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Moving Day

Today is a right of passage, as much for the parents as the child.

Beth is moving out today. I drove down from Gainesville last night and we’re moving Beth’s stuff out of the home we made at Christy and Mike’s big house in Orlando (my sister and brother-in-law), across town to her dorm on campus at UCF.

Jesus, is it THAT day already?

I have a number of colorful metaphors swirling around in my head, but this is a family web site so I’ll spare you. A number of cliches, tropes, and banal phrases accompany these metaphors, but they seem WAY more profound than they did even a day ago. I might have explored some of these feelings in this post, but I’m suddenly pressed for time. As Beth might say, “I’m, like, LITERALLY minutes away from needing to get ready to go.”

Alright, maybe just a couple, to sate appetite for schmaltz. My oldest child… for many years my only child… is striking out on her own today. She’s leaving the nest. The daily interactions with my child we can easily take for granted – morning and evening routines, etc – are at an end (for the foreseeable future). I will still have some impact/influence on her life, but in some ways my job is done. No, it will never be done. I’m not that naive. But it suddenly seems overwhelming – it seems there are so many ways in which we either did our jobs as parents or didn’t, and this is the beginning of our Final Exam. Will she be prepared or won’t she? Dear Lord, I hope we did enough.

I hope she’s ready.

I hope she’ll be happy.

Beth Grows Up

The site lost something when the kids got older. When kids get into trouble as an infant, it’s much more amusing than when they’re a teen. Plus, somewhere in between they learn how to read, become aware of the world around them, and don’t find it amusing when they lose control of their own narrative.

I’m making an exception with this post because it’s really about me – and that’s not my ego talking. I’ve been ego impaired since a tragic incident early in my childhood.

Something hit me the other day.

F—! It hit me again! Agh! Damn it! Stop that!

Beth is graduating from High School this year.

I’ve know this for a long time… like some people know they’ll have kids one day. After your first is born (and sometime between the grand entrance and your first all-nighter on the first night home) it hits you. Your life is never going to be the same.

I can’t help but wonder if the same is true when they leave home (the first time). They’re born and BANG – you have a child. Twenty odd years of experience and conditioning, of taking care of yourself and worrying over your own life, (milage will vary) all of it is thrown out the window. Then they leave and BANG – you have a child out in the world. Eighteen years of experience and conditioning, of being responsible for the care and safety of a person in progress, much of it becomes obsolete. I wonder if you can really prepare for either one, or if they both sneak up and shatter your worldview in an instant.

It didn’t hit me when Beth started her senior year, took her SATs, or even when she got her first college acceptance letter. I knew there was no way in this lifetime any of us could pay for it – that or I was in some serious denial. It hit me when she got her second. It hit me again when she scheduled a tour of the campus, and once more when she left for it this morning with Cheryl.

Holy shit. She really is going to go.

Don’t worry about her. She’s gonna be fine. I’m the one you should worry about. One day soon she’s going to leave for college.

For better or worse, I’ll finally know what it’s like to have a child out in the world.

My loss will be your gain.

You’re welcome.

I don’t understand

When my mouth is in sync with my mind, I try not to overuse the word “understand” when it comes to life experiences. It suggests a depth of shared knowledge I think is much rarer than use of the word.

I hope this gives you some sense of what I mean when I say… I don’t completely understand the level of intolerance shown by many people on the basis of race, gender, religion, or just about any other way you can distinguish between groups of people.

For better or worse, our perception of the world takes cues from our environment, both past and present. I recognize at least this much, so perhaps I understand a little. I suspect my environment was unlike the intolerance crowd. It was filled with people who encouraged me to think in relative terms rather than absolutes, to see beauty in diversity rather than chaos, and to seek the deeper meaning in things rather than stopping at the outward appearance.

