Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Ghosts in the Machine

In Community, Family on February 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Tidying up my iTunes library, I find a string of untitled tracks that turn out to be voice mail messages from 2007. I go down the list, listening and deleting, until I hear:

Hi, Deb! It’s Dad.

Why would a dead man sound so alive? Has there been some mistake? Could the cardiovascular system that produced the breath that set those sound waves vibrating in my direction just now still exist somewhere, heart pumping, lungs pushing air through the windpipe and over the vocal chords that generate the precise combination of pitch, timbre, tone, and resonance that is my father’s voice?

I contemplate the physical mechanics of crawling into my hard drive.

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected death of someone she loves will recognize this kind of “magical thinking” in which the grieving mind simultaneously knows with absolute certainty that the beloved is dead and knows with absolute certainty that he is not. Joan Didion describes the phenomenon vividly in her memoir documenting the year after her husband died of a sudden heart attack: the need to stay in the city where her husband would know to find her; the inability to give away a certain pair of shoes that he would want when he returns; the undeleted email message that surely signified his continued existence.

I think that the sensual immediacy of digital media and the relentless present tense of the internet have prolonged my own year of magical thinking (currently 23 months and counting).

Facebook still periodically flashes his profile picture in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, asking me to “help Don find new friends.” The last message I posted on his wall before he died — Hey, Dad, you ever coming back to Michigan? — is still there, dripping unintended irony. And since his death I have suggested friends, asked him to join charitable causes, sent him digital hearts and glasses of Chardonnay. I kept posting on his wall, too — pictures of my son wearing his grandpa’s sport coat, birthday wishes, Thanksgiving greetings — until it dawned on me that my other Facebook friends were notified every time I did this and might start worrying about me. Or worse.

But while my dad had just barely tested the waters of online social networking, he was an early adopter in other areas of digital communication. He designed and maintained a blog that reported on his travels and a website that includes this message to the cosmos:

The internet has made it possible for a tiny speck in this universe – — me — to tell you a bit of my story. It’s been molded by many people, most significantly my family and relatives, whom I suspect may be here by intent. If, however, you happened to stumble upon this page and if I have aroused a particle of interest, I would love to hear from you.

If you click on the link, you can still send him a message. I have.

Beyond this web-based legacy, my dad left behind a laptop computer that archives thousands of photos, detailed genealogy charts, slide shows complete with background music and “Ken Burns Effect” transitions, video clips that analyze my sons’ golf swings. All this and more on an iBook he’d owned only two months. I have yet to venture into the hard drive that contains the data from his desktop computer, a tangerine iMac G3.

In a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker takes a hard look at the implications of (digital) life after (physical) death. He tells the story of Mac Tonnies, a writer and active user on online media who died unexpectedly at the age of 34. Many of the many expressions of grief logged onto the comments section of Tonnies’s last blog post are addressed directly to the author of the (eerily titled) Posthuman Blues, telling him how he is missed, wishing him a “happy Afterlife,” wishing that he would “keep posting from the other side.” A poignant example:

Mac, perhaps somehow, somewhere, you are reading your comments here.

Know that your friends love you and miss you terribly, though we will meet again some “day”.

Wishing you joy on your new journey,

One mourner, who had never met Tonnies in person, posted a sonnet that includes an homage to his Twitter feed: “. . . Your ev’ry tweet/Brought strange new wonders. . .”

Toonies’s virtual community stepped in to preserve his digital oeuvre, backing up his blog (“about 10 gigabytes of material”) and setting up new blogs that feature his writing and links to interviews he gave. Walker writes:

. . . the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

One big difference, of course, between “physical ephemera,” like photo albums and ribbon-bound packets of letters, and their digital equivalents (Flikr and email accounts) is that the former are more likely to be curated with “our survivors” in mind. What meaning should I extract or give to the sequence of photos documenting a spring break wet-T-shirt contest that is preserved in my my dad’s online photo albums? (Sorry, no link.) None that I care to think too much about, or that he would want me to, I’m quite certain.

Not surprisingly, services designed to help one leave a tidy posthumous digital legacy are springing up all over the internet. Legacy Locker offers “a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property” that lets you decide whom you want to have access to what after your “passing.” The more forthright Deathswitch (“Bridging Mortality”) emails you regularly to make sure you’re still alive and, if you don’t respond for a given period of time, “deduces you are dead” and sends out emails you have written to specified recipients. If you really want to script your digital legacy in fine detail, Virtual Eternity (“Forever Made Possible”) lets you create and train an avatar or “intellitar” of yourself that will be able to converse with generations to come. (This will cost you, though.)  1000 Memories, a free online service designed to help people create virtual memorials of photos and video clips and written remembrances, will also allow you to craft your own memorial, prehumously, if you wish.

