Sunday, December 30, 2007

Belated Christmas Greetings

Since the kids left home I've not been much on Christmas cards. We used to write a family letter each year to detail the various family events, but now it seems that one year seems pretty much like the last. With kids, there were lots of things to report as they transitioned through the childhood years. After all, they were changing and growing like young weeds, and a year's time when they were six was one-sixth of their lifetime. But now there are only two of us at age 60, when one year is only about one and a half percent of a lifetime--hardly worth mentioning. So now what I do is wait to receive our Christmas cards and then send a New Year's note to those who "cared enouigh to send the very best." I dropped eighteen such missives in the mail yesterday, feeling good about having responded to those who remembered us, on the one hand, but on the other hand thinking the whole exercise is pretty superficial. Still, it keeps us in touch with old friends like the Dawsons, in hopes that we'll some day see them in person.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Old friends, etc.

Old friends
A few years back, pre-marriage, I was involved in community theater for a few years. Theatre was a great counter-balance to the workaholism I had developed in my first job after dropping out of college back in the day. (3 different majors in 2.5 years, left for a job in computers. -laugh-) Theatre is a great time sink-hole, blocking large bands of evenings and weekends in your calendar, and getting you away from the computer into creative, social situations with people. The with people part was a shift for me at the time and a very good move for my mental health, I be thinkin'.*
A quick aside: This American Life is a great radio show out of NPR in Chicago. I listen to all of the new episodes on my iPod. They ran a story about people that live and die "Alone in America." Apparently 1,800 people die each year in LA county with no one to take care of their affairs. A full-time department of 10 investigators goes to their clutter-bound homes to try to sleuth out any human connection. Hearing about that annual mass grave (1,800 social isolates spending eternity literally mixed together with nearly two thousand strangers... -laugh-) makes me feel staggeringly successful and fortunate in the friends department. No matter how little "hang out time" I have with friends, I'm a social magnate compared to the right "crowd."

One of my many (!) old theatre friends was back from New York for Christmas, so an impromptu reunion grew from 2 of us, forty-five minutes late, to 16 people three hours later. (Tardiness is rampant among my beloved theatre folk.) So many of my old friends have gotten married, had kids, gotten divorced, developed health problems, moved out of state, moved back in-state, etc... These re-unions are intense for the under-developed social networking and gossip regions of my brain, packing 6 months of people stuff into a dizzyingly concentrated brew I try my best to process and retain. My over-developed guilt lobes always pester me, questioning why I don't hang out with people more. Over the years I've gotten better at squelching its noisy insistence that I'm screwing up a good thing or passing over potential happiness for no good reason. I think that part of my brain is wrong and I'm a good friend who shows up every once in a while. Usually I'm fairly comfortable that's OK.

(I could do many pages on that weird goblin in my head that's always criticizing me. I'll save that for another day...)

* Sorry. I'm 260 pages into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on my new Sony Reader and it's effecting my grammer. :)

The joy of work
After a dozen years of 9 to 5 I now have one foot firmly off the corporate treadmill. Strangely, that treadmill is now my favorite part of the week. The distance and stepping out of my management role has helped a lot, but now I also see what I couldn't see before -- I crave and enjoy the constant little feedback loops of small accomplishments that come so easily in corporate America. My new world has a lot more potential for deeply meaningful accomplishment, and now I cherish the weekly process of not-so-meaningful work for all it's good parts. As my dad has told me forever, it's probably all about maintaining that balance.

And my co-worker gave me 1600 e-books earlier this week, so that's a plus too. :)

Sleepnumber bed
We dropped almost $5K on a bed this morning. I do not feel guilty about the hundreds of meals we could have bought starving people with that money. I'll remind myself that I do not feel guilty as needed. Hopefully this'll be great for my wife's back. Waking up with back pain is not cool.


I recently watched the movie "Crash" for about the fourth time, and have been trying to analyze why it fascinates me so. I don't think it has much to do with the thematic opening and closing scenes, both of which portray the thought that residents of LA are so hardened by urban life that they crash into each other just to feel alive and connected. While there may be truth in that, a different truth stands out for me: the intermingling of shadow and light that defines each human being, whether "good" or "bad." In fact, those terms are turned completely on their head as the movie unfolds: the racist cop who sexually abuses a black woman subsequently risks his life to save the same woman from a flaming car wreck, while his partner who finds such racist behavior so morally repugnant he will no longer ride with a racist later guns down an unarmed black man and burns a car to destroy the evidence.