Perhaps it’s ironic that my bias is to see people, at first glance, for what we have in common rather than how we differ: we are all people. Well, I think I do anyway. No one’s perception is perfect. Because of my nature, most of my contact with other people takes place at work, and because of the nature of my work, I probably interact with a greater variety of people than average. I don’t say this to brag, or to offer it as lame proof of a loving/inclusive nature. ”I can’t be a racist. I have black friends.” I only mention it because it’s given me a lot of information to consider when I self-reflect. As an introvert who suffers from low self-esteem, I can say I do A LOT of self-reflection. As someone who also suffers from depression, I can say I’m not easy on myself. Despite this, it was a bit of a shock the first time a coworker said to me: “everyone likes you John.” It was a greater shock when it occurred to me I tend to like most of them too, when I come out of my shell and talk to people. But here’s one of the keys to this post: I take it for granted others don’t (or didn’t) tend to have the same experience.

At an intellectual level, I know everyone can’t, and don’t get along. Still, it almost always comes as a surprise when I learn two coworkers are not getting along – and I’m the last one to know.

I’m well aware people do terrible things to others throughout the world. I become almost numb to it – probably not unlike many of you. But every once in a while a story will pop up, not even a particularly nasty story (relative to others), and it will be like a quasi-epiphany (only I’ll feel despair rather than joy). Taking my experiences in life for granted, I’ll wonder at how others can be so cruel, for such arbitrary reasons.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it? The reasons aren’t arbitrary at all to those people. Gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation – they’re all “reasons.” I know where some of them come from. And yet… there’s a part of me that doesn’t understand why we can’t move past these “reasons,” why we can’t find and tap some inner source of common humanity in each of us, to find some small amount of compassion… empathy… and turn the hate on its head. I know there’s no magic switch we can flip, that biases, attitudes, stereotypes, etc. take time to change. But at this time in history when the world seems to grow smaller at an accelerated pace, and all of us are increasingly exposed to other people, I would hope our differences would come as less of a surprise – that we would become desensitized to them at a similar accelerating pace. Instead, I fear there are some circles were the opposite is true, and our common humanity is failing to shine through.

This random story of cruelty I mentioned before – it hit me and I think of that inner humanity drying up somewhere, and I mourn its loss.

I do what I do for a living because I want to help people. I think it’s why I had several conversations with pastors growing up and in college – not just because I wanted to understand injustice in our world, or even the roll God does/doesn’t play in its existence. I wanted to know what I could do to help change it.

“Well, to some extent you are John,” was a common reply – followed by some bullshit about leading by example. It was never satisfying. Not even a little. Then my pastor would usually ask if I’d ever thought about going to seminary. The experience was probably the biggest reason I never did.

In hindsight, I know it’s not completely bullshit, but it’s still not satisfying. I feel helpless, particularly now.

One small thing came to mind when I became a parent. I could raise my kids as if the world did not have these arbitrary barriers I’ve mentioned, in addition providing a similar environment that I was raised. That meant if my daughter wanted to go out and kick a soccer ball around the back yard, that’s what we did. If my son wanted to take dance and singing lessons, that’s what he did. (To give just a couple, gender related examples.)

But increasingly, as my daughter races towards adulthood, it feels like some of this idealism should be set aside – and it’s a bit heartbreaking. There’s a difference between the world I want her to live in and the world she will. As the story which hit me recently reminds me, we live in a world where men abuse women, in a disturbing variety of ways and frequency. No, I do not want my daughter to live her life in fear, but at the same time it would be irresponsible to pretend we don’t live in this world. If the world doesn’t treat us all the same, doesn’t it follow, to some extent, that all of us can’t treat it the same?

At times I almost wish I could see the world in absolutes. Making decisions would be SO much easier. Instead I’m often caught in the middle somewhere, as I am now. I’m haunted by the question I think haunts many parents: where and when do I reinforce the difference between the world we should live in and the one we do?

As I finish this up and get ready to post (with woefully little editing), it’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Florida. Cool air is blowing in from the north across the lake, and much in the world seems very right. Yet a few troubling questions persist, both about my small world and the larger one outside it. What more could I do? Should I expect more of myself?

I’m not sure seminary would have helped me now either.

When questions get harder

Beth wanted advice on a homework assignment for a writing class she’s taking at college this semester. Her professor wants the class to come up with two topics for a possible upcoming assignment: write a persuasive essay taking a side of an issue relevant today.

