Thursday, July 26, 2012

As if on cue, one of the two water heaters in our mechanical room exploded and started gushing water everywhere last night.  I had said to Jeff 2 or 3 days ago that there was something bad going on with the water because it smelled so mineral-y and that I wouldn't dare wash my newly colored hair in it.  He said he checked it and that it was fine.

As with any explosion, there are warning signs---usually. The problem is that they often come in a nondescript package and don't point to any one potential hazard.  Is it the softener? Is it the water supply?  Is it the water heater (in this case, yes, yes it was, to quote Phineas)? If so, what course of action should I take when there is just one little symptom showing?  Trying to get ahead of events rather than letting them unfold is a no-win proposition.  There's no end to it.  Shit just happens.  And you gotta deal with it.

Here's to a day filled with no more mechanical problems.

But would it really surprise me?

ps. The plumber just arrived and promptly hauled out a new water heater.  While walking through the backyard toward the basement door, he stepped right in a huge pile of very fresh dog poop.  Then tracked it all over the newly sealed driveway where everybody is walking today.  To all of you renters out there: keep on renting.

God is hysterical.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

 Circumstances do not determine a woman they reveal her. -James Allen

I was mad at myself yesterday morning.  It showed, too.  Bags under the eyes.  Sheepish shuffle.  Uh.  I had one of those evenings that I regret 15 minutes after they conclude.  If the above sentiment is even half true, then I'm just a garden variety b***h.

We had company. Dear, beloved and wonderful company. Three extra kids in the house situated on various air mattresses and bedrolls.  Beautiful sights to behold. They were running, playing and jumping on those very bed rolls and air mattresses with our kids in the basement until about 11:20pm Sunday night.

We returned home after dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse to find that the A/C compressor motor was not operating.  It was 86* in the guest room.  I called and called Hutzel.  I even reached my old buddy Walt who was on the other side of a few beers, I'm sure.   We waited and waited.  Then at about 10:40pm a technician called and said he was on the other side of Jackson (probably also on the other side of a couple beers) and had forgotten he was on call.  He said that he'd be here in an hour.  It was 10:45pm.

Our guest quarters are barely tolerable on a good A/C day.  The house was an oven that night.  I was so mortified that my guests would be horribly uncomfortable that I lashed out at my husband.  You get the connection, right?  Yeah,  there is none.

I said something to the effect with outstretched finger and arm flailing, "dude, this is mechanical. I'm sick of having to design a new front porch, do laundry, sharpen the chain saw, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you're a man!" For the uninitiated, that's taken from a commercial for perfume from 1980.

Jeff's school schedule has meant that I'm doing a lot of mechanical-ish household stuff that makes me nervous.  Mostly just because I'm afraid I'm going to screw something up.  Like the A/C unit.  I bought that A/C unit on a recommendation from Steele Heating and Cooling from Chelsea.  He told me the one that was here before was twice the size that we needed and half as efficient.  It was 19 years old so I believed him.  But this one is 1/3 too small. So it just runs and runs and never gets a break.  The math fractions are moving in the wrong direction on this whole equation.  So, personally, I think we should take that little thing out and buy something that looks like this:

Plan B - Right?! Now that's what I'm sayin'!

Back in 2009, I got on a huge enviro kick. I stopped using A/C altogether, installed a whole-house fan and stopped using the clothes dryers and started using clotheslines.  I was composting and recycling so much we never even used our garbage can.  I was going to install solar panels, a geothermal system and start driving a Prius but then it got really hot outside.  So on to plan B.

Anyway, all that aside. The point is I don't operate in stressful situations well at all.  My maiden name "Feeney" comes from the old Norse word for "Warrior" and its also synonymous with "champion." I'll go with the former more than the latter.  Anyway, when stuff goes south, my warrior brain kicks in.  That's the part that I've referred to in the past as the Irish part.  Hey, anything to deflect responsibility and blame for just being a plain old b***h.

Perhaps Mr. Allen's little pithy quote is not a complete assessment.   Could there be more to us than what we are under pressure? 

I hope so. If not, I'll at least be cooler.

Who are you under pressure? 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

  "The endless pursuit of beauty, independent of substance, renders the pursuer possessed of neither." 

So I haven't smoked in 82 days.  Confession: I have weighed myself.   That little "relapsey thing" I'm working on with my core recovery group.  It's so humiliatingly personal that I had to take that inside. I didn't expect that it would be this difficult to not get on the scale. But I am dealing with it. As soon as I have some hilarity or an interesting breakthrough about it, I'll be sure and share it.  Until then, I'll just try to 'stay in the day' as we say, (hey, hey, hey) in the program.  And 'keep coming back.'  And my personal favorite (not) 'It works if you work it and you're worth it!' And gol darnit people like me.   That last one is from Saturday Night Live like 20 years ago.  They don't really say that at 12-step meetings.  To quote Diedrich Bader in Office Space,  

"I believe you'd get your a** kicked sayin' somethin' like 'at."

Why do I aspire to a weight that I cannot hit without a great deal of effort,  sacrifice or perhaps limb removal? I think there is a part of me that would love to be smaller, more lithe, more sinewy.  More typical of the anorexic model types that barrage us from every media portal.  But then there's part of me that is afraid if I do that, if I attain that skinniness ideal,  other substantial parts of myself will somehow also disappear.   Of course there's also the part about my having a caboose.  Like Miss Effie said in her Caribbean lilt about her 4'ft. thick concrete house in Grand Cayman, "that bi**h ain't goin' nowhere."

