The upside of the downside

by Lorin Michel Thursday, November 7, 2013 12:17 AM

One of the downsides with your kid living on the other side of the country is that he might as well be on the other side of the world. You never get to see him. Since the advent of email, smart phones and skype it’s at least easier to speak to him. We don’t skype often; he’s usually in between classes or in one of his tech labs. We text and we have nice long conversations. Justin has been in New York for the last two years, largely year round. He started school there in January of 2012 and works there in the summer. We see him for holidays, like Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas, depending on whether he has to work, and when we get back there which hasn’t been often. We were there in May to see one of his stage productions where he was the lighting designer. We miss him but we understand that his life is there. And when he graduates in December, his life may still be there, in New York. Or perhaps it will be in Chicago, or San Diego, or Orlando, or Moscow. It’s the life he has chosen; the one he wants to live. Still.

My mother has long understood this dynamic. When I went to college, I was still in the same state as my family, but after my sophomore year, I rarely went home. I was working, I had an apartment; even in the summer I stayed at school because that’s where I lived, in my dinky, run-down horrid little apartment. Then I graduated and moved west. We talk on the phone all the time, but I only get back there about once a year and she gets out here even less. We’ve never really talked about skype; I wonder if she’d do it.

Justin is a lighting designer and a master electrician. His life is the theatre. He’s good at it and more importantly, he loves it. When I listen to him talk about what he does, I can honestly say that he might as well be speaking Japanese, but I’m still fascinated, riveted even, because he is so passionate about it. It means that he was lucky to find what he truly wants to do with his life early in his life. It means he made the right choices, first by going to the University of Arizona and then to State University New York at Fredonia, where he transferred.

Tonight one of the shows he designed premiers on campus. It’s called The School for Scandal and according to what I’ve read it’s about scandals and lies amidst the upper crust. It was originally written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and first performed in London, at Drury Lane Theatre, on May 8, 1777. I think it has been updated since then.

The school is streaming it live so we get to watch tonight from out here, very far away from our boy. Kevin put it on in his office; I put it on in mine. There’s a time difference, after all, so we’re still working while it’s on. But we get to see his show, see his work, see what he’s been doing and some of what we’ve been paying for.

This is yet another wonder of technology. Tonight we’re watching The School for Scandal in the west, the sun having just started to set, while it is playing live on stage in the nighttime of the east. We’re able to share in Justin’s triumph and his final lighting design of his senior year of college.

There are many downsides to living so far away from our kid, from anyone we love. But being able to see what he’s been doing happening at the same time that it’s actually happening is truly remarkable. It’s the upside of the downside and something worth celebrating.

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4:20 am and the phone sounds

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, October 2, 2013 1:06 AM

There are few things that can rouse a person out of a deep dream-state in a split second. An earthquake, the sound of glass breaking somewhere in the house (often synonymous with an earthquake) and a ringing phone. In the days before cell phones, an old-fashioned phone was usually propped on a bedside table. If its ring shattered the silence, it was just jarring enough to cause instant panic. Who died?

These days, many people no longer have landlines, Kevin and I included. Cell phones and all that they can do – and let’s face it they can do everything but go grocery shopping – have rendered landlines virtually extinct. This summer, after several years of threatening to pull the cord, we did, eliminating both our private line and our two business lines. Now the cell phones go with us everywhere, held in our hands or tucked in a pocket or a purse. They move to the coffee table at night when we set up to relax and watch a little tube before going to bed. Then they move into the bedroom, each taking up residence on its owner’s table, hopefully to be silent until the morning.

We’ve had telemarketing calls come in fairly early, around 7 am. That’s obnoxious, but we’re usually not in that dead-like sleep where the real world has ceased to exist and instead has been replaced by strange happenings that seem, remarkably, normal. Being in the same space with a group of people I haven’t seen since college. Driving a car that isn’t mine and that I’ve never seen before and trying desperately to find my lost candy bar. The possibility of time travel where my dad is still alive and young, as are my brother and sister, but where I’m the same age or older than I am now. A story is born.

I can imagine that in this state, my eyes are engaged in the rapid movement scientists often discuss. I know that this morning at 4:20 I was deep in the zone. I have no idea what I was dreaming about but I know it was interesting in that way that dreams have of being just fascinating and making perfect sense while you’re in them. It’s probably one of the reasons they dissipate so quickly upon waking. They want to leave you with the feeling of wow rather than the more apt thought of WTF.

At 4:20 am, there was a loud bloutzel blang, the sound that Kevin’s phone makes when it is getting a text message. Both of us sat up immediately, terrified. Hearts pounding. A cold sweat breaking out. Hair standing on end.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Your phone,” I said, hyperventilating. “I think it was a text message.”

“What time is it?”

“I have no friggin’ idea. Who is texting you at this hour?”

“Where’s my phone?”

“It must be over there. I heard it.”

“I heard it, too. Shoot. Where’s Cooper?”

Cooper was snoring. My heart was pounding as was Kevin’s. He reached for his phone to find out who was texting us before 4:30 in the morning, interrupting our dreams, our sleep, our night. Jolting us awake in the same way as an earthquake or glass breaking or the old-fashioned jangling phones of old.