Race and prejudice are central themes throughout the movie: a Persian shopkeeper distrustful of a Hispanic locksmith; a white woman fearful of young black men; etc. What the movie shows so well is how groundless many such prejudices are: each person is just trying to find their own way. Even the black gangbangers seen in the movie are humanized: one as a young poet carrying a St, Christopher talisman, the other as a repentant victimizer who frees a vanload of Chinese slaves.

It all reminds me of something I've been trying to understand and incorporate from the book "Make Friends With Your Shadow:" "Making friends with your shadow helps facilitate your acceptance of yourself as a less-than-perfect human being. We have a dark side; we are not all light. Of course I am a decent person, but I am sometimes a louse. Of course I am generous, but I am also greedy. The more I love, the more I can hate. I sacrifice, but I am selfish. I trust, but I also doubt. I am honest, but I can be a crook. I am naive, but I am cunning. I succeed and I fail. I create and I destroy. I am angelic and I am demonic. I am faithful and I am a traitor." (William A. Miller, Augsburg Press)

Ultimately I think it is true, as Walt Whitman writes, "I am many." But for someone who comes from a background of black-and-white "right-thinking persons," this is a difficult truth to embrace.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Etched in Stone

I never expected to see my name etched in stone. It's the sort of thing usually reserved for the dead. Several fine examples in the south and the east cemeteries of Salem, Iowa attest to the HANNAH clan as people of substance, memorialized by large granite tombstones in grey and black. Our own name plate is much more modest, in actuality an address marker, given us for Christmas by J and A--a sandstone block weighing about twenty pounds, engraved with a sunflower and the word "Hannah's." Interestingly, it's shaped like the my native state, Iowa, even though it came from Pennsylvania. I like that connection. With the passing years I find increasing meaning and value in my Midwest origins, particularly in my family ties to the Quaker settlement of Salem--a Hebrew word meaning "peace." This small town of several hundred is where my mom grew up, and I have many fond memories of weeks of summer spent there with my two older brothers at grandma and grandpa Longs. A sagging barn filled with relics, a dank root cellar crammed with canning jars, bedrooms piled with old Grit newspapers, closets filled with wooden spools, discarded keys, and worn out toys--all these added up to a childhood sense of adventure and exploration. Nearby, a drainage ditch filled with 6-foot horseweeds gave us ready weapons for imaginary dueling and tilting, and grandpa's farm land gave us a place to roam free beyond the prying eyes of adults. These were the days of innocence that I value more each passing year--a time of shalom that I yearn for both in my life and in the life of all.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Day After the Day After Christmas

They say "nothing is as over as Christmas," which I think is a comment on the letdown that typically follows a big famiy gathering. It requires an unusual (perhaps unnatural?) amount of energy to select and acquire gifts, host and be hosted, converse and cooperate, interact and plan, be caring and sensitive, etc. in ways that just aren't that customary... Kind of like a marathon compared to the daily walk of life...glad you survived, rather exhultant at the end, "tired but happy" --but also aware that you could only run that race occasionally without the likelihood of exhaustion and/or breakdown. Still, it was great! What I really wish is that such associations could be a bit less concentrated and more "natural," like meeting for breakfast a couple times a week, or dropping in for an evening of popcorn and hot chocolate, or walking the dogs around the lake in early morning. I often think I was born in the wrong generation, and should have been around in the era when families stayed put and worked together for mutual survival. I realize that in some ways that's just a sentimental notion, and that proximity can lead to estrangement as easily as distancing, but I do think there was a lot to be said for the multi-generational approach where kids have the benefit of uncles and grandparents nearby, where grandparents are really a significant part of the grandkid's life, etc.

J mentioned Z, who in some ways he has that extended family of my idealized fantasies. But I wish we were more part of his life in the natural way that the other grandparents enjoy. Heck, I'm not even a grandparent in Z's eyes, let alone having the kind of relationship I imagine could be. Perhaps it's for the best that Z & I have only occasional association becaused I know that if I were around him more I'd have to meddle in his stuff and I'm not sure how either he or his mom or mother-in-law would take it. The general negativity J mentions is part of the issue, but I see that as symptomatic of underlying issues of self-worth and self-care. Particularly when I'm around Z I become deeply concerned about two issues that are also my issues and therefore things of which I am keenly aware: weight and exercise. To be as sedentary and obese as he is at age ten is of great concern to me--of near crisis proportion. Z is not mature enough to understand fully how negatively these twin maladies are already impacting, and will increasingly impact, his physical, emotional, and social well-being. Maybe, as J hopes, he will come to terms with this himself in his late teens and choose to change, but I can't imagine just standing by and hoping against hope for him to take responsibility for what parents and grandparents surely must be responsible for at this stage of his life.

