Saturday, July 11, 2009

Living with Kryptonite


Way back in another lifetime, when my son was 2 1/2 and my daughter was around six months old, I took a job teaching part time. This was not my first time teaching--I had taught several sections of introductory paychology as a teaching associate while I was in grad school. This time around, I was teaching a section of Development Across the Lifespan.

One of the first things I noticed when I cracked open that textbook was the way life was divided into stages. I was pleased to see that, being in my early 30s, I was still officially a "young adult", and that I would not cross the threshold into midlife until I turned 40. So as I read in more detail about that stage, it was a bit like reading about a distant land that I would likely visit one day, but that was a long way off and it was way to early to start making plans.

One of the things I remember from that text is the discussion of the "midlife crisis"? What was it--and was there even necessarily a crisis at midlife? One view was that it was really a "midlife transition" which, to be sure, was full of changes. But they were changes you could see coming, and could prepare for. That made a certain amount of sense when I first read it. Now, I think it's a crock.

I mean, sure, you can (and should) plan for the future as you make life decisions. You know that you're supposed to save up for tuition and retirement--even if you don't always manage to sock away as much as you should. And if you're considering a new home or a new job, you will ask yourself not just "what is the best choice for right now?", but also "how will this decision affect my life down the road?"

So, there are some concrete things you can plan for. But can you really anticipate what it's like to be in a different life stage? In my mind, there is a big difference between knowing something is coming and actually being "ready" for it.

Ayway, within the past several months, some of what I read in that textbook has started to come back to me. One thing in particular stands out…a finding that, in long term marriages, marital satisfaction hits a low point in midlife. There was speculation about possible reasons for this, but I got the impression it was no coincidence that marital bliss hit rock bottom right around the time the couple was likely to be raising teenagers.

You don’t say...

So what I was experiencing was...normal? I find that vaguely reassuring. The unhappiness I was feeling DID seem to center around the challenges of raising teens, particularly the way my husband just didn’t seem to “get” what our daughter was doing to me.

Seriously, how could he not see that? It was happening right in front of him. Our daughter would rip my heart right out of my chest, show it to me, and then step on it.

You think I’m being melodramatic, don’t you?

I'm not saying she took sadistic pleasure in it, or did it maliciously, but she was definitely doing it.

I'll even grant you that she wasn’t throwing it down and stepping on it intentionally. Let's say she dropped it because she wasn’t really paying attention. No doubt she found it "boring", so it would slip out of her hand while she was absorbed in something else. By the time she accidentally stepped on it, she'd most likely forgetten that she was ever holding it.

Early in 2009 I received a call asking if I would be interested in working on a test scoring project out of state. I was told that the project would start in late April and would last a little more than a month. I can't remember anything specific about the morning I got that call, but I am certain that, for one reason or another, my heart had a fresh set of scuff marks on it.

The practical, okay-to-say-out-loud facts were as follows: it would be good money, and there would be an extended period of time that we didn't have to worry about needing to press the crappier of our two cars into service. But there was another thought. I had just been offered a socially sanctioned way of running away from home. And just moments earlier, whether I knew it or not, that's exactly what I had been wishing for.

Well, as it turns out, a lot went wrong for me on that trip. I didn't get the down time I'd hoped for. All in all, it was pretty disappointing--but maybe that’s for the best. Had things gone well, I might have enjoyed the experience a little too much. So, to paraphrase a song, you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you really need. Maybe Someone was looking out for me on that count. All I know is that one day I texted Demetrius that I had learned two important lessons during my time away. The first was that I missed him more than I thought I would. It's not that I didn't think I would miss my husband. It's just that I already missed my sweetie when we were coexisting in the same house. I thought maybe missing him when we were actually separated by hundreds of miles might suck slightly less. (It didn’t.)

The second realization, I texted, was that “working for other people sucks”. I was very much looking forward to coming home, living together under the same roof again, and working together on our online stores.

So it's good to be home, and I know that this is where I belong. This is a rough stage we're in right now, and we're going to have to try extra hard to find the beauty and laughter wherever we can. I hear it gets better--in these long term marriages--after the kids are out of their teens.

