On Talking “Dirty”

Sappho and Homer - Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond

Sappho and Homer – Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond (Wikimedia Commons)

I often speak in a blunt and explicit fashion about sex. I like having sex. I like thinking about sex. I sometimes meet attractive women and think, “I wonder what she looks like naked…” or “I wonder what she’s like in bed…” or “I wonder if she finds disappointing sexual performance amusing or just sad?”

I talk honestly about these things, and other sexual topics, with my friends because I think friends should talk about what’s on their mind, and what interests them. Leaving something many of us think about a lot, and are very interested in, off the table keeps us from building honest intimacy with those we love and trust.

I also think that the more open we are about our private thoughts, the easier it is to distinguish between what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Sex is a powerful desire, but one that gets channeled in countless unhealthy ways in our (and every) culture. Being open about it takes the stigma away, and allows thoughtful people to engage in real, meaningful discussions – without shame – about what constitutes healthy sexual expression.

Case in point. Some Trump apologists are referring to his jubilant claims of sexual assault as “locker room talk” or “private, boys-will-be-boys conversation.” No. Just…no. There’s a world of difference between: “Wow, oral sex is amazing. Isn’t everything better after a oral sex?” and “…when you’re a star, they’ll let you do it. You can do anything…Grab them by the pussy…You can do anything.”

One is sexually explicit, intimate conversation. The other is an endorsement of sexual assault.

We are all kinds of screwed up about sex in this culture, but listening to people confuse sexual assault with “dirty” talk is the most egregious example I have seen in a long time. We need a sexual ethic of healthy intimacy AND healthy honesty, but before we start working on that we need to draw a clear and explicit line that – no matter how wealthy and/or powerful you are – you are never, ever, under any circumstances entitled to sexually assault someone else.

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Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.

 

For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire – Amazon.com)

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal – Amazon.com)

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky – Amazon.com)

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson – Amazon.com)

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell – Amazon.com)

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

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Funeral Homily for Sue Travis Villines, My Grandmother

Grandma Sue

Laura Sue Travis Villines – August 10, 1922 – March 12, 2001

My son John-Francis has learned to say “I Love You.” I’m tempted to say that he doesn’t understand what the phrase means; but at some level he does. He knows that it’s something you say to someone who is kind to you, to the person you run to when it hurts – the one who holds you and makes it better, to the person with whom you share the things you value – in his case toy trucks and chocolate candy.

On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, John-Francis and I had both climbed into Grandma’s bed for a Sunday afternoon nap. I needed John Francis to take that nap far more than he wanted to, but he was more than happy to cuddle up next to his “G.G.” – which is what he and her other two great-grandchildren, Liam and Aidan, called her. After a few minutes of silence, during which I assumed Grandma had fallen asleep, John Francis turned to her, patted her on the arm, and said, “I love you G.G.” Without opening her eyes, including the ones that we all swear she had in the back of her head, Grandma found his tiny hand and covered it with her own. She smiled, and said with such confidence and strength in her voice, “I love you very much.”

It was a holy moment. John-Francis had meant what he said in as much as he understood its meaning, but never in his life will he meet anyone who more fully knows the commitment, the sacrifice, the work, and the depth of feeling that those often misused words imply. Like most of us, John-Francis was speaking as an amateur. Grandma was a professional.

There are no advanced degrees you can earn in loving people, there are no schools or universities that offer it as a major; but if you had to pick somewhere to learn it, Moore County Tennessee in the Depression wasn’t a bad place to go. Grandma was born there in 1922 to Elizabeth Gilmore Sanders Travis and Theodore Dale Travis. The youngest of five children, she worked alongside her two brothers and two sisters on the family farm. Grandma often talked about life on that farm, and how there were only seven of them in the immediate family, but even when times were at there toughest there were usually more than twenty people (including seven orphans) gathered around her mother’s dinner table. There was always enough to share, and always room for one more.

They also never threw anything away, a lesson which Grandma never forgot. In fact, one of our great challenges has been to find ways to throw things away when she wouldn’t catch us. If she did, which was most of the time, she would just shake her head and tell us one or two of the uses she could find for whatever we had in her hand. Some of you, incidentally, may still have some of the jars she used to give you pimento cheese. Keep them and use them again with her blessing. “Useless” was not a word Grandma believed in. She could find a purpose for anything or anyone.

Which may be why she married a boy from just north of Nashville who claimed to be from a farm but didn’t even know which side of a cow to sit on when you milk them. His name was Aubrey, and as she often reminded him at the time, she had other offers. But he had something the rest of them didn’t – her heart – and he never let go of it. Their lives were so intertwined, that it is impossible to tell her story without also telling some of his. He promised her he wasn’t going to go back into the Army, but the War came and she entered the first of many times when she would have to carry on with him overseas. Barbara, their first child, was born just as Grandpa returned from OCS. Grandma worked and raised their daughter, while he went on to serve in the Pacific theatre.

