand. Luckily during the parade years it never poured.) Then we’d go home, change our clothes, and walk down the block to Marjorie and Doug’s. I can mark some of the years with images of Ariel’s winter dress-up coats: year after year of navy blue or green wool with velvet collars and cuffs. The dads would then take the kids to Riverside park for some football (the girls in their maryjanes and white tights, yes, crazy but true) while everyone else prepared the feast.

From the beginning Marjorie instituted a pre-meal ritual where we’d go around the table and everyone would say what he or she was grateful for. The kids hated this. Whether there were six or ten young ones or teens, they’d all say, one after another, in a sing-song voice, “I’m grateful for family and friends.” For a couple of years they were banned from doing this. Now when Michael, 28, says he’s grateful for his sister, Dana, 32, we all go, “awwww.”

I have always dreaded this saying-what-you’re-grateful thing too. For several years I was caring for my mentally and physically deteriorating mother. Yes, I always knew I’m so lucky to have what I have, but that fact of my life kind of soured the picture when I had to put things into words. Likewise, this year I really haven’t been looking forward to it: the kids remain unemployed. The economy is bad. I worry about what will happen when the republicans take over in January 2013.

Then a couple of days ago Howard showed me an article in the New York Times about being grateful. Actually, everyone was linking to it on Twitter and Facebook (http://nyti.ms/ruQIQN). According to the research John Tierney gathered, being grateful for things and expressing our gratitude makes us feel better. Tierney writes that as Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, advises in his book Thanks, “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.” So here’s me doing some gratitude counting. I go from the sublime to the seemingly trivial. But nothing here is small in my life. And, of course, the list is incomplete. The more I think about it, the more I have to be thankful for.

  1. I am thankful for my family. I have a wonderful, smart husband who loves us all. My kids may be unemployed, and this does stress us all, but I know we’ll look back on this as just an episode in our lives. They’ll get jobs. That dog in the photo above: That’s Landry, my daughter’s “rescue” dog. Off of Craig’s List. Yes, I had a fit. But he is the best, sweetest pup. How lucky he was that they found him. How lucky I am to have him at my feet as a write.
  2. I am thankful for my friends. The people I know astound me (a natural cynic) with their generosity of heart and spirit. They make my world.
  3. I am thankful for my parents. My father’s been dead over a decade, my mother for nearly five years, but every day I benefit from the blessing of being their child: my intelligence, my talent, my values, what I am deep inside–I owe that to them.
  4. I am thankful for social media. Yes, this may seem a little trivial, but social media has opened for me a whole new life, a new platform. Through Twitter I have made astonishing connections and met people who devote their lives to promoting social good, people I admire.
  5. I am thankful for my piano. Yes, I am. Music enriches my life; my piano Mason & Hamlin concert grand, dating from 1904,  is special.
  6. I am grateful for WQXR and WMHT radio. When I think about how these stations improve the quality of my life . . . .
  7. I am thankful to the American Ballet Theatre. The beauty of movement and music coupled–I love ballet the most of all the arts.
  8. I am thankful to live in New York City. Truly this is the best place in the world. I feel so privileged to be a half block from Central Park, resplendent in all seasons. Lincoln Center is a walk away–and there is where I go the hear the New York Philharmonic, an organization that also brings me such joy.
  9. I am thankful to the authors of the wonderful books I have read this year. The list is long, but thanks guys.
  10. I am thankful for my country house. This gift from my dad keeps on giving every time I drive up the driveway and see the red brick chimney reach into the sky, the blue house surrounded by fields and trees. Even you deer out there that eat my plants, I guess I’m kind of grateful to you as well. You are part of the whole nature thing.

What are you grateful for? From the important to the silly, you probably have a list like mine. I’d love for you to leave comments below, but finding me on Twitter at @wordwhacker or on FB at either Facebook.com/Linda.Bernstein or Facebook.com/LindaBernsteinPhD. I’m even on Google Plus. Circle me.

Andy Rooney Didn’t Say That

I really don’t get why people do this. Someone’s Facebook status warns that Facebook is going to start charging, asks us to give money to a charity, or alerts us to the disappearance of a child. In the old days people would ask their friends to cut and paste the information to their Facebook status. Today we just have to hit the “share.” There, that status is our status! When you do that, you have put your name on something without checking it out, without knowing where it came from. Is that charity real or false? Do you really want your name associated with . . . a fake charity? Outdated information? Downright lies?

