Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Doldrums

It is easy to loose ones faith these days, even for me, a Unitarian Universalist.

Let’s start with Ferguson, Missouri. I remember when I was in college I was walking home from a party to my apartment. I was certainly drunk. I had the remnants of a joint in my front shirt pocket. Along the way I found I hubcap lying alongside the road so I picked it up. “This will look cool in our apartment!” my 19-year-old male brain concluded. A block or two later one of Blacksburg’s finest (To Ticket and to Tow) pulled up beside me and got out.

Where was I going?
Can I see your ID?
Where’d I get the hubcap?
Wait here for a moment.

Ok, you can go, but if we get a report of a stolen hubcap, we’ll be coming to you.

Sure thing. Thanks officer.

I think I was a pretty good kid, but I made some stupid choices, or some mindless ones at least. I’m guessing a few of us have some of those in our past.

Yet I was never shot by the police for it. That’s for sure.

So now we have Ferguson and all it now stands for and means for us.

But there is more: Israel and Palestine. Again. There is a humongous volcano in Iceland clearing its throat  and then there is what ever is left of Iraq and Syria.

Out west we have droughts AND floods.

To top it all off, an FB friend posts a link to a minor key version of Cindi Lauper’s 1980’s fun-pop song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”  And I love this version. I really do! But I couldn’t help but wonder why such a fluffy happy dance song from our past, re-interpreted and channeled through the ennui of ColdPlay and the fatalism of the Millennials, would seem so, so, perfect for 2014?

Arbitrary cute cat picture
Man, this decade is getting depressing. Thank the Buddha it’s August and our Congress is in recess so we don’t have to endure that, that, whatever that, thing we still call Congress is. I say that because I saw a recent report that came across my social media desk: America is no longer a Democracy or a Republic. Guess what? We are an Oligarchy! (Original study here)

When I saw that article my first thought was: Well, that’s hardly a surprise.

Then my second thought was: I wonder if anyone has “liked” the cat video I just posted?

Some days it just feels like we need a global anti-depressant. Maybe one of our friendlier Oligarchs, Elon Musk, say, could partner with Richard Branson and they could spray Zoloft into the atmosphere. Not only would we feel a little better, but also the lower-libido side affect could help with global population growth! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the looming crises from the convergence of population growth, environmental degradation, death of honey bees, threatened water supply, increasing fuel costs, and global food production yields. 

Thank the Buddha (again) for a near limitless global supply of cute and funny cat videos and ice-water bucket fail compilations. Otherwise I’d loose my mind worrying about a Nutella-less dystopic future with no Guacamole at Chipotle!

I am reading a book right now called Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. It’s not what I would call a “feel good” summer read. It’s not. In addition to the description of a lessor known near apocalyptic disaster with a Titan II missile in Arkansas in 1980, Schlosser provides a history lesson of our nuclear weapons program starting with the Manhattan Project during World War II. As I read the account I was struck with this thought: If our society was faced with the same existential threat as we were in the 1940s could we pull off the same scientific and engineering feat? In about three years we collected the best and brightest and sequestered them in the desert to create new technology with a power of unimaginable consequences. The outcome was, of course, the beginning of the nuclear age and the Cold War. I’m not say that was necessarily a good thing. What I am wondering is: What would it take for this country to really pull together and create something? Something really big? Can we even do it anymore?

Congress has its head up its ass. Our President has been rendered ineffective thanks to a relentless opposition set to undermine him at every turn. Industry is more interested in generating profit, hording cash, and avoiding taxes. Regardless of who you side with, grass roots movements, like Occupy or the Tea Party, can only really claim gains on the fringes as the Oligarchs lie in wait to squash them. Big Religion? I do like the new Pope’s style, but I can’t help but think the tide has ebbed for how much influence he has as a agent for change.

So what to do?

I could just give up. Give in to the outgoing current and just be swept away. Enjoy my glass of wine and late-night TV the next day at a reasonable hour on my DVR. That would be okay. And as I get older I can see the wisdom of disengagement. Why create additional frustration and suffering for myself trying to do something meaningful but have to also push against it all? There is enough suffering just from showing up on this planet. Why create more?

But that is a denial. It’s a denial of the inherent human spirit and what we are all, I believe, generally wanting:
To find something we can find meaning in and commit our life’s work to,
To help our fellow man and woman when they are in a jam, like this guy did, and
To love and be loved.

It’s pretty simple, really. And I need to still believe in that.

It's simple, but also not easy. I wonder what would have happen if we chose a default view of compassion and trust with each encounter rather than one of fear and cynicism? Maybe if we did that a police officer seeing a kid walking in the middle of the street could pull over and say, “Hey, there! It’s dangerous walking in the middle of the street, can you move to the sidewalk so you don’t get hit by a car?”

I know, pretty naïve of me. But I have to hang on to it just a while longer.

Only one more month ‘til Autumn and I can officially bid the summer doldrums farewell.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Addle Essence

Less than a week out from Father’s Day I have reached a new level as a dad: I used the “F-word” for the first time when scolding my boys. My usage was something like: “With all the fucking space we have in this basement, I can’t believe you two boys can’t find a place to sit without sitting on top of each other and getting into a fight!”

