Monthly Archives: June 2011

Juggling The Family Balls

The nuts and bolts of family life are pretty straightforward for a nuclear family of two, like my mom and me. Pizza, Chinese or pasta for dinner? You only have to check on one other person’s appetite. Planning a trip? You only have to compare two schedules, and so on.

Family dynamics are even less complex for a nuclear family of two females. Who is in charge of the TV remote after a long day? Well, it doesn’t really matter because you’re either watching Grey’s Anatomy or Ally McBeal. I can only remember one time, in the late 1980s, when football was broadcasted in our apartment. And that was because my out-of-town uncle was visiting.

Have you ever tried to juggle two balls in one hand? If you haven’t, it’s pretty easy. But try tossing in a third ball, and you’ll be practicing for weeks – maybe months – before you get the hang of it. (I know from experience, having taught myself how to juggle at age 12, as a homework procrastination technique.)

As newly appointed honorary member of another nuclear family, I am transitioning from the familiarity and simplicity of two balls in one hand to the frenzied, never-a-dull-moment velocity of five balls. All at once. Plus they aren’t Neanderthals like my mom was regarding modern day communication (i.e. BBM, email, etc.). So, actually, let me rephrase that: I’m now dealing with the frenzied, never-a-dull-moment velocity of five loquacious balls that would like you to call before getting on an airplane, text when you land, and if you go a couple days without juggling, one of the balls will send you the following text message: “Um, helllllooooo????”

Learning to juggle the family balls has been tricky. (And not just because there are now men involved.)

I boosted my AT&T cell plan after a jaw-dropping triple figure bill several months ago. (I also introduced conference calling.) When we’re all together and not relying on technology to stay in touch, TV time turns into a protracted litigation proceeding about the merits of the particular choices of programming.

The amount of time I devote to brainstorming gift ideas has more than quadrupled – not to mention my capital expenditure in that category. During mealtime, there is typically more than one conversation going on at any given time, and if I’m on the phone with one Rutenberg, it’s fairly common for another one to call, possibly relegating me to a call back queue.

Wait, what? Sharing attention – I’m not used to this!

But I’m also not used to having a father figure sit me down and teach me about retirement planning – or a sister figure show me new eye makeup techniques, or a brother figure console me after a disappointment. This kind of stuff didn’t require much of an adjustment.

To be fair, there are some kinks in our nontraditional family unit. Like when Jamie says to a new acquaintance that she has two older siblings who were born 10 weeks apart.

“Wow,” a flummoxed, drunk guy at a bar once replied,” that must have been a really long labor.”

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The Gang’s All Here

Reader, please meet the Rutenbergs.

They say hi.

We’re not blood related, and I don’t have an ounce of Rutenberg DNA, but when I’m with them, we tease each other like family, we disagree like family, and we obsess over vacation plans, dinner options, and holiday gifts like family.

Debbie and my mom were pregnant at the same time with Michael and me. When my father was sick, my mom ran to Debbie on her way to the hospital in the early morning, thrusting Infant Me into her arms. Only later that night when my mom returned did she realize that it wasn’t Debbie’s arms she had placed me in – it was Debbie’s mother who had received me.

This is how our families operated. There were no questions, no formalities – just unconditional love and unspoken understanding.

Michael and I grew up as extensions of each other. I taught him how to climb the monkey bars; he introduced me to curse words. I edited his English papers; he gave me pep talks before important Varsity soccer games. Jon and my father talked sports, politics and varietals of vodka. When Jamie was born, the same seed that was planted in Michael was planted in me: to always protect and nurture her until the end of time. When my mom was sick, Jamie immediately assumed the role of protector despite being three years my junior.

My mom and I celebrated birthdays with them, shared holidays, and we visited one another when someone was sick, broke an arm or had wisdom teeth removed. “Our dearest friends,” my mom called them. But when she died, something remarkable happened.