What is 'beautiful' anyway?  There's a saying in French that goes something like "beautiful women are for men with no imagination."  That's taken from the 1925 quote by Marcel Proust.

I like it. And I hate it.  Like women are for men anyway.  Most of the women I know are decidedly against them.  And not for lack of good reason. Wink Wink.  I'm not.  At least not all day everyday.  Maybe we could change it to something like:

"The endless pursuit of beauty, independent of substance, renders the pursuer possessed of neither." -Me 

I once had a man tell me, a man whom I (once) deeply admired, respected and loved, that I simply was not beautiful.  Like out of the blue. Weird. "You're nice looking," he said, "but you're certainly not classically beautiful."  And under my breath I said, "uh, thanks? Dick.  I don't think I ever said I was,  did I?"

His name is not Dick, by the way.

We're all slouching toward flabbiness. Even that bad-ass personal trainer at the gym, Sue.  She's tiny, ripped, strong, pretty.  It's her life to be that way.  But honey, one day she's going to be 65.  And 75.  And 90 if she's lucky. Right?

So when does this spin class end?

That level of intensity runs counter to my spiritual recovery.  And this is really just about getting to know my own heart and head.  It's good to know what's a false object of desire and what's really filling the spiritual tank. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ed: You have an Oppositional Conversational Style.  

Joe: No I don't

Have you ever spent time with a person who has Oppositional Conversational Style? OCS is what they're calling it now.  It looks something like this:

Ed:  It's really warm out, man.
Joe: It's actually not. It's way hotter in Atlanta.
Ed: Uh, I mean for us here, it's hot.
Joe: No, it was much hotter a few summers ago.
Ed: Uh, well, I guess you're right.

In the above exchange Ed will shuffle away dejected. He will end up feeling well, for lack of a better word, slimed by Mr. No Joe.  Mr. No Joe operates like that in every exchange no matter how benign the topic.  No-Joes leave a trail of anxious, unsatisfied and slightly angry ex-conversational partners.  Many of whom have no conscious idea of the reason for their angst.  Then they, themselves, go out into the world similarly to spread their newly acquired "good cheer."

I could cite case after case of this OCS to you because I know some people quite well who operate like this.  I have had loads of interactions with them.  The problem is that it's beyond negativism.  It's a conversational style that is designed to upset, to rankle, to over-power.   It's a conversational style that develops for a lot of different reasons.  I think the main reason is that people who operate like this feel, at their core, extremely powerless.  It's really just a bullying technique dressed up as polite conversation.  And it's contagious.   Highly contagious.

The art of really listening to somebody requires keeping our big fat traps shut.  It also requires that we hear while suspending judgment, reaction, the need to fix, to share or to interrupt what somebody is saying; both with their words and their body language.  Some guys I know are particularly bad at this because it's, generally speaking, not their primary role in life to take care of kids.  Mothers are always trying to stay a step ahead of kids' fluctuating moods.  This is mainly due to the fact that these are usually clues to bigger potentially unresolved issues such as illness, fatigue, emotional upheaval, anger, sadness, etc. that will ultimately require more attention if left to fester.  Some guys are really great at it.  I even met one, once.

Anyway, the OCS folks out there need to control conversations and people. Some of the more profoundly effected also actually like to watch people get upset.  That's usually skating into the severely pathologically narcissistic spectrum; a spectrum upon which we all fall somewhere. It's just better for everyone when we fall somewhere to the west of pathological.   The OCS people do this because they are largely disconnected.  Being emotionally disconnected from humanity will allow the psyche to engage in the most destructive behavior and, worse, justify it.  They say things like, "they deserved it. They were asking for it. They're so weak. They're so (insert derogatory adjective here)."  It's a basic lack of empathy.  However, that lack of empathy practiced over time becomes a basic lack of humanity.  People who have OCS suffer a constant stream of disconnections.  It snowballs.

The only cure for it is empathy.  But it is incredibly difficult to be empathetic to people who only want to argue with us or make us nervous, anxious, angry and who generally don't hear a damn thing we're saying.   I guess that's why Jesus told us to turn the other cheek.   Not so we could get are asses kicked but so we could gently practice the kind of empathy that is more contagious than its counterpart.

Empathy begets empathy.  Opposition begets opposition.

Empathy met with opposition is still empathy.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Part 2. Bulldozers and a Triple Iced Venti Latte:  L'Chaim!

The bulldozers came at Christmas a few years back.  The eyesore across the street from the old place is no more. No more turpitude.  Just an open field proudly owned by the cute little Methodist church.

Without the Japanese beetles, I never would have discovered why none of my trees ever grew on North Territorial--except in that one spot where it's likely something very large is entombed.  It was because our yard was sick with grubs.  Grubs are the larval phase in a Japanese beetle's life.  (little bastards!)

The whole time I was thinking I was fundamentally at odds with Mother Nature.  Instead, apparently, I was just not putting the right chemicals on my lawn.  Or so Kay Gee told me.  No, the irony of that statement was not lost on me.

I was so dejected that fateful day that I henceforth referred to it as 'The Day of the Beetle.'  It was nearly August and my fruitless growing season coupled with my horseless state rendered me untethered.  I announced to Jeff that I was going to find a horse to ride. In Montana.  It was the height of the horse market at that point.  I explained to him that a decent well-trained Quarter Horse was going for $7,500-$10,000 in Michigan. So it was worth it to go and look elsewhere.  Also, I needed to think.  About stuff. 

About kids. 

He just smiled as I packe.

