Monday, September 24, 2012

That blasted 1977 cheerleading rejection, times a thousand

When I was in ninth grade, I wanted to be a cheerleader. Now, anyone who knows me is probably well aware that I never should have expected cheerleading to be my thing, for a variety of reasons -- chief among them the fact that I am not, and never have been, built for flipping and flying and things. But back in 1977, my 14-year-old self reasoned that because I could dance and because I also could enunciate precisely, I would make a great cheerleader.

The judges, understandably, did not agree, despite the fact that I had worked darned hard on my cartwheels. So I went home with some kind of “thanks for participating in tryouts” certificate, and I cried. Boy, did I cry. For days. That event marked my first real rejection, and it stung.

So here I am, 35 years later, feeling that same sting. It’s over something equally silly, when I really think about it. But despite the silliness of the way it all transpired, it hurts.

As my co-worker Dave puts it, I am very “relational.” I care about connecting with people, and when I make a friend, even if our time together is short-lived, I carry around, in my head and heart, that person’s smile and laugh and birthday and favorite color. I love finding common bonds and building on them, and I love the long histories I have with so many people in my life.

So, here’s the silly part: One of those people –- a person I’ve known since before my ill-fated cheerleading tryout -– decided he didn’t want to be my friend anymore on Facebook. I found out when I checked to see if he had uploaded any recent photos of his daughters, and Facebook invited me to connect with him, telling me we had 24 mutual friends.

There must be some mistake, I reasoned. But then, something told me to check the account of a friend who used to be close to both this friend and me, and sure enough, he was gone, too.

I was baffled. Although my feelings were immediately hurt, I also felt incredibly foolish; I’m not 13 years old, and the fact that I’m “friends” on Facebook with some people and not others should not impact me in the least. But those two people … wow. I had no idea what I could have done to cause such old and faithful friends to want to cut ties with me.

I stewed for a couple of days. Then, on the advice of another friend, I shot an email to the original unfriender. I’ve remained closer to him over the years than I have to his cohort, and it was his absence I had initially noticed.

In my email, I apologized for asking the question I was about to ask, and then I plowed forward: I had noticed that he had chosen to disconnect from me, and I was sorry if I had done anything to offend him.

A week later, I received a response. My friend told me that my expressing my political opinions on Facebook had turned him off. Although I had written very few statuses about my political views, I hadn’t exactly tried to hide those views, and I had commented on and “liked” friends’ responses, and some of them had shown up on his news feed. (And, oh, yes -– there was also that giant photo essay I posted the evening of the president’s visit. So I guess I had been a bit transparent.)

And although he still considered me a friend, he didn’t want to be connected to me electronically anymore. We could “agree to disagree” silently, across the miles.

I finished reading his response and sat back to process it. And while the 49-year-old me appreciated the honesty of his words, the 14-year-old me wiped away a few tears. Yes, Facebook can be juvenile and silly. But it’s also the primary way I stay in touch with friends who no longer are part of my daily life. And I knew I would miss his thoughtful posts about his work and his hobbies, and the photos of his lovely girls.

And I wondered: Would I ever make a similar choice? And I came to the conclusion that I absolutely would not.

I have friends and extended family members whose political views, religious views and even global worldviews differ wildly from mine. I don’t even have long histories with some of my conservative friends, and there are a few I have never actually met in real life; we’ve connected via other hobbies or intellectual pursuits. And yet, these friends enrich my life; they make me think. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sometimes tempted to “hide” the posts that rankle me, but cut off all contact? I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t.

And yet, my friend -– the one who walked me though breakups and bad math scores, the one who made me mixtapes and made me laugh and had been there when I truly needed him -– was unable to see enough value in the non-political parts of me to keep me around. And I decided: While the whole “unfriending” thing is pretty silly, it constituted, to me, a big-deal rejection of our shared history.