I know that we will be okay as a couple. I don't have the same level of confidence about my relationship with my daughter. I can hope, of course. And watch for opportunities to make connections--without "trying too hard", of course. Ugh.

We're talking about the only person I can say I genuinely fell in love with at first sight--the very moment when, after difficult and exhausting hours of labor, my baby daughter was placed in my arms. There was a time when I could count on her being up for a spontaneous fun outing when I needed a pick-me-up. Just little things like petting the kittens at the shelter, or going to the park, or stopping at the bread store that gives free slices of fresh-from-the-oven baked goods.

But it's even more the loss of companionship and diversion. Our times together and the conversations we would have often gave me insights. They inspired me to think about some aspect of life in a new way, and this in turn would inspire me to write something.

I've had a hard time writing much of anything for a long time now. I haven't delved too deeply into why that might be, but if pressed I would probably have said that I was just too busy to get in the right frame of mind and really devote time to writing something. Or maybe I would say that things were going kind of crappy, and writing about that was not exactly a good "pick-me-up".

But this week, a new answer came to me. There's this young lady living in my home. Her name and face are familiar, but I don't really know her. I want to get to know her, but my efforts have been rebuffed time and again. I don't want to give up, but being rejected again and again takes its toll.

So I've had a new insight into why I've been experiencing this killer writer's block. My daughter used to be a big part of my inspiration for writing. In recent years, she didn't just stop being an inspiration in terms of my writing. I think she's actually become my "Kryptonite".

That really was an "aha" moment for me. I've definitely figured something out. But what to do with this insight?

Don't know yet. One thing at a time...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

On sinners and tax collectors

In today's gospel reading, the high ranking religious muckety-mucks of Jesus' day wonder aloud how much cred Jesus can have as a holy man, given that he is seen eating with "sinners and tax-collectors".

That always makes me smile...not for any deep theological reasons, but because of the childhood memory it evokes.

The very first definition I "fast mapped" for tax collector was "one who mooches a bite of your dessert". I learned this because those were the words my father routinely uttered while engaging in that practice. "Tax collector!"

Mind you, I had no idea what taxes actually were back then. I hadn't yet heard the expression about "death and taxes" being inevitable. I did know that "Tax collector!" was inevitable. And mostly harmless, as far as I could tell.

That is, until I learned that tax collectors were singled out as unsavories in the bible. "Sure, it's a little annoying," I (probably) thought, "but it can't be that bad!"

The actual details of this story are lost to time and no doubt distorted through retelling, so I can't say with certainty how this misunderstanding was actually resolved. My sense is that I realized that there must be other kinds of tax collectors, and I made a mental note to ask my father about it at the next available opportunity.

In any event, now you know why today, when I heard, "And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples," I mused to myself, "I hope someone thought to make extra dessert!"

Friday, February 08, 2008

Overheard at the gym

First, a disclaimer...I would very much prefer not to overhear other people's conversations at the gym. I try to go at least twice a week, three times if I'm lucky, and what I want to do is get in the pool and move. I'm not much of a swimmer, but I used to take water aerobics classes, and now I just go to the pool when I have the opportunity and do "freestyle water aerobics for one". I don't ask for much--I just want my own little spot near a wall where I can just do my thing and tune everybody else out. If conditions are right, that's where I can do some of my best creative thinking. But if people within earshot are having a conversation, then conditions are most definitely not right, and I can't seem tune them out no matter how hard I try.

I was actually in the shower, not the pool, so I couldn't see who was talking, but I had passed some older women on the way to the shower. Several of them--I'm guessing at least three--were having a conversation that I kept catching bits and pieces of...

"I stayed up way too late last night watching the returns."
"So, what do you think?"
"I don't knooow!"
"Well, our governor has endorsed Clinton."
"I'm not ready for a woman president."
"Me neither."
At this point, I *really* wanted to be able to tune out, because I was afraid I might hear something that would annoy me enough that I'd feel compelled to butt into their discussion. But the water wasn't loud enough to drown them out, so as I finished up my shower, I heard the conversation turn to the subject of women priests, and how one of the women had a friend who is one, but, "something about that is just not right." Also, apparently the women's movement is to blame for "the mess we're in today". Whatever that is.

