Monday, April 30, 2012

For heaven's sake, don't read about these scary gay parents

I have a relative named Vaune, and Vaune has a blog. I stumbled upon it last night and love it so much I have to, in turn, blog about the blog.

I'm not blogging about it because Vaune is using it to make sweeping proclamations or inviting brave political discourse. I'm blogging about it because it's wonderful in its simplicity, focusing on Vaune's life with her spouse and two sons. They camp. They fish. They have coffee on their deck.

The reason that the blog's simplicity is relevant is that Vaune and Lisa happen to be a gay couple. And in this age of Tea Party politics and a northwest-Iowa teen taking his life because he had been bullied for coming out, it's relevant to note that Vaune and Lisa, and thousands of couples just like them, are simply living their lives.

They're not hosting orgies or burning crosses or even stumping for President Obama. They're working and grocery-shopping and buying a new house because they want their boys to attend school in a district with smaller class sizes. They're wondering how to explain Santa to their kids, and they're eating birthday cake.

Former University of Iowa student Zach Wahls recently wrote a book about his similarly normal life with two moms; he was urged to do so after his most excellent address to the Iowa House of Representatives on the topic went viral. Zach and individuals like him are a testament to the fact that families such as Vaune and Lisa's work. They work because the parents are ethical, principled, upstanding citizens who work hard to raise their children with unconditional love and a strong sense of what's right and what's wrong.

Teenage boys who kill themselves because they're tormented for being honest about who they are: That's wrong. Families like Vaune's who are brave enough to simply live their lives: How can that be anything but right?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

So far from home

The other day at work, my friend Travis offered the opinion that today's parents "baby" their children, making it impossible for college-age kids to truly be independent.

All I can say is: There are a few kids Travis needs to meet.

I've had the privilege the last couple of years of spending time with and getting to know some friends of my son at Iowa State University. Scott is a member of the ISU International Student Council and has been fortunate enough through his work there to meet ISU students from more than 30 countries.

When I was in college, international students were the "smart kids." They had a dorm all to themselves, and they all seemed very serious. I was intimidated by them and didn't take the opportunity to get to know any of them.

I've always known that was my loss, but I didn't fully understand why until I met Onalie and Ahmad and Sarini and Shun and Wiwi and Kanchana and Yeonji and Nidhi and Vishadi and Isaac and Ashvin and so many others.

It turns out one stereotype I had believed in the '80s is true: International students are smart. But they're not magically that way: They're smart because they value education, and because they study. They know why they're thousands of miles from home, and they're not about to squander the opportunity to earn a degree.

But that's not to say they hole up in their dorm rooms 24/7; quite the contrary. They also know that the college experience is not just about studying, so they take advantage of the many extracurricular activities that are available to them. Most of them choose activities such as International Student Council and UNICEF -- ones that can enable them to increase awareness while they're in this country.

But the most important thing I've learned about them is this: For all their intelligence and capabilities, they're young, and they're really, really far from home. And for that reason, I've determined that they're among the bravest people I know.

I visited with many of the kids today about their summer plans. Some of them are staying in Ames and taking summer classes, and some are going home. Of those, many haven't seen their families for a very long time. One young man mentioned today that it's been three years since he's been home.

Another student, a young woman who also hasn't been home in more than a year, mentioned today that the hardest times are holidays or long weekends when her American friends have plans with their families. Although they invite her to join them and she's never alone, it's not the same; the families are not her family. The activities are different, the foods are different, and she's not home.

My son's girlfriend is from South Africa. Her sense of longing for home is ongoing; although she's adapted well during her time in the United States, she longs for familiar sights, smells and tastes. Our vegetables aren't as fresh as the ones she's used to; our meats aren't as savory. Americans don't typically eat the stomach and the chicken feet she loves. Everything is simply ... different.

And yet she -- and all the international students I know -- press on because they're keeping their eyes on the prize. Once they have their degrees, some of them will find good jobs in this country and raise their own children here. Others will go back home to use their educations to benefit their own families and cities and countries.

I'm amazed by them -- and by their parents. How difficult it must be to kiss your 17- or 18-year-old child goodbye and not know for sure when you'll see him or her again, or if he or she will be safe and comfortable and happy so far away. I see my kids weekly, at least; sometimes Scott's international friends can't even make a phone call home because it's too expensive.

I respect these students tremendously because of the people they are: They are unfailingly polite and pleasant and welcoming and appreciative and respectful. And I value them because of they many ways they've enriched my son's life. As he told me the other day, "No matter where I go in the world, chances are pretty good I'll have someone to stay with."

So, thank you, Onalie and Ahmad and Sarini and Shun and Wiwi and Kanchana and Yeonji and Nidhi and Vishadi and Isaac and Ashvin and so many others. Thanks for being so nice to this middle-aged lady with her camera and her questions. And thanks most of all for being so courageous, and for making a bigger difference than you'll ever know, no matter where the rest of your lives happen to take you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My kids want to love their jobs. Why is that a bad thing?

I have a lot of friends with important jobs. They’ve supported their families in fine fashion, and they’ve managed to continue to be the nicest people on the planet while doing it. I can’t help but be happy for them, and I’m doubly happy for them when their adult children follow them into lucrative careers. My kids are 20 and 23 now, so I’m seeing that happen more and more; their peers are forging lives of their own and funding them with careers in finance and medicine and information technology.