I got upgraded to first class on the first leg of the journey because I was still working and traveling a lot in 2005.  I was seated next to the nicest guy.  After we took off, we exchanged pleasantries.  The flight attendant brought some wine and we instinctively looked at each other and said "L'chaim" and touched glasses.  He said "I'm not even going to ask you why you said that so perfectly."  I smiled.

Hamilton Montana Views
Hamilton, MT - The Bitterroot Valley
Then he settled into his seat and asked me why I was going to Denver.  I told him that my final destination was really Hamilton, MT where I planned to go horse shopping.  He said,  "horse shopping? Don't you have any kids?"  It sounds presumptuous and rude when I write it but it was more of a compliment.  Like he thought, "of course this woman should have kids.  She looks so maternal."  Or whatever.  But that's how I took it because I think that's how he meant it.

He said, "Listen, I'm a harmless, happily married family man.  But we've got a long flight and I just had a triple Venti iced latte at Starbucks.  So I'm not going to be sleeping any time soon.  Why don't you tell me your life story and the reason why you don't have any kids? I can tell there's a story in there."

I loved the guy's earnestness.  He was forthright and bold, sweet and not threatening in the least. So, I told him of our fertility woes. I told him that my husband and I recently sat down and decided that we'd be okay with or without kids.  That it was a sad realization but that we were only partly involved in the baby making process and the ultimate authority had spoken loudly and clearly on numerous occasions blah blah blah.

He said "Let me stop you right there because that's bullshit. He's just testing you guys to see how bad you want it." Hmm, I thought. I had never looked at it like that.  He went on to explain how when everything in your life comes easily, you think everything should.  And how sometimes God is going to be testing to see how serious you are.  I think he was the first person who I ever heard say "Parenting is not for ****sys so if you think the beginning part is difficult just wait! Don't think it's all fun and all lovey, kissy, huggy and shit all the time.  It's f****g brutal! But your life will be so empty if you don't go and adopt---like right now! Forget about this horse business, go home, fill out the paper work, turn in your crap and have a baby already!" 

Interestingly enough, the horse deals I made that week in Montana all fell through under very odd circumstances.  Bone spurs detected in the vet check in one, reneged deal on the other.  The third horse was as insane as his Jack Mormon 12-kid 3-wife-havin' owner.  I flew home empty handed but did exactly as my friend told me.  I got to work and never left the house for a week. I looked like a mad scientist when I went to turn in our dossier.  But in less than 10 days from that encounter, I had completed all the necessary work for us to be adoptive parents. 

All this from this nice Jewish guy from Oak Park, MI who owns a dry cleaning business, or so he said, and whose three kids had cancer, alopecia and a wicked slap shot respectively.

I can't for the life of me remember his name.

So I refer to him in my head as Angelo Rosenberg.  The Jewish Angel.

Patron of much-needed ass-whoopins and attitude adjustments.

Wherever you are right now Angelo:  L'chaim!

And, of course, Thanks.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fundamentally at Odds with the Natural World

In 2005 Jeff and I lived north of Chelsea on North Territorial Road.  We renovated the inside of a split level ranch house in '02-'03.  We were nesting.  However, the surrounding neighborhood was in less of a Ward and June Cleaver kind of state. Let's say it was transitional.  Across the street from us was basically a crack house in which things of unmentionable moral turpitude occurred.  There were dogs chained to heavy objects and blue tarps over their dirty kennels.  There were many cars of dubious origins.  It was, in short, hillbilly hell.

To the west of us were situated two rental houses with a constant stream of tenants whose belongings often ended up remaining--in the yard--long after they themselves had relocated.  On the east side of our property was a cute little custom boat shop, car repair place and a daycare center.  Those buildings were all meticulously maintained but still, less residential than the average buyer looks for.  This seemed unfortunate to me.  Because I had the best relationships with the those neighbors. They looked after my house when I was on vacation.  When we had renters for a brief time, they were the neighbors who were out in the backyard counting the 31 beer bottles and cans left behind by a late night gathering.  I had 4 phone calls about that party by 9am the next morning.  So it was that kind of neighborhood. Lots of Gladys Kravitzes--only nicer.

The other redeeming light was across the street. The North Lake United Methodist Church complete with the little red swooshy thing that Methodists are famous for--and a steeple.  The church was completed sometime in the early 1850's and its cuteness almost uplifted every other eyesore on that stretch of road.  Almost.

Despite the esthetic limitations of the immediate surroundings,  I nested.  And nested. For the better part of 3 years. To no avail. There were 4 or 5 miscarriages during that time. I lost count.  So the nesting was a hurky jerky affair interspersed with deep mourning and giddy anticipation.  To be honest, the giddiness fades after the second time.  But I wanted to be fair and give the little guys some hope to hold on to.  So I pretended to be giddy.  Anyway, the nesting began inside the house. When I'd done what I could inside both metaphorically and literally,  I turned my attention to the yard.  Well, if you know me, you know I like to get to know people.  I don't just want to say hi.  I think the clinical term for that is 'chatty.'  I was on a first name basis with the entire Gee family. Gee Farms is a large nursery compound kind of between Stockbridge, Jackson and Lansing.  I bought a lot of trees.  Some of which actually survived.

Then in the summer of that year, when I was 40, I stopped thinking about planting trees and started thinking about planting roses--and adopting.  The two seemed related somehow.

Why adoption got confused with roses in my head, I'll never know.  Anyway, I started buying rose bushes--a lot of them.  I would bring them home and put them in this nice high sandy area adjacent to the extra parking spot that I built myself-with 5 yards of 21AA and a shovel and Jeff's old truck.  I had a lot of angst and steam I needed to let go of, I guess. 