“Justin. He needs rent money.”

“At 4:20 in the morning?!”

Granted it was 7:20 for Justin since he’s in New York. Still. We both slid back down into the bed, under the covers. Cooper sighed. Seriously? We’re up and talking? It’s still dark out. After a while, we both drifted back off to sleep, back into dreamland, and back into the night. 4:20 is early to be so rudely awakened but the ability to get back to sleep is always something worth celebrating.

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Our continuing need for a blankie

by Lorin Michel Thursday, June 6, 2013 12:55 AM

The idea that children need a security blanket is something even those who don’t have children know. Parents usually call them blankies. It’s a bit like baby talk but it’s a name that has stuck.

When Justin was little he had something we called Pillow. It was a pale blue satin pillowcase with ruffles. Because it was satin it was even softer and silkier than the standard blanket. Pillow went everywhere with us. It was tucked into his backpack when he went to preschool. It moved from his bedroom to the living room and back again. It went in the car, on the airplane. If he didn’t have Pillow, he couldn’t sleep. I worried about when Pillow would wear out because occasionally the thing had to get washed and enough washings of an old satin pillowcase can cause it to shred.

As he got older, I convinced him that maybe we needed to upgrade Pillow, sort of like how we upgraded his JumpStart software each year to match his grade level in school. That made sense to him. We tried a number of different things and finally settled on a navy blue fleece blanket. I was pleased because I figured when he grew out of it for security purposes he could use it on his bed at night to keep warm. Pillow got washed one last time and another official blankie was introduced. He quickly outgrew it, as I suspected. It’s now Cooper’s.

I still have Pillow. Its remnants were carefully folded and put away for safe-keeping.

I’ve come to realize that kids aren’t the only ones who have blankies. Adults have them, too, though they’re almost never in the guise of blankets or pillowcases. More like security items we have to have in order to feel like we can function properly.

In the movie The Natural, Roy Hobbs needs to have his special wooden bat in order to work his magic. It’s always there for him, until one night when he hits a long ball that eventually tweaks foul. When he trots back to the plate to swing again, he stops dead. His beloved bat is in two pieces on the ground. For a moment there is sheer panic in his eyes.

I talked to Therapist Bobbi about this today. I wondered if she had anything that she needs to have with her when she works and if she feels as if she can’t function properly if that thing is missing. The answer was yes, a bottle of water. She has to have one always, even in therapy, or she’s missing something that allows her to do her job correctly.

She told me of a fellow therapist who sees clients while rolling a ball of silly putty in her hand. She doesn’t do anything with the silly putty. She doesn’t stretch it into obscenely long strings, or try to take copies of her notes by pasting a flattened putty onto the paper in front of her. She simply has this malleable item in her hands. It’s actually an interesting metaphor for therapy.

According to the website LiveScience, in an article published in 2010, a survey of 6,000 adults was conducted by the hotel chain Travelodge. It found that 39% admitted to still sleeping with stuffed animals. A study in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making revealed that people who held a mug for at least 30 seconds before bidding on it in an auction offered an average of 83 cents more for it than people who held the mug for 10 seconds, which suggests that our tendency to love and need inanimate objects goes far beyond the soft and cuddly.

A professor of behavioral sciences at UCLA has done studies finding that people get more attached to a pen with a “nice, smooshy grip” than an identical, gripless pen.

Which is a nice segue into my own blankie, a blue mechanical pencil with a nice, smooshy grip. For some reason, I have become ridiculously attached to this pencil to the point where I can’t work without it. Yes, I work on a computer all day long and rarely actually use an old-fashioned writing utensil. But I need to have it lying on the desk in front of me as I type. I need to have it within reach should I need to scribble a note, or simply to think. It actually helps me work through problems, come up with ideas, etc.

This morning I took all of my stuff back up to my office (I bring it down at night to work). My computer, my invoicing ledger, several notes, my cell phone, coffee and my dog. I plugged in the computer and hit the power button. I opened my PC laptop and turned that on. I sipped my coffee. I absently petted Cooper’s head. When the computer was up, I opened all of my necessary programs, checked my email and prepared to work. I stopped dead. Where was my pencil? I ruffled through the thick piles of paper on my desk. I picked up notebooks; I checked my invoice ledger. It wasn’t there. I opened the drawer. No. I looked behind the PC. Huh uh. I turned to Cooper. Where’s my pencil? He simply stared at me.

I got up and went downstairs, into the kitchen, and there it was, tucked in the valley of an open book on the table. My beloved pencil with the smooshy grip and the almost finished eraser. I felt my heart beat slow; I relaxed. I picked it up, trudged back upstairs, laid it in front of my computer and proceeded to work all day long, picking it up between projects, twirling it in my fingers, writing notes in my notebooks and appointments in my calendar. Then I’d lay it back down and work some more. It’s my blankie. It makes me feel secure and confident when I work, and I’m OK with that.

Justin and I have even more in common than I thought, and it’s all blue. Definitely something to celebrate.

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