Thursday, February 13, 2014

5 Years

I realized today that this month marks 5 years since Thumper and I started driving for Meals on Wheels. Much has changed in those 5 years. He almost never comes with me now that he's in school. We're on our third Director and our second route, and we don't get to see our old friends any more, the clients who made a big deal over him, who let him play with their collectible model tractors, and their grandkids, and their dogs.

Most of our new route now consists of an "independent living facility," a giant apartment complex for seniors where resident volunteers take the meals from me and deliver them to the individual clients. The volunteers are incredibly nice, and friendly, and they're always happy to see the boy when he comes, but we don't get to interact with the clients any longer. When we were looking for a volunteer opportunity, and we were failing to find something that felt just right for us, I doubted that I would do well talking to strangers. We were still dealing with nap times, and we were at the very beginning of our playground adventures where he made me talk to people, and as always, my expectations were nothing like reality. Thumper helped to drag me out of my shell, and I quickly learned how to stand on the front porch of an 83-year-old woman and have the same 45-minute conversation with her this week as I'd had with her last week, and to cheerfully change her light bulbs and talk to the cable company for her. I learned to accept that she would drop off the list, as most of the clients do eventually, without explanation, her story never finished, at least for me.

It's still a satisfying part of my week, Meals on Wheels, but things are different now. The women at the Senior Center where we pick up the meals, those women he still calls "the dominoes ladies" because they play every day while they wait for lunch, are still so kind. They always ask me about him, and always make a big deal when he does come with me. When he was a year-and-a-half, they clapped and cheered for him when he banged on the old piano (the one that disappeared after the renovations from the kitchen fire a few years ago), and they gave him candy every week (he still asks me if Ms. Celia sent me home with anything for him if I mention that I drove Meals on Wheels today), and they gave him stuffed animals at Christmas and Valentine's Day. But the people have changed, again and again, and with Thumper at the ripe old age of 6 1/2, there's almost no one left who remembers when he first toddled through the door and helped me reach out and connect in a meaningful way.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Profanity

Aerie and I have been working on a reasonable profanity policy for Thumper. Or should that be capitalized? Profanity Policy? I don't know. Anyway, we want him to understand not only that they are just words, just sounds that our mouths make that stand for ideas, but also that they have powerful potential to affect people's emotions. It comes down to knowing your audience and knowing that some words will deeply offend some people, so it's best not to use them all willy nilly. Complicated stuff for a 6 year old. Mostly he just loves the thrill of being allowed to say forbidden words out loud in front of his parents.

Case in point: while driving 20 minutes to the cool toy store (that's the new, second location of All Things Kids, for those of you keeping score) to buy a birthday present for a friend, we listened to my iPod on shuffle. iPod on shuffle often leads to  interesting conversations. Today, "Little Lion Man" by Mumford & Sons popped up.

"Did he say a bad word?"

"Yep."

"Did it end with 'ck'?"

"Yep."

"Did it start with 'fu'?"

"Yep."

"Did it have four letters?"

"Yep."

"Oh, like [neighborhood kid] said. His mom got really mad, and I had to come home so she could yell at him some more."

"What did he say?"

"He said, 'What the fuck did you do to your face?'" [This after Thumper spectacularly wiped out jumping off the furniture and gave himself an angry red rug burn on his chin.]

"Yeah, that's why you have to be careful with words like that. You should always assume it's going to make somebody mad, unless you know ahead of time that it's not. Like you should never ever sing this song at school, OK?"

"I would NEVER do that!"

But he does get an incredible electric jolt of excitement out of being able to say to his dad, "He said, 'What the fuck did you do to your face?'"

Then "Andrew in Drag" by The Magnetic Fields came on, and things got even more complicated. Did you know that "shag" means some of the same things that "fuck" does, but people in this country don't use it very much and don't really consider it a bad word? I know! Language is weird!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Complexity

Don't tell me how it ends, because I'm listening to the audiobook of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. At first, I didn't think I'd get very far through this book because I have an unsophisticated desire to like somebody, anybody, in any given book. If there's no one likeable, I don't see much point in carrying on, and through the first hour or so, there was no one to like at all. Nick was unpleasant; Amy was unpleasant. But the more I listened, the more I realized that Amy was really only unpleasant as portrayed through Nick's eyes, and as we get to see more of her through her own diary entries, she's actually funny, charming, kind, and a generous and understanding girlfriend and wife.