I remember leaving school at the end of the day I had found out I hadn’t made cheerleading. I remember walking out of the building and seeing pretty little Julie Drilling, who had been my grade-school classmate, holding a pink rose to signify that she had been asked to become a cheerleader. Julie was thin and cute and nice, and seeing her standing there, quietly, with her rose reminded me of all I wanted to be, and of all the ways I had, in my mind, fallen short. And I was sobbing before I hit the parking lot.

A few days later, though, I was back to concentrating on my own talents and realizing that I would absolutely be OK. I realize that now, too, of course … but as I grow older and know I’ve used up more life than I have left, the relationships I’ve held onto have proven themselves to be increasingly dear to me.

And because I continue to care about my friend, I’ve decided that my tears aren’t silly, and maybe I’ll shed a few more of them from time to time. I’ll also be thankful for the kind of friend I’ve chosen to be, and I guess I’ll also be grateful to him for, in effect, reminding me how to be an even better one to the people who have chosen to keep me around.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A stepparenting rulebook: uncertainty, regret, and ironing

I don't believe any child ever spends his or her formative years thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be a stepparent." Kids might dream of becoming a mom or dad one day, but the once-removed nature of stepparenting isn't easily to understand, let alone aspire to.

I became a stepparent nearly nearly seven years ago, and like most stepparents, I didn't break down and separate the relationships -- e.g., today I'm getting married, and today I'm also forming important-but-undefined relationships with four other humans. I assumed, as I'm sure most people do, that everything would simply fall into place.

There's so much to be written on the topic. But suffice it to say that in my opinion, step-relationships are difficult because they are so undefined -- to coin a cliche, there's no rulebook. And if you happen to have multiple stepkids, each relationship is going to be unique.

So many variables play into the relationship: Is the child's other parent still living? How much time does the child spend with that person? How does the other parent feel about you, the stepparent, and about your relationship with the child?

How contentious was the parents' divorce, and to what degree was the child involved and impacted? How old is the child, and what's his or her basic personality and temperament? And to put it simply: Does the child like you?

All those translate to roughly 8 million variables that, on most days, can seem to conspire against success.

Stepparenting is not for the faint of heart, the thin of skin, and the easily defeated. It's not the natural order of things, the way things are supposed to transpire. And unless you're very fortunate, it can bring you to your knees on a regular basis.

But then, there are days you have enough presence of mind to think of it like this:

When the child whose life you entered when he was not quite 5 is getting ready to go to his first school dance, and you're ironing his clothes. You know he doesn't really care who is ironing them; he's far more concerned, probably, with trying to figure out how the heck a school dance works, and how, to a larger degree, the whole dating thing works.

But the ironing, to you, exemplifies what being a stepparent is all about: Not Cinderella-type drudgery, but the behind-the-scenes nature of the job. You're not the one who ever gets kudos for anything, nor should you be, and you're good with that. But you've become pretty good at the little unseen things that let the child, and his parents, know that you want to help that child thrive and succeed.

As you iron, you think about teaching that child to read. You think about the eggshells you've walked on so as not to smother him; you think about the time his eyebrows fell out and how you tried not to draw attention to the fact that he looked like an alien. You think about the fact that you can't really hug him, because A. he's 15 and B. he doesn't want you to.

And you think about the time that you broke the news to him that his good friend had died. And because you're not the parent but the stepparent, and you have your own kids to attend to, you had to leave the house immediately after delivering that horrible news. And you think about how you've always somehow regretted the way things had worked out that day, as you drove away and left his dad, who's not always comfortable with feelings, to deal with the most awful thing that had ever happened in the child's life.

You think about the fact that even though this is not your child, you have a history with him. But you've consciously tried not to overstep your bounds, because your own children have stepparents, too, and you know how it feels to be on the other side. So sometimes you've chosen to hang back.

But in the end, although such relationships are complicated, you hope, somehow, that your meager contribution to your stepson's big night -- the ironing of the shirt and the pants -- can convey the fact that even though you never really know what your place is, you really, truly do care.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Weekly Readers and respect, 1972 style

When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I was 11. My family was in Clear Lake, as we often were during summers of my childhood; that particular evening, we were back-to-school shopping at Bergo's, a department store in the next big town, Mason City.