There were several different varieties of peach colored and deep orange roses. I bought large-flowered long stem types mostly.  They were coming along so nicely in that soil.  It was the one patch on that whole 1/2 acre parcel that could actually grow something--and boy was it ever fertile.  I just kept thinking, I wonder what the hell those people buried under there. I'm sure I didn't really want to know.  It grew nice rose bushes. That's all that mattered. What's dead is dead, I thought. Thanks for the phosphorous.  Sometime in mid to late July, the buds started looking plumper and plumper. They looked like they were just about ready to pop.  I was so excited. I went to bed one Monday night so excited I could barely sleep. I knew the next morning the budding would begin in earnest.

At first light, I bolted out of bed.  I went downstairs and brewed up some espresso in my Alessi stove top coffee maker with the melted blue plastic handle I ruined while camping. That thing made the most wicked coffee, I couldn't bear to part with it even in its scorched and misshapen state.  I steamed my milk, mixed up my brew and sneaked outside to have a peek.

There I stood in my pj-s and cowboy boots at 6am staring in horror at a swarm of Japanese beetles making love on and eating my precious rose buds before they even had had a chance to open.   I began to weep.  And scream at them.  And rant, and swat, and swear and weep some more.  I got bit or stung, I don't know which, more than a few times, as I unceremoniously crushed some of the little bastards.  I mean they decimated the entire patch of 25 bushes.  Leaves, buds, hell, they may have even been eating some of the thorns.  At first I looked at the buds which seemed in tact until I got right up on them. Then I realized that what seemed like a bud was really the leafy wrapper in its unopened state with a swarm of beetles inside it,  munching away.

For about an hour, I mumbled to myself and removed beetles.  I even went in the house and mixed up the following concoction -- a recipe I'd found on some website:  Water, some, dish soap, hot pepper, lemon juice, Tabasco and a bit of vinegar.

Well you'd have thought they were at Ruby Tuesday.  They seemed to eat through the natural bug repellant with renewed vigor. So by this point it's about 7:30am and I never smoked before noon. Never.  Had a hard and fast rule.  People who smoked before noon were real smokers. I was just pretending.  But damn if I wasn't out there in the rain, because at this point it had started to drizzle, smoking.  In my pajamas, with a spray bottle in one hand, an umbrella and a cigarette in the other and screaming at those damnable little bastards.  Swatting, yelling, crying, smoking, mumbling to myself, spraying.  Of course.

So about that Adoption.  We're not quite sure Mrs. Mason is an, um shall we say,  fit candidate for that.  Good thing nobody had a security camera on me.  Thank God for those few awesome neighbors of mine.  Just like Colonel Klink, they saw nuh-ssing.

By this time, the morning commute had begun and we lived on a busy stretch of North Territorial.  I knew many of the people driving by.  Many of them honked that morning, in fact,  because I'm sure I was quite a sight to behold.  Think a cross between these two photos:
Carl Spackler from Caddy Shack
Molly Mason from Chelsea

But with no smiles.  At all. Add an umbrella,  an American Spirit, bulging veins at my temples and a spray bottle instead of a hose.   Think Bill Murray in Caddy Shack. Trying to kill the gophers.  Mumbling to himself.

A few years ago I saw the movie "Failure to Launch."  This was an exchange between the two lead characters which I think really sums up how I felt that morning:

Demo: [to Tripp] You were bitten by a chuckwalla. That shouldn't have happened. It's a reptile of peace. I have a theory. This isn't the first time that nature's lashed out at you like this. I believe it's because your life is fundamentally at odds with the natural world.
Tripp: Huh?
Demo: Therefore, nature rejects you.

Therefore, nature rejects you.

I thought to myself, well, Mother Nature, (if that's your real name) you might have some dominion...but I'll be back.  

I stopped gardening that summer--but not forever.

And for a couple of really good reasons.
(To be continued)


Monday, July 16, 2012

Why the hell am I here?

I'm always asking myself 'why the hell am I here?'  Was it to be the mediocre student that I was and not even attempt to get into medical school? (Which you'll be glad I didn't as you continue reading). Obviously rhetorical. Is it to write this blog? Again. Res ipsa loquitur.  If I had one mission,  I would have to say it's probably my kids.  But I created that mission--or helped to anyway. So does that mean that I handed the job of giving meaning to my life to two tiny little babies?  That seems beyond lame.  It seems an unfair burden for a couple 8lb. infants.

When I arrive at that conclusion I invariably think, that's too much pressure for those guys.

I gotta get a life.

So I applied to grad school like my big important and accomplished husband.  He applied to U of M eMBA program.  He got in.  I shot lower than that, or so I thought. I applied to the EMU Graduate School of Social Work.  I didn't get in.   I humored myself by saying that I'm smart enough and good enough and gol darnit people like me.  The other excuse I liked to employ was that they had filled their quota of middle-aged suburban label whores early in the admissions process.  Either way.  A no is a no.  And the "insufficient credentials" that they listed as a reason rang throughout the hollows of my skull and heart for months.

I think it was the biggest blow that my ego has endured in years.  I couldn't sleep or feel my feet for a week after that news came in.   It came at the same time as a particularly nasty email from a chronically disgruntled extended family member.  And on the heels of 3 back-to-back trips with the kids.  On the health front, I was dealing with all the loveliness that accompanies being 47 as well as no sleep.  I was spent.  It was winter.

