Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Tag: grandparenting blog

Beyond American division: Love for grandchildren may be the one thing we all agree on.

Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th. This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome…

Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th.

This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The end of the American empire, at our own hands, no less. The people throwing fire extinguishers at the capitol police wore red, white and blue outfits. All for the purpose of Making America Great Again, as if this violence was a return to our better days. I absolutely hated the rioters, and still do.

But if I am to be truly honest with myself, I’d admit that not everyone there that day was a violent extremist rioter.

There were moms and dads pushing their kids in strollers. They, too, wore red, white and blue outfits. It was like they were at some kind of picnic, a patriotic event. And why would they think they were not? The President of the United States had told them the election was being stolen and it was up to them to do something about it.

Since that day I’ve done a lot of thinking about the deep divisions in American society and what can be done about it. On issue after issue we Americans are at each others’ throats trying to strangle some sense into the idiots who hold an opposing view.

And all the while these issues have been boiling over, with people shouting on Fox News or CNN, our tribal echo chambers of conservative and liberal media, I’ve been writing for this blog about grandparenting. The purpose of Good Grandpa remains to help nurture the next great generation. It occurs to me that this mission sounds rather lofty, but it’s vague on how to actually get the job done. How do we as grandparents help our kids raise a generation of Americans who can far surpass even “the greatest generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about in his book; my parents’ generation that lived through the depression and won World War II?

That’s a tall order, isn’t it?

So, here’s a specific thing we can do. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, we can introduce our grandchildren to an extremely important three-word phrase: “I respectfully disagree.”

Try saying that out loud. Let it roll around in your mind. Have you heard anyone say this on cable TV in the last 20 years? No, because ratings are based on conflict, not respectful disagreement.

Just because a Republican doesn’t agree with me doesn’t make them a bad person, and visa versa. If we can get our grandchildren, the 5 and 12 year olds, to take this one guiding principle to heart, it’s something they will bring with them into their adult lives, into the workplace, and into politics. Our grandchildren can be a unifying force, a common American ground.

Instead of a million man or woman march on Washington with people screaming at each other with bullhorns, let’s have a million toddler stroll, with grandparents leading the way as we bring the kids together to celebrate just that. Being together.

If you look at the news you see constant talk of red states and blue states. I frankly think it’s BS. Whether someone is from Kansas or Vermont, if they have grandkids they have something absolutely wonderful in common. These kids are the future, which means they have the potential to be the America they we all have wished for, those better angels of our nature that Lincoln spoke of.

Feel free to disagree—respectfully—but I think we can do this. What say you?

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The Passage of Time (a meditation in words)

When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we…

When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we talk about our four grandchildren, “They’re growing up so fast!” My wife and I have a weird sense of time these days, with different recollections of when things in the past happened.

We’ll be thinking about when something occurred (a kid going off to college or whatever) and one of us will say, “It was the year we had the house painted. Twelve years ago.”

“That wasn’t twelve years ago!” the other says, “That was twenty years ago!”

“Was it? Oh yea, you’re right.”

It’s not that we’re losing our minds. It’s that the ship we are traveling on through time experiences warp speed without us every exclaiming “Make it so!”

(That’s a Star Trek Next Generation reference, in case you’re not a total geek like me).

So, sometimes we don’t notice when a decade whips past. And yet the most recent stretch of time during the pandemic has felt like two of the very longest years ever. Have you ever noticed that really, really good movies that are three hours long seem like they’re over in an hour, while terrible ninety-minute movies last an eternity? Our perception of time is all relative to our experiences. Life is just another story we just happen to be living.

I am writing this from our farm in the far reaches of Vermont in a place called the Northeast Kingdom. The locals joke that July and August are two months of bad sledding. It’s one of those funny/not funny jokes because winter here is in fact interminable, with snow not uncommon in May. Often, nothing seems to change for many days in a row. We look out the window most mornings in March to see snow falling.

Yet when I really pay attention, I can see spring trying to rise up and find me.