But I wouldn't be sharing this story with you now, if it didn't have a positive twist. Here it comes. One of the women said (paraphrased)

"I used to think like that. Then my husband left me when I was 40, and I was totally unprepared to support myself. I vowed that I would never again let myself end up in that situation. ... Sometimes your situation changes, and then you change."
I didn't hear what the other women said in response, but inside I was saying "Right on, sister!" Because every day, in small ways we have opportunities to speak up and give the other side of the story. And an alternative perspective, when shared by "someone like you" has a better chance of taking root and possibly, as time goes on, softening (or even changing) some of the judgments people make.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

In which I owe my dog an apology

Originally posted at Street Prophets

Here are my buddies, Stevie (cat) and Brady (collie) sacked out just a couple feet from my desk.

I wrote about Brady and our trips to the dog park a little over a month ago. I haven't been able to take him there as often as I'd like, but when we do go, he always enjoys himself. Today was the first day in a while that I've thought the weather was nice enough to head out with him, and he was *more* than ready. And, of course seeing him that happy and excited is very satisfying for me. He's such a sweet boy, albeit a bit clueless. At least, that's how he seemed to me when he was running with the other dogs. I remarked once that Brady is "not the sharpest knife in the drawer", to which my husband responded, "I think he might be a spoon!" Today at the dog park, I realized that maybe *I* had been the clueless one.

As we pulled into the parking lot near our local "Bark Park", I could tell that Brady was overjoyed to be there. He trotted energetically at my side as we walked up the pathway leading to the park. Once we were inside and he was off leash, he got down to business--leaning on all the receptive humans and greeting all the dogs. And then, invariably, one of the humans throws a ball, other dogs chase the ball, and Brady happily runs alongside them. That's the part that always seemed clueless to me. Like Brady was saying, "I don't know what were doing, but we're having fun!"

This time, while Brady was doing his running adjacent to the action routine,

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What my dog taught me

This started as a comment in response to Dogs, Doorwalls and Dianisms at My Left Wing. Somewhere along the way, the comment got long enough to actually be a post. That doesn't seem to happen to often lately, so I decided to go with it...

One of the things that has been on my mind this fall is the sacredness of my connection to one of my dogs. It hasn't been easy to put into words, but I took a shot when my brother and I took Brady and Winnie to the dog park over the Thanksgiving weekend.

In part this has been prompted by my realization that Brady, the collie, must be around 10 years old at this point. I hadn't really given his age much thought--while the changes in my kids have been hard to miss, Brady always seems the same to me. It was only once he started to show some stiffness upon getting up that I really gave his age much thought.

Then there was last month's retreat. Its theme of Celtic spirituality (emphasizing nature and animals) served to reinforce the notion that I had some spiritual "work" to do centering around my relationship with Brady. There's just this amazing connection between us--sometimes it seems like he can read my thoughts.

Yet he always seems to be "underfoot", and our son in particular doesn't like the dogs around him. Winnie can go lie down somewhere when she's not wanted around, but Brady picks up on people's moods, and if anyone is emitting any "upset" vibes, he just *has* to be right there. (Winnie has that same sense of compulsion if she detects the presence of food.)

Anyway, the easiest way to restore some sense of calm or order is usually to just put Brady out in the yard. Over the years, he's spent a lot of time in the yard.

When I first got Brady, I took him to obedience classes once a week. We went through the beginner's class, and then intermediate. He earned his "Canine Good Citizen" certificate. The goal had been to eventually get involved with animal assisted therapy as a volunteer activity we could do together.

But then I got into animal rescue. Then I got out of animal rescue, but not without acquiring a second dog. Once I had two dogs, I was less inclined to take Brady "out" anywhere, and felt less compelled to do so, since the two dogs had each other.

Late this summer, I found out that there is a free (meaning no charge--you can just show up rather than paying for a membership) off-leash dog park in a suburb of Columbus. The first time I took Brady there, I was just blown away by the utter joy I could see in him. It had been ages since I'd seen him genuinely happy. His most characteristic mood for some time before that, had been "worried". Worried about the "pack", the family. I decided that I needed to make an effort to take him out more often. Like I should have been doing all along, but I'd stopped at some point. And dogs are so darn forgiving and accomodating, aren't they?

