Finding balance in the second half of life

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School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles — de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga

Zombie Christmas

In Family on December 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

“Not a good place to be in a zombie invasion.”

The year was 2004. The holidays were looming. I had just moved most of my family (three sons, two cats, one golden retriever) from a large house on a wooded lot overlooking a marshy bayou  to a small house on a busy city street with a backyard view that came to a screeching halt at the unpainted backs of neighbors’ garages.

My oldest son, then 17, was assessing our prospects for survival.

The urban location was bad. The undead always flock to the cities because — duh — people live there, and people are what zombies eat. Sort of.

Having a second floor with two bathrooms was good. We could barricade the stairs and fill both tubs. Plus, Emerson had a mini-fridge in his bedroom. But once we ran out of drinking water and Dr. Pepper, we had no hope of getting to the nearest Walmart to restock. Our car, in a small detached garage at the end of a narrow drive bordered by the house on one side and a concrete wall on the other, was unreachable. No way could we get to it without some major weapons. Which, of course, we didn’t own.


Last week, Google Labs released a new tool, N-Gram Viewer, that may pose a worse threat to my continued survival as a free-will exercising human than a zombie invasion ever could. Having now scanned over ten percent of all books published since Gutenberg, Google’s new toy lets you use this vast data base to graph the occurrence of words and phrases that have appeared in print from 1400 through the present day.

This is, apparently, something I have wanted to do for so many years without knowing it, that now that I have the capability to compare, say, the rising usage of the word “zombie” with the declining usage of the phrase “nuclear holocaust” over the 17 years of my son’s life from 1987 to 2004, I simply can’t stop.

As you can see, during the years between my son’s birth and our move to the small city where I still live, zombies are increasingly likely to be referenced, in books, while nuclear holocausts get fewer and fewer mentions.

I’m just saying.


As a newly divorced mother I couldn’t help wondering what the rising zombie threat symbolized and whether it was my fault. Or at least my generation’s fault. Or the fault of women of my generation who didn’t believe it was imperative to keep the marriage together for the sake of the children.

I noticed that my sons’ friends also discussed apocalyptic survival plans and enjoyed mowing down the undead in popular video games like Resident Evil. The mother of one of Emerson’s buddies told me how, in the backseat of a car making its way from church to cemetery, she overheard her older son ask his brother whether he had his knife on him. When it became clear that both her boys were packing protection, she turned around in the driver’s seat to confront them. Why, why had they brought hunting knives to their grandfather’s funeral?

“They looked at me as if they couldn’t believe I was asking such an inane question,” she told me. “Then they both said — at the same moment — Zombies, Mom.”

So, was it the divorce thing? Had I met the undead and discovered that they were us? Goodness knows I stumbled through that first Christmas season apart from the boys’ dad with a numbed-out lack of grace that might have looked familiar to fans of Night of the Living Dead.

I tried the idea out in a sonnet.

Zombie Love

Saturday morning dads return to pick
up sons and take them bowling, out to lunch,
a game. Ex-wives watch slantwise, shoulders hunched
in bathrobes by back doors. The boys are quick
to pull on coats and let their mothers flick
the hair out of their eyes before too much
can happen. Sliding in the car, they scrunch
against the dash, ride shot-gun. Seat belts click
like triggers. Undead stalk the stark terrains
of animated strategical games
the sons direct with twitching thumbs all day.
The zombies look like people, but the way
they come at you with eyes like burnt-out fire,
you know there’s nothing there except desire.

Ultimately, though, the metaphor wouldn’t hold. My ex and I and our divorced friends were, if anything, more present in our children’s lives now that we spent time with them separately, without the distractions of unhappy coupledom. My small house on the busy street happened to be quite close to the boys’ school, and it quickly became the hang-out place of choice. With no other adult tastes to please or friends my own age to entertain, I cooked up large vats of kid-pleasing foods and let the TV room be overrun by sleeping-bag toting, chocolate milk consuming hordes of zombie-killing boys.


Why zombies? Why now? Greater minds than mine have been pondering the mystery.

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies insists that “the zombie boom” should be taken seriously, and wonders if it “might represent an indirect attempt to get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as the ‘unknown unknowns’ in international security.”

Over at The Daily Beast, Venetia Thompson argues that zombies are “the perfect metaphor for our rotting age.”