Still, though, this book is depressing the hell out of me. Its depiction of marriage, even a marriage barely five years old that was born in head-over-heels, giddy, let's-drive-to-Delaware-to-have-sex-just-because-we've-never-had-sex-in-Delaware romance, is bleak. Its depiction of life for educated, east coast liberal young folk who end up through unplanned circumstances in a small Midwestern town, whose culture is essentially American suburbia, is bleak. Middle-class American married life in suburbia is the very definition of my life at this moment.

What disturbs me to the depths of my secret soul is Nick and his (mis)understanding of his wife. He attributes to her all of his own worst insecurities about himself and then resents her deeply for what (he supposes) she feels about him. She is baffled by his anger because she does not feel any of those things about him. She works hard not to be the nagging, needy, manipulative wife that she sees some of her friends become. And still, he sees her as exactly what she refuses to be, and his anger and neglect forces her to become, in painfully awkward moments, just that. Seeing each character through the first person, it's agonizing witnessing their complete failure to understand or even to try beyond a superficial level to communicate meaningfully with each other about that failure to understand. Amy says more to her diary about how she feels than she does to him; Nick says more to the reader as narrator than he ever says to her.

All of which reminds me painfully of the early- to mid-2000's. I was Nick. I saw my wife as Nick sees Amy. I thought we were engaged in some sort of competition or battle because she absolutely refused (refused!) to concede any victories to me. So in turn, I refused to concede any to her. And things fell apart. And things got bad. And now, years later, they're much, much better, but the reminder of how quickly and easily even the best fairy tale love story can turn into a murder mystery (no, I never wanted to kill my wife, and no I don't know if Nick killed Amy! Don't tell me! I haven't read that far yet!) is a hard one to read.

So I remind myself by telling you this marital advice that should have been obvious to me much sooner than it was, and which should be easier to remember through the years than it actually was or is:

First, be nice. Be nice to each other. Behave as if you are in love, even if you're not feeling particularly in love right now. Acting as if you're in love can lead to feeling more in love, while waiting to feel in love does not necessarily lead to acting as if you're in love.

Understand that the only person whose behavior you can change is your own, and changing your own behavior can inspire a change in your partner. People are nicer to those that are nicer to them.

No one ever brought anyone over to their own side through passive-aggression, sarcasm, and open hostility. A clever retort in a heated moment wins you nothing.

I suppose I'll keep listening so that I can find out where that Gone Girl ended up, but it hurts me to think that Amy deserves better than Nick, because it hurts me to think that my wife deserves better than me, and that I've misinterpreted the sweet, loving, generous, and forgiving woman that she is, seeing her instead through the distorted lenses of my own self-criticism.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

People

Today, we went swimming with old Austin Stay-at-Home Dads group friends that we haven't seen as much since Thumper started school last year, then went to their home to hang out and make s'mores. We saw them at a playground play date yesterday, and as we stood on the bridge over the pond throwing expired baked goods down to the ducks, Thumper told his longtime friend, "I'm so happy to see you again." So we made arrangements to go swimming together today, and he loved seeing those kids again, and meeting their new dog, and I loved chatting with their mom and catching up again.

After that, we went to another ASAHDs family's house for a multi-family pizza party. My kid ran around and around and around their circular layout apartment (that, apparently, LBJ and Ladybird occupied in the '30's), and danced, and played, and I sat around talking, and drank a beer, and everybody ate round after round after round of incredible little pizzas with carmelized onions, rich cheeses, tomatoes, peppers, and a crispy homemade crust. We talked, and laughed, and reminisced, and shared experiences, and enjoyed the kids enjoying themselves.

And it occurred to me that this has been the summer of reaching out for us. We're doing much with many people, and it's been very satisfying for both of us.We've been reconnecting with dads' group friends that we lost contact with over the school year. We've been discovering new friends, for both him and for me, and for Aerie. We've been swimming, and going to birthday parties, and exploring new places. We've been camping, and climbing, and jumping off of high places, and as much as I thought I was fine with my own little world, I've deeply appreciated the degree to which it's expanded this summer. You people, you're all so special. I've loved how much you've made me push my own boundaries and reject my own shy, introverted social awkwardness. Thanks so much for this wonderful summer, and I hope it keeps on keeping on, right through the new school year. Smoochie smoochies!

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Heart of Love

Thumper and I were listening to "Black Flowers" by Fishbone in the car today:



I asked him, "Does it matter to you what color somebody's skin is?"

"No," he said, with a look on his face that made it clear he thought it was a ridiculous question. "Why did you ask me that?"

I said, "This song talks about the hatred that some people have for other people. Sometimes people hate other people because they look different than they do, or believe different things. Some people think that love and romance, like Mama and I have for each other, should only ever be between a man and a woman and they hate men who have love and romance for other men, or women who have love and romance for other women."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I think how someone treats other people matters more than what they look like or who they love. I hope you keep thinking like you do now and never start believing that different is bad."