They opened their home, giving me a bedroom in their house, and wordlessly answered the unasked question of where I would spend holidays from now on. They get me and my sometimes crude sense of humor. (Like when I said that I’m their “Big Mike” after we watched The Blind Side.) We call, text, FaceTime and email around the clock. They remind me that their family is five people strong now, not four.

I have other micro-families: My closest college friends, my threesome from business school, my high school girls, and my relationship with my boyfriend. I don’t miss my mom any less, and I struggle with issues and challenges of being parentless daily, but finding Family in my interpersonal world brings me comfort through connection – the type of connection that no previous loss can break.

*****

What types of family do you have? Micro, surrogate, nontraditional, etc.? Am I missing any?

This Week: The Due Diligence on Family

In business school, your professional background is important. It’s tattooed on your resume; it defines you for your classmates, and it can make or break your summer internship fate.

One of my friends has what is commonly referred to in business school as a “nontraditional” background. What does this mean? It means that before arriving at Wharton, she wasn’t a mainstream consultant, banker or a fill-in-the-blank occupation that at least 50 other classmates could boast about.

Her “nontraditional” background raised questions among interviewers: Could she have the skills, work ethic and potential associated with traditional pre-MBA mainstream jobs?

She struggled telling her story. She worried interviewers wouldn’t understand why she chose (or was forced to choose) the less traveled path. Furthermore, she was concerned that interviewers would ding her unless she was able to translate her “nontraditional” background into a format compatible with their preexisting notions of MBA students. Nonetheless, she practiced her pitch, learned to be proud of her background and answered difficult questions about her aptitude in interviews. Most importantly, she learned that coming from a “nontraditional” background and possessing traditional, desirable candidate attributes are not mutually exclusive. (Screw all interviewers who think they are, by the way.)

My reason for dragging you through this tangent of a story is because I have seemingly contrasting traditional and nontraditional elements of my own persona.

I had a traditional, nuclear, biological family, but – as you know – they died. I also have a nontraditional, nuclear, surrogate family of four. (And they are very much alive which is nice given the former.) One does not discredit the other, and I feel extraordinarily proud and grateful to belong to both.

Yesterday I was reading this month’s issue of Vogue, and I stumbled upon a line that jumped off the page for me with such ferocity, it nearly smacked me right in the face: “We learn – sometimes only the hard way – what our gifts really are”.

One of my greatest gifts is family, and that’s why this week is devoted to all dimensions of it – the traditional and the nontraditional.

Just don’t make me explain mine on my resume.

Manic Multitasking

The most peculiar thing about dealing with the type of hardship I’ve experienced is what I call, manic multitasking. Manic multitasking is watching a recorded review session for an upcoming Economics exam while on hold with CareFirst waiting to hear if a chemo drug will be covered by insurance. Manic multitasking is calling my mom’s oncologist, between rounds of flip cup at a business school party, to ask if there’s a treatment for oral thrush, an uncomfortable throat ailment and side effect of chemo. Manic multitasking is standing in line at Georgetown Cupcake on the morning of my 28th birthday while downloading a quote from the cemetery director on my iPhone. Manic multitasking is peculiar, to say the least.

A root cause analysis is not necessary; manic multitasking just organically happens with hardship. You wake up one morning and before you know it, you’re eating cereal with the morning crossword in front of you (or on your iPad) while directing a gastroenterologist to send x-rays to an oncologist as you solve for 45-Across.

Sometimes I think about the manic multitasking that my mom must’ve juggled in the early 1980s when my dad was sick. Her manic multitasking lacked smart phones, email, laptops, iPods and DVR, to name a few. I assume my mom’s tech-free manic multitasking mostly focused on diapering Infant Me and caring for her sick husband. When she sat with my dad during his chemo treatments, she was probably forced to think a lot about cancer or my latest diaper rash, while I, on the other hand, had the benefit of Sex and The City reruns on a portable DVD player. (For those SATC fans in the know: Samantha’s line, “Cancer is hilarious,” is 10 times more hilarious when viewed in an actual chemotherapy room.)