At, my sister created a site for my dad that people could add their comments and memories to. The funeral home that coordinated his memorial service in Michigan provided a similar service. These sites and the stories people contributed to them were a great comfort to me for a while, but no one has added to them since May 2009. These days, I prefer to hang out on his Facebook profile, where he is still surrounded by living, if virtual, friends and family.

Elaine Kasket, a British psychologist who conducted a study of “posthumous communication on a social networking site,” found that most such messages to deceased Facebook friends are written in the second person, as if they are still present and “logging on from some internet cafe in heaven.” She calls the practice a compelling example of “continuing bonds after death.”

And if the existence of an online presence after death prolongs the grieving process along with the unsettling comfort of “magical thinking,” it may be all to the good. Psychotherapist Mark Dunn believes that most of us in Western society don’t permit ourselves to mourn for as long as is good for us and that the internet “may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again.”

–Debra Wierenga

A Hole in the Heart

In Family, Fulfillment on January 29, 2011 at 1:55 am

“We’re all done here. I don’t want to see you again,” said the cardiologist to my daughter as we left his office this morning. “Goodbye. Have a good life.”

She’s been seeing him since she was diagnosed at about six months with a ventricular septum defect—a hole between the lower chambers of her heart.  From the very first visit, we knew it was small. It never affected her development. The doctor never limited her or restricted her physical activities. “I see football players who have this,” he said. And that’s what my husband and I said, too, to each other: “He sees football players who have this.” Still, the doctor wanted to see her, every year at first, then every two, then every three.

In the years between visits, she grew. She loved passionately and she hated passionately. She had no trouble expressing her emotions.

My daughter gave me this ransom-style note when she was about eight.

Around the same time, she gave me this heart-shaped rock she found. Later, when it broke, she was the one who thought to fix it with a band-aid.

“Weren’t your feelings hurt when I said I hated you?” she asked me recently.  Fourteen now, still passionate but better able to moderate her emotions, she sees her young self through eyes that are more adult than child. I told her I never believed her, not for a moment.

“I really believed it when I said it,” she said. “I believed I hated you.”

But I knew her heart. I knew its nature as well as the cardiologist, with all his EKGs and echocardiograms and pulse oximetry, knew its form.

And now the form of her heart has caught up to its nature. The hole has completely closed, which is why her cardiologist doesn’t want to see her again. We left with a printout of her electrocardiogram, a parting gift.

I drove her back to school and went to the office to sign her in. She let me hug her before she headed to history class.

I thought about the hole, now closed, about how her whole life lies ahead of her, wide open, and about how I will never be all done here. No parent ever is.

–Christine MacLean

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

Ask and You Shall Receive?

In Family on November 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

The Unclutterer’s recent post on giving gifts that are wanted or needed was timely–of course. We’ve been brainstorming about Christmas gifts for a while now, to come up with ideas we can make and afford. The Unclutterer recommends asking recipients what they want or need, though, and that’s a tender spot in our negotiation of the season.

My husband grew up on Christmas lists. The first few holidays we celebrated together, I misjudged the list dynamic: I assumed we were supplying ideas, thought-starters; when the holiday came, it looked like we had been placing an order.

If we made a list as kids, it was in the form of a letter to Santa, from which we might receive one or two items. We might give hints–leaving catalogs open to certain pages, even tearing out pictures. But we understood that there was a certain mystery and suspense to gift-receiving, and gift-giving required some imagination.

That’s still my orientation, although it’s sorely tested these days by nieces and nephews living far away and reaching those awkward teenage years. It seems to me it makes the gifts more special, less like an entitlement or a mail order delivery. It’s an intersection between the giver and the recipient. And the gifts that hit the mark–like the handknit black fingerless gloves for my niece–are a special unanticipated joy for both of us.

–Lois Maassen

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

Enter Career, Stage Right

In Family on March 9, 2010 at 12:22 am

Not too long ago, I again paid a price for eavesdropping. This particular conversation was between a parent and a college professor; the parent was concerned about the practicality—as measured by earning potential—of her daughter’s choice of major. And the price I pay is a tongue nearly bitten through, because I have so much to say to that parent.