Those aforementioned blows just about finished me off.  But on top of that,  we got the news that the boys would need to repeat Kindergarten.  They had spent 2 and a half years at the most well-respected (read: expensive) preschool in town - maybe for nothing more than the prestige of saying it.  Not a big deal except it was a grueling commute twice a day--300 extra miles a week--in that hog I drive.  It was clear in March that neither would be even close to ready for First Grade at the end of it.   Also at this time, my husband shushed me. In public. At a business event.   Nothing like getting your ass handed to you at a table full of dignitaries to make you feel like a piece of shit.  I ain't sugar coating that one.  No way to.  Shush is shush in any language. And in any language it has the same effect.

To top that off, the next night I was forced to go out with some more dignitaries--and I use that term loosely.  I was talking to one of them who was rather drunk.  He also shushed me but not by saying shush.  He came out with his steep NC accent and said "You should stop talking NOW!"  We were joking and laughing and he was explaining to me how to correctly pronounce some southern colloquialism that my brother shared with me--nothing off color--so his comment seemed to come out of left field.  Like my first reaction was, 'are you talking to somebody standing behind me or what?' Anyway, apparently, I didn't get the slang quite southern enough.  He's a bit sexist and he was pretty hammered. Not only did he never apologize (I'm sure he didn't remember) but I don't even think he realized I was gone. Because after that brief and humiliating exchange, I got up from the table (under the guise of going to the bathroom), hailed a cab and went back to the hotel -- all before the appetizers appeared.

I have nice stuff.  I'm healthy. My family is healthy. The important boxes are checked.  But are they? Isn't it also important to be somebody so your kids have something to emulate? I'm not that good at making being a homemaker seem fulfilling enough. At least it's not for me.  I'm just not that great at it.  I want to set my kitchen on fire. I hate folding laundry. There ain't no end to washing floors, windows, butts.  Sisyphus got nothing on housewives.  Nothing.  That shit, absent anything more mentally stimulating, will suck the light right out of your soul.

So I endeavored to create another chapter.  I endeavored and failed.  And I ceased up like an old flywheel in a hail storm.  I felt like crap on every front.  So I started writing to ease the sting of it all and poke some fun at myself.  And figure it out so that I can, in spite of my many shortcomings, be the author of the next chapter.  With any luck, it will be written with more clarity and less shushing than the last chapter. It will be worthy of emulation.  It will be filled with the wisdom that comes with getting your ass handed to you a few times and surviving it. 

And I hope it'll have a happy ending.  Not the dirty kind of happy ending either. 

Because, if for nothing else, I'm here for the happy ending.

Drama, Drama, Drama

Henry and Elliot have their own little desks in their rooms now. They're cute little kid-sized deals with a cork tack board background and a little shelf and chair.  Elliot looks like he belongs in his. When Henry is seated at his desk, he looks like Elf on Bob Newhart's lap.   It seems hard to believe that the boys need desks for homework because they both still have mouths full of baby teeth.  It works fine on Elliot -- it even works fine on Henry's sweet little baby face. But on his 4'5" frame and tipping the scales at 68lbs., it's a little incongruous.

Henry works hard. He likes to sweep, mop, vacuum, dig holes in the yard, break or take apart everything he can get his hands on and eat a lot of weird food while hiding behind the couch.  I'm trying to break him of the shame that surrounds these frequent trips behind my back to the fridge or cupboard.

I'd rather have him as big as a house than hiding behind the couch eating Z Bars and Doritos (Dad's purchase--not mine).

We have to do homework with the boys now.  School is so much more rigorous than it was when I was young.  They expect to get the kids imputing content into their little forming brains probably 2 and half years earlier than we had to worry about it. We had a cakewalk comparatively. 

We question the wisdom of this but we also don't want to leave the kids without the necessary skills and stamina to manage the requisite workload.  We don't have Ivy League designs but we would like to avoid incarceration if at all possible.   Sort of the old motto of "keeping it between the ditches."

Elliot is a typically developing academic. That might be an understatement.  He definitely inherited his Dad's love of school.  Henry's natural skill set is somewhere slightly outside of the average classroom.  But he's a genius swimmer--2 years ahead of his age.  He's strong as an ox and he possesses a nearly photographic visual memory.   He just struggles with sitting still and giving much of a crap about math or reading.  And attending to one thing at a time.  Hard to believe he's NOT my biological child. Right?  Oh look, a chicken!

Anyway, Elliot does his homework easily and quickly--most of the time.  Henry, well, not so much.

So on Friday, I announced that it was time for some homework.  And let me say, I mean 15 minutes of homework.  Not hours.  Almost immediately, the gnashing of teeth began.  It ushered in a tantrum complete with slamming doors, weeping and throwing toys.  I just sat quietly until the whole thing played out. And it did. Eventually.  For the third time in a week.

This is what happens when things are not nipped in the bud.  My kids' unacceptable behavior will escalate until they get the desired response which to them is my giving up on a course of action. Instead, I held steady and only backed off when Henry did some of his work.

Then I made a mac-n-cheese picnic for the living room in front of Pirates of the Caribbean (or Carob Beans as the boys call it).  They happily ate their dinner at the ottoman while I plotted.  As soon as the opening credits were done and the mac-n-cheese consumed, I pressed Pause.  It was amazing to see the little minds engage in simple addition and subtraction, phonetics and writing. Maybe those little desks are too little. Maybe more carrot, less stick, maybe I just have to be stronger and calmer than a 6-yr-old.  