“Theirs is a condition that is far closer to that of the human being than we would like to admit, and it is perhaps for this reason that zombies will always have resonance in times of social and economic upheaval: We start losing our jobs and homes, and before long we’re all completely lost, left to shamble around mindlessly until someone takes pity on us and shoots us in the head.”

In a piece in The New York Times, Chuck Klosterman posits the undead phenomenon as an allegory for daily existence. “A lot of modern life,” he says, “is exactly like slaughtering zombies.”

“Zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.”


Tonight — actually, early tomorrow morning — a full lunar eclipse will decorate the turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, the day the sun begins its journey back toward the little house on the busy street where my family hopes to survive yet another Christmas season. If the weather is clear, my youngest son, My Loving Partner, our golden retriever, and maybe a cat or two will gather in an urban backyard that has a perfect view of the sky to sip hot chocolate and watch it happen.

When you’re dealing with the undead, it’s good to have a plan.

–Debra Wierenga

No Hurry

In Community on December 13, 2010 at 8:00 am

I’m thinking of starting a new column on documentaries called “I Haven’t Seen the Film But I Read the Review.”

My latest want-to-see-but-probably-won’t-until-Netflix-has-it is Race to Nowhere, a documentary produced and directed by Vicki Abeles, a concerned mother who picked up a video camera to  document the stories of children, parents, and teachers caught up in a system so focused on ACT scores and the demands of college admissions offices that no one has time to wonder whether real learning — or even real preparation for participation in the adult world — is taking place.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Race to Nowhere questions both the pressure and the value of college prep curricula that have teachers teaching to tests like the ACT and Advanced Placement exams and students desperately trying to learn the formula for a high-scoring “timed writing” while running from soccer to Science Olympiad to community service projects in an effort to build an admissions-friendly resume as a well-rounded, four-point-oh, SAT-acing 17-year-old.

When my oldest son was in high school, I encouraged him to take as many AP classes as possible. As a result, he was able to complete his BA in 3 years — one year ahead of his peers to enter a job market that has no use for their degrees or their SAT scores.  By the time my youngest got to high school, I was much less inclined to push him to mold himself into the ideal college applicant. I’m thinking that if his lack of AP credits and heavy focus on independent studies in music keep him from getting into the college of his choice, well, he can take a year of community college and reapply. I’m thinking, what’s the hurry?  I’m thinking it would be a good idea for schools and communities to schedule a screening of Race to Nowhere.

–Debra Wierenga

Still Hungry

In Fulfillment on December 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I wasn’t planning on reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto until I heard the author, David Shields, talk about the origin of his controversial compilation of quotes, paraphrases, and personal musings on the future of fiction.

Speaking to an embarrassingly small audience here in Holland, Michigan, Shields, who has written a number of novels himself, explained that he started collecting the material that became Reality Hunger in an attempt to explain to himself and his students how and why fiction has become something he no longer cares to read.

It’s happened to me, too.

After a lifetime of devouring novels, mysteries, story collections — from Jane Austen to John Updike, from Dorothy Sayers to Amanda Cross, from Elizabeth Bowen to Anne Beattie — I find it increasingly difficult to find a piece of fiction that will hold my interest. Sometimes I can’t even make it through The New Yorker’s weekly short story.

In the past month, I have picked up and put down new works by A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Jim Harrison, and Zadie Smith. My reading partner and I have been working for weeks now to make it through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, mostly because we sprang for the hardcover.

During the same period of time, I zipped through three memoirs, two biographies, several poetry collections, and a volume of essays, as well as books on how the brain works, how dogs think, how people grieve, and what I should be feeding my family.

And, of course, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which explains a lot — at least to me.

–Debra Wierenga

No Thanks

In Community, Family, Romance on November 24, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Thanksgiving dinner @ Sanctuary Farm

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with Thanksgiving Day. One son is in Ireland. The other two will be in Indiana, eating turkey with their dad and his new wife and my former mother-in-law who makes the best pumpkin pie ever. My own sweet dad — he of the soup-chilling pre-dinner toasts and the table-panning video camera — has lately become dead; wherever he is on Thursday, it won’t be at my dining room table. Neither my good friend Kate, whom I counted on for years to provide the family-tension-reducing Talking Dog Joke, nor Belgian-born Janine whose creamed onions were to die for, nor my sons’ friends Wade and Emma and Spencer and Anna Lisa and Jack, nor the parents of my sons’ friends who became during those noisy years friends of my own, will be passing the cranberry sauce to me this year.

