Here’s what could have happened: angry feelings of betrayal, the pain of secrets kept in plain sight but not talked about, judgement and defensiveness and anger and stress.
That’s not what happened.
Here’s how it came out, instead:
A Meddlesome Love
One of my daughters is moving in a couple of days. Natasha and I planned on helping her out (the duty of every father and every father’s girlfriend), but there was a problem.
There was something that I’d learned about her behavior that disturbed me. I felt that she was taking risks out of proportion to the possible (and, in my opinion, probable) consequences. In fact, I was so upset with her that my initial reaction was a desire to tell her “I’m not helping you move!” I was full of righteous anger, and I knew that by withdrawing my support I would teach her a lesson.
Thankfully I have other daughters, as well as a partner, friends, and a father all of whom have cooler heads than mine. They talked it out with me – never telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, just exploring the options and possible consequences of withholding my help as a “demonstration”. In fact, my father specifically pointed out that as I was growing up he’d just been “making it up as I went along!”
That, I believe, is the one great truth of parenting.
Finally I came up with a plan of action. I texted her. Can you give me a call before the move? I have to talk with you.
About an hour later my phone rang. I asked her to stop what she was doing and just listen for a short time. Because what I had to talk about was likely to upset her, and upset me, but the last thing I wanted was for us to fall victim to one of the epic fights that me and my kids used to get into during their teen years.
I told her that I was calling because I love her, and I wanted her to succeed, and that regardless of how the phone call went, I was going to be helping her move – that was never in any danger.
She agreed to listen, and she did, as I laid out my concerns. Then I listened to her, and then she listened to me a little more, and then I listened to her. Then she needed to get back to packing, so I told her again that I loved her and that we’d see her tomorrow.
Was the issue resolved? No. But I believe I was heard, and she promised to think about it. More to the point, I believe that she understood that my concerns were out of love.
It was a victory over anger. It was the benefit of three generations pulling at a problem and carving a path through what could have been much more difficult.
I’m not writing this to brag – far from it. It almost feels like a miracle, because this is the first time I can remember it working this well. But if, like me, you’re working to try and improve your communication, your anger management, your relationships…sometimes it works.
So even if you don’t have a father like mine, or daughters or partners or friends as good and smart as mine are…keep it up. It’s worth it.
There's a lot of hullabaloo recently about a reporter who misremembered some events during the Iraq conflict. Personally I tend to agree with the folks who rather bitterly point out that if the news media had been as careful with fact checking the actual buildup to the war as they are Brian Williams' story, many lives might have been saved…but I digress.
The problem people have with Mr. Williams is that, frankly, they don't believe that he “misremembered.” How could you possibly recollect events that you didn't live through? Especially things that were so visceral, like being shot at by insurgents. It seems impossible – but that's only because, unlike Bryan Williams, we don't usually have people fact checking us.
You know that great story you tell about your childhood? Odds are that if you went back and found someone else who was there – someone who has not been hearing your version of events over the years – they would have a pretty substantially different version of what transpired. Not necessarily more accurate – but that's the point, after all. What really happened is something that is imperfectly remembered by the human mind, at best.
Daniel Simons is an expert on memory, and via the You Are Not So Smart podcast he explained that “…memory is not like a videotape that we play back in our heads. It's more like improvising variations on a theme.” You can also read more about the phenomenon in his Slate article, How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams.
But that's not really what the point of this blog post is intended to be about. Rather, I'd like to share that you should be very glad that our memories are malleable, and that we have the flexibility to alter our memories – even the really intense ones – so completely.
The Bad Grandson
My extended family and I do not share a common faith. I have been a practicing Zen Buddhist since age 19 when it helped me survive as a Marine, whereas most of my relatives belong to a fairly conservative Christian faith. It is a faith that believes very strongly in and promotes a particular vision of what a family should look like. I remember my Grandfather pointing out to me, on the wall, the proclamation by the church elders defining what this should be. “That paper there,” he told me, “is one of the most important documents ever written.”
