Sunday, May 08, 2005

For my mom on Mother's Day

Memories of growing up with my mother, Sheryl Glasser

I think most of my earliest memories of my mother involve co-counselling. Of course I had no idea what co-counselling meant at the time; I just remember going to a lot of weekend retreats and spending time with unusual people talking about their problems to one another and screaming into pillows. There were also some kind of off the wall games and activities involved; I dimly remember what seemed like jumping off the roof of a house onto a mattress and having tons of fun. Although since I was very young at the time, it was probably a much shorter jump than I'm picturing right now.

Mom never really stopped being a hippie. Sheryl Glasser has always been the dreamer, the entertainer, and the diplomat of the family. She's into new-age religious practices that many of my family find silly, but she has an enormous heart. For one thing, she has this incredible ability to empathize with other people. She always taught me that the most important thing, when you disagree with somebody, is to be able to understand their point of view so well that you can say it to them in their own words and have them agree that what you just said is fair.

Another of my earliest memories is that we used to watch "The Incredible Hulk" TV series together on our old black and white TV. In fact, it was years before I realized that the Hulk was supposed to be green. But mom loved superheroes, and she was extremely patient when I would run around outside with her and pretend to be turning into the Hulk. I couldn't rip out of my own shirt, of course, so I would wear one of dad's button-up shirts and then slowly and carefully undo each button, one at a time, all the while roaring ferociously. This must have required mountains of patience for her.

(Ben loves playing the Hulk too. But he's still too young to see the TV show or recent movie, so he doesn't do the whole shirt ripping thing. His version of the Hulk is stomping around the house yelling "Rarrrr!" and scaring the heck out of the cats.)

That's the thing about mom, she loves to do things with other people just for a chance to participate in something that THEY like to do. It doesn't matter if that's not what she'd be doing on her own, she can enjoy it just for the vicarious pleasure of being a part of your life.

I was into text adventure games on the computer, and so she would listen to me babble about them. She even tried them with me every once in a while. I remember being a young adult and playing a game called Spellcasting 101. There was a sequence where you have to look at a series of about 100 strange objects and guess what their names might be, and they were all bad puns. A pack of canines were called "Wolfgang." A couple of British toilets turned out to be named "Lulu." A bunch of uncooked bread smeared on the room's vertical surfaces? "Waldo." I remember that puzzle in great detail because Mom was there with me, trying to guess what all the crazy puns could be.

One year when I was 11, we travelled to Mexico to visit a colleague of dad's. One afternoon after we'd all had our fill of wandering around Mexico City with people trying to sell stuff to us, she decided to take me and my sister out to see a movie. We found out that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II was playing at the local theater, probably billed as "Los Ninjas Tortugas" or something like that. Now I'm sure she would NEVER have chosen to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II on her own, but she wanted us to have a good time and we reasoned that this would be the easiest to follow in Spanish. Then it turned out that the movie was in English, with Spanish subtitles. So we were all laughing at the lame jokes about a second before the rest of the theater would finish reading.

But Mom wasn't always watching shows and movies just because she wanted to share the experience; she really was a serious entertainment buff. She was a Trekkie from a long time back, and she was always willing to watch a new series about sci-fi, fantasy, or superheroes whenever I recommended it to her. In my college years, we both regularly watched Lois & Clark and Quantum Leap, and we'd sometimes call each other to talk about the episodes.

I'm pretty sure she was also mostly responsible for getting us to see a stage melodrama every year in Colorado. It became a family tradition that after they picked me and Keryn up from the Ranch Camp, we would go to a Gilbert and Sullivan festival and then a melodrama. The melodramas were big overproduced comedies in which the audience was encourage to cheer for the hero, sigh and say "Awwww" for the heroine, and boo and throw popcorn at the villain. A few years ago, mom paid for Ginny, the kids and me to fly to Colorado so we could do that one more time.

She was also a big Disneyland aficionado. Since her family lives in California, we had a lot of excuses to go out there for several years. And when Keryn graduated high school the same year I graduated college, the three of us took a special vacation to Florida so we could spend most of a week hitting the various Disneyworld parks, as well as Universal Studios.