When it was all done, Henry showed me his work beaming. He was so proud of himself.  And when I whispered in each of their ears that I believed in them--even when they freak out, they both hugged me so hard and smiled in a way that told me it was exactly what they wanted to hear.  I think it's all about overcoming our own resistance to growth--mine especially.  It's time to grow up. A little bit every day.   Tantrums reflect the little pieces of myself and my kids that we are too ashamed to claim let alone integrate.   I know this from my own experience not just from sitting with my son in conflict with himself. If I can remain calm and present, it's the most profound transformation to witness. It's like being present at a birth.  There's a lot if pain and screaming, but in the end there's a whole new person. 

But man does it ever kick your ass as a parent sometimes.  Whew.  Hope today's is easier. If not, it'll just be another lesson for me in being calm and lovingly detached and for Henry in overcoming his own resistance.

Either way, it's a win.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cabin fever, 102.9* fever, Ernie Harwell and Spongy Sword Fights.  Ah summer time.

All four of us have strep throat.  Isn't that special?

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The above 4 lines have been preserved for your enjoyment. This is Henry's blog entry.   Anyway, because of the nasty bug, we're not able to do anything outside the house, at least anything in good conscience.

I'm sure there are desperate moms who have to go to the store, kids in tow, while dealing with the same situation.  We don't.  At least not for the classical reasons like milk, eggs, bread, ham, cheese. But if you throw 'sanity' onto the list it becomes a lot more salient to the argument for infecting the balance of humanity.

Ah sanity. A funny little word with Latin roots connected to 'insanity' or the chronic, habitual and prolonged exposure to small children.  Oops, I think that was my definition.

The key to not going crazy with kids is to not get sucked into their drama.  My kids are uniquely gifted at creating the kind of drama that requires attention, often of the medical variety.  Case in point: We were leaving T Ball practice Sunday.  I was speaking with some of the other parents about our game which is tonight.  Their older son was seated on his soccer ball on the grass next to my truck.  Henry came darting across the street, ran up to the kid and hauled off kicked the ball from underneath his tush.  Peaceful conversation turns into near loss of testicles.  I watched the whole thing.  And it was damn close.

I screech out at Henry in horror.  'Dude, what was THAT?'  He just looks at me with a quizzical look like "whaaaaat?" What happened after that is a kind of shame spiral--usually. But that time, I sort of unhooked from the spaz.   I unhooked from Henry's behavior. On the way home, I quietly asked Henry why what he did was a bad idea.  He explained in a measured way.   Then we moved on.  Perhaps he'll try it again tonight. Who knows?  But something in me has clicked the past couple of days.  Fueling situations like that with more drama and upset only makes the impression indelible rather than forgettable.  Some things you want them to remember but words never help.  Experience is the best teacher.  More precisely, the physics of experience.  Blah blah blah at any volume just impedes that.

If a situation seems really emotional, melancholic, tragic, super heated, super angry, I just get my internal dial and turn the whole thing down.

Anyway,  lots of exercise, lots of unhooking from the kids lately.  Great stuff. The other thing I've noticed is something I kind of learned from my dad when Ernie Harwell got fired.  I got as indignant as the rest of the world.  He went on a smear campaign and most of the world bought it hook, line and sinker. But my Dad just made the 'I ain't buyin' it' face.  He said, there's more to this story than meets the eye.  I cocked my head sideways and said, 'Hmm?' From that day forward, every time somebody had a 'thou doth protest too much' moment, I took a deep breath and my Dad's stance.  The space between stimulus and response is something we have control over.  The longer the space, the better the reaction in emotional situations, at least.  Even working under pressure, doctors, EMTs, cops, fireman all have to make split second decisions for sure. But they have to be able to think under pressure not just react.

The kids just got the spongy swords out. I hate the damn things--so does Jeff.
It's all over but the cryin.' Thank God it's just them today and not me. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rewire Your Brain

I'm reading the coolest book.  It's called "Rewire Your Brain."  A couple of years ago I read a similar book entitled "The Anxious Brain." But because it had anxious in the title, I would fidget and fuss every single time I got any where near reading it.  So there it sat, full of all sorts of great information.

Along came the new book and I just loved the utility and directness of the title so much that I just dove right in.  I'm actually listening to it on my iPod.

Dr. Arden goes into detail about what parts of the brain are firing during things like addictive episodes, depression, anxiety, fear or what I like to call "Monday."  He states emphatically that basically anybody who sits around feeling like crap should get up, do 15 push ups, put on some up tempo club music, grab a glow stick, some tennis shoes, their favorite cologne and run down the street screaming to themselves that they're crazy to think like that.  He also favors desensitizing oneself to offending stimuli or what I like to call "my house."

Anyway, all kidding aside, if you have thought patterns that are getting in your way, I recommend this book. It's a bit heavy on acronyms and brain anatomy but nothing you can't handle.

I always have a rubber band around my bicep for my hair--it's actually a head band.  Now, whenever I have a ridiculous and anxiety provoking thought,  I'll snap it.  It doesn't hurt just sort of stings.  Dr. Arden didn't really mention that in his book--not yet anyway.  That's just my personal little add-on.   With horses and dogs it's an e-collar---who'm I kidding?! It's a shock collar.  Anyway, for ridiculous equine behavior such as striking, it can be really helpful.  I know this because in 2005, I had a really horse-aggressive little gelding.  We all believed he had a Napoleonic complex brought on by having been bullied as a yearling.  But that was probably anthropomorphizing.  Anyway, he was a total ass to this 22 year old rope horse out in the pasture--his only pasture mate, in fact.  He'd been the same with every other horse he'd been around as well. So the behavior was exceedingly antisocial and needed to be dealt with because I was not going to be able to take him to any other farm to live.  The boarding facility was for sale.   My trainer at the time, Peggy, borrowed an e-collar from a friend.  We put it on him and turned him out in the pen with the other guy.