We’re all wired differently when it comes to our definitions of success; even within the same family, it’s easy to see wide variations in the factors that constitute a person’s having “made it” in life. I was raised to value and utilize my own talents, but I was also brought up knowing I’d someday have to feed myself. I chose journalism, a profession I knew would not make me wealthy – but as clich├ęd as it sounds, I knew having to eat ramen noodles wouldn’t be a huge deal if I could be paid something, anything, to tell stories.

And then I had kids, and then I became a single mom. And suddenly, being able to afford something other than ramen became a priority. I needed to make more money relatively quickly, so I didn't have time to advance, as several of my friends have, to editorial capacities in the newsroom. I decided to go a different route, parlaying my skill set into other communications positions. And that was OK.

But my kids want more than "OK." My generation seems to have brought up our children with these expectations – the ones that have allowed them to promise themselves, from early ages, “When I work full-time, I’ll be doing something I absolutely love and would die for.” Contrast that with the response I was always given when I’d grouse to my dad about work: “Stop complaining. They call it work for a reason.”

My kids expect to be paid to do something that doesn’t feel like a job. And while I don’t know how things will work out, I’m proud that as of right now, they’re not willing to accept any less.

Don’t get me wrong: My kids are far from lazy. Scott is about to graduate from college with two majors; Caroline will complete what essentially is a five-year major in four years. Both are studying things they enjoy, but their coursework has been rigorous and their schedules have been demanding.

Still, though, they keep their eyes on the prize: “When I’m done, I’ll be able to do something that makes me happy.” Caroline wants to impart her love of music to the students she’ll teach. Scott wants to make music and feed people who need to be fed. And it’s all coming together for both of them.

Last night, I attended a CD-release party for my son’s rap group. His sister sings with the group when she’s able, so I was able to watch my kids perform together. I saw them exhibit their pride in one another, and I witnessed the genuine joy they felt about what they were doing. I remember feeling that once or twice when I was young, but life quickly became serious and it didn’t last.

“I don’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life,” my son says. And I respond, “Then don’t.” And I mean it. Who really grows up saying, “I can’t wait to sit behind a desk?” But for many of us, that becomes the logical choice. In my case, I’m grateful for the options that have come my way over the years, as they've helped to finance the educations that may allow my children to make different choices.

Do I think my kids are unrealistic in their expectations? Not at all. Am I taken aback that they aren’t willing to be unhappy? Yes, a little. And what does that say about us as a society? That if we’re unwilling to work at something we dislike, that’s somehow indulgent and wrong?

I watch commercials for such organizations as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and I think, “How nice that people volunteer for things like that.” My daughter didn’t think “how nice” – she became a big sister. My son sees videos of starving children in Somalia and, unlike me, he doesn’t think, “Why can’t someone fix that?” He wants to be the person to make it happen.

“Teachers don’t make any money,” some well-meaning friends say of my daughter’s career path. Of my son’s, they say, “How in the world will he support himself?”

All I can say is: I know things will work out, and I know my kids will be successful – maybe not in the way others define monetary success, but by their own definitions. And how fortunate they are to already understand that their own definitions are the most important ones of all – and, truly, the only ones that should ever actually matter.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Samantha Brick, you're flat-out wrong about women.

Some of you may be following the story this week about the English writer who thinks other women hate her because she is, in her own estimation, beautiful. This woman, Samantha Brick, has been all over the media defending an essay in which she alleges this, and in which she -- as Ann Curry informed us this morning -- uses the word "I" 80-some times.

In my opinion, the essay is horrible -- not because Brick calls herself beautiful, as I don't really care what she thinks of herself -- but because she further perpetuates the women-against-women nonsense that a lot of women my age have worked to dispel.

By the time people are my age, most of us have come to terms with our looks. I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes I think I look fine, and other times I think I'd like to change a few things. If I had to quantify my looks, I'd give myself a happy, well-adjusted "average."

But I've known quite a few beautiful women and am friends with some of them, and I can assure you that their looks don't make me hate them.

Brick -- who, like many of us, has a perfectly pleasant face and a bit of a belly -- maintains that her looks are so startling that strangers have sent her champagne and bartenders often don't expect her to pay her drink tab. OK; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps she's lucky enough to routinely come into contact with people who go gaga over her "type."

But here's where I call "b.s." -- she also maintains that her friends are afraid for her to be around their husbands because they're scared the men will fall for her.

Seriously? Come on. I think it's more likely that she's trying to boost her own self-esteem -- and that her friends aren't too likely to be her friends anymore after reading what she's written.

I have a lot of pretty, vivacious friends, and my husband sees a fair number of them from time to time. Kevin is a funny, personable guy, and he likes interacting with my friends -- but never have I worried that he'd hit on them, even the really, really striking ones. And equally importantly, I've never worried that my friends would even consider crossing boundaries with my husband. Why? Because they're my friends.

What's more, Samantha Brick, give men a little credit. Yes, my husband's No. 1 crush is the beautiful Buffy the Vampire Slayer woman, but he also really likes the nice-looking-but-not-gorgeous Sandra Bullock. Why? In his words, "She looks like she's real, and seems like she would speak her mind." My boss has a crush on the 60-something Diane Keaton for much the same reason.

I'm being judgmental, but it seems that perhaps Samantha Brick has been too wrapped up in what she considers her "beauty" to consider developing other attributes.

When my friends look especially pretty, I'm likely to tell them, and they do the same; look at photos of your female friends on Facebook and see how many other women compliment them when they're looking especially nice.

In my experience, women bolster and support other women. And I hope that perhaps this week's backlash is making Samantha Brick realize this: It's probably not her looks that are turning those "jealous" women off; it's more likely her narcissism, which likely has caused her to develop into a shallow human being and a really rotten friend.