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The last piece of advice I ever got from my father-in-law, Roger Grekin, came a few weeks ago, when he learned I was training for a half marathon.

“Don’t be afraid to stop along the way, if you need to,” he’d said.

I’m going to apply that advice to this eulogy as well.

But I’d recommend this advice to many of you this week, too. Facing Roger’s sudden absence, many of us have had to find the courage to stop our lives and our work and just absorb the loss, and mourn one of the wisest, gentlest men I’ve ever known. A kind of humble genius who would spontaneously sing tunes from “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls,” and pluck out “If I Only Had a Brain” on the piano at nearly every family get-together.

When he spoke of his professional life, Roger stressed the importance of connecting with patients, and carefully listening to them. And it seemed that every committee ever formed around him wanted him to join, precisely because Roger was, in his way, the world’s most humane intellectual machine. At work, and personally, he’d absorb all the information on offer, never losing sight of the forest for the trees, mull it over, and then tell you what he thought. And he was pretty much always right on the money.

The tragic irony of his disease [a rare form of skin cancer] was that Roger was someone who was almost unnervingly at home in his own skin. He was so self-possessed, I think, because he KNEW what a wonderful life he had built for himself. All he wanted was what he already had. He was still utterly smitten with his wife of 50 years, Linda, who made the phrase “his other half” a literal truth. He loved being a father to, and spending time with, Joe, Josh and Emily, and he shamelessly adored and spoiled his 6 granddaughters. He loved spending time with his siblings, and his mom. He loved being a doctor, and being a teacher. He loved his friends. And he loved living in Ann Arbor.

As many of you know, Joe and I dated a long, long time before getting married. (You could probably ask Linda for the exact number of years and months.) But I remember the precise moment when I felt officially initiated, and absorbed, into the Grekin family. Continue reading

Tipping the canoe (and my 4 year old, too)


Last Sunday night, Lily, lying in her bed, told me, “I thought Nevie would sink to the bottom, and you wouldn’t be able to find her.”

No, Lily hadn’t just awoken from a nightmare; instead, she’d spent the day at her grandparents’ cottage in Irish Hills – and watched as her mom, her 4 year old sister, and her uncle got tossed out of a canoe and into the lake.

I’m not sure why or how it happened. The kids had been taking canoe rides with one or two of the adults for a while at that point; 7 year old Lily was paddling a red kayak around the dock, learning how to steer it; and Neve was campaigning hard for one more pass in the canoe, though her 4 year old cousin Kara backed out at the last minute because the wobbly vessel made her nervous.

Joe begged off, having just taken kids out onto the water two or three times, so my brother-in-law Chris volunteered to steer in back, while I oared up in front. Neve settled on the seat in the middle.

After a few minutes of paddling out onto the lake – Sunday’s slow-forming storm clouds had started to gather, and the wind was picking up – Neve said she wanted to go back, so we turned and headed back toward the dock.

And in the midst of paddling, I suddenly felt the boat throw me over. I was shocked, but I also remember thinking, reflexively, “The second you surface, look for Neve, reach for Neve.” Continue reading

The night gymnastics became a contact sport

NevegymnasticsRight now, I’m sitting in the front row of our local gymnastics center’s waiting area, near huge, plate glass windows, doggedly watching my 4 year old’s class.

Not because the class is riveting (girlfriend, please!). In truth, it’s not even my daughter Neve – in her purple gymnastics suit with silver stars, and her brown, curly hair swept up in a side ponytail – that I’m focused on. It’s another girl in her class, a bigger one who’s wearing a pink dance leotard with a sheer skirt.

Why? Because Pinky’s the one who got so impatient with Neve last week during class that she, by all reports, decked her.

The story goes like this: as Neve’s classmates individually made their way around a circuit of various kinds of equipment, Neve stopped to ask the teacher a question about how she was supposed to do something; she must have had trouble getting the teacher’s attention, because Pinky, who was behind Neve in line, got frustrated, hit/pushed Neve pretty hard from behind, and called her “stupid.”