When the war was over, they lived in Nashville where Grandpa attended law school. Grandma hoped that the life of a lawyer would keep him by her side, but the Korean conflict came along not long after the birth of their second child Aubrey. Grandpa was back in the Army, and Grandma had two young troops of her own to manage. Not long after their third child John was born they made the decision to stay an Army family.

As a result, Grandma set up and maintained households on several continents and in several countries including Japan and Panama. With her husband gone for months and sometimes years at a time, Grandma was more than up to the task of raising three children, managing the family finances, and often working at the post or in town. She was a woman of such drive and skill, that in a time when women were often confined to the steno pool or the secretary’s desk, she was named the Vice President of McGhee Displays where she worked in several capacities. At the time, she was described in the largest trade magazine for that industry as “indispensable.”

She was, but they didn’t know the half of it. She was also tough, and fiercely protected her family. Once, returning home to find a strange woman standing in her kitchen eating tomato slices from right out of the refrigerator, Grandma grabbed a toy gun and pointed it at her telling her to leave. The woman said, “That’s a toy gun and I’m not going.” This proved the woman was crazy, because if she weren’t she would have known to be much more afraid of Grandma than whatever Grandma had in her hands. Grandma tossed aside the gun, picked up the woman, and to the amazement of her children and the gathered neighbors, pitched the lady into the back yard like a bale of hay. To this day, my father will not eat tomato slices out of the refrigerator. Of course, anyone who knew Grandma knows that that she would have gladly given that woman anything in the refrigerator if she had only asked. The mistake she made was in scaring Grandma’s family.

Retirement brought Grandma and Grandpa to Atlanta where Grandma worked as a bookkeeper and he worked for the Federal government. I say “bookkeeper” because that is what it said on her tax returns, but her full time occupation continued to be Mother with the additional title of Grandmother. Her children were grown and had left home – more or less. Her grandson William was born shortly before they came to Atlanta, and her granddaughter and namesake Laura was born shortly after. Juanita and I came along not much later, but Aubrey and Cheri kindly waited until we were well out of diapers to bring Zawn and Trey into the world.

At this point in the story, I’m no longer just passing on family folklore but my own memories as well. Over the past two days, I’ve been sorting those memories like an old shoe box full of pictures. Over and over again, there’s one place they take me back to – Grandma’s kitchen table. It’s not a large table or a large kitchen, but for thirty years it has been the center of our family and a safe haven for hundreds of friends who have become our family.

It didn’t matter why you came in, you were still invited to sit down and have a glass of sweet (and I do mean sweet) tea or a cold drink. And it wasn’t just company who sat down there. I still remember the plumber who came one day and Grandma thought he looked too skinny. Even though he billed by the hour, was on the clock, and she had never met him before; Grandma sat him down at that table and fed him. When he left, she sent him home with some homemade preserves and instructions to eat better. He’s here today as one of her pall bearers. His name is Austin, I don’t think he ever got around to billing her for the plumbing work and for close to twenty years he’s never called her anything but “Mom.”

He’s not the only one. Because it was conveniently located, many of us used Grandma’s house as a place to meet friends or co-workers. Gary, a friend who also works with my father, had stopped by Grandma’s to meet him. Gary is extremely polite, and simply sat out in the driveway waiting for my father to arrive. Grandma thought that was kind of silly, so she brought him in, sat him down at that same kitchen table, and fed him with good food and better conversation. Dad was worried about Grandma’s health, so when he got there he insisted to her that she was not obligated to entertain his coworkers. Gary has repeated her reply several times. “John,” she said, “you can just go away again. Gary and I were having a perfectly nice visit, and I’ll visit with whoever I want to.” Like many before him and since, Gary had been adopted into her family, and knew from then on he was welcome any time. To this day, Gary still calls her “Mom.” When I talked to him yesterday, he said that it truly felt like losing a mother when she died.

Then of course there’s Ann Rose, who came to spend the night and stayed for a couple months. Grandma should have known that something was up when Ann pulled in front of the house towing a small U-Haul trailer behind her. She needed a place to stay, and what she found was home. She certainly was not alone. If you are not someone who called her “Mom,” odds are the person next to you was. Whether or it was for a few moments, or a few years, Grandma offered you a home. A place to rest your body and your soul, a place at the table where there was always something good to eat, a sympathetic ear, and maybe, just maybe, an opinion or two.

There are so many clichés about the difference between a house and a home that it’s hard to find the words to explain how what Grandma provided was different – but it was. If there’s a recipe for it, I’m pretty sure two of the ingredients are iced tea and pimento cheese. For Grandma, though, the main ingredient was certainly faith.