That’s just what happened this morning on Barbara Hannah Grufferman’s Facebook page. Now, I think Barbara is the cat’s pajamas. Not only does she write compellingly about being over 50; she just ran the New York City Marathon. She is also totally beautiful, always upbeat, and introspective–a perfect model for baby boomer women. (Those of you on Twitter can follow her at @BGrufferman. Her tweets are clever and informative.) So naturally she’d be interested in an essay by Andy Rooney about women over 40–one came her way, and she posted it. And people shared it–even after a couple of commenters pointed out that Andy Rooney did not write this. Indeed, Rooney called this piece “a saccharine collection of comments” when it was brought to his attention in 2003. Today, when I saw it on Barbara’s status, I recognized the essay from years ago, and I remembered that Snopes.com, the people who verify or debunk Internet rumors, had found the author years ago, one Frank Kaiser, who tends more toward the sentimental than to Rooney-esque acerbic wit.

So you’d think that after the first person posted the link to Snopes people would stop sharing. Nope. The comments still glowed; people still shared. Even after I reiterated the Snopes findings and added a link to Benjamin Franklin’s encomium on the merits of older women (http://bit.ly/vmkUfp; I got two likes for that–it’s a riot, and the guy was no prude), people are still sharing this little piece about older women that Andy Rooney didn’t write.

Sure, I was trained to be a scholar, that is, research stuff. My urge to dig into information and find sources has also been an asset for my forays into journalism. It also means that some of my friends probably think I’m a bit of a pain in the rear. Really, so what that a status is all about Poem in Your Pocket Day, even if Poem in Your Pocket Day was six months ago? It’s just Facebook.

Still, there’s something wrong here. The first thing that gets me: People don’t bother to check their sources. It’s non-thinking like that that enables schemers to rob people of their money. (Yeah, if his investors had really checked out Bernie Madoff, they wouldn’t have handed over those bags of moolah. Notice who didn’t invest with him: hedge funds, other investors–people who read the fine print.) Sure, no one is going to think badly about the people who “shared” Barbara’s status. Andy Rooney may not have liked the piece, but others do, evidently. Still, do you want to be the one passing on false information?

And that kind of leads to my second gripe: Wrong attribution. In school we learn about plagiarism and are told not to do it. People’s words belong to them. This piece is really popular, and Frank Kaiser should be getting the credit. (Except that having Rooney’s name on it gives it an extra oomph and it’s bound to get more clicks.)

Everyone on social media does this–passes on information without checking it out. But when people start the blame game, it’s often older uses of social media who are cited. We are careless, people say. I maintain that baby boomers are really smart and really smart users of social media.

So if you like Frank Kaiser’s essay, give him credit in your share. Go to Google. Or, here, I’ll give it to you: http://bit.ly/uG0ipJ. Be the first one on your Facebook to get it right.

Think I need to lighten up? Or is this one of your pet peeves too? Let me know in the comment box. You can always find me there or on Twitter. I’m @wordwhacker.

(There is, by the way, a very real missing child, who is getting social media and news attention as of this writing. On November 5, 2011 a girl from Wayland, MA ran away from home and was last seen in New York City Port Authority tapes. People are looking in Brooklyn for her. Here’s an early report, http://bit.ly/sg4gvH, and another from yesterday’s Huffington Post http://huff.to/rJ91rF.)

Not Quite In-Laws

I love Yiddish and wish I had actually paid attention when my father tried to teach me to read it. The language is vivid, flexible, and has kinds of words not found in many languages, such as a distinct term to denote the familial relationship between a man and his mother-in-law. I don’t know that one. In fact, when it comes to in-laws, I’m reduced to one word: machatonim—the meshpuchah (family) into which your child marries.

Technically, I needn’t be thinking about this yet. Neither my son nor my daughter is engaged. It’s not something I’m waiting for with baited breath, either. I really like the current boyfriend and girlfriend and if engagements occur, I’ll be happy. Meanwhile, though . . . well, it will happen when it happens.

(One thing that might be delaying the engagement thing: right now, my kids and their significant others are unemployed lawyers, but that’s another column. In the meantime, check out this from The New York Times: http://nyti.ms/oM4yVi about the law school racket, how the schools churn out more and more lawyers in the face of fewer and fewer jobs while the presidents and faculties get rich)

But during the past two-and-a-half years, as both became romantically attached, they developed strong relationships with other families. At first, I did not like this. I still sometimes feel a little piqued or put upon when my son or daughter chooses to spend time with the boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s family when I really want them to be home with us. I admit to the itsy bitsy part of me that wishes they were still little and totally dependent on us for everything, when we were their world. (Well, I got that over with. By the time I finished typing that sentence, I went back to loving that they’re independent and interesting young adults.)