I remember when he said that I just set my jaw and nodded – not in agreement, but in acknowledgement of his view. Because I love my Grandpa, and wanted to make him proud. At the same time, I was not the image of a grandson I think he expected. It took a few years of visits, as a youth, to recognize the look of disappointment on his face when he'd ask me about some sporting event and learn that I wasn't actually a fan. I began studying up in the weeks before I'd see him, following events and games and athletes, and yes, he absolutely beamed the first time I was able to comment about a particular baseball play.
But in some ways I was never going to be able to live up to what I thought were his expectations. I only lasted a semester at the University he and my parents approved of. I never made it to the missionary work that was so important to his religion. And in terms of that vision of family…that was never to be. At the time he talked about the Most Important Document I was freshly divorced with four infant children that I was struggling to raise as a single Dad. Ideas about gender roles and such pretty much just made me feel like a failure.
As I said, I set my jaw and nodded because I respected and loved him, and didn't want to be more of a disappointment to him. That was pretty much the last conversation I had with him before he died; it's certainly the one I remember the most clearly. One of the hardest parts of being at his funeral was the feeling that when he died, he had still been disappointed in me.
Facebook is a wonderful thing. I know, that's not a usual opinion of mine, but thanks to the social network I have gradually gotten better acquainted with a particular cousin of mine who I met, at most, a handful of times growing up. Our interaction is a good argument for the theory of genetic influence, as we seem to be amused by the same things and have the same impeccable sense of humor.
I was the oldest grandchild, but he's not terribly much younger. We've also corresponded via email about more personal things, and during one of these exchanges he wrote something (which I have his permission to share) about our memories of Grandpa. He told me about a conversation they had concerning some of the religious rites of passage that my cousin had felt burdened by. Grandpa had told him
…it was a personal choice not a requirement. This completely floored me and changed my outlook on what was expected of me. Why do I now get the feeling that I have you to thank for that?
I don't know if I actually was an influence…but ever since I got that letter from him, that last sentence – Why do I now get the feeling that I have you to thank for that? – has been digging around in my head. Why? Because it implies that maybe I wasn't as much of a disappointment to my Grandpa as I feared. He certainly never gave me any indication – it was just something I assumed, because I couldn't live up to a set of words on a wall.
In spite of that, though, it is possible that my memories of what happened between me and Grandpa need to change. It's not a videotape, it's a theme, and suddenly, thanks to my cousin, that theme is completely different. It's hard for me to really express just how much those simple words affected me; the best I can do is say that it's such a huge burden lifted that I don't really have the chance to deal with it right now. I'm on a trip to do a performance at the Asian Art Museum, and while San Francisco coffee shops are known for their quirkiness, middle-aged men weeping into their coffee is probably pushing the limit.
No advice here; just an observation about my life, and if you find it useful, I'm glad.
…or not. For many people, your erstwhile author included, the combination of winter cold and the societal expectations of the holiday season can be pretty depressing, or stressful, or both. “BE MERRY!” come the messages of the media and the world, combining with the usual endless litany of manufactured crises to support the 24-hour news cycle. Of course, this season in particular it’s not really necessary to manufacture crises, but the hearty ring of “Goodwill towards men…” might sound a bit hollow this time around amid hashtags of #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter.
Or maybe not. If you’re reveling in the holiday season with nary a care in the world, by all means, carry on! You don’t need this post. Meanwhile, for the rest of us:
5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks
- Binge on Reward Systems. I’m looking at you, SUGAR! Don’t reach for that donut, or open up all the advent days at once with the excuse I was just planning ahead! Yes, it will make you feel better for a while – that’s how sugar and glycemic index works. However, you’ll feel worse afterwards. Social media works the same way, as does just about any intermittent reward system that relies on jolts of dopamine to keep your attention. Instead, eat something healthy. No, it won’t help your mood. But it’ll keep you busy, and nourished, and ya gotta eat sometime, right?