"I'd never do that. I've never done that in my whole life!"

He clearly still thought it was a ridiculous conversation, and that made me happy.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Stories Too Long for Facebook

Yesterday, Thumper was running off to do something in another room when I told him, "Come here and let me comb your hair, then you can do whatever you want to do." His eyes lit up, and he immediately, without a pause, said, "I can do whatever I want to do?"

Realizing my semantic mistake, I said, "No, I mean you can go do whatever it is you were going to do in there." Aerie immediately pointed out how smart he was to see the loophole, so I asked him, "Who's the smartest: you, me, or Mama?"

"Mama."

"Who's the 2nd smartest?"

"I'm sorry to tell you, Dad, but it's me."

"Well, am I smarter than the kitties?"

"Yes. You're 3rd smartest. Then the kitties."

So, at least I outrank the kitties.

We spent the afternoon today trying to entertain ourselves without any TV or video games. While I did dishes and changed the bedding around the house, he ran on the treadmill, jumped on the trampoline, and beat up the standup punching bag. Then we worked on learning chess. When he couldn't figure out how to beat me in less than 30 minutes, he wanted to move on, plus it was about time to start cooking dinner.

I went into the kitchen, hooked up my iPod to the portable speakers, and kind of bopped along while I cooked. I turned around and saw him in the kitchen rocking out. He works his hips, his shoulders, his head, his arms. He has rhythm. He's gone to Zumba classes with Aerie a couple of times, and people there commented on his rhythm. He jumps, bounces, throws in lots of variety. I can't begin to move like he does. But he inspires me to dance less self-consciously, at least when it's just the two of us. Maybe in time I'll dance in public like I don't care what you think.

I started this summer with difficulty, trying to remember what it was like to spend all day every day with him since he just finished his first year of school. I'm beginning to remember how to talk to him like a person instead of snapping instructions at him and yelling at him when he doesn't listen. I'm remembering how to appreciate him, his sense of humor, his charm, his perspective on the world.

We spent two nights and three days camping with four other families (an entire post of its own, if I ever get around to writing it). It was his first camping trip. I told him that for the entire course of camping, he could make his own decisions about what he wanted to do and what he wanted to eat as long as he told me when he was going into the lake and when he was leaving the campsite. With the removal of all expectations for him to behave in a certain way and all expectations for me to limit his choices, we both were completely relaxed. For the most part, he made good choices, was kind to the other kids and polite to the adults. It was so fun and so calming that I found myself wondering why I was stressed and angry and snapped at him so much. I suppose we all do better when we're treated like people and aren't yelled at.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Professional

I like to think about story archetypes. One of the most appealing to me, for some reason, is the story of the absolutely unsurpassed professional, whose professionalism includes the rejection of personal relationships. Then, of course, he stumbles into a personal relationship that destroys his professionalism.

There is an aspect of this story that applies to other stories that I've loved: single-mindedness. I went through a period many years ago when I read Civil War histories, biographies, and autobiographies, and the characters I loved best were those that had a single-minded commitment to principle. John Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest, William Tecumseh Sherman, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson... These were the men who were extraordinarily successful because they were committed to achieving their purposes to the exclusion of all other considerations. Later, I read about Che Guevara, and completely independent of his political views, I loved him because of his absolute commitment to what he believed.

I think my admiration stems from the complete opposition to myself that such commitment represents. I can't even say for sure what it is I believe, let alone commit to that belief with a passion that excludes all else. This is also why I admire military men and women. I could never imagine myself joining the military and committing my life to an ideal. There's not much for which I'd willingly die. My wife. My son. The circumstances in which such a sacrifice would be necessary are limited, though.

I started thinking about this again after watching Drive this week. Ryan Gosling's professional driver who is undone by his affection for a little girl reminded me so much of Jean Reno's professional assassin who is undone by his affection for a little girl in, of course, The Professional. Assassins apparently have a weakness for spunky girls on their own, as evidenced by The Man from Nowhere. This "assassin who lets a little girl into his heart" theme occurs again in The Warrior's Way, but the warrior isn't quite destroyed in that one. Sometimes, though, it's romantic rather than some substitute for paternal love, as with Robert DeNiro, undone by his affection for a woman in Heat.

I don't know where I'm going with this, but I like stories of pure commitment to a single purpose. And I like them better when that pure commitment is unraveled by love, even when the hero's death is the ultimate result.

What does that say about me?
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