Wednesday, August 21, 2013

College-bound freshmen: your parents will survive!

News bulletin to Michael Gerson's firstborn son, my firstborn granddaughter, and the maybe 3 million other kids starting college this year: Your parents will be OK!

Gerson, a Washington Post columnist, wrote a touching op-ed piece Monday about his son's departure:
Eventually, the cosmologists assure us, our sun and all suns will consume their fuel, violently explode and then become cold and dark. Matter itself will evaporate into the void and the universe will become desolate for the rest of time.

This was the general drift of my thoughts as my wife and I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college. I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. 
"Yeah," said my son-in-law whose daughter leaves for college tomorrow, "that's basically what I've been thinking for a few months." He's not alone - the article, titled "Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster," is all over Facebook. Assuming there are still teenagers who do Facebook, no doubt many of them have read it too.

Some of those college-bound teens may be concerned for their parents' sanity.

Kids, it's OK to relax. Your parents are probably normal.

Really, their behavior is totally understandable. Like you, they are facing a huge transition. For somewhere between 16 and 30 years, their number-one job--whatever else they did for a living--was to keep you safe, fed, clothed, educated, and civilized. If you're an only child or the baby of the family, they are now feeling jobless. Even if you have younger siblings, they are suddenly facing the reality that their job is winding down.

To say this another way: while a wonderful chapter in your life is about to begin, a wonderful chapter in theirs is about to end.

Does it seem weird that you feel excited while they feel morose? Well, endings are harder than beginnings. And it's usually easier to leave than to be left. You will miss your family, of course. You may even have moments of homesickness. But most of the time you'll be so busy doing new things that you won't have time for nostalgia. Your parents, by contrast, will run into reminders of your absence everywhere they turn. Your room will be unnaturally clean. The house will feel as quiet as a tomb. Your place at the table will be empty.

Your parents know this, and are full of dread. So be kind to them. Hug them. Wait patiently for them to finish crying. But don't even for one moment feel guilty for leaving. Remember that they cried when you went to kindergarten too, yet they've never regretted sending you.

See, in their calmer moments, they are really thrilled that you're going to college. They know that some children are born without the mental capacity to do college-level work. Some families don't have enough money to pay for a college education. Some kids get terrible grades in high school or simply don't want to go to college. But you've done well in school, a college has recognized your achievements, and you are motivated to continue to study and grow. Your parents are actually incredibly proud of you.

Another thing, something you may not want to hear. Your parents may weep loudly as they head for the parking lot, or they may just sniff a little. But whether they are demonstrative or restrained, they are not likely to cry for long. "I cried when we waved goodbye," one young man's mother told me last night. "And then I got in the car and drove about 10 miles and suddenly felt an enormous sense of relief."

What do parents do when their nest empties out? One father told me, "First you cry. Then you run around the house naked." More inhibited parents discover that they can hold lengthy, interesting, and uninterrupted conversations, just the two of them. Or they begin cooking more exotic food, or redecorate the house, or go out more often because the car is always available. Some parents even go back to school.

Sure, they'll miss you. Yes, they will be excited when you come home (though if you bring enough dirty laundry, you may be able to curb their enthusiasm). But just as you are beginning a new and important and good stage in your life, so are they.

Which is why I'm not sure Mike Gerson was wise to end his sweet essay by saying, "My son ..., there will always be room for you." Well, yeah, your parents aren't going to turn you away at the door, even after they've turned your room into a guest room. And yes, they will love you deeply till the end of their days (and will be grateful if you remember to phone home occasionally).

But chances are, they're hoping that in four years, more or less, you'll have a job and a place of your own. They never intended to raise a permanent child. Their goal was always to help you become a responsible adult. And now you're taking a major step toward that goal.

Really--in spite of all appearances--your parents are glad.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

On becoming a senior citizen: morning-after thoughts

[A toast to a new era]
Yesterday I turned 65.
Twelve days ago my Medicare insurance (parts A, B, D, and supplemental) took effect. Any day now my RTA Reduced Fare Permit will arrive in the mail. On Friday my husband, who is also 65, will be officially retired from the job he held for 28 years.

It feels like adolescence all over again, but with less energy.
Like our three teen-aged grandchildren, we are making big decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. Should we stay in our familiar environment or move to a different part of the country? Our granddaughters have opted to move: Katie is beginning college nearly 2000 miles from home, Susan is considering colleges all over the country. We've been involved in a wide variety of work and extracurricular activities: is it time to refocus and choose the one(s) that interest us most? Our grandson Chris, about to start high school, is making similar choices.