He started immediately in on poor old Rusty.  I felt so bad.  But the minute he went up on his hind legs to strike (with some ferocity, I might add) Peggy hit the switch.  What happened next was simultaneously hilarious, disturbing and incredibly effective.  Now there's only enough juice to shock them the way we get shocked by static electricity in the winter when we shuffle around in our socks.

So mid-air Marty the Paint gelding had the meanest look on his face and was poised to exact his pound of flesh from Rusty when, all of a sudden, his neck kinked a bit to the side and he got very wide-eyed and screeched out.  It was the look of a school yard bully when the older brother of his pray shows up with a gang.  And down on his hooves he plopped.   He shook his head somewhat bewildered and thought a second. You could almost hear "Hmm, what the hell just happened?"  When he came back to his senses, he looked at old Rusty and thought longer this time.  He started to move in Rusty's general direction again with the ears pinned back and bam! Peggy hit the switch on a lighter setting. Squeal, ears went forward, head shook,  hmm... The third time he went to look at Rusty, his ears went back for a second and then snapped forward.   It took only those two small zaps and he never touched that horse again.

So, I thought I'd try to employ the technique.   The problem is that I leaned over to Peggy the first time she hit that button as I laughed and asked her "Is it wrong that I sort of enjoyed that? Wait. Don't answer that."

As I wrote that and laughed, I also snapped the rubber band and started singing Pink's "Raise Your Glass."

Now I'm sure I'll be cured in no time.
Where's my glow stick?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The A/C is out.  The coils are frozen solid according to Walt from Hutzel.  Frozen solid because they're low on freon.  They're low on freon because there's a leak somewhere.  There's a leak somewhere because of a either a bad part in the (only 5-year-old) unit or maybe in one of the welded joints.  Anyway, he has to run the heat for a half hour in order to thaw it out.   He has to run the heat to thaw the ice. It's 10:27am and it's already 84* with about the same percentage of humidity.

There is a lesson in here somewhere. I'm sure of it. If even just to teach me that God is hysterically ironic.

Walt just announced that he was going outside to have a smoke while the heat runs.  Isn't that something? He gets to run outside to enjoy a smoke.  Again with the joking around, God.  I hate to see what jocularity awaits in the next 45 minutes.

By the way, 63 days without a cigarette as of today.  I don't know why I mention this on the random and usually odd numbered days.  It's just when something triggers a memory. Which brings me to the point in the story where I'm a flake.

I am a flake.  I don't manage a bunch of interruptions, jostling, jockeying, fighting, dirt, mountains of laundry, broken air conditioners and mislaid keys very well.  I forget stuff, invariably important things.  Like yesterday.  No I didn't forget that there WAS a yesterday. I just forgot something important yesterday.

I was supposed to meet a friend with my truck to pick up a piece of furniture.  But a bunch of activity happened and I forgot.  Henry fell asleep  There was a flurry of other things but they're just normal things.  But flurry is my middle name.  In fact, I should go to McDonalds and order them to name one of those things after me.  And then just order one.  They're delish. 

Oh look, chicken!

That is actually on a magnet that I bought my sister a couple years ago.  It actually says "I think I have ADD. Oh Look, a chicken!"

Focusing on one thing for more than 30 seconds causes me great pain because it's impossible for me.  This leads me to believe that I may have a touch (read: metric ton) of ADD.  I'm going to get professionally tested.  It seems to have a genetic component.  We'll see what turns up.  I scored over 100 on an online metric that goes up to 80 as the highest part of the range.  Where are my keys?

I figure it's better to get tested than to beat myself with a stick for being flaky.  There's flaky and then there's clinically flaky.   I'm clinically flaky because I know I'm not stupid.  At least not in the classical sense, anyway.

Anyway, it would explain a lot.

Except where my keys are.  And what the hell that chicken is doing over there.

Where's Walt?

Monday, July 2, 2012

From Blueberry Pie to Brain Surgery

So I read today's post like 100 times.  It flowed out onto the keyboard pretty easily last night. I accepted its imperfect origins---until I started picking it apart.   Then I corrected a bunch of stuff--tenses, person, etc. Then I uncorrected it. Then I erased a bunch of paragraphs and then put them back. Exhausted and sick of the damn thing, I hit the publish button.  It made me nauseous.  I wanted to punch the computer.

My brother Michael told me of similar struggles with songs that he's written.  He'd write it and really feel it and love it.  Then he'd record it.  Then he'd go into the studio and tweak it until he wanted to smash the mixing board with a ball-peen hammer.

I like to call this acute second-guessing "The Annihilation of Analysis."  Songs, like love, are not digital. They're analog--at least the kind that Michael writes.  My writing is not Shakespeare or even readable half the time.  But it's something.  It's mine.   It would be like me making a beautiful lattice crusted blueberry peach pie and then taking after it with a chainsaw because some of the juice bubbled over the side.  That ain't right.  It's a pie, for God's sake.  It's not a precision instrument for excising brain tumors measured in the nanometers: It's a pie.  We make songs, pies and blogposts here at the Feeney/Mason house.  We don't make precision medical instruments.  I mean how would you serve that? Ice cream or whipped cream? Yeah, not tasty.  Helpful if you happen to have a brain tumor, yes.  Delicious after some barbecue? No.