That was it.

They were shocked. I don’t curse around my kids. Not much, at least. Maybe once a year I let one fly, and never have I used “fuck” around the kids. On the couple times I’ve been really upset I’ve tossed a “goddammit” or two. But I honestly think I average only one or two per year. Maybe three.

It was early evening, I was tired, I was trying to get something resembling dinner started. I had an evening meeting I needed to leave for in less than an hour and what I really wanted was a nap. I really didn’t want to deal with a crying 9-year-old whose hand was bent back by a 12-year-old who had to sit in the exact same place while they watched TV.

I continued: “That’s it. TV off. Each of you to the showers!”

And literally, “to the showers.” School ended last week for us and they had spent their second day at baseball camp. And they smelled. Smelled like boys do. They needed to wash away that odor and cool off, and so did I.

Then I waited for the inevitable regret to come. I had failed to live up to my own standards of a father. That is, a father who expresses his anger and frustration in a healthy way that is a roll model for my boys. I don’t believe it is right or necessary or even good to be calm, cool, and collected all the time, but I also believe it most important for kids, and boys especially, to have healthy examples of expressing anger.

So as I waited for the regret a funny thing happened: It never came. The regret never came. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of my rant directed primarily at my 12-year-old who, by the way, if he does not grow up to be a politician will surprise me greatly. He is a master of slippery debate and can poke a hole through the most solid parental logic. I learned some time ago to not engage him in debate. It’s hopeless and I’ll loose. Best is just to say what it is and move on even though he won’t give up on his end. And last night he was in rare form twisting each phrase and revealing its failures of logic all while punctuated by the high emotions of the unfair world existing in our house and that if someone could just listen to him, just once, maybe, maybe he could be spared the existential misery our family levies on him.

I recently finished a round of therapy by way of a book recommended by my friend and colleague Adrienne. A few weeks ago I had mentioned to her how, seemingly overnight, an adolescent had moved into our house. I used to have this loving, wonderful child and now I had, well, something different. I wasn’t caught by surprise exactly –  I knew it was coming – but I was surprised by how quickly it happened.

Not too long ago, at bedtime, I’d hug my future 12-year-old and he’d hug me back and I’d tell him I love him and he’d tell me he loved me back. Today I still hug him and tell him I love him, but instead of a hug back he just sort of lets his lanky arms flop out to each side of the bed. Sometimes he’ll let his arms accidently fall on my back as I lean over. I call it a hug but I suspect it’s more of a set of random muscle twitches causing his arms to fall over my back rather than on the bed. He does still, sometimes, verbally express his love for me. It isn’t quite “I love you.” It’s more like “blurgh.” Sort of a back of the throat guttural sound like something is stuck in his throat. Our cats make that sound just before they vomit up a hairball. But I know what it really means. One night, and I am not making this up, after I said to him “I love you,” he let loose a sustained muffled fart from below the bed sheets. I was too startled to do anything but laugh, which made him belly laugh. I think I replied, “I fart you too,” gave him another hug, and for good measure kissed him on the forehead. That really spoiled the moment (“Aahh, Dad!”) after which he wiped off the gross dad germs.

Of course I’d love to get a real “I love you,” but I know I won’t. Not for a while. Or at least not every night. There was a time when I stopped hugging my dad and probably didn’t tell him I loved him for 15 years. Maybe more. I actually remember the day I told my dad I didn’t want to hug him anymore. I was probably about 12 or so. And I remember it was uncomfortable but hugging him didn’t feel right either. That psychic need to separate from my parents and be my own person was its own thing and had to be obeyed. There was no way I could have articulated it that way then. All I knew was hugging my dad felt weird. In some ways I wish he and I had handled that transaction differently. Maybe my dad could have said something more than the “okay” that I remember. But he was figuring it all out for the first time too.

Which gets me back to the book “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager” by Anthony E. Wolf Ph.D. If you have an adolescent, or one on the way, I highly recommend this book. I can’t say that I’m a better dad for reading it, but now I don’t feel quite the anxiety about how to deal with an adolescent. And apparently I feel empowered to let the “F-bomb” fly and to let it fly for effect.

Besides the cursing, here is what I took away from the book:

  • We want our kids to grow and be their own people and be successful
  • To do that, our kids must successfully separate from their parents and become independent
  • Adolescence is the time to do that
  • Each act of defiance is essentially a way for them to develop their own separate self and when we parents stymie that we stymie their development
  • Adolescence sucks for kids and their parents
  • It won’t last forever
  • The outcome is usually an amazing individual human being, warts and all

That is a gross oversimplification and there is more and some great examples that I really liked. There is also plenty on the scary shit that can happen to teenagers when they experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Ugh, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Thanks for that reminder, book.

As exasperating as my boys can be, they also amaze me. Even through the fog of hormones, my 12-year-old show flashes of the adult he’ll become. Sort of a coming attractions trailer for his adult self: Intelligent and funny, a heavy appreciation and ability for music. Outgoing, social, confident, and self-assured bordering on obnoxious and cocky. More than a bit scatter-brained and absent minded, like all good artists. Someone who can hold a fart for just the right moment.

That's something I can appreciate.