It also feels like being two years old, but with less cuteness.
Our grandson Max, who is impossibly cute and universally adored, still has daily trials that seem a lot like ours. How do we deal with the frustration of knowing what we want to do but not being able to do it? Do we want to be independent ("Baby self!"), or do we want the security of nearby family ("Mommy come!")? The answer, of course, is both, and when we can't have both at once, we might fuss just a little.

Or is it more like a midlife crisis, but with fewer distractions?
Our middle-aged children's lives are in as much transition as ours. One daughter has recently gone back to work after a 16-year hiatus, and it won't be long before her nest is empty. The other daughter has, in only three years, become a tenured professor, gotten married, had a baby, and bought her first house. One son-in-law's company and the other son-in-law's industry are undergoing major changes. And they're all starting to think about how to help their aging parents make good decisions ("Move closer to us!" "Don't buy a house with stairs!").

Well, as C.S. Lewis wrote in an entirely different context,
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
--Mere Christianity
Note to self when, overwhelmed by change, I feel like I'm banging my head against a wall: maybe I'm just banging my beak against a permeable shell.

Monday, August 5, 2013

If I Were Young and Twenty-Two (a guest blog-poem by Cathy Pezdirtz)

My dear friend Cathy Pezdirtz, who still looks young and beautiful though she was twenty-two over half a century ago, absolutely adores Coke (not Diet Coke) and wishes she didn't. 

Yesterday she sent me this wonderful bit of doggerel, a cross between Dr Seuss and nineteenth-century temperance hymns. Beware, drinkers of Coke and other soft drinks!

If I were young and twenty-two
I’d stand up straight as soldiers do.
I’d stick my boobs out even though
They’re not known as the “best in show.”

I’d never ever drink a Coke,
For Coke can ruin your life—no joke!
How many women “of an age”
Have found their lives trapped in the cage
Of high addiction to this drink!
Yes, I’d imagine, I would think
That demon rum would ruin their lives.
But, no. It’s Coke with subtle lies
Of wondrous bubbles up your nose,
Until you’ve drunk so much it shows
In belly fat and yellow teeth,
In burps and farts and, yes, flat feet.

And so this warning you must heed—
All you young things who’ve yet to breed.
Beware this cola’s false allure.
Be strong. Be wise. Because I’m sure
That if you let this villain in,
You will be hooked. So don’t begin.

Resist, restrain yourself. And then
You’ll enter old age fit and thin,
With fewer wrinkles and more teeth,
With surer step and strength beneath
Your aging legs and hips and thighs.
I would not fool you, tell you lies.
This warning comes because I care.
Now heed this warning, please. Beware!

--© Cathy Pezdirtz, 2013

If Cathy's cautionary rhyme inspires you to want more information about the parlous effects of soft drinks, check out Alec Baldwin's interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, the UCSF pediatric endocrinologist and star of YouTube's "Sugar: The Bitter Truth."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hip hip hooray for Belgium!

Opponents of Obamacare like to talk about how long it takes to get a hip replacement in, say, Canada (even though the Affordable Care Act is nothing like the Canadian health plan). Let's put this in perspective. How about a system that charges so much that some middle-class insured people can't afford a hip replacement at all?

Unless they fly to a Western European country with "socialized" medicine and pay out of pocket. Check out this story about Michael Shopenn, a man whose artificial hip was manufactured in Warsaw, Indiana, "a global center of joint manufacturing." Shopenn, who had health insurance, could not get coverage for a hip operation because his insurer deemed it a pre-existing condition (note: that should no longer be a problem now that we have the ACA). So he ended up flying to Belgium.

A Belgian citizen with no supplementary insurance would have paid only 25-50% of what this American paid for "not only a hip joint, made by Warsaw-based Zimmer Holdings, but also all doctors’ fees, operating room charges, crutches, medicine, a hospital room for five days, [and] a week in rehab." And the Belgian would not have had to add airfare to the rest of the cost.

But for Schopenn, the Belgian tab was a good deal--far, far less than he would have paid in the U.S., and no more than his co-pay would have been if his insurer had been willing to cover the surgery.

If you're curious about Belgian healthcare, you can read about it here.

And yes, Belgian taxes are high. But if you total up American taxes (income, Social Security, Medicare, property, sales) and add them to the cost of American health insurance (what you pay and what your employer pays), you may notice that we Americans are spending a lot of money for our services, too, whether we can afford to use them or not. Maybe even more than the Belgians.

I put "socialized" in scare quotes because that's the word Obamacare detractors love to use, even though it's wildly inaccurate. Belgian healthcare is actually based on mutually owned insurance companies that compete for state funding based on membership. A high percentage of the hospitals are private.