Last week I went on one of my daily walks through the woods, along a rushing brook, and there in front of me was something startling: a bright green fern sprouting up and out in all directions. I found it strikingly beautiful, perhaps because it was in the middle of a very cold forest full of ice and snow. In a few weeks, or maybe a month, the lilacs along our deck will extend their limbs as if stretching for the first time after their long sleep.

Seeing these snapshots within my life’s story is like a time stamp, a reminder that this is not really one big blur going past — not if we take the time to pause and look.

I think of this when I see my grandchildren, in person or on Instagram,….

…My eldest grandchild, a seven year old boy now, in a picture where his arms are so long he looks like a teenager. He’s perched on my shoulders, smiling from ear to ear, on top of the world.

I see this same boy holding my three-year old granddaughter’s hand as they walk through the halls of an aquarium surrounded my luminescent fish. Cousins and buddies already! Wow.

I see my youngest granddaughter, barely one year old, saying my daughter’s name for the first time, “Ab-i-gail!”

I see my youngest grandson, age five, helping my daughter chop vegetables, dressed in his Ninja costume and using what appears to be a Samurai blade.

I hear the sound of a grandson laughing as I launch him like a rocket off my shoulders while standing in Lake Willoughby in August, and see him flailing through space before splashing down; as soon as he’s surfaced he’s shouting, “Do that again! Higher!”

Experiencing these moments fully, examining them as the jewels they truly are, doesn’t slow the rushing time of life’s narrative—because, as I said, good stories do seem to go by faster—but added together they create a mosaic that transcends a ticking clock. The picture is grand and breathtaking.

And while I’m working every mental muscle to see the NOW, I’m also looking back on occasion because that helps put the present in context. This blog has helped me tell stories that have formed a kind of time capsule, for my readers and for myself. Today I read again the very first post I wrote. Here it is:

February 2014

Today my daughter Abigail shared the news that I am the grandfather of a heartbeat.

The ultrasound image was pasted into a Valentine’s card

A black and white Rorschach, with one tiny hand reaching up as if to say, “Hello.”

The boulder of energy that struck my chest was both kind and playful

It whispered of future walks in a Vermont meadow

Me holding my grandchild’s hands up as she takes toddling steps through the tall grass

His gleeful laughter at how new and thrilling it is to be alive

Smeared peas and Cheerios soggy with milk on a highchair tray

And sitting together by the brook, staring in wonder and silence

At water spiders darting here and there.

 

What are things you are experiencing now that form your own story and colorful mosaic? If you’re a grandparent, how do these experiences enrich your life? Please feel free to share your thoughts through posting a comment.

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Dear 26-Year-Old Us

Last week my wife was cleaning out an old cabinet and came across a photo taken of us on our honeymoon in London in 1985. I’d always liked this picture…

Last week my wife was cleaning out an old cabinet and came across a photo taken of us on our honeymoon in London in 1985. I’d always liked this picture and thought it had been lost, so seeing it again was a bit like finding ourselves the way we were back then. But not so long ago, really, in terms of years.

The span of time is more accurately measured in the changes we’ve been through; raising two children and all the blurred rush that entailed; and most recently, the addition of 4 gregarious and beautiful grandchildren. It wasn’t always easy getting to the present. This made me wish I could reach out to the two of us as we were at 26 and offer some sage advice.

So, here is my letter to the younger us:

Dear Ted and Nancy…

First off, I’d have to say the two of you look great. Nancy, the combination of the long wavy hair and lovely features makes you stunning. Ted, I know that you are insecure about your looks and have never felt 100% comfortable in your skin. Stop worrying.

I want you both to know that you are just at the very beginning of an amazing journey together. It’s going to happen very quickly. Nancy, you may already be pregnant, and a little girl named Abigail will join us in 9 months. And within three years we will have a son, Nicholas, who will complete the picture.

Your early years as a family will sometimes be rocky to say the least.

There will a lot of juggling of work and daycare, which will be made harder by the fact that both your kids will be sick A LOT. Not life-threatening sick, but one cold or stomach bug after the other. You will argue about which of you will stay home to care for the kids when they have a fever. You will strike bargains with each other (like, I’ll stay home today if you let me sleep late on Saturday). You will work it out time and again, and the kids will grow up to be well-balanced and charming people.