For the first 25 years of my life, Thanksgiving was a big family dinner at my aunt’s or grandmother’s or mother’s house. For the next 25 years, it was a big family (and friends) dinner at my own place. Now it is a big fat hole that I am desperate to fill.

This morning I suggested to My Loving Partner that we use the holiday to fix up the wood floors in the dining room.

“You still know how to surprise me,” he said, after a longish pause.

I don’t want to go out to dinner. I don’t want to stay home and cook a pseudo family dinner for two (Honey, will you carve the Cornish Hen?). And I don’t especially want to sit at my long, empty, dining room table making a list of everything I’m thankful for. But I also don’t want to be a whiny, ungrateful wretch.

So, I adopted a turkey.

His name is Reese.


He will be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends at Sanctuary Farm’s California shelter.

And I will be sharing a hearty lentil stew (or something) with MLP, who was actually considering the floor fixing idea and for whom I am sincerely thankful.

–Debra Wierenga

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

In Family, Fulfillment on November 20, 2010 at 5:48 pm

When my dad retired from his position as elementary school principal, his staff gave him a video camera. It was 1987, and I was pregnant with my first son, Dylan, who was about to be the most documented child on the planet. I have stacks of VHS tapes showing an increasingly impatient sweet-faced boy being “interviewed” by his grandfather. What does he think of his new baby brother? What, in his opinion, is the real meaning of Christmas? What is he especially grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day?

A lot of my dad’s leading questions are true groaners, and I remember some family gatherings where I thought about hiding the camera bag somewhere before he could pull out the instrument of torture.  But I’m glad to have those tapes, and Dylan and his brothers are, too. The four of us can watch them for hours.

So when I read the mixed reviews of Doug Block’s new documentary “The Kids Grow Up” — described by one critic as a “disconcerting chronicle of his daughter’s life” and by another as a moving “essay on the passage of time and the mysterious connections between parents and children” — it was with my own mixed feelings.

As a writer who hasn’t been shy about sharing scenes from her own children’s lives, I admit I’ve worried about the ethics and the effects of “using” my defenseless boys as “material.” But I have also, like Doug Block, like my father, experienced the obsessive need to explore the intersection between my family members’ stories and my own, as a way of understanding my own truth.

–Debra Wierenga


In Family on November 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I drove him to the airport myself — the latest in a long string of self-sabotaging acts designed to separate me from a boy I wanted never to be out of my arms’ reach. It was early; we were quiet. I concentrated on my driving, remembering to signal every time I changed lanes to set a good example for my son.

At the ticket counter, one of his bags weighed in at 52 pounds. “You’ll have to take something out,” the agent said. “Just leave it on the scale here and start pulling stuff out.” Emerson unzipped the top of the bag, and a soft brown nose poked up.

“Looks like the bear’s got to go, Mom.”

“Bufter doesn’t weigh anything,” I protested.

“You’d be surprised,” the agent said. She was blonde and tan and confident. Younger than I but old enough to have a 20-year-old son heading to Ireland for nine months with a teddy bear in his overstuffed suitcase. Emerson pulled out Bufter and a couple of T-shirts.

“Take your hands off the bag now,” she told him. The digital readout flashed 50.1. “Good. Take this one off the scale and put the other one on.” She glanced at me. “You can put those things in this one.”


Ever since my dad died and left behind a lot of stuff I don’t know what to do with, I’ve been reading psychological literature and research focused on the meanings people attach to special objects or possessions at different stages of their lives. I’ve learned about things like “transitional objects” — the soft toy or “blankey” that young children use to help them feel secure when their moms (and their moms’ breasts) aren’t around. A person who is making such a transition from one life stage to another — say from procreative younger mother to menopausal older mother — is said to be in a liminal state.

Portrait of Bufter by Emerson

The night before I drove Emerson to the airport, he was packing clothes fresh from the dryer, rolling them up the way they recommended in a New York Times article I’d emailed him.

“Aren’t you going to take Bufter?” I asked him.

“No, Mom.”

“You have to,” I said. “Trust me, Emerson. You need a transitional object.”