Now, in fairness, Neve responded by calling Pinky “stupid” right back, which is less than ideal; but Neve was also upset enough by what happened that she came out to find me in the waiting area.

Unfortunately, I was utterly lost in the world of my laptop just then, sitting in the way-way-back row of chairs, scrambling to finish up an assignment for work. (It was an obituary for a longtime “Jazz Revisited” radio host, Ann Arbor-ite, and all-around-mensch Hazen Schumacher, so even though I hadn’t known of his work previously, I was studying up like crazy in order to try and do his life/career justice.) Being a 4 year old, Neve often leaves class for a bathroom run, and sometimes – well, sometimes she just leaves because she’s 4 and gets distracted easily. But this time, my bouncy little sprite wore a dark, cloud-like expression.

“A girl in my class hit me,” she said. “And she called me stupid.”

Oh. Didn’t see that coming. Ah, let’s see. Improvise, Mommy, improvise… Continue reading

The Gen-X factor (or, How I learned to love my smartphone a little less)

Stick races at the park. Yes, I love capturing moments like this, but I don't have to capture every single one, right?

Neve and Lily having stick races at the park. Yes, I love capturing moments like this, but I don’t have to capture every single one, right?

On two evenings this week, Joe has emerged from our house, still in his suit, wondering where in the heck his wife and young daughters could be.

For the girls end their school days at a preschool that closes at 6 p.m., and is located just three and a half blocks away from our home.

So as 7 p.m. approached, Joe – who arrives home at 6:15 and then starts making dinner – had started to worry.

“The girls were pretending to be cats,” I said when I arrived home one night, by way of explanation. And this was true. Lily and Neve had happily crawled around the grassy space between parking lots for a good while, meowing and pretending to lick their paws.

“They were burying treasure,” I explained the next night, when the girls had been inexplicably drawn to a patch of gravel and dirt. They labored together to build a small mound and spoke to each other in urgent, secretive whispers.

In both cases, I’d plunked myself down on the nearby parking lot curb; listened to the girls playing, and to airplanes flying overhead; watched birds flutter around a nearby tree; and let my mind wander.

“I tried to call you, but your phone was here,” Joe said.

Indeed. And that had not been by mistake, but was rather a deliberate choice that I find myself making more and more.

For I’ve become really tired of the way I bow my head and start poking around on my iPhone the instant that something else isn’t demanding my full attention. I hate that I now compulsively check work email often when I’m off the clock. And I hate that even when I’m finally spending time with my family, after we’ve each been doing our own thing all day, I’m sometimes so emotionally invested in something that I or someone else has posted on Facebook that I’m itching to check for “likes” and responses every two minutes.

It’s all just gotten to be too much.

Before my company issued iPhones to all employees a couple of years ago, I had a “dumb” phone – the kind that snapped shut with a satisfying, “Star Trek”-y click – that truly did absolutely nothing but send and receive phone calls. Only two or three people had my cell phone number, and I usually kept the phone turned off, much to Joe’s annoyance.

“It’s just for emergencies,” I kept telling him. “I don’t WANT to be available to everyone all the time.”

Apparently, I’ve arrived back at that same place.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things I adore about my iPhone. I’ve burned through “Serial,” lots of “This American Life,” and the entire archive of “Radiolab” podcasts while running; I’ve captured spontaneous photos and videos of the girls that I dearly treasure; and it’s pushed me to grow professionally, as I’ve had to learn to take my own photos occasionally and shoot and edit videos for my stories.

Somewhere along the way, though, the scales tipped too far on the side of my iPhone. So I’m now practicing the art of leaving it at home whenever I feel I can.

Am I bored now and then? Yes. But that’s OK. I actually feel a little less overwhelmed because of that.