I'd like to think that if I were around him more often I could coax and cajole Z into adventures of biking, hiking, camping, etc. but I'm not sure I'd have any more luck than I have getting him to walk the dogs, which is NO luck. The uncomfortable truth is that parental presssure/expectation/invitation is the only hope of changing the patterns of inactivity and overeating that are already clearly established. Sigh. At this point I begin to have a sense of hopelessness. I think J appreciates and supports this perspective, but it appears that the family dynamic is such that only A and/or BJ could raise this expectation, and at this point I get really frustrated. A is very bright, and seems receptive to the concept of healthy nutrition (unexpectedly borowing two of my Dr. Shapiro's weight-consciousness books), but her behavior in this connection, concerning Z, is incongruent. I,m thinking of the three breakfasts he had while here during Christmas (one meal where healthy eating is most easy, and sets the tone for the rest of the day). There were Pillsbury biscuits and gravy, McDonald's pancakes, and McDonald's sausage McMuffin and doughnuts. No fresh fruit, maybe some fruit juice...I calculated that on the biscuits and sausage day alone he consumed more than 800 calories in one meal--an incredible caloric load without even counting cholesterol, fat, salt, etc. Yet somehow when we go to Appleby's rather than Z's typical burger joint it's "because of J's diet" with no mention of Z's equally great (or greater) need. And Z is allowed to choose from the menu and orders--guess what?--three burgers, onion rings, and a regular Dr. Pepper. Hundreds more nutrient-deprived calories and fat...

This degree of disconnect convinces me something really unexamined is lurking under the table, and no one really wants to acknowledge or face up to it for varied reasons. J hesitates for fear of A's wrath, I hesitate for fear of estranging Z and/or A, and A hesitates for reasons that pretty much escape me altogether. I can only conclude that in her family of origin there are life rules that she has adopted for Z's parenting. Unbridled freedom seems to be key: freedom to set his own bedtime, to choose his own diet, to spend unlimited time plugged in (TV, computer, video games, etc.), to be waited on, to be physically inactive, etc. I'm not aware that he's ever had chores to help sustain a household, or to earn spending money; instead, he seems to have everything given to him (in excess) without effort or expectation. It's difficult for me to see how he's going to make it in "the real world" if he isn't expected to perform, or if he's allowed to quit every time something gets difficult. I keep thinking, How could he possibly have a healthy sense of self worth if he's not expected to do some things that are worthwhile? In my own feeble way I tried to point out to him during Christmas that getting good at things (so you can feel good about yoursef) takes PRACTICE, whether it be skateboarding, playing the guitar, drawing, bowling, biking, starting a fire, or other things in which Z has an interest but will never fully enjoy unless he submits himself to a teacher (problem #1, since he's had such great independence) and persists through a bit of pain and repetition (problem #2, since he tends to move from one interest to another willy nilly).

Carrying forward the existing trends to their logical conclusion makes me greatly concerned about his future. A's expectations for him will be critical in how all this plays out ultimately. I'm reminded of Dr. Phil's cryptic but pointed question" How's that been workin' for you?" I think Z is a great kid (creative, bright, funny, etc.) and in the cocoon of his immediate family he finds total acceptance, but I think his obesity and inactivity are going to make it very hard for him to find a sense of acceptance and self-worth out in the world where he must surely go in a few oh-so-short years.

I'm fascinaed (and saddened) by the way J's fathering scenaro mirrors somewhat what I myself experienced: a desire to be more active in the parenting role, not always certain just what I'd do, but not allowed to really find out. In my case the job and the absentee father/wage earner contributed to Sharon being the primary caregiver; in J's case it seems more to be the step-father/provider role with A continuing in many regards as thougn she were still a single parent, doing the matriarchal/protector role much like she apparently experienced in her family of origin. It all leaves me with more questions than answers. Why outsource the reading dimension of Sylvan when it would be so much less costly and more personally beneficial just to read books with him? Why not bring J alongside to help find creative solutions to Z's inactivity and obesity? Why is Z's inactivity and obesity not a topic of open concern and exploration with him, J, and the grandparents? Why not explore the entire family's need for better nutrition and exercise, and find ways to do that together?

Oh, brother, am I bemused!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

T'was the night of Christmas...

