About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a workplace coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during my first year of college teaching. I write on topics of interest to working women, middle-aged mothers, Baby Boomers, people who love to read and write, and those who belong to writers' groups and book groups.

Kids and Keyboards–A Dilemma

I recently read that Silicon Valley parents are concerned about how using cell phones, tablets, and computers in the classroom affects children’s development. Wait, what?!? The creators of the screens and software don’t want their children using them? The  New York Times article described how families across the country are reconsidering the role of technology in the classroom.

Whoa. I recall fundraising with the PTO so students at my sons’ school would have computers in the classroom. We wanted our kids to be ready for the world they’d be joining. When my nieces attended a Catholic high school in Ohio, they were given laptops to use with their school work.

Truth be told, even then I had misgivings about the amount of screen time my kids had. A recent conversation with neighbors, whose children grew up with mine, confirmed that I wasn’t alone. The other mothers—an artist, a human resources manager, and a psychologist—have all seen the downsides of too much screen time.

The artist was the first to mention the impact on creativity, but all of us  expressed similar concern. When consumed by screen use, children don’t have the opportunity to daydream aimlessly or use their imagination to invent games. The other mothers and I remembered that as kids, we made up goofy games that required imagination but little equipment—building a fort out of sofa cushions or raking leaves into piles that framed “rooms” in the yard.

Another effect we’ve all seen is underdeveloped social skills. While plenty of young adults are socially adept, some of the young adults we know are awkward in face-to-face conversations. They struggle when talking with people—in job interviews and when dealing with older coworkers. For some, in-person discussions are mistaken for disagreement and conflict, instead of the normal give and take of conversation. Texting and IM’ing are more comfortable. It’s easier for them to express their opinions with the distancing filter of a screen.

None of us were suggesting that children shouldn’t use computers or cell phones. Personally, I love my phone, tablet, and laptop and recognize that using technology is a vital part of modern life. However, being selective about when, where, and how much children use technology is important. Although our kids hated it, the other mothers and I limited the amount of time our kids spent using screens.

Limiting screens is an even greater challenge for today’s parents and teachers. Teachers struggle with the disruption of cell phones in the classroom. Parents now have to contend with the potential dangers of social media and the content of their children’s Internet searches. I feel fortunate my kids were older by the time social media was widespread. That was one problem I didn’t have to face.

A younger mother I know locks up her teenagers’ phones and computers at bedtime so they aren’t online or texting into the wee hours—they need their sleep, and she needs some peace of mind. If her kids’ grades slip, they lose phone privileges.

It’s disconcerting to realize that the very screens that we sought for our kids years ago could both expand their horizons and limit their potential. But just as we did, I am confident today’s parents will figure out a way to handle the challenges of technology.

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On Becoming Easygoing

The Secret to Aging Well? Contentment. That recent New York Times article caught my eye, because clearly I’m aging and with luck, I’ll continue to age for another 30 years or so. My body and mind are likely to take hits along the way, so how can I age gracefully? What magic needs to take place in my mind so I’ll be accepting of inevitable changes, tolerant and easygoing when confronted with irritating people and situations, and content with the many good things in my life, if not joyful?

Hmmm. This might be harder than it sounds . . . . Ever since I was a girl, I’ve had a writer’s sensibility—noticing sensory details along with the quirks and nuance of how people behave. I’ve mentally recorded and searched for the words to describe all of what I see and experience.

For a writer, the capacity for analysis and the ability to think critically are assets. For example, I wrote the previous sentence five times before I found the right words, and I enjoyed that analytical process. I also analyzed the NYT’s author’s choice of “contentment” and concluded that “acceptance” and “being easygoing” would be more accurate word choices for the outlook he is recommending. But who asked me?!?

Because writing has been both my work and my passion for decades, I’ve honed my ability to see, remember, analyze, and define. Yet now the habit of noticing and articulating everything appears to be at cross purposes with the habits of being tolerant and accepting. Implied in my wish to become more patient and forbearing is the expectation that I’ll quit noticing stuff and letting it bother me.

The habits of a lifetime are hard to change. I will probably remain particular about writing. But I’ve already cultivated the power to notice without judging in some of the other areas of my life. For example, one of my friends always apologizes for her messy house. I can see that it is, but I don’t care. Mine’s messy too.

Another friend wears the same three shirts over and over, but I accept that although she has the money, she doesn’t care about clothes. And I definitely sympathize with her dislike of shopping.

Many of my friends and family are passionate about sports, while I remain lukewarm. No doubt the sports lovers are equally baffled by my passion for reading and gardening. They must wonder how I can get so excited about Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel or why anybody cares at all about plants with variegated leaves!

Variegated

Variegated coleus

Perhaps the answer to my dilemma is to refocus my observational powers on seeing the good in life and finding the words for that. That sounds positive and cheerful, which is how I want to be. Maybe with practice I can flex those muscles and strengthen my capacity to be easygoing and accepting.

I figure I’m still young. I’ve still got a few years to get that right!

Autumn Has Its Compensations

I am fascinated by the pull of the seasons, how deeply rooted my reactions are. After several cold, rainy days, it’s autumn. Suddenly, I want meatloaf and baked potatoes and think about roasted vegetables. I research soups to warm up with instead of the salads I ate all summer. After sampling two mealy peaches, I’m done with my favorite fruit and turn to apples without a backward glance—Ginger Gold and Sweetangoes from the farmers market.