No matter how you cut it, and no matter how tech-savvy the universe is when you experience it, manic multitasking comes hand-in-hand with hardship. It blends the mundane with the malignant.

And so I’ll leave you with three important tips: When you have to manic multitask for the first time it may feel odd, but it comes naturally fairly quickly thereafter. Second, remember where you put the car keys. No matter how accustomed I became to manic multitasking, I always misplaced them. And finally, third: Put down the phone before you get in the pool. You heard it here first.

Insult to Injury

Maybe you’re familiar with this advertisement, but I couldn’t help but share it. Have you ever seen a more depressing ad? I mean, both my parents are already dead, and this ad manages to make me feel like one of them is going to die again any minute. And if that wasn’t enough, it clearly reminds me that I could just as easily drop dead as well. Sweet.

I’ve actually seen this ad several times while browsing the web, and I can’t help but wonder if this is target advertising at its best. Have I searched for “hospice” too many times? Or “King David Memorial Gardens Cemetery”? Or maybe just “pancreatic cancer” once?

Dear Search Engine, I think you need to rejigger some of your formula outputs. For the above searchable terms, how about generating a pleasant picture of a frolicking pony? Or a bouquet of sunflowers? Even an irrelevant Bed, Bath & Beyond ad would be preferable. And more importantly, it wouldn’t make me feel like it’s possible for my deceased parents to die all over again. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a teenager with two living parents to see this awful ad for the first time.

I do recognize, however, that the merchant is primarily responsible for this absurdity. Why not take a different spin, Accuquote? What about images of the younger generation smiling, feeling safe, evoking feelings of protection and financial security? This is in fact the true essence of what you’re offering anyway, right?

I get what you’re shooting for: You’re trying to strike a chord. Tug at the emotional heartstrings (and clogged arteries) of America’s baby boomer generation. Fine, but I think you went too far with this one.

Again, while less relevant, I think a nice, frolicking pony would do just fine here as well. The Accuquote Pony would be a lot more pleasing to the eye than what you have going on now which, quite frankly, I can’t take my eyes away from quickly enough.

*****

What do you think?  a) Girl bent over father’s grave crying  b) Happy, smiling children evoking feelings of protection and security or c) The Accuquote Pony?

Drawing Class & Slinky Jumpsuits

Last night I watched a video of Conan O’Brien delivering the commencement address to Dartmouth’s graduating class of 2011. First of all, I highly recommend watching it. My boyfriend came out of his office to tell me that he hadn’t heard me laugh like that since I accidentally slipped while brushing my teeth, falling into the bathtub.

Anyway, you may wonder why Conan is germane to my parentless subject matter. Well, unfortunately, Conan is not my Number Three. In fact, he hails from the Brady Bunch of Irish Catholic families, the third of six children born to Thomas and Ruth O’Brien.

What makes dear Coco relevant to my parentless existence is the second half of his speech. He said two things that so dramatically resonated, I still feel the reverberation of the chord he so perfectly struck in me.

The first: “Adult acne lasts longer than you think.”

The second: “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”

He was talking about his dismissal from The Tonight Show a little over a year ago, and he referred to it as “a profound and very public disappointment.” But the moving part of this admission was what came next. After he left the network, unsure of what to do and where to go, “something spectacular happened.”

He said that he started experimenting. After my mom died, I did too. Conan started playing guitar and dove into the world of social media. I started playing tennis, and I signed up for drawing classes. He made a documentary and wore a skin-tight blue leather suit. I built a personal website and purchased an overpriced, unflattering, slinky jumpsuit. He recorded an album. I applied to get my MFA. He started tweeting his comedy. I started writing about my world.

He said that during this particular year of nontraditional, impulsive decisions and re-creations, he “never had more fun, been more challenged—and this is important—had more conviction”.

Now I’m sure the $45 million he received upon exiting The Tonight Show offered a nice safety net while he explored new ways to recreate himself, but the sentiment is analogous to personal hardship. Trauma can be liberating too – not always, but it can be.