Back from the folks' house. Pondering the various nuggets that clacked through my head over the course of the holidays. Trying to be a good spouse and a good father. Doing OK overall, I think...?

A restaurant glitch turned into a series of discussions about child development and empowering a ten year old to develop his own problem solving skills. The conversation was healthy, but one of many things I couldn't say was what bothered me most about our son's behavior was him acting how his mother and grandmother do. How do you have a constructive family conversation about parenting and throw that meatball into the mix? I don't know, so I didn't.

Most of our "family time" is spent watching TV. Or, more precisely, the three of us in the same room with the TV on with me on my laptop, working (work or homework). When conversation interrupts the television Grandma, mom (and at times, our son) spend a third of their energy lodging complaints and critiques of the people on the TV, or the idiots they've been exposed to lately in real life, or the world in general. It's a pattern that applies to much of the social interaction in the family. It pains me to see our son display that tendency. The afore-mentioned glitch ensued because I happened to be sitting between our son and my wife (a rare condition indeed) and so I couldn't ignore his comments. I thought I was helping him solve his problem, instead of merely complaining about it. Perhaps I didn't assist correctly, or perhaps he needs to learn not everyone wants to listen to him gripe about trivial, easily fixed problems. It seems to me the vast majority of people he'll encounter in life will not cheerfully enjoy him grumbling for no good reason, and prefer not to be around him. It would sadden me for him to lose relationships or friends before they've even formed due to this weakness that we could easily fix now, early in his life.

Not that I should be giving friendship advice. I have few friends, and only hang out with people for fun a couple times a year. But I guess I'll save that for another day. Back to my complaining about other people's complaining... -ponder-

At best the complaining is lovable in a quirky sort of way in very small doses. More frequently it is to be actively avoided, meaning that I leave the room. It pains me that to whatever extent we're molding our son, we're doing so in a direction that I can't imagine other people will be drawn to throughout his life.

My mother offered a comparison of mom & dad's different complaint styles, which was interesting, but I don't think their differences scratch the surface of what I see in our family. After only a few years of marriage I've already adopted the same survival instincts my wife's father uses. This usually means, simply, leaving the room. Frequently avoiding being in the same room, or actively ignoring chunks of the "conversation" seem to be cornerstones in my arsenal of marriage survival tactics.

"Survival" was a harsh choice of words there. It's not bad. I love my wife very much. But, many days, I don't want to be around her. Since we don't spend much time together I guess that works out. I wonder how many married people feel this way?

I'm afraid we're molding our son into someone I won't want to hang out with. I fear he and his mother will feel the same way about me.

So I guess that was nugget #1. Perhaps #2 was at the bowling alley when our son was getting extremely frustrated because he went on a long gutter ball streak. I couldn't care less about competitive sports. We were just there to have fun. But his mood went so dark so quickly I was surprised. I decided that a couple "you'll be fine. Just relax" suggestions, trying to be encouraging, ignoring his over-reaction was the best thing to do. So I did, and only felt slightly cruel. The world isn't always roses, toughen up a little, right? His mother fawned over him far more than I did. After one particular gutter (# 15?) I felt awful, seeing how deeply upset he really was. I wasn't being supportive enough...? But what was I supposed to do other than offer "you're fine. Don't swing the ball so far back, you're losing control on the way down," and other such quips. I wish he wasn't so heavy. Having to swing the ball around his body the way he's forced to do has to make it harder to be any good.

He switched lanes and got all excited when he knocked a few pins down. "See?! I just needed to be in *this* lane." I laughed and felt awful for it. I tried to cover that slip on many of his subsequent throws. I spent much of the next hour feeling like a bad father.

#3... while my wife actively engaged my father in conversation about diet and food alternatives while we were at their house on the drive back home she snapped at me when I started to compare the calories in a bag of popcorn vs. a bag of potato chips. I literally had three words out of my mouth before she shut me down. I don't understand why she actively engages my father in lengthy conversation about his stack of diet books and comparing the calorie counts of bagels vs. english muffins; yet our son continues to eat mostly junk food with no controls, continuing to gain amazing amounts of weight, and I can't say three words without her cutting me off. She does the same thing at his tutoring facility too. She smiles and is ultra-professional and happy with the staff their in his progress reviews, sugaring over that "we should really read more with him at home," yet we don't read to him at all. Or make him read. Almost never. It's like she short-circuits their concerns with a slick sales pitch about how we're working on it, or we're going to. When we're not and we don't. I don't understand.

I guess that's enough for today.