- Feel guilty for feeling bad. Hey, moods happen. You don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s ok to let yourself feel bad for a while – sometimes that depressed mood is just like a mental band-aid, protecting a raw nerve while it heals, and you’ll be able to take it off when you’re ready. Give yourself permission to heal. It may be that a marathon of Middle Man is exactly the time-out your mood needs.
- Isolate yourself. No one wants to be around a Sally Sad-Face. I don’t want to bring people down. Excuses like these are not the healing happening – they are instead projections. Let me be harsh: who gave you control over what someone else wants? Who are you to decide whether or not they want to see you? Now, if you don’t want to see people, that’s another thing – introversion can be honored. But to decide what others want is often a way you deny what you actually do want – and that’s human contact. I recommend a coffee shop, not a mall, or family (blood or chosen, depending on your mood).
- Skip Working Out. For most people, serotonin regulation is a big part of mood, and (again, for most) exercise is a good way to pump things up. It doesn’t have to be Big Workout Time – a brisk walk or even some grumpy yoga will help. If you do it to the music of your youth (in my case, the 1980’s) it will almost certainly make you smile in that I can’t believe I used to like this song kind of way.
- Ignore the signs of clinical depression. If anything in this post makes you think I’m dismissing clinical depression as a case of “the blues”, please don’t. There are very real physical and psychological signs of the very debilitating condition of “the black dog”, and it’s important to get help if that’s the case. One possible indication: the first four things in this list that you didn’t do didn’t help.
1 Thing To Do When Life Sucks
- Something Really Nice for Yourself. A massage. A luxurious 2-hour cuddle nap. An uninterrupted hour with your favorite pen and a pile of blank paper. A ticket to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. A ride in a hot air balloon. Step outside of yourself, look at that person who is in need of cheering up (that’s you) and then think what you could do to make their day better. Not what you could do to cheer them up; not what you can do to make them feel better. What you can do to improve their world. Time will take care of the rest.
The Urgent vs. The Important
There’s a well-known saying – attributed in various forms to various people including Franklin Covey, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles E. Hummel, and a bevy of others – goes something like this: “Never let the urgent get in the way of the important.”
It is a good thing to keep in mind. Certainly in the world of the Gravy Hose there’s always things that seem to be pretty urgent, from the latest tweet to the CNN update to that message from that person. It interrupts focus, it keeps us from getting into flow, and can distract us into hours of procrastination.
But I’m not going to tell you that you should turn all those things off.
The Saying Is Wrong.
The urgent, by definition, should supersede the important. That’s what “urgent” means: requires immediate attention. If something is urgent, then ignoring it is going to actually cause something bad to happen.
The trick is to correctly identify the difference between “urgent” and “noisy.” It’s one of the mysterious skills of parenting: you learn the difference in tone between “I really need you now!” and “I’m really not happy, but if you wait thirty seconds I’ll get distracted and be all happy-burbly again!” It is amazing for those who are not attuned to the specific frequencies of small children to watch parents hear a cry, cock their heads, and then shrug and ignore it. A moment later, another cry happens and almost before it registers the parent is down the hall because that cry was actually urgent.
Obviously that means that whatever they were doing before the child cried was not important, right? Or if it was important, they should have simply ignored the crying and continued to focus and prioritize and all those other good words self-development blogs toss around.
I hope the sarcasm font is coming through. Happily most parents are complex individuals capable of taking care of both the urgent and the important. Gayle Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, talked about the contradiction between saying that her children were her priority but her husband was the most important person in her life. She didn’t go into it much, but she suggested that it was a thorny problem.
The thing is, I don’t think it is. Not so much. Children are the definition of urgency, and the things that are capital-I Important are generally things that don’t require attention constantly.
Urgency Changes Fast; Importance Changes Slow
It’s easy enough to illustrate this with the idea of Date Night. So as not to focus on parenting, though, let’s shift from parents’ date night (a very important thing) to an average couple about to have their own special intimate evening. Let’s say that one of them had a job interview earlier in the day.
The job interview was important, but now they are both taking steps to put it out of their mind. Their relationship is important to each other, and as the hours tick past afternoon to evening they are shifting focus from the outside world of work and friends and pets and onto each other. The food dishes are full, the DVR is set up, their phone notifications are turned off except for an email alert that will go off if the potential employer gets back to them. Both agree that is a call they’d want to get.