She tells me that when I was a little kid, a friend asked her what it was like to be a mom. She replied, "He jumps on the bed and tells me about his dreams." That is the kind of thing that would sum up the experience of motherhood for her: being entertained by listening to other people's experiences.

Although I grew up in a family of atheists or (in mom's case) near-atheists, mom still insisted that we never lose track of our Jewish heritage. It was completely because of her that we attended Temple every once in a while; observed and celebrated all major Jewish holidays; and had semi-regular fancy dinners on Shabbat (Friday nights), where we all said prayers in Hebrew (including the kids, as soon as we were able). It was also probably because of her influence that I stayed in Saturday school at temple, had a bar mitzvah, and went to a Jewish summer camp called "The Ranch Camp" for two years. I have nothing but good memories about these for the most part, although studying for the bar mitzvah got tedious at times. When I wanted to slack off from studying my Torah portions, mom was right there helping me slack well. And when I was actually working on it, she was there encouraging me.

The bar mitzvah itself was great. It was managed by a wacky feminist Rabbi named Lynn Gottlieb, and it makes perfect sense to me that mom picked her -- although some of the people in her family who took Judaism more seriously referred to the event as "an abomination." I had my Torah portions down pat, even using a built-in musical scheme to sing the passage. It was a section on justice in the ancient world, including the overused and abused phrase "eye for an eye." And I got carried around on a chair, which was great.

One part I remember from Hebrew school was having a part in the Purim play. I got to be Haman, the bad guy in the story. I didn't want to be the bad guy, but mom convinced me that it would be the most fun part. She was right. And she made my costume, including a big beard out of brown cordoury. I remember shouting angrily as I got dragged away by two kids playing guards, and having the time of my life.

Mom was also the den mother in my cub scout troop. I don't remember cub scouts all that well, but I do remember fighting the other scouts with the wooden sword she had made me.

My Mom was also an accomplished musician. She played cello and piano, and loved to sing. I remember her programming our first computer to play Bach music using a series of beeps. She came into my grade school one year and taught the class about music. She taught everyone about Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Haydn's Surprise Symphony. She told a story about each piece and played the music for us. It must have been quite a job keeping a room full of kids that age interested in classical music. I think she pulled it off.

When we lived in Alabama, mom remotely worked for a company in Paris, France. When I was eight we all took a trip to Paris, I think (I hope) at company expense. I have strong memories of visiting the Louvre and other museums, eating in French restaurants and cafes, and trying to cross the street against scary French traffic. Keryn says her only memory of the place was climbing a lot of stairs. (We walked up Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, as well as much of the way up the Eiffel Tower.)

Another thing mom did exceptionally well was cook. I remember some of my favorite meals when I lived with her were corned beef with cabbage and leg of lamb. When we moved to Santa Fe she learned to cook posole and carne adovada. After our trip to Paris, she started making canard a l'orange (duck with orange sauce).

Whenever I was having trouble in school, mom was always the one who had the patience to sit down with me and work it out. I remember pulling an all nighter side by side with her in freshman year, working on a huge packet of biology homework that I should have spent the entire weekend. She said, "Russell, it's about time you started to like coffee." We ground through hours of material, and she always kept me focused even when my attention started to drift and I was trying to procrastinate. The reason I remember the words "Endoplasmic reticulum" to this day is because she kept drilling me on it.

She did the same thing for me on my SAT vocabulary a few years later, and I think I got a 710 on the verbal in the end.

Another thing my mom has always been good at is playing the diplomat. Whenever I've had to deal with any kind of crisis or family conflict, mom is always the first person I call. Even when she's busy, she's nearly always willing to set some time aside and talk about things and give me suggestions about the best path of action that will make everyone happy. I have called on this kind of insight many times over the years, especially at times when my wife and sister -- both extremely strong-willed individuals -- were fighting with each other. Somehow she seems to always know how to defuse a situation.