After my mom died, I had my life back. I didn’t have to miss business school costume parties for nights in the emergency room. I could spontaneously go on a trip. Or plan a trip for the future. Or make a dinner reservation for the following weekend. My mom’s disease no longer managed my schedule. And I was immediately aware of this type of liberation: A week after she died, I decided to hop up to NYC to celebrate a special someone’s birthday.

The type of liberation I wasn’t prepared for was the type that Conan described.  Now, reflecting upon my year of reinventions – taking up new hobbies, considering other advanced degrees, and making poor fashion choices – I feel happy. I loved trying new things, and I think Conan is right: The conviction that drove these decisions felt great. If true conviction can be an outcome of disappointment and hardship, then I am grateful for being able to identify with more than just stubborn adult acne.

My Number Two

I found my Number Two. I know, I said I’m not exclusively looking for parentless exceptions just like me, but I found just that in my Number Two. He lost his father when he was 13 years old, and he was parentless by the time he turned 32. Today he lives happily in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and dabbles in the performing and visual arts. He doesn’t know me, but I know him. It’s Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman is my Number Two.

Some may say that Hackman’s parentless tale is slightly more dramatic than my own. (His father abandoned him when he was 13 years old, and in 1962, his mother purportedly passed out after drinking, accidentally starting a fire with a lit cigarette that ultimately killed her.) And I would say in response, for sure. Hackman has had some serious parentless surprises. I feel for you, (Hack)man.

I learned of Hackman’s past when I came across an interview with him in a magazine this past weekend. What the interview did not cover in great detail was his young adult parentless life, so I did some digging. Turns out that Hackman’s struggling career really took off shortly after his mother died. He says that his mother always wanted to see him on TV one day. Unfortunately, Lyda Hackman never did.

It’s unclear how close Hackman was with his mother; however, he refers to her several times in the interview. He avoids talking about the events surrounding her death (understandably), and he focuses more on his childhood and the ways in which his mother raised him.

The interview was too short and left me with more questions than answers about his parentless life. I wonder how he handles the hardship of knowing that his mother will never see his milestones. Did those feelings get easier as he got older? More specifically, I wonder what happened immediately following his mother’s death – Did he leave his struggling actor pals, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall, to return to Danville, Illinois? Did he settle his mother’s estate and clean out her house? Did he have any parental figures to lean on? Did anyone ever compare his parentless situation to the recent death of a pet ferret?

Unless Gene Hackman is as stoic and insensitive as Royal Tenenbaum, his Golden Globe winning character in Wes Anderson’s 2001 dramedy, I assume he has struggled with some pretty raw parentless emotions. Having no easy way to obtain answers to the above questions, I audited his professional career to draw some, admittedly weak, inferences.

For example, in the late 1960s, Hackman turned down the role of Mike Brady in the upcoming TV series, The Brady Bunch. Perhaps the opportunity to be head of an intact household didn’t interest him. Around the same time, he joined Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and he starred in the aforementioned film, Royal Tenenbaums, a story about an extraordinarily dysfunctional family, decades later. (I’m leaving out several films from his past for the sake of brevity, of course.)

Anyway, I’d like to think that Hackman’s Hollywood decisions shed some light on his feelings regarding his parentless existence. He has opted for more complex, unconventional family make-ups, finding comfort or interest in a makeshift crime gang and a dysfunctional unit of too-successful-for-their-own-good Tenenbaums. (He also nailed the role of Senator Kevin Keeley, the ultraconservative patriarch in The Birdcage, poking fun at the opposite of chaotic family structures.)

So, Gene Hackman is my Number Two. And as his literary career takes off – his first solely authored novel came out last week – I wish him well. I think we have a couple things in common, Gene, and I look forward to reading. I’ll close with my favorite quote from the interview with my Number Two:

“They tell you not to write about your mom in books, but I don’t know how you keep from doing that.”

So true, Gene. So true.