So many levels of importance there! The importance of reciprocal focus to foster intimacy. The importance of being responsible to friends and pets. The importance of sharing life-changing news. They start their evening with all the right ingredients, and when the phone buzzes they are excited and optimistic as they huddle over the tiny screen.
Unfortunately it’s not the news they were hoping for. Then again, it also wasn’t the news they feared. No, all the Deciders but one are in favor of hiring the hopeful employee, and that one will be easily convinced if a certain question is answered. It’s not a hard question, but it’s a complex one, both a hypothetical problem and an opportunity for the applicant to show off some past work from a portfolio. And it needs to be ready in the morning, or they’re going with a different applicant.
In short, there needs to be a choice: is it going to be date night? Or is it going to be a night of crafting a document to get a job?
I honestly haven’t given enough information to accurately answer the question. Is this date night because the couple have trouble giving time to each other? Is it possible this is the final straw that will break them? Or have they been desperate for the second income and this will be the thing that gives them stability? There’s all kinds of other factors that need to be considered. But keeping within the limited parameters, it’s pretty clear: suddenly something is urgently in need of attention.
Does that mean that date night isn’t important? Are we going to make the common leap that this means the person doesn’t really think the relationship is all that important either? I would hope not. The odds are that the relationship will still be there in the morning, and for the following evening, and for the next date night.
Urgent and Important are not zero-sum games.
It is entirely possible to deal with urgent things while at the same time maintaining what is important. In fact, we do it all the time, shifting focus and attention as needed throughout our days. If I’m writing a blog post and suddenly need to pee, does that mean that I must soldier through and finish the post before relieving myself? That’s silly! Taking care of the urgent is smart – in fact, it’s one of David Allen’s first productivity tips: if a “to-do” item will take less than a minute or two, do it now.
No, what is needed is a more clear idea of what actually is urgent as opposed to what is simply a distraction. We’ll be talking about one particular method on Monday.
May your weekend be filled with urgently wonderful importance!
Instant Dilemma; Just Add Text
Every once in a while you get faced with an issue that seems completely unsolvable, until something changes to make it eminently solvable.
Here’s how the timeline went:
4:50 am: Wake up to take partner to her work at the coffee shop; I plan to write and do other work there until 10am, when I have a volunteer shift at the VA Hospital.
5:00 am: Find text that Middle Daughter sent previous night asking for some study time together. We’d tried to find that time yesterday, but scheduled meetings, transportation, etc. hadn’t allowed for it. “I’m totally serious about it this moring,” she wrote. “Let’s make it happen!“
That’s a fun word – it means “when two equally urgent but opposing needs express at the same time.” My whole moving back to Madison, WI has been one gigantic lifehack, an experiment in happiness. Since research shows that (statistically) people are happier when they volunteer and when they focus on family and friends, I’ve been doing that. And you know what? It’s working. I’m happier these days than I’ve ever been.
But the volunteer work is just that: volunteer. Nobody forces me to go, I’m not (like many other volunteers) filling in hours for Med School or somesuch. Really, it’s an excuse to wear sexy scrubs and bring smiles to vets who don’t get a lot of positive attention or respect in their day. The staff of the hospital treats them amazingly well, mind you – when I’m being treated there, it’s amazing how many times I get “sir’d” or thanked for my service.
In the rest of their worlds, though, a lot of these men and women are struggling with persistent problems with little help. I can’t solve their problems – in fact, I’m not allowed to even try – but I can be a pleasant and respectful person who pushes their wheelchair down to radiology or brings them a warmed blanket. And at the end of my three-hour shift I do, in fact, feel happier. Since there’s nothing urgent about my time there – at best, I’m a dose of “nice” in their day – I need to prioritize it myself. I need to push it ahead of the write more – make clients happy – do more stuff priorities to make it happen.
But Think of the Children!