And I mean the real thing. I don’t mean preachy faith that always tells people what they’re doing wrong; or showy faith that comes from always making sure you’re seen at the right church or with the right people – I mean the kind of rock solid faith that gave Grandma the strength to change the world around her and to carve out a safe haven where so many of us found a home.

Grandma has asked that the inscription on her tombstone read, “My Faith has found a resting place.” That is certainly true, and for the first time, because for seventy eight years Grandma’s faith never rested. For her, faith meant one thing: loving people as Jesus loved them. And love, for her, meant work and sacrifice. It meant action. Love meant getting out of a warm bed on a cold dark morning, as an almost eighty year old woman, to pick up a stranded child or grandchild who needed a ride. I’m not thinking of a specific story here because it happened so often.

Love meant having much less for herself, so her children and grandchildren could have much more. Love meant doing hard work and messy work, even when no one noticed, no matter how tired she was, just to make life easier for the people who came into her life. And always, for everyone, to Sue Travis Villines, love meant forgiveness. Over and over again, small wrongs or large, whether or not you apologized or asked for it – no matter what happened, the next time you sat down at that table you knew you were forgiven.

When I was ordained, Grandma placed her hands on my head and said, “You know how much I love you. God loves you more.” I’m not sure that’s true, but if I know anything about the love of God I learned it from her.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gathers his closest friends, one of whom will betray him and have him killed, around a table. Over and over again he’s told them that to follow him they only have to do one thing, love everybody – and he means everybody. They didn’t really understand him then any more than we understand or do that now, but Jesus kept trying.

So when he gathered them for their last meal together, Jesus – God in the flesh – took a pitcher of clean water and a basin, and kneeling at each of them in turn washed the dirt and mud from their feet. Times weren’t that different then from today. This was a menial job, and not one that even a well-liked slave would be asked to do. It was dirty, time consuming, and profoundly kind. It’s just the sort of thing Grandma would have done.

All too soon, Jesus was gone and the very earth shook with grief. A part of me is surprised that the same thing did not happen last Monday. Such a great light, such a powerful force for love and hope has left us that it seems that the whole world should have come to a grinding halt. Nothing should ever be the same again. In the darkness that is left behind we have only our memories, and each other.

The home that she created for us is no more, and we are left with the homes that we make for one another. Where there was once so much laughter and no small amount of tears, there are now only echoes. The hands that served us, held us, knitted together in prayer for us, and blessed us are now at rest. She has gone home.

Grandma said that she did not want me to try to preach her into heaven, as if someone who labored so tirelessly to create heaven here for us would need any help finding the way. There is one promise at the heart of her faith, a faith which she passed on to us all. That promise is that a home – one as welcoming as the one she created for us here – was prepared and waiting for her as one is also prepared and waiting for us; and that the same scarred hands that washed the feet of his friends and betrayer alike, were waiting to gather her in and lead her home.

Grandma Sue and John Francis

Grandma Sue and John-Francis

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Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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For Friends, When Your Children Leave for College

Off to College

Off to College

This is the year when a critical mass of our friends must face their progeny heading off for their first year of college. Talking with our friends their grief (and make no mistake, it is grief – gut-wrenching, agonizing grief), and also noting that today is the one-year anniversary of when we dropped John-Francis off for his first day at Haverford, has brought back all of those memories from this time last year.

It remains the single saddest day of my life. I sobbed for hours, and then spent months simply sad and off-kilter. I felt like a limb had been severed from my body, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of my loss.

A few thoughts for those of you going through the same thing right now:

1. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not crazy, or melodramatic, or over-reacting. Don’t let anyone de-legitimize just how much this hurts. Just like any other kind of grief, allow yourself to move with its rhythms, and surround yourself with people who won’t try to talk you out of your feelings. (I feel compelled to offer special thanks to those who were there for me at this time last year, especially my own parents, Ginny Little, and Kim Pike. Thank you for not judging me for how often or how much I cried.)

2. Your friends who haven’t been through this are very unlikely to get it. In case someone in that category is reading this, please try to understand. It’s not that we’re not happy for our kids, or not proud of them, or wanting to shelter them. It’s that we realize that the nature of our relationship with them has changed forever. From this point forward, looking in on their room and seeing them sleeping in their bed will be the exception, not the norm. Staying up late, sitting on the couch, watching a bad movie together will be the exception, not the rule. Walking by and seeing them sitting at the table will be the exception, not an everyday occurence. Until you feel that tectonic shift in your life, you can’t appreciate how hard it hits.

3. It does get easier, but there’s no rule for how long that takes or the degrees to which it happens. Skype and texting help…a LOT! My own experience is that this past summer has made all the difference. It helped me to see first-hand how all of his good choices and hard work have made him even more the exceptional young man he already was when he left. My brain has also processed the fact that he does, eventually, come home, and that when he does he’s still my Boy.

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