I’m afraid that we are, as a nation and a culture, headed toward vocational education, and not just for those who don’t choose a “college track.” Even in higher education, we seem to pressure students to choose a major as though they’re choosing a life-long career. Never mind that these are kids who, at 18 or 19, hardly know what their career options might be. Never mind that it’s a rare teenager who’s had the “scope for imagination” (thanks, Anne of Green Gables) to find her real passions or talents. Never mind that nobody believes a single career will last a lifetime any more.

The conversation I overheard was at a liberal arts college, which at least suggests that the particular student will be exposed to a variety of subjects and disciplines. A liberal arts education, I think, does deliver on teaching students how to think and how to learn, both of which equip them to be agile in pursuing the careers they discover they’re interested in—or, let’s face it, in this economy—there’s opportunity in.

It may be overreaching to say that a liberal arts education also is foundational to a democracy, but I’d make that case: The more we understand about the breadth of experience and thinking that human history contains, the more prepared we are to build a society that is capacious enough to engage and affirm all of our citizens.

Within a liberal arts framework, I’m not sure it matters what the particular major is, unless there’s a particularly mature student with an extremely clear career goal. Becoming an MD, for example, requires a specific educational path. So does becoming an engineer. But for hundreds of thousands of students, a major is a stressful choice or an ambivalent evolution. And I’m just not convinced employers—or students or parents—should care.

I was able to parlay a theater major into a successful career in marketing, technology, product development, and communications. I’m not sure I ever seriously considered a career in theater, but I was attracted by the classes, which represented a variety of topics and tactile, physical skills, and put all the pieces together in a practical way. To stage a Shakespeare play, for example, we needed to understand enough of the geography and the history of the place where the story was set. We had to parse poetry and expand our vocabularies to understand how to convey the story. We studied color theory and science to design the lighting and design principles and geometry to envision a buildable set. We hammered and painted and sewed and sawed. We figured out who would come to the play, sold them tickets, and balanced the books. And we had a heck of a good party on closing night.

That’s an interdisciplinary education, and along the way I learned a number of other things:

  • Unless you want to do the same thing over and over again, you have to keep learning. If we only wanted to produce Shakespeare, maybe we could slow our pace. But since we also wanted to act Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, we needed curious minds and the initiative to track down answers.
  • There’s nothing like a well-publicized opening night to make sure you’re getting things done. Once you’ve published your schedule and sold some tickets, you’re committed. You figure out what kinds of trade-offs can be made when the unexpected happens. You surpass the limits you assumed, find energy and resources you didn’t know you had. You amaze yourself.
  • Budget and deadline are two additional criteria for a design problem. You can stage a play without spending any money at all; you can also spend millions of dollars. Not having a big budget or a lot of time doesn’t let you off the hook creatively (although, of course, you need to be clear-eyed about the objectives of the project!).
  • Once you’ve made Peter Pan fly across the stage, replicated a believable shipwreck, or gotten an audience to gasp in despair together, you start believing that very nearly anything may be possible. Believing in possibilities is the first step in relationships, business, volunteer work, and your own creative projects.
  • Great teams work when there’s common purpose, clearly defined roles, diversity of talents and expertise, and respect among the members. Nobody expects the carpenter who’s building the set to be the lead actor, too (although it can happen). No one thinks the show can go on without the lighting crew. The leading man is profoundly grateful to the wardrobe crew when his ripped costume gets stitched up during intermission.
  • And finally, the work is not the person. The degree to which personal identities get tied up and confused with the work can be a handicap to any organization. When you’ve got 10 or 30 or 50 people working on a show, it’s always about the show. Sure, occasionally there was a stereotypical theatrical ego, but we were working within a useful construct: the show, the cast, the crew. And the best actors were those who recognized that delivering solo lines did not make magic; what made magic was the interplay, the energy, the tension among the characters in the play.

While I’m clear on the benefits of my own educational experience, I won’t claim that the Theater Department is the only place lessons like these can be learned. My daughter, mysteriously a biology major, may be learning lessons much like these from dissecting cats. I’m certain, though, that the value of the major is not in the specific content—which is likely Google-able and evolving as new discoveries are made—but in the process of learning and working together.

Back to that mother. Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been bloodying my tongue: Please let your daughter find her own way. Encourage her to postpone choosing a major as long as possible. Let her think about, experiment with, the areas that pique her interest. Help her to see that it’s her initiative, her creativity, her network, and some luck that will determine her financial future—and that there are more ways to measure success than a salary level. Show her that her college major is just one piece of a life of learning, which she can design—and redesign—for the next 70 years.

–Lois Maassen