On the other hand, my daughter is working her way through the difficult second year of medical school. She and her sisters and my grandsons are the primary reason I came back here, to get to both spend time with them and, when possible, be a help. They already have a great support system here, but I manage to fill in the gaps here and there with rides to appointments or Emergency Grandpa Childcare. I made a promise to myself a while back that I would make them a priority in my day-to-day planning – so I cancel most plans if possible to help them out, and given a choice between “spend time with them” or not, I always opt for “spend time” even if I don’t really feel like it. Time with them is the one thing I can’t make more of, after all, so it’s best to make it happen when I can.
The ultimate goal is to get good enough at this kind of family priority to extend it to my sisters, parents, nephews and nieces. I’m not quite that good yet, but I have seen them more in the past year than in the several before that. Kaizen: getting better, little by little.
Two priorities. Two responsibilities I’ve given myself, and I can’t do both. Sure, kids would normally be much more important than volunteer work – but Middle Daughter is an adult, she doesn’t need me to study with her. But the VA doesn’t need me either. Wouldn’t I be modeling good behavior by keeping my shift? Or would M.D. (heh, just realized, that’s funny) feel that she wasn’t important enough for me to reschedule volunteer work?
This was what went through my head as:
5:15am I settle into my chair, open my journal, and start writing.
My pen hesitated over the page. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be rationalizing my decision either way? Was it going to be “Today I get to spend time with my middle daughter…” or “Today I made a Vietnam Vet guffaw and smile as I shook his hand…“? As I paused, trying to decide, a question popped into my head:
What do you want people to read here?
At that, the dilemma disappeared in a puff of smoke. Because while I don’t know who, if anyone, will read my journals down the line, in my imagination it is someone like my grandson Harvey or Victor, and I know I would want them to read about how I had spent more time with their Tita (that’s Tagalog for “Aunt”). I would want them to know how much their grandfather loved his daughters. In fact, I’d want them to think I loved them far more than I do, because, after all, the real me is imperfect. The journaled me…well, as Heinlein said, autobiographies are often true but rarely honest.
Which is why I get to write this post while my daughter sits next to me, drinking the coffee I bought her and her roommate, studying the Krebs cycle. Is it a perfect morning? No. But it’s a happier one. And all it took was asking myself not What story do you want to write? but What story do you want to have written?
SitRep: Project Friends & Family
It was about six months ago that I made the decision to stop focusing on my career and my romantic pursuits. I was in a place where I’d followed a lot of the wisest advice I could find in both categories, and nothing seemed to be giving me much joy. I was struggling with where I was living, I was no closer to a stable relationship than I’d ever been, despite a lot of effort. I was getting disillusioned with the idea that love makes you happier, at least the kind of love I was experiencing. It seemed to be that I was stressing myself working really hard on things that didn’t make me happy at all.
About that time I was also exploring some of Dan Gilbert’s research on what makes people happy, and one particular aspect came to light:
We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends. – Stumbling on Happiness
At the time I had some great friends. I still miss them, every day, and the conversations we have had. But I was also quite aware of how fast my grandsons were growing up, and that they didn’t know their grandpa. I knew that my daughters were facing challenges in their lives, and while they have all grown into strong and capable young women, it seemed possible that having Dad around occasionally could help.
So I packed everything – well, as much as I could – into my Saturn and drove through the early winter storms back to Madison, WI, in time to enjoy Thanksgiving with a large part of my extended family.
Dan’s Right: Love Makes You Happier
The motto of this blog is “Practical tips to make hard times happier.” If you’ve been reading it for any length of time, you know that I shy away from absolute declarations: If you do X, then Y is the result! I’m a firm believer in the Gray area, that there are many dimensions to any problem and that solutions are packed with unintended consequences.
So when I tell you that I am completely positive that focusing on my friends and family makes my life better, happier, and has no unfortunate side effects, you should be surprised.
Or not; some people may be sitting here going Duh! We knew that! That’s fine, though I suspect it’s not nearly so obvious. There’s a lot of focus on careers, on family, on recreational activities. And there’s nothing wrong with that – we need our alone time. We need to have the time to focus on ourselves. I simply think that perhaps the focus is too much on the glamorous roller-coaster of romantic love, rather than the more subtle love of family and friends.
