Talking through the Generations

(Our new family member)

For two reasons, this week’s post is neither weighty nor timely: (1) Election Day is Tuesday, and I’m extremely nervous about it. Many of us Virginians are working hard to see this fine slate of Democratic candidates elected (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and local representatives and court of clerk).  We understand this election to be something of a referendum on the “president.” I, for one, need some small or big reassurance that people are understanding him to be the sociopathic, selfish, inexperienced lout (for lack of a stronger and still acceptable word in pleasant company) that he is; and (2) yesterday we brought home a bundle of puppy love.  Her name is Nimbus, and she has charmed the socks off even the most reluctant among us, including our grumpy and adorable eight-year-old dog.  I would like to be an adult and say that the first reason overrides the second, but I’d say they’re running neck and neck at this moment. In this lighter and less urgent post, I ruminate about getting older and how aging can change how we communicate with other generations.

This past summer, my father, siblings, and I navigated hospice and loss.  I am the sixth of seven (but really the seventh of eight) children, and so most of my siblings are my elders.  Through this time, I feel I’ve learned better when to offer an opinion, when to quiet one, when to step in, and when to step back; or at least I learned this in the very specific context in which we found ourselves.

One evening at my parents’ house, my dad and I had helped my mom to bed.  I then went back to the kitchen to do the dishes.  I did them thoroughly but as quickly as possible so that I could join my dad in watching the Phillies on television.  This past summer was the first in a long time that I learned the entire Phillies line-up and knew when to cheer and when to despair (and when to call the players mean names, like any good Philadelphia fan).  After watching a few innings with me and celebrating the feats of a new rookie outfielder, my dad went to get something in the kitchen.  I heard him call my name.  “Ellen,” he called, in a stern, dad-voice of decades past, “can you please come to the kitchen?”  Unconcerned and mildly amused, I went into the kitchen, where my dad awaited me by the silverware drawer.  The kitchen was spotless.  What could possibly be the problem, o-Type-A-like-me dad-of-mine?  “Ellen, your mother and I keep the spatula here,” he said, opening the regular silverware drawer and pointing to a specific spot in it.  “Right here.”  For a millisecond, I thought he was kidding, but I quickly realized the stakes.  I had no need to place the spatula in the drawer with the whisks, lemon squeezers, serving spoons, and other spatulas.  When your wife is struggling, the Phillies are losing, and your house has been invaded by your opinionated grown-up children, you get to tell people to put the spatula wherever the hell you please.  I observed my dad’s serious and somewhat stern face and said, “You’ve got it, Dad.  Thanks for letting me know.”  Then I wondered, what is the spatula in my own life?  What little things am I insisting on that don’t matter to anyone but me?  How can I be more flexible about the spatula?  Also, when is it time to tell people to stick the spatula where you say?

The spatula lesson can be applied to my siblings, who were truly a joy to grow up with and continue to be an interesting, funny, and loving collection of human beings.  When you grow up in a big crowd, you learn to love your opinions, which you fight to express, while at the same time competing for seconds at the dinner table.  Loving your own opinions means that you believe you’re always right, you undervalue (“menospreciar” in Spanish—sounds better to me) opinions different from your own, and become vociferous in the expression of these always-right opinions.  I am partly grateful for loving my own opinions because I don’t think I’d write a blog (or much else) if I didn’t.  Nevertheless, applying the spatula rule (“You’ve got it, Dad”) helps me to make room for more voices at my own real and metaphorical dinner tables.  (I didn’t realize I would spend so much time in the kitchen for this post.)

So far, I’ve claimed to improve communications with my parents’ generation and to be working on doing the same with my own generation.  As for generations younger than mine, I often forget that I’m 52 and that 52 is kind of old.  Except for some physical ailments, I feel like my spirit is the same as when I was 42, 32, maybe even 22 on a particularly lively day.  Sometimes I catch an unexpected glimpse of myself and am reminded of my age.  Sometimes I watch a younger person react to me in a certain way—maybe expecting to see shock when I feel none or assuming my children are older than they are–, and I’m reminded that she or he sees me as older.  This gives me increased sympathy for people older than me, who must experience this some or most of the time.

For any of you reading who are from a generation or two younger than me, please bear with the following comments and offer opinions and suggestion about what you’ll read next.  I want to understand which are the spatula moments (accept and move on) and which are not.

I have been teaching for over 30 years, and I love this profession.  Sharing ideas and subjects you love with young learners, helping them to develop skills, watching their own ideas develop, and then seeing them as friends and peers is a gift.  I treasured this gift at 22 when I started, and I still do to this day.  I continue to feel nourished by the students’ youth, energy, and humor, along with the books, films, and conversations that fill my classroom, life, and home.  Wow, how lucky I am.

And here is my older-lady preoccupation of the last several years:  When I meet with students, which I do all the time, I am so impressed by their keen sense of time and organization.  They arrive with laptops, they flip them open before I even notice they’ve done so, the meeting starts without any official nod, and we’re off to the races.  These days, I am absolutely the only person in the room without a laptop open.  I have a pad and pen and am ready to listen, offer ideas, and jot down tasks I’ve agreed to take on.  Now, always, early in the meeting, I notice that all the people around the table are completing the tasks they’ve just been assigned.  They are not listening to the meeting, which is no longer a meeting, because it has simply become a co-working site.  This transition is difficult for me, as I plan to complete my tasks after the meeting so that I’m focused on the meeting at hand.  But no one else is perturbed by this dynamic, and now no one is running the meeting.  My sense is that we end up not exactly knowing where we stand at the end of the meeting, but most of the attendees believe their work is done.  We have spent 30 or 60 minutes together in a congenial environment.  When we conclude the meeting, a moment which to me never seems official or real, the students have completed their tasks, and I’m adding mine to my to-do list.

I like their no-nonsense way of getting things done together, but my generation hasn’t grown up with devices separating us or dictating the flow of our conversations and meetings.  What the students are doing seems inherently rude to me, but I can tell that they don’t see this style as rude, but rather smart and effective.  I try to understand this, I do.  Nevertheless, I observe this meeting-no meeting phenomenon even in one-on-one meetings with students.  It’s almost as if I say to them, “You have great qualifications to apply for X grant.  I really think you should,” and the student immediately starts applying for that grant while I sit there.  They think I’m okay with just witnessing their work, and they type happily on.

I learn a lot from these very capable young individuals.  What should I accept from their ways and understand to be a necessary change, and what should I call out as unacceptable for any generation?  Do you have any advice or words of wisdom?  I’m all ears!  (Big, floppy, golden ones, that is.)

 (Our sweet older fellow.)

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