In April, 52 degrees would have made me giddy with delight, but in late September, I’m shivering and resisting, while pulling on long sleeves and calculating how many layers the day calls for.

The steep walk up 50th St. warmed me up and I was grateful that my hands weren’t cold anymore. Only ten days ago, it was 90 degree and humid. I was sticky with sweat during a daily walk and walked after dark because it was cooler.

It’s barely light at 7:00 a.m. and dark by 7:30 p.m. I know we’ll have more warm sunny days this fall. But summer—the long, hot, sunny days on end that I love—that summer is over.

Autumn has its compensations (Apples! Turning leaves! Bonfires!) but underneath it all, is an instinctive awareness that winter’s coming with its cold dark days.

Rewind 11 Years

In the fall of 2007, our oldest son left for college. At 16, our younger son was still at home and a little dismayed about having our undivided attention. I had my marketing communications business (the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hadn’t dried up freelance work yet), but I was contemplating what the next stage might offer. Recently, while tossing old paper files, I found notes from 2007 about what I hoped my life would be like—a snapshot that surprised me.

Photo of Ireland I added to my life map — Rock of Cashel near Tipperary

 

 

 

 

 

Photo I took from the inside of the Rock of Cashel ruins

 

 

At 53, I figured I had 30 years of good health and maybe another 10 years of iffy health. It’s a little odd that I had signed up for a workshop centered around “What To Do with the Rest of Your Life” or some other dippy name. I’ve always made a lot of lists and had short-term goals like lose 5 pounds, exercise more, and write more, but my long-range goals have remained hazy. OK, the truth is that I’ve never had 5-year career plans or 5-year life plans. Mostly I’ve had vague directions and made up my life as I went along. However, with so many articles and books about the challenges of mid-life, empty nests, and retirement, I felt a pang of responsibility (like maybe I needed to act like a grownup and prepare a little), so I signed up.

The workshop focused on helping us identify our values, gifts, passions, and purpose so we could create “life maps.” The language of self-help tends to give me the vapors, but once I set aside my bad attitude, I saw that they were worthy questions, so I did my homework. Then I promptly forgot all about my life map until I recently rediscovered it.

In 2007, here’s what I envisioned—

  • Creativity – Keep writing, return to pottery and quilting, explore watercolors and stained glass. Writing, pottery, quilting—check. Watercolors and stained glass— still to come.
  • Travel – Visit Hawaii, Ireland, Paris and Provence, and return to Italy. Hawaii, Italy and Ireland – done. We plan to visit Paris next year. Provence is still to come and the list continues to grow.
  • Teaching – Instead of teaching a writing course at St. Thomas University, now I help teach immigrants English.
  • Stay close with family – Yes, definitely. However, in 2007, my parents were still in good health. I understood they were aging, but I spent no time imagining my father’s death in 2011 and my mother’s death in 2014.
  • Volunteer work – Ongoing.
  • Socializing – Continue book group – Now I participate in two of them. Have more dinner parties or start a gourmet group. Still hopeful.
  • Move to a smaller home – We have.

What surprises me is that I’ve actually done so much of what I’d envisioned, especially considering my lack of focused planning. Maybe writing out my goals helped make them more real. Maybe my goals were so modest that it wouldn’t be a stretch to complete them. Either way, I’m pleased that I’ve used my time well.

I haven’t prepared a new life map and probably won’t. However, if pressed, I would say that my long-range plans include more of the same activities and maybe some grandchildren.

Check back with me in 2029!

Seen and Heard

Recently, I was reminded that seemingly small moments can have a lasting impact. My mother-in-law told me about her visit with a local librarian. They got to know each other, and now the librarian chooses books for her as part of a library outreach program for people who don’t drive. Although the librarian came only once, her visit meant a lot to my mother-in-law.

Every now and again, acquaintances tell me about a time when something I said or did came at exactly the right time. Often, I’m surprised because I don’t remember the moment and wasn’t aware that I’d had any special impact. With that in mind, I try to be gracious when someone I don’t know well wants to talk. Maybe they need to be heard.

I love good tomatoes and there’s one vendor I look for at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, because his tomatoes are consistently good. We have a nodding acquaintance—we know each other’s faces, but not each other’s names.

The last time I saw him, he asked me if I liked the Tennessee Ernie Ford song that the market’s musical entertainer had just played. I agreed that it was a good oldie and recalled that a neighbor friend’s mother used to play it on the stereo.

Then the tomato vendor told me he loves to sing, and he sang a little of the song in a surprisingly rich bass. I complimented him, and he explained that when he was young, a voice teacher taught him to breathe properly. Now he shows the guys in his church choir how to breathe so they won’t strain their voices when they try to sing bass.

As I walked away, I realized that after our longer-than-expected conversation, I had a fuller sense of him as a person. I don’t know if the conversation meant anything to him or not. Maybe he needed to be seen, wanted someone to know that tomato farming was just one dimension of his life. Or maybe he was just bored and feeling chatty.

Either way, I’m glad I listened. There’s a gift to me in that.