Earlier this fall, when I was working on a temp project and teaching three classes, I was sometimes too tired to get up for church by the time Sunday rolled around. On one such Sunday, when I had failed to get myself to church or the gym, I decided that taking Brady to the dog park could take the place of both that day. I was starting to think of time with Brady as a form of spiritual practice.

Boy, if that doesn't sound like some sort of namby-pamby watered-down progressive version of religion, I don't know what does.

But this is bigger than just "doing right by the collie", I've come to realize. It's about living more deliberately, acting rather than just reacting. Actually stopping to make choices rather than just allowing myself to be pushed along by life's currents. And that applies to my personal life as well as any involvement I choose to have in the "public square", whether that ends up being political or quasi-political or--whatever. But, as I mentioned here, all I know is that I'm committed to doing something to help make the world a better place.

Yet it's too easy for me to allow "the prevailing mood", whether it be on blogs, or in the media--or just my kids sniping at each other--to distract me from focusing on that goal. And now, with the artificial "frenzy" of the holiday season added into the mix, I could really use some help with this. I'm sure I can't be the only one dealing with this. So, I'm thinking that this would be a good time for those who are kindred spirits in feeling this way to come together and support each other. And help each other find strength, patience, humor, and perspective for the journey.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Zimbardo on "nurturing the heroic imagination"

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (photo courtesy of The Lucifer Effect web site) came to speak at a community college here in Columbus last month. I recorded the whole talk, which was an hour long. The whole thing was fascinating, but I set myself the modest goal of transcribing only the last eight minutes. Those last minutes of the lecture were the uplifting, hopeful part, and, I don't know about you, but I sure could use more of that in my daily life.

"The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being", says Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. ... "It's a decision that you have to make every day in various ways."

So what I want to do, is I want to end on a positive note, because I know I've depressed you. When I was writing this book I was so depressed, going through all this horrible stuff, and being immersed in this "evil shit", if you will. (Laughter) But the positive note is, heroism as an antidote to evil, by promoting what I call "the heroic imagination" in every man, woman, and child in our nation.

What I mean by that is, here's Joe Darby. He's the guy who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses. His friend gave him a CD with those pictures and more--he looked at them and said, "This is terrible! We're supposed to bring democracy to these people, and we're humiliating them!" He took that CD and brought it to the senior investigating officer. He was a private in the Army Reserves. That's a thing you never do. And he knew that his buddies were going to get in trouble. But he said "I had to do the right thing." They had to put him into protective custody along with his mother and his wife, because everybody wanted to kill them. ...He is the most ordinary person, G.I. Joe, and he did the right thing.

And there's also the guy in China, in Tiananmen Square, where students were having a peaceful demonstration to promote more freedom, and here was a line of tanks trying to crush them. He jumped in front and said, "We are all Chinese, we all want freedom! We want the same things--please don't do this!" And he turned around. And so here's a powerful physical hero. Darby was a whistleblowing hero. So I want to refocus away from evil to understanding heroes.

Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the banality of evil said, you know what, evil monsters like Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrated the deaths of millions of Jews, before he went to Auschwitz, was normal. When we see him in this trial, he's normal. You put him in a situation, and give him power, and permission to kill, you know what? He does his job very well. And she said, the problem with evil is that the perpetrators of evil look like your next door neighbor. They don't look like the comic book monsters that we're led to be afraid of as kids. That's the danger--that they're terrifyingly normal.

So I extend her concept to the "banality of heroism". There are two kinds of heroes: there's Nelson Mandela, there's Gandhi, there's Mother Teresa--but these are the exceptional heroes. They built their whole lives around heroic deeds. They had a call, a mission, to serve humanity. They are the exception. Most heroes are like Joe Darby--ordinary guys, who only once in their lives do a heroic deed. And never again--almost every hero is a one-time hero. And so I'm going to argue that everyday heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds. There's nothing special about them. And I want to argue that the same exact situation that inflames the hostile imagination in some people, and makes them do bad things, that same situation inspires the heroic imagination in other people.