Of course, I kind of knew this would happen. But I also sort figured my daughter would marry her brother’s first friend (son of good friends of ours—didn’t happen). I also wanted my children to have much better relationships with their in-laws than I had with mine. My in-law problem had much to do with geography—they lived in Florida and came to New York City three times from the day I married their son until they died. My husband and I, later with the kids,  went to Florida for at least a week a year, but we never grew close.

My parents and my in-laws were a bad match, too. Not that they actively disliked each other. They just had nothing in common. Maybe they’d call each other on holidays, but that was it.

So, I am pleasantly surprised that my children picked partners with really nice families with good values. In the realm of coincidences possible in this life, my daughter fell in love with a young man from the small town nearest to our country house. So we started seeing his parents socially every now and then—movies, informal dinners. Now it’s more often. Yesterday afternoon I found myself in town in the hardware store, frustrated that I couldn’t find a crock just right for making cucumber half sour pickles like the ones my grandmother made. It occurred to me that I was a 1 minute drive from Dave’s folks. So I picked up my iPhone and spent the next two hours sitting on the front porch of a Victorian era farmhouse. Nice. My son’s girlfriend’s mom and I have been exchanging emails as the kids study for the bar exam. Her dad is on Facebook, and sometimes I see him there. Nice. My son’s girlfriend’s family go to the shore for a vacation each year; my son is joining them. Nice. My daughter’s boyfriend’s family goes to a lake in Maine, and she’ll be part of that group. Nice.

There’s no name for this expansion of family pre-marriage. We have new friends, not necessarily besties, but people we like. Our kids have other adults with whom they interact, about whom they care. I suppose there would have been a word in Yiddish, should the language have evolved in that direction. (The only people who actively and daily use language, aside from some cultural enthusiasts, are certain sects of Orthodox Jews who do not, I imagine, have these kinds of relationships since their kids get married. Early.) Me, the word person—I’m willing to just enjoy the feeling.

Here is a t-shirt I hope I’ll be wearing one day:

  • Follow your kids’ lead. My kids weren’t the type to “bring home” just anyone. When they were ready, we were happy to meet the person. I’ve always tried not to pressure or nag, though, I must say, I haven’t always succeeded. So I say, “follow your kids’ lead” in the spirit of “take this good advice I’ve heard from others,” not, “oh, follow my example.”
  • Try not to mention ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. We’ve been pretty good about that, though sometimes it’s hard not to mention them especially when they play a role in a funny story. My rule here is that you get to tell the story, but you don’t emphasize the ex.
  • Don’t call a current boyfriend or girlfriend by an ex’s name. I mention this because I’ve done it. My son dated a girl named Megan in high school, and I sometimes call the dog Megan. I don’t get it.
  • Be there for your kid, even when the significant other is in the right. A corollary to this is that even after a break-up, don’t overly malign the ex because they might get back together. A former boss whose kids were a bit older than my gave me this advice: her daughter unengaged and re-engaged about three times before that relationship finally bit the dust.

As always, I invite your comments and would love to hear your almost-in-law stories.

BOOMERS: JOIN FACEBOOK. NOW

Real story. In college and for several years after I had a good friend named Jeff who was the boyfriend and then husband of someone who had lived on my freshman dorm floor. We were really close. After they got married it was often Jeff, Iris and me. I dated guys just because they were friends with Jeff, and wouldn’t that have been perfect—Jeff and Iris, Linda and X. Well, that never happened. After college Jeff went to medical school (and I was in graduate school and Iris was basically doing nothing). For someone who wasn’t a spouse, I spent an unreasonable amount of time sneaking into the emergency rooms of various hospitals with pizza and beer nights when Jeff was “on call.”

At some point, after Jeff was already a psychiatrist with a practice (I remember going to purchase the couch for his office with him), Iris had a psychotic break, and my husband really didn’t want a completely crazy person sleeping in our living room. Besides, it’s pretty hard being friends with someone who thinks she’s being following by little Japanese boys wearing baseball caps. Then Iris and Jeff got divorced. (Cutting Iris off isn’t something I’m proud of.) Jeff remarried a really nice woman, and for a while they lived on the same block as my kids’ elementary school. But we fell out of touch.

And yet, I always kind of figured that Jeff was there and that someday I’d just give him a call and we’d simply pick up where we left off.