When times are tough, and when they are great, try to pause and take stock of where you are and the extraordinary gifts before you. All of it will go by so fast that when you’re older you’ll shake your head in wonder.

I’d love to go back to one of those bad days and give you a hug.

I’d tell you that it’s all going to be ok. That’s not some platitude; it’s the truth.

I wish I could help you pause time once in a while. After you’ve read to the kids in bed and they at last fall asleep, don’t rush out of the room. Take a moment to look at your slumbering Abigail and Nicholas. Experience deeply the sense of peace. Listen to the sound of their breath. Realize that these seconds are incredibly precious and transitory. Someday—despite all the vomit you have to clean up on a regular basis, the tears to soothe, and all the other troubles—you will wish you could be right back here in this moment.

Here’s some advice about your relationship.

It would be nice if you had more regular dates. Find a sitter and go out to dinner at least twice a month. You don’t have to go to a gourmet restaurant. Maybe just have coffee. Take a few minutes to talk. You’ll be the best possible parents if you nurture your relationship to the fullest.

When the kids leave for college and you are alone in your newly empty nest, it’s ok to feel very sad.

Go ahead and bawl your eyes out. So much of your purpose has been centered on raising your girl and boy. The fact that they are now grown up and strong is a sign you did a great job.

This may shock you, but it actually won’t be very long before your kids have kids. Honestly, it will feel like you blinked and suddenly there will be a bunch of grandchildren to hug and read to and make cookies with.The empty nest will be full again before you know it.

Lastly, I’d suggest you extend your honeymoon by at least a few weeks.

Drive not only through the British midlands and Wales, but also to Scotland. Go to the northernmost castle on the coast and feel the wind in your hair (especially you, Ted, because you’re going to lose it by your 40s). A wonderfully rich and busy life with children and grandchildren is before you, but there’s no need to rush ahead. Not today. Slow down and enjoy the view, and each other.

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Thoughts on Life and Mortality While Seeing Double at Walden Pond

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays. I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus…

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays.

I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus had far tamer connotations than today), and my entire body broke out in a horrible itchy rash. Days later, while driving, I saw with alarm that the sidewalk on the right side of the road was now at an angle across the middle of the road. An eye specialist soon found the culprit: the 6th cranial nerve behind my left eye had gone on vacation, perhaps because of the virus. This particular nerve is in charge of the lateral movement of the eye, so while I had—and still have—two perfectly healthy eyes, they don’t look in the same direction. My primary doctor emailed nonchalantly, “We rarely know what causes it, and it usually goes away.”

He was right. While I was deeply alarmed that my vision had gone to hell, within about three months I was fully back to normal. I thought all that was behind me.

I was wrong.

On a sunny September day a few weeks ago I started seeing double again. The angle of the roadway was all off, and with the Picasso-like modernism of my multiple vision came a sudden torrent of sheer panic. I put on my reading glasses and looked at my computer screen, and there, too, was double vision. Doing my work as a writer was doubly hard if not impossible. Worst of all, the bizarre vision made me dizzy and nauseous.

My eye doctor confirmed that my 6th cranial nerve was not working properly. And this time I am being referred to a neurologist. In the absence of high blood pressure or diabetes, both of which can cause sudden vision changes, I did not fit the profile of those with double vision.

Doctors are by nature wary of telling patients all the things that can actually be wrong.

They don’t want us to freak out. That’s what the Internet is for. The WebMD site indicates that the 6th cranial nerve can have problems due to things like a brain tumor, stroke, or MS. Of course, the site also explained, it usually goes away within a few months. The neurologist will no doubt have me get a brain scan to check for these things.

And in the meantime, life goes on. I see my body as a ship carrying me through time and space. At any given moment there might be one or more things wrong (a sore tendon in my foot, for example). Like Scotty on Star Trek, I’m dispatched to fix the problem, and I’m usually pleased to report back—in a Scottish brogue—that it won’t be easy but it will get done. It has to.

So the repairs keep happening while I’m hurtling at warp speed through life, working with clients, spending time with my wife and (most important for both of us) being with our four grandchildren.