And for most other people, it renders them passive. I call that "the evil of inaction". Most people do what your mother said, "Mind your own business and don't get in trouble!" You have to say, "Mama, in this case, you're wrong, because humanity is my business."

And so, with the psychology of heroism, we want to encourage children, families, everyone, to develop the heroic imagination. To think about yourself as a "hero in waiting". And that, to be a hero, you don't have to be more religious, you don't have to be more compassionate. All you have to do is be ready to act when others are not, or when some people are doing bad things, and you have to be ready to act on behalf of other people. Being have to stop thinking about yourself and what will it cost you or what will you gain. To be a hero you've got to act, and you've got to act on behalf of other people--that's all you need.

And so what we want to do is have curriculum--I'm working with people to develop curriculum, starting in the fifth grade, getting kids to think about what it means to be a hero, who are the heroes in your life, what have you done that's heroic. What skills do you need--because some kinds of things you really have to know something, like first aid skills. So when the time comes--and I tell you, it's only going to come once in your life!

So I want to end with this wonderful story that some of you know about. A guy named Wesley Autrey, who's the New York subway hero. He was in a train station with 75 other people. A white guy falls on the tracks. The train is coming, and it's going to cut him in half. He's (Wesley) got a reason not to get involved--he's got two little girls. He's got no personal connection. Instead, he jumps on the track to try to save the guy. The train was coming, it could wipe him out. So I'd like you to actually see this in action.

(He showed this video)

So one day, you will be in a new situation, and there's going to be three paths before you. Path 1: you join in and become a perpetrator of evil. Not Abu Ghraib evil, but teasing, bullying, spreading rumors, spreading gossip. Path 2 is you become guilty of passive inaction. You're home at Christmas, and Uncle Charlie starts telling a racist or sexist joke, and you don't say, "Uncle Charlie, please don't." Or you're in a cab in New York, where they do it all the time, and you say, "I find that insulting. Please stop." If you don't do that, you allow this person to think "Everybody likes it. Everybody thinks it's funny." You have to take action.

Path 3 is to go straight ahead and do the heroic thing. You challenge authority, you challenge the system. And so I hope we are all ready to take that path and celebrate being ordinary heroes--heroes in waiting. Waiting for the right situation to put our heroic imagination into action. We have to think it--by thinking it, it increases the probability of doing it. We know from psychology that if I convince you that everything we know about you means that you're really more generous than most people. Next week there's a blood drive--you know what? You're going to give more blood than him. Next week there's a charity drive--you know what--you're going to give more money than somebody else.

I think that promoting a heroic imagination in our schools--just thinking about it--because it's only going to happen once! Wesley Autrey never did it again, he never will--he's not going to be in that particular situation. Joe Darby, never did it before, and he's not going to be in that situation again. So the point is, you always want people to be primed--ready for the situation where things are going to happen, you're prepared, and you're going to be the one to take the action.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bless all creatures here below

Daughter sang with the children's choir today, and, since this is the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Francis, the hymns centered around that. The opening hymn was one I'd never heard before, and it was *adorable*.

Today we celebrate a feast,
A holiday for man and beast.
We think of every friend who speaks,
barks and purrs and roars and squeaks.
As we sing we keep in mind
beings of a different kind.

Bless all creatures here below,
Lord, from whom all blessings flow.

We think of squirrels in the park
at play from morning light 'til dark,
and birds that sing on leafy boughs
in green fields with the sheep and cows
Dear that in the forest leap,
whales that swim the ocean deep.

Bless all creatures here below,
Lord, from whom all blessings flow.

Together with our pets we meet
friends with whiskers, tails that greet.
Muzzles wet beside our cheek
show us love they cannot speak.
Hold them tight so they will know
where we are they too will go.

Bless all creatures here below,
Lord, from whom all blessings flow.
There were three more verses. The last line, though, is what made me well up:

When at last we come to you, let our creatures be there too

Our creatures have just got to be there. If they're not, how could it be heaven?

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