Then, about two months ago, I was writing a short story with a character addicted to drugs. Doing some research on the internet, I came across some medical papers Jeff had written—drug addiction was his specialty. Then I came across something else: an obituary. Jeff had died of cancer. In 2008. In other words, this guy that I expected to call up someday had been dead for nearly three years.

I was bereft. It was unimaginable. I still can’t quite absorb that he’s dead.

However, this blog is about something else entirely, and the story about Jeff segues into my argument. I’m not being heartless. It’s just that the story illustrates what I want to say:

BABYBOOMERS: GO ON FACEBOOK.

OK. Another story. For the past many years, every May 12th I have an email exchange (or now a LinkedIn message exchange) with my friend Roy Rosenstein, a professor at the American University in Paris with whom I was close, close friends in graduate school. Roy was probably among the most brilliant people I have ever met. He also hated children. Nevertheless, he was tolerant of the fact that I had them—but that was pretty easy considering he started living in Paris even before he got his Ph.D. (Roy knows about 10 languages, including Russian and Chinese. He also is a collector of books. No, more than that. A true bibliomaniac whose bookshelves proved too heavy for the ceiling below his library.) Eventually, with me all caught up with little-kid things and Roy buying books and speaking French, we lost touch. Then he showed up on LinkedIn. And today I had the bright idea that he might be on Facebook. So I “friended” him, and this just appeared in my profile wall: “Linda and Roy Rosenstein are now friends.”

Roy mentioned in his LinkedIn mail that he’s promoting his newest book, and I have no idea what it is about. When I think of Roy, I see in my mind a pixie-ish guy with brown hair and beard. Last time I saw him, five years or so ago, he was graying. I don’t know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing. But I know he’s there. He’s someone who is deep in my heart, and now I can reach out to him anytime. Through Facebook. (And, yeah, LinkedIn.) He’s not about to go missing.

I do have a lot of friends my age on Facebook, but I’m just as likely to hear, “oh, don’t talk to me about that stuff.” A woman I know who went on Facebook just before her daughter got married—“for the pictures,” she said—whined that she really means to get off of it, because what does someone like her want with Facebook? What good does it do, she says, except to give people access to pictures?

Well, she’s right about the pictures part. I got to see my great-nephew’s smile five minutes after he lost his first tooth! My daughter shared pictures of a new dress she was about to buy. But there’s other stuff too. I know what news articles my son is reading. Beyond stalking my family: Facebook is a wonderful door to the amazing world of children’s book illustrators I know. On Facebook I am “friends” with some literary greats who post interesting articles and insights into their craft. There’s the fun stuff, too: yesterday a friend posted a photo collage of side-by-side images from Disney’s Cinderella and the recent “royal wedding.” The 30-year-old next door puts up pictures of her food whenever she goes out to eat. Through Facebook I have become treasuredly close to my husband’s cousin’s wife because we write back and forth. We see each other, too, and make phone calls, but Facebook is there, and we’re there, and it’s like opening your window in a small town, and shouting “hello” to your neighbor across the street.

Baby Boomers who decry Facebook as silly and unnecessary need to realize that they are cutting themselves off from a tool that promotes community and connectivity in a world where people move away and lose touch. I will be the first to say that to be on Facebook, one has to be a bit savvy because there are privacy issues and one does have to protect oneself against identify theft. But you know what: Facebook provides pretty simple instructions. They used to be arcane, but no more. (Just know that the default settings are for Facebook’s marketing’s benefit, not yours, so you do have to spend ten minutes or so changing them all. Type into Google “How do I make my Facebook settings private?” and you’ll get links to many step-by-step guides, as well as YouTube videos if you prefer visuals.) It’s also a given that Facebook changes its rules every couple of months. So you have to keep on top of things. But you can “like” (subscribe to, in other words) various groups that will keep you informed about changes by sending you messages. Finally, you have to know that if you receive a message from a friend promising to show you something gross (“Look what this woman found in her Happy Meal”) or salacious (“real naked pictures of Meghan McCain!”), promise to tell you who has been looking at your Facebook profile (Facebook says this is impossible), or telling you to click on a link to watch yourself age—it’s all spam. The “app” will go into your “friends” list and put the phony link on their pages. Mostly these things are nuisance. Some may contain code that will infect your computer. So don’t click on anything that seems strange or whose source you can’t trace.

In my next blog, or the one after, I’m going to give a real “Getting on Facebook” lesson for Baby Boomers. Because we can stay in touch. Because we need to stay in touch.

And by the way: You can comment at the end of the post instead of emailing me or commenting on my Facebook. For those of you out there whose comments  I managed to delete, sorry. I do appreciate your words and insights.