Maybe somebody relates. Maybe not.  Maybe somebody's pissed.  Maybe somebody sings along.  Maybe you're singing to yourself in the Royal Albert Hall.  Maybe I'm writing for the emptiness of cyberspace and the only reverb I get is the echo of my own ill-executed unread sentences.  But who doesn't love a damn blueberry peach pie in the middle of the summer?   We may not be removing brain tumors with our work.

But I would venture to say that we have solved a few heart problems.

Ps. Apologies to my wonderful brother for hitching my wagon to his beautiful song.  I'd be a dumbass if I didn't. 

Christy Turlington is 5'10" and Rufus Wainwright is 5'11"

I'm going to say something radical today.  I'm going to say something I've known for 30 years but have resisted knowing just as long because it really got in the way of my psychoses of perfectionist OCD:  I don't change until I feel worthy of it and until I let go of unrealistic goals.  I won't feel sufficient to change something until I feel, well, sufficient.  I won't feel sufficient until I craft realistic expectations for myself based on my God-given strengths and talents.  E.g., calling myself an old, fat, middle-aged pig is not going to result in my becoming Christy Turlington. Ever. And Christy Turlington is a Super Model.  She's 5'10".  She's a genetic anomaly. Not a realistic goal.  I bet she doesn't even poop. 

I think that's why the contestants on the show the Biggest Loser never keep the weight off.  Shoot, they've been trying to gain the prestige of the moniker "Biggest Loser."  Uh, yeah, no thanks.

I won't lose weight, tighten my abs, stop drinking 2 drinks instead of 1, start doing more yoga, learn German or start treating the kids and Jeff with more love and gentle, understanding kindness until I do the same for myself.   I'll just keep treating them the same way I treat me: with a mixture of scorn and contempt,  pity and shame for being such an insufficient insert noun here.

This concept of sufficiency has recently come to light for me. Sufficiency and perfectionism cannot coexist.  Additionally sufficiency and shame cannot either.  The idea that I can carry sufficiency to the shittiest possible outfit, hair-day, plight, misbehaving child, etc. and stick a feather in it and call it "good enough" has just opened up my heart and my brain to a whole 'nother way of living.

I'm still digesting it.

Good enough.  Hm.  Who knew?

The reason that this has come to my attention has to do with Henry's grace prayer.  Elliot's, too.  If they get interrupted while reciting them, they start over from the beginning.  As you can imagine, this can make for some cold food by the time we get around to finishing grace as well as settling the various spatial violation disputes that arise and then, finally, on to the actual business of dinner.

I remember doing something similar when I practiced violin.  I would start from the beginning of a piece.  So I'd be great at the first 8 measures where it would invariably get more complicated and I'd start to make mistakes.  So I'd go back to the beginning and start over, get to the same place and again flub up. Of course I would lose heart after playing the same shit for 20 minutes and invariably give up the entire endeavor.  I'd go to school and make just enough mistakes to end up in the back of the first violin section-where I stayed.   I arrived at the somewhat erroneous conclusion that I just wasn't very good.  Not at violin or any other thing I ventured.  After all, 8 measures in,  I always tanked.  When really what it was was basically a flawed method of practice.  I didn't need to practice the 8 measures I knew.  I needed to painstakingly and slowly go through note by note what I didn't know.  Instead of wasting precious time going back to the beginning, I could have just learned to stink at stuff more gracefully.  Pick up where I left off and just keep going. Preferably in the basement away from the other 7 members of my household.

The interesting thing about this is the following:  I came away from this and all other academic situations with the understanding that I just didn't have the X factor.  When in reality, I didn't because the X factor was not something that is assigned at birth.  It's not JUST God-given.  The X factor is the mixture of talent plus a belief in oneself that one could practice and get better at something.   Then, of course, there is the business of the thousands of hours of practice that follow.  Being awesome at something is predicated on being okay with not being good at it in the beginning but instead just plain old good enough to learn it.  Good enough. Sufficient to withstand the burden of making countless mistakes while slogging through it.

But fragile egos are fragile because they're not resilient not because they're not big.  Resilience means you can take it if you suck because you're already enough.  Worthiness is off the table.  You were sufficient before you woke up in the morning.  Sufficient with a zit on your forehead. Sufficient with bad breath. Sufficient.  Sufficiency breeds resilience. Resilience breeds feelings of sufficiency. You see where I'm going with this.   It's not self esteem either.  It's much bigger than that.

Therein lies the rub. The belief that one is sufficient regardless of accomplishment becomes foundational for learning. More specifically, it's foundational for surviving the rigors of practice. And being okay when you suck. And being okay with starting from measure 8 if that's where you made a mistake.  Just cover the ground of the entire piece.  Focus on the difficult areas.  Take it from the top and string it all together, sure.  But do it only when the challenging bits are untangled, messily and kinked as they may have ended up.

We went to see Rufus Wainwright Saturday night. Yes he is uniquely imbued with monstrous talent.  He went to Interlochen so I am quite sure that he also learned to practice his ass off---for years.  He screwed up the first song about 10 measures in.  He restarted it from the top and made a similar misstep at the same place.  But he kept going the second time.

You could almost hear him say it as he shrugged his shoulders "eh, good enough." Then he joyfully completed his song. The rest of the set was not entirely mistake free, either. But it was masterful, beautiful and real. 

Like he said, "eh...good enough."