Emerson noted that he was taking his iPhone and his guitar and his laptop, and I suppose those things are transitional objects for young men these days, but I ran upstairs to his room that was soon to be my study again and grabbed the two bears, one large one small, both referred to as “Bufter,“ that I keep on the bed when he is elsewhere. I had to look under the bed and a pile of corduroy jeans to find them.

“Here,” I said, holding them out. “You only have to take one. You can choose the mama bear or the baby bear.”

He looked at me with exasperation and a touch of pity.

“Bunky,” I said. “I have to give you something.”

He took the bigger bear and stuffed it in next to the rolled up T-shirts.


Major role transitions are crucial times but little is yet known about the consumption behaviors of liminal people.

I found this study about about the consumption patterns of liminal women while looking for stuff on transitional objects.  Although my own consumption behavior as a divorced, newly fatherless, nearly empty-nester has involved quantities of Marker’s Mark and Pinot Noir,  these researchers were looking at consumption of goods, not booze. They found  that women today use things they purchase to help them make the transition from necessary caregiver to unnecessary consumer, although that’s not exactly how they put it.

Here is exactly how they put it:

The reconstruction of self, that began with separation from the parental role and the end of the original child-parent relationship, is assisted through the disposition of consumer goods, the reconstruction of identity played out with material objects and communitas formed with other consumers also in this transitional phase.

Basically, women cope with losing their kids by buying stuff for them and relating (if you can call jointly responding to marketing media “relating”) to other women who are buying stuff for their departing children.

Plagues of “back-to-school” ads and promotions play this out every August. Hordes of liminal moms descend on Targets and K-Marts and Bed Bath and Beyonds to outfit their college students’ new homes in high-rise dormitories with extra-long twin sheet sets and microwaves and mini-fridges. The phenomenon is not a new one — one of my best memories of my own mom is the one where she takes me to Steketee’s basement to purchase a set of plush towels and two coffee mugs (one for a friend) the summer before I enrolled at Smith College — but, like every other cultural movement taken up by the baby boom generation, it’s reached a new level of intensity.

Perhaps because my departing children are boys who never noticed whether their sheets were clean, let alone what color or thread count they boasted, I haven’t fully participated in this modern rite-of-passage. As for communitas, most of my friends are women who don’t have children of their own or are stepmothers who have never been charged with provisioning the coolest dorm room on campus. Recently I attempted to gain some shared psychological support for my liminal state from my friends Heather (writer and college professor) and Mary (artist and outdoors woman), both of whom are stepmothers of sons my boys’ ages. We were having dinner and an MBC (My Brilliant Career) meeting on the rooftop of Mary’s 1920s apartment building in Kalamazoo.

“Where’s a good place to buy rain gear?” I asked them. I had been reading in the Burren College of Art Student Handbook the chapter on “Guidelines for Overseas Students: Essentials to Bring.” Under “Clothes,” I read:

One thing you can count on is that it will rain and the only safe prediction would be to make sure you have a good waterproof jacket, leggings, and waterproof gear for cycling. Always have a hood or hat close to hand for the unpredictable cloudbursts. The rain is often accompanied by wind, making umbrellas redundant. You should also bring reflective armbands/sash to ensure visibility when walking/cycling in the dark.

“I was thinking of some kind of rain-suit like joggers wear,” I told my friends, who, unlike me, have been known to bike for miles, sometimes in the rain. “You know, the matching windbreaker/warm-up pants with reflective stripes?”

Mary looked at me with some empathy, but Heather shook her head disdainfully. “He can buy what he needs when he gets there and sees what the other students are wearing.”

“But –”

“No self-respecting 20-year old is going to get within a mile of anything that has reflective tape on it.” Heather told me. I might think I was packing up my boy for summer camp, but he thought of himself as a serious third-year art student. And art students don’t let their mothers dress them, not even when they’re four years old.


Yesterday I paid a visit to my  high school best friend’s daughter and brand-new granddaughter. Tracy had the luminous skin and hair of a new mother and Charlotte had that musky sweet new-baby smell that makes even 56-year-old women feel as though their milk might let down at any minute.

While we chatted, Tracy fed the baby formula from a bottle. Nursing had been interrupted in the first days of Charlotte’s life when a false-positive on a test for some genetic disease had forced Tracy into pumping mode until it could be determined that her milk wouldn’t harm the baby. Although they had resumed nursing two weeks earlier, the lactation consultant had decided that Charlotte wasn’t getting enough nourishment from her mother and advised Tracy and Dan to supplement with formula.