It’s been astonishingly simple to improve the quality of my life: just prioritize, family first, then friends, then everything else. For example, I’m writing this post a few hours earlier than intended because my daughter called and asked if I could watch Harvey for a few hours today. The other night we canceled dinner plans to give my nephew a ride to school. Rather than go to a geeky Meetup yesterday, I went to have margaritas with a personal friend who will not be in the area for long.
What surprises me about this is that it’s not hard. It’s simply saying “yes” whenever someone who falls in the circle of family or friends asks me to do something with them. And the rewards are enormous – I can’t think of any decision I’ve made in the last forty-odd years that has been so unequivocally positive in result. I’ve been able to help just a little here and there in the lives of my friends and family, and that tiny bit has made the general happiness of my life higher than just about any time.
I’m well aware that it may not last – Harvey’s out of diapers already, and little Victor isn’t even drinking his bottle! In five years, my niece will be out of high school! The time seems to just fly by. And it’s not like life is one long blissful experience.
Love doesn’t make you happy. It’s not supposed to; you’re not supposed to be happy all the time. But love makes you happier, that’s for sure. Can you really ask for anything more?
Hard Boston Love
It’s hard to write about love today. I’ve avoided talking much about the Boston events, not through lack of caring but rather because I don’t feel adequate to address it. Other writers I admire such as Mark Morford have done a much better job of helping navigate our feelings during the tragedy:
In times of violent, faraway tragedy, you do the only thing possible: You gather in, hold tight, and take care of those close to you.
I found myself praying that the perpetrators would somehow be unaffiliated with any cause or ethnic group, because I feared reprisals based not on crimes but on appearance or belief or simple misunderstandings. I have had Sikh friends who have been berated for Islamic beliefs, and Islamic friends who have been berated for the beliefs of a small portion of their faith.
I see fierce loyalty and community love expressed by Bostonians (no surprise there) such as Jim Dowd’s column:
This town is not your run-of-the mill medium sized regional capital. In picking Boston as a target you picked has the unique condition of having a ridiculously huge number of completely off-the-wall genius techno-wizards co-existing right alongside some of the most psychotic angry, violent motherf&*^ers on the planet. I guarantee you that bringing these two groups together for common cause will turn out to be a massive miscalculation your part.
Finding Love During Tragedy
At the same time I read of the Boston suspect’s father, in Russia. Believing that his sons have been framed, he warns that “all Hell would break loose” if his other son is killed. At the time of this writing, as far as I know, the boy’s fate is not yet determined. The news has shown his aunt and uncle, and the pain in their eyes and voices as they try to deal with this reality…it is hard to imagine how hard it must be to deal with the discovery that someone you love may have done this kind of evil.
Or any kind of evil, really. That’s when it’s all too easy to let that emotional tipping point take you over the edge of love into the exact opposite: hate. Both are rooted in passion, but hate, as all Star Wars fans can tell you, is easier. It burns faster, and leaves a path of destruction – whether literal or spiritual or both – with all concerned.
Young College Gray: I want to make art about positive things!
College Mentor: Bah! Happiness is overrated!
Young College Gray: Yeah? Well, misery is EASY!
I am grateful that at least some of the focus on the event has been the selfless way so many went to the aid of the victims. Those who helped are being hailed as heroes, as being worthy of admiration and emulation, and for a grandfather that’s reassuring. Those are the people I will point out to my progeny. It will help, because it’s going to be tricky, in a world of nifty explosions in fiction and not-so-nifty in real life, to teach my grandsons that yes, love is hard, but it’s worth it.
In his column, Dowd mentions something he claims is peculiar to Boston: “Irish Alzheimer’s”, when all you can remember are the grudges you have against people. Maybe there’s some way to have it the other way around…where you forget all the grudges, and only remember the love you gave, the love you got, the love you shared.
Events aren’t making easy to remember the love these days.