Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Always the Observer

As a youngest child I was born with examples right before me to observe, mimic, identify with or not. I would look up to my elder sister and watch her navigate the world. Six years my senior, she had a handle on her studies (always a good student); she was knowledgeable and responsible; she knew how to get to Manhattan and see a play on her own when she was only 15. She could cook and taught me to bake cookies. And, as adolescence came upon her, she became grouchy, reactive, and yet always remained the good girl who -- whilst complaining -- did as was requested.

My brother was the funny and quiet one. Many a summer we were alone together and he made do with this and taught me to fish, to catch salamanders, to fillet, to climb trees, and later, to improve my pie crust, acquire a few frisbee throws, and juggle two balls in one hand. With adolescence he became somewhat sulky, sullen, long simmering then -- though never raising his voice -- overpoweringly mad, fed up. He started having difficulty getting up in the morning, was always causing my parents to yell up the stairs, making everyone late to school. He, the smartest of the family, started to struggle in school by sheer frustration and I think personality conflicts with teachers far less quick than he. He mastered the technique of always answering in the positive to requests from my mother, and then simply never getting around to getting them done.

You could call my elder siblings opposites. I spent many a year observing and considering their varying approaches to life. My sister, so efficient, obediant, good, but often bemoaning the degree to which she was put upon. My brother, mostly good-humored (when not contraried), wickedly smart, and off in his own world, fiercely stubborn.

In their cooking they differ as well. My sister cooks quickly, efficiently, as necessary for her family. Or she does take out. These days, super-busy as she is, home-made meals are a rather rare occasion in her home. But they manage.

My brother masters recipes. He takes the time to do them just so each and every time. He measures carefully, he follows the directions, he perfects his creations. I drive him crazy in my complete and total inability (some pastry excepting) to do likewise. As he would say, I've never seen a recipe I could actually follow faithfully.

Now that we're grown, and living in distant worlds, my siblings are far less the individuals I observe and consider. I've opened my perspective to a wider world. And when I travel back home (home?) to New York and I visit the friends I grew up with, or went to school with, or shared a first job with, I observe what they've made of their lives, the choices they've made, the values they reflect.

One dear friend is living a fascinating and demanding career, alongside a husband who is doing likewise and more. Perhaps he'll even be a senator one day? or she? They've their blackberries at the ready, tapping away throughout the day. They've good wine in the cabinet, elegant glassware, a gorgeous chess set from an art gallery, a country home up in the hills. Pretty awesome. But, they don't have much time. They don't seem to slow down -- can they? Family time is minimal, precious, and too quickly over. Stress and intensity seem to be a regular sensation. They've one lovely child: precocious, intense, demanding. Another wouldn't be possible. This year they'll be living mostly apart due to job choices. And next year?

Another dear friend is managing a toddler in her low forties. She's got a good corporate job, relatively flexible, with good benefits. She got her six weeks of maternity leave, and when it ended, back to work she went. Her husband works in a similar environment. They depend heavily upon their nanny, and are enjoying this late-in-life blessing. However, if she wanted to spend more time with her child, she could not. Her job's benefits are too essential to their situation. So, onward with the formula that no doubt many must choose till their child is of school age.

But then I visited friends who seemed to have found a magic formula: a balance of work, accomplishments and family: Nurturing of the next generation, time for each other, and success on the career front. Amazing. I met sensible and delightful and affectionate adolescents, solid and supportive adults, warm and welcoming individuals and families that reach inward to their own, and outwards to friends from afar. Ah, how did they manage to choose their partners so well? What portion is family values? What portion intelligence? What portion having a good example in their own parents to learn from?

Do I have a simple and clear response to all my observations? Have I learned the magic formula? No. I'm just -- perhaps, if I'm lucky -- a touch clearer on my own values of raising my children, and hopefully, being in a supportive, affectionate, equal, delightful partnership one day. In the meantime, I'll focus on the boys, and figure out which of my projects to bring to fruition.

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