“It makes me feel so sad,” Tracy told me. “It makes me feel like I’m not a good mother.”

We looked down at the baby, who had fallen asleep with the nipple in her mouth. Tracy set the bottle on the table and turned Charlotte’s head gently to the side. Formula dribbled from the baby’s open mouth and her translucent eyelids fluttered lightly. I thought: She looks like Emerson. And like Dylan. And Eliot.

“You’re a good mother,” I told Tracy. “You are.”

–Debra Wierenga

Thursday: Better Than Fine

In Survival on March 11, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I wake up with a scratchy throat and that downward feeling that comes with realizing that it’s Thursday and I don’t have a lesson plan for the class I teach at 1. Downstairs, the cat has thrown up in three places, all of them carpeted. My Partner is not sure that it’s vomit, he thinks it looks more like poop. I dab a spot with some paper towel and bring it to my nose. Not poop. In fact it smells surprisingly springlike — earthy and green. This is because Cuddles has been eating the greens from the Spring Fling bouquet I sprang for at Family Fare yesterday when I was waiting for my prescriptions to get filled because I’d already been two days without my Prozac and was getting grumpy and droopy and experiencing bouts of extreme self-loathing.

MP makes us some breakfast while I empty the dishwasher. These dishes are not clean. They have been washed, but they are not clean. The plates and bowls are dingy and dull and the cups are coffee-stained. How long has this been going on? Could be months — it’s been that long since I unloaded the dishwasher while the sun was shining.

Before I sit down to my poached egg, I also take in the kitten-sized balls of golden retriever fur in the corners of the dining room, the wall behind MP’s chair where the paint is badly chipped, and another puke spot under the table. I take a sip of coffee, closing my eyes so I won’t see the brown stains on the inside rim.

Should not have let that prescription slip.

When I arrive at the small seminar room on the second floor of Van Zoren Hall, my class of Academically Talented middle school students is already seated in the tiers of desks that I usually haul down from their platforms and rearrange into a circle. I decide to let it go. We have just finished reading “Much Ado About Nothing” and Sarah has a question: Why does Boracchio say “listen to me call her ‘Hero,’ hear her term me ‘Claudio,’” when he intends to have Claudio there as a witness to Hero’s debauchery?

Really? He says that? Indeed he does. Sarah has highlighted the passage in passionate pink. It makes no sense to any of us. Did Shakespeare screw up?

Three hours later I drag myself in through the back door and notice a definite smell of cat pee. Eliot’s breakfast dishes are hardening on the counter but where is he? Monday’s piano, Tuesday’s Jazz Combo, Wednesday’s trombone, Thursday’s here. MP hasn’t seen him. I dig my phone out of my purse. No messages. I send Eliot a text: “?” and fall into bed. Ten minutes later my cell wakes me with the “Waltz for Debby” ringtone I downloaded in another lifetime, before my dad died. Eliot is on his way home from band festival, which he told me about last week, remember?

I do not remember.

Sitting on the — jeez, where did those spots come from — couch, I hear MP shaking up a Maker’s Mark manhattan. My favorite sound in the world. The drink he pours me glows red-gold and the first cold sip is the best I’ve felt all day.

By the time I’ve finished my drink, Eliot is home and regaling us with tales of Peter the sax player who thinks he’s all that but started playing the wrong song at festival. The living room glows like a manhattan, full of going-down sun. I love my son, My Partner, my shedding dog, my puking cats, my hairy cornered home. MP looks askance when I ask him for another drink to sip on while I make supper. I am meeting my Academically Talented students and several of their parents at the dress rehearsal of “Much Ado About Nothing” at 8:00.

I’ll be fine, I say. I’m making Kitchen Sink Quesadillas and I’ll have coffee after dinner.

Kitchen Sink Quesadillas

1 package burrito-sized flour tortillas

1 package shredded cheddar

1 can black beans

1 can corn

1/2 jar Paul Newman’s Spicy Salsa

Heat oven to 400. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and place two tortillas on each.

In a colander, in the sink, combine beans, corn, and salsa.

Sprinkle tortillas with half the cheese. Add a layer of the drained colander mixture and another layer of cheese. Top with the remaining tortillas.

Bake 5 – 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and tortillas are crisped. Serve with sour cream, avocado slices, and hot sauce.

You’ll be fine.

–Debra Wierenga