Fear stalks anyone who hears the word “brain tumor.” But, I’ve told myself, this is what we all sign up for when we are born.

Our little newborn baby hands are too small to hold the pen on the contract that must be initialed as soon as we emerge from the womb, but the contract is binding nevertheless. It states unequivocally that we must accept with grace the good and the bad, the joy and the pain, the love and heartache.

I have a friend who lost a young son to a brain tumor. It was and is horribly sad. He was far too young to be taken from this world. I, on the other hand, am 62. If my number is up (and to be clear, I don’t believe it is), I can have no complaints. How many men get to enjoy being with not just one, but four grandchildren? As my dad used to say, “This is all grace.” There is no alternative to keeping calm and carrying on.

And so it was that within days of meeting with the eye specialist I found myself at fabled Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

I started a regimen back in the spring that entailed mile-long swims four or five days a week. Thanks to swimming and dietary changes I have lost twenty-five pounds since June, and I wasn’t about to stop for anything.

The air was cool—about 60 degrees—the leafy trees along the water’s edge were just beginning to turn red, yellow and orange. I took off the glasses I use that blocks the vision of my left eye so I can see straight with my right eye, and put on my swimming goggles.

Goggles themselves are rarely clear, so putting them on and seeing the familiar blur of the water-splotched plastic lenses was calming, like a visual white noise that partly obscured the reality of my double vision. I jumped forward into the cold water and swam hard and fast, thrusting my arms forward and back, the shock of the cold gradually easing as the exercise warmed me and the waters washed over and around and under me, propelled forward with the knowledge of my potential doom chasing behind, or perhaps it was simply the joy of being in my element again, doing something regular and healthy in defiance of my dysfunctional cranial nerve and the fear of the insidious brain tumor strangling it unseen inside by skull.

My hands pounded in the water, pulling back again and again until I needed a rest, and there in the center of the one-mile long pond I switched from the crawl stroke to the less strenuous sidestroke. Doing the sidestroke, you float on your side, one eye in the water, the other above, coordinating arms reaching and pulling while scissoring the legs.

On my side, the edge of the pond came into starker view.

A painting of fall leaves seen laterally, with the blue sky above and the dark pond below. And with my cranial nerve on sabbatical, the scene was repeated one over the other.

Henry David Thoreau famously spent a year camped beside the pond when writing his seminal work, Walden. As he once wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

There in my double pond on that day, I saw my life.

Not a “life flashing before your eyes” vision but more of a meditation on this whole experience. I think if Thoreau were alive today he’d be one of the people on the beach with his iPhone turned off, or better yet left in the car. When we are really alone with our uninterrupted thoughts we see more clearly. The noise of everyday life is a distraction. Seeing a double shoreline, I knew then, was weird but ok at the same time. I told God that if this is what he wanted me to experience, I was “all in.” I would see both shores and their myriad fall colors. Because accepting whatever comes and letting it flow through my body and mind like the cool waters around me was a way to acknowledge that the pain and anxiety and beauty were inseparable and inevitable.

It’s the contrast between the dark sadness and vivid, beautiful happiness that makes all the good things in life so much better.

Intermingled with my prayer, I saw a memory (captured in my mind like a perfect photo) of my two grandsons, age 7 and 5, running across the beach at our place in Vermont. In the background was the deep blue lake and evergreen mountains, and the boys were looking up excitedly at the sky because an eagle was there not more than fifty yards overhead flying north, and they shouted “the eagle!”

In that memory was the awareness that life is just as finite as this second. The perfect alignment of eagle, grandsons, a glorious summer day. Here, now.

Chances are, the neurologist will find nothing alarming in my brain scan. My 6th cranial nerve will tire of its extended vacation and come back to work with renewed vigor. My perfect vision will return. Or it might return for the most part but I’ll need to wear glasses like most people.

But no matter what happens, I hope I can learn from Mr. Thoreau. I’ll keep swimming right up until the pond freezes over (I have a wetsuit, after all). And if I learn very well, then I will know that it’s not about what I look at that matters, but what I really and truly see.

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