She also knew how to talk sense into me during times when I was determined to be a jerk to others myself. There was a time, during my surly teenager years, when I was fighting with a particular teacher all the time. When I told her how I told off this teacher, she said "Russell, that's a terrible way to behave. You should apologize to her." I said, "But mom, she's an awful teacher and she's being unfair to me." She said "It doesn't matter. It NEVER hurts you to be the first one to apologize, and she might treat you better if you do. You don't have to think you really mean it, but you need to say it to her so you can make the first move." This advice turned out to be exactly right, and it has served me well throughout the years. Sometimes she has had to repeat it during fights with my wife, which is another time when I always call her.

There was also the time when I was 18 and discovered the big world of online message boards for the first time. Mom had signed us up for the Prodigy network and I basically barged into a board for religious (and un-religious) teens and acted like an idiot for a while. Everybody turned on me, including a bunch of the atheists who might otherwise have been on my side. When I told her on the phone how good I was at telling them all off, she said "Russell, why do you enjoy making people angry at you? I don't understand." That was another time when I discovered the value of a sincere apology. Within a few more weeks, I had made a lot of those people into online friends.

Finally, mom has been a wonderful grandmother. She can't get enough of her grandson, Ben. Whereas Ben has often had a hard time warming up to people and tends to get scared of those who come on too strong, he loved his grandma right away. Every time we visit, I worry a little bit that he won't remember her. But as soon as he catches sight of her, he gets a huge smile on his face and yells "Hi gramma!" Or when he was smaller, "geema".

What I've learned from my mom:
  • That the first way to get people to like you is to understand them.
  • That it's much better to "lose face" and apologize than carry a grudge forever.
  • That entertainment is often the best bonding experience.
  • That other people are entitled to their beliefs, even if you think they are silly, and there is even something beautiful about other people's silly beliefs.
  • That it's okay to talk about your feelings, and talking can help you get over them.
  • That it's okay to relax and enjoy yourself, as long as you always keep sight of your important goals.
  • That imagination is cool.
  • That a large part of how happy you are in your relationships depends on how you communicate with the people who come into your life.
This essay is my own little communication with my mom, because she's still with me, and will be for a long time, and I want her to feel good about herself today.

Happy Mother's Day.


  1. I think that was really sweet, and nicely written.

    The only thing I have not been able to discover that you somehow have is this "something" that is beautiful about other people's beliefs. I have not found this to be true. I guess I'm going from the definition of belief. I don't think it's something to be admired. Now, if someone has a hope or a desire, or especially a virtue that has good merit, that is something beautiful. But insisting something is true when there is no evidence--or evidence against, I just don't see that.

    That doesn't mean I hate the person or necessarily want harm done to them, but I don't think it's necessary that I dig deep to find something wonderful about their belief. What if their belief is that Jews are evil, or that gay people have a secret sign somewhere on their body, marking them? Or taking it to the other side, they believe that there is some kind of beautiful being living inside our bodies that leaves when we die, taking our personalities with them?

    OK. So that's beautiful. But since I'm a materialist, it's beauty is in it's deep, deep sadness. It's beauty is in the cruelty that exists in the belief itself. In that the belief itself leads to great harm.

    /switch modes But it's a great post, anyway... LOL

  2. The only thing I have not been able to discover that you somehow have is this "something" that is beautiful about other people's beliefs. I have not found this to be true.

    I actually agree with you in a way. Many of people's beliefs are ridiculous nonsense, and often harmful at that. I don't buy the idea of respecting people's beliefs; beliefs stand or fall on the strength of the idea.

    However, while I don't respect people's beliefs, what I do respect is their RIGHT TO HOLD those beliefs. I don't necessarily think that their beliefs are beautiful individual. But what I think is beautiful is the sheer amount of different weird things the human race can collectively stuff in their heads.

    And that includes not only hell and auras and magical talking snakes, but also relativity and quantum mechanics and evolution.

    Finally, I think it's important to defend the principle that this RIGHT TO BELIEVE stupid stuff is inviolate. And by the same token, my right to believe that many of those beliefs are wrong stems from the same principle.