Bergo's had TVs in its windows back then, and from inside the store, we noticed several people huddled around them. We ran outside just in time to hear Nixon give the end of his speech "...therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

I remember, following those words, silence. By that time, no one liked Nixon a whole bunch; my family hadn't really been a Nixon family anyway, and his Watergate antics had sealed the deal.

But despite the fact that no one was feeling the love on that August night, all the adults around me seemed sad. Why? Because Nixon was the president, and back then, it seemed easier for everyone to root for the guy at the top.

I know that's more my perception, probably, than reality: I was a kid. I know a lot of people were anti-Kennedy, and Johnson wasn't the favorite of many during the Vietnam war. And as the media became more a part of our daily lives and our ways to obtain information multiplied, we learned more about the realities of the men behind the podium, and people grew increasingly wary.

But as a young person -- in school, at home, wherever -- we children who came of age in the '70s were taught to demonstrate respect for the highest office in the land. That respect doesn't seem to be a part of our lives anymore. And it makes me sad.

I know what you're thinking: "She's a Democrat. She supports Obama. She saw him yesterday. And she's mad at people who don't believe the way she does."

I do support the president wholeheartedly, but you'd be wrong about the way I'm feeling. I grew up in a family of independent voters, and although the adults in my life leaned to the left more often than not, there were a few years that we had Republican campaign signs in our yard. (And I continued the tradition: Although I strongly align myself with the Democratic party, the first candidate I ever campaigned for, although I was too young to vote at the time, was John Anderson.)

I just think, as simple as it sounds, that we could all stand to be a bit more respectful. It starts at the top: Some political ads are heinous. But at the same time, we're all responsible, as humans, for our behavior toward one another. When did it became OK to feel you have license to behave disrespectfully and downright horribly to people who don't believe as you do?

When it comes to expressing our opinions about politics, Facebook brings out the worst in all of us. I'll admit it: Before I started policing myself on the issue, when posts got the better of me, I often responded negatively to viewpoints that opposed mine.

But then it occurred to me -- quick study that I am -- that a person has the right to write whatever he or she wants to on his or her wall, and unless I have something nice to say, it's my job to say nothing at all. It would be so nice if others subscribed to the same theory.

Here's an example: A Facebook friend of mine reposts a meme that proclaims, "No other choice -- I stand with Romney." I may raise an eyebrow, and I may wish silently for the opportunity to converse with that person about other options. But I don't respond. Why? Because that person's choice is none of my damned business. And it's his or her damned wall.

Contrast that to yesterday, when I posted photos and a couple of statuses about seeing the president at Living History Farms. Never did I say, "Be like me! Vote for President Obama!" and yet the first two comments on my post -- comments that I deleted -- were negative and sarcastic.

Yes, it's campaign season. The president is running again. I went to see him to show my support. But guess what? Even if it were the 11th hour of his second term, I would have gone to see the guy. Why? Yes, because I really like him, but also because he's president. His visit presented an opportunity to come face-to-face with someone who's an important part of our history.

I don't pretend to believe I can change opinions with anything I write, and that's not my objective. I also realize that my posts and photos about yesterday's visit may have irritated some of my friends, and to that, I say, in all sincerity: Hide my posts if they bother you. Please.

But don't be mean. Don't be sarcastic. And don't act as though your opinions are the only ones that count. I'm going to repeat the directions Mrs. McConathy gave my fourth-grade class as she handed out our Weekly Readers with Nixon and Senator George McGovern on the front in 1972. She said something like this:

"Chances are you support the candidate your parents support. But it's important to treat each other with kindness and respect, and not make fun of anyone else's choice. It's also important to pray for the president, as he has the most difficult job in our whole country."

That will be my Facebook status one of these days. For now, I'll remind myself that just as my friends are made of more than their political opinions, so am I. Eight more weeks are left in this campaign season: Think we can spend that time being a little nicer to each other?