Plus, in a weird way, I think being a Gen-Xer is working to my advantage in this new venture. For I remember perfectly well what my life was like before there were smartphones and the Internet. We all got by OK. And while much of the infrastructure of that life may have vanished – I won’t be finding a back-up pay phone anywhere in a pinch – these days, when I leave the house, and I’m pretty sure I won’t have a pressing need for my phone, I venture out with just my keys.

Yes, there are passing moments when I think, “Aw, I wish I could take a photo/video right now,” or when I long to call Joe to ask him to just come pick us up.

But even when the girls want to pretend to be cats, or bury treasure, or walk back and forth along a pipe for a while, we always eventually find our way home – our way back to each other.

When moms need a playdate – and can’t ever coordinate their schedules

margaritasIf you ever want to get a sense for how busy women (particularly moms) are, try and plan a gathering.

Here’s a quick summary of what happened when I tried to launch a casual, monthly lunchtime book group in Ann Arbor: on the first day we were scheduled to meet, the city declared a snow day, so many of us suddenly found ourselves housebound with kiddos; the night before our second meeting, Lily was up vomiting all night, so I postponed in order to nurse her back to health the next day; and after re-scheduling, all except one woman had work meetings, a sick kid, or was sick herself.

So is it any wonder that – for many of us now in the throes of parenting young kids – close, fulfilling friendships feel like a luxury of youth that we can no longer afford?

This is why, when reading a New York Times article titled, “Friends of a Certain Age: Why is it Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” I was nodding my head a lot.

“As external conditions change,” wrote Alex Williams, “it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.”

Indeed. So where does that leave us? Isolated and stressed.

And while I’d hardly describe myself as a “go getter,” I will say this: when I can’t find something I want – like, in this case, a regular gathering of smart, funny, empathetic women – I often do what I can to create it; and when others make this same kind of effort, I respond. Continue reading

The Ballad of the Craft-Impaired Mom

What do the children of craft-impaired mommies do? They hatch their own weird ideas - like this "let's smear shaving cream around on a box in the kitchen" favorite. It won't get our family on a magazine, but the girls enjoy it.

What do the children of craft-impaired mommies do? Out of sheer boredom, they hatch their own weird ideas – like this “let’s smear shaving cream around on a box in the kitchen” favorite.

Hopefully I’m not the only mom out there whose kid gets a cake pop kit and – though absolutely zero baking is involved – ends up with the mix bleeding out the sides of the lime green plastic, thereby leaving you with messy, shapeless cake blobs that aren’t worth refrigerating. (After some time passes, you quietly throw the plastic pieces into the recycling bin and pretend the whole thing just never happened.)

Or maybe your daughter gets a Rainbow Loom, and you stare at the directions, thinking to yourself, “I have two graduate degrees, and while they’re not in astrophysics, I should still be able to untangle instructions for making a bracelet made from tiny rubber loops. Right?! I mean, shouldn’t I?” (Yes, I eventually figured those out, but it took several attempts to “crack the code.”)

And yes, I’m one of those moms who, when Lily unwraps a Hanukkah gift only to find a knitting kit, I drop a very quiet F-bomb and break out in anticipatory flop sweat.

Let’s just say that a pattern has been established. Continue reading

Why I snuck out alone to a movie matinee (and why I’ll probably do it again)

mockingjayOn Martin Luther King Day, my office was closed, but I didn’t have the day off.

Nonetheless, after putting in my hours at home, I had a couple of hours to spare before I needed to pick up the girls. (It’s amazing what hacking off two 30 minute commutes from your typical day can do.) I bundled up and walked a few blocks, feeling vaguely giddy and guilty at the same time.

Why? Because I was heading to the second-run theater near our house for a holiday matinee screening of “Mockingjay” – something that Joe would probably be interested in seeing, too. But since the last non-animated movie we’d watched together was “The Hundred Foot Journey,” at the same theater sometime last fall, I knew that the chances of our making it to “Mockingjay” before it left were slim to none.

So I grabbed at my opportunity, glad to have it, yet sad to feel like I was committing some kind of betrayal. Continue reading