I thought to myself, “yeah sure, possible. Like it’s possible I might take another breath before the end of the semester.”

So far, so good?

Here’s where the fun began. He gave a couple examples, one of which was: “climate change is a liberal myth perpetuated by a liberal media.” Beth explained she wanted to turn her professor’s example around and argue the opposite for one of her topics.

Ho-boy! Where do I begin?

First of all, I tried to stay calm – a feat made easier by a muscle relaxer taken an hour earlier to calm down some neck pain. I didn’t want to say something like, “Man, it sounds like your professor is a f…ing idiot.” She’s smart enough to come to this conclusion herself. Plus, I didn’t want to encourage an adversarial relationship with someone responsible for giving her a grade. I went that route my freshman year at UF and it didn’t turn out well.

I’m trying to cut down on my swearing. So lets just say, I had English teacher whose head was stuck pretty far up someplace that’s usually inaccessible to one’s own head.

It was one of the few times I got less than an A in a class at UF, and I started the semester a seventeen year old, know-it-all teenager. She’s a fifteen year old, know-it-all teenager, who hasn’t graduated from high school yet, and an average of four years younger than the rest of the class. I feared she might not fare as well.

My next thought was, should I give the guy some slack? Maybe he was playing the role of provocateur to get some neurons firing, rather than being an ideologue trying to push an ill-informed worldview ON MY DAUGHTER!

Finally, I tried to find a middle path. She knows how I feel on the subject, as we’ve discussed it many times. I told her I was proud of her desire to take up the cause, but this wasn’t the right place. Plus, I didn’t think it served a possible purpose of the exercise: to write a reasoned essay defending a position on an issue that might not be familiar (now), or one she might not even hold. Giving the guy the benefit of doubt, I thought it could turn out to be a good exercise in critical thought.

Plus, I thought merely taking his example and turning it around lacked creativity. There are LOTS of problems in the world worthy of a little persuasion.

I’ll tell you one thing. It makes me yearn for her early years when the questions were easy, like explaining redshift.

The astronomical phenomenon, in case you were wondering.

Worth it

Parenting is hard.

For some, this is obvious. For others suffering denial, this is a sign of a severe character flaw. For a blessed few who’s beatification awaits them at their death, who’s names will be remembered in song and psalm for all time, this is an inconceivable truth.

God did us this one favor – he made these people rare. This is not to say parenting is without its rewards. If it was, Homo sapiens sapiens would have died out long ago (no mater how much fun getting there was/is).

This little post is for all of you out there who live in the real world.

Fortunately, there are times that force the hard parts to the rest of life’s background noise, and this weekend was filled with those times.

We took the kids on their first camping trip this weekend. On Friday I worked half a day, Cheryl picked up the kids early from school, and we drove to Orlando for a weekend of camping, Disney style.

Admittedly, Disney, realism, and roughing-it don’t really belong in the same post. But this weekend did involve tents, sleeping outside, camp-side cooking, and relaxed standards of personal hygiene.

Being Disney, it also involved buses, pools, water-slides, campfires with Disney characters and shops stocked with grossly overpriced marshmallows.

We brought our own marshmallows.

While the kids enjoyed the Disney aspects of camping, they also enjoyed its traditional appeal: running around dark campsites with friends exhibiting all the signs of a marshmallow sugar high, setting foods dense in simple sugars on fire, and eating lots of grilled meat.

It warmed my heart just seeing them having fun, soaking up all the new experiences and never growing saturated.

One simple moment almost moved me to tears.

Adam and I were settling down for the night and I knew he was afraid of the dark, preferring to sleep with one or twelve of his stuffed, furry friends for safety. I asked him if he was o.k.

“Well, I wish Halo was here,” (his stuffed dog), “but I’m o.k. because you’re here with me.”

Joy sink

“Grandma’s coming home tomorrow right? I can’t wait!”

That was Beth Wednesday night, talking to me and our pastor on the first night of confirmation class this (school) year.

“So when will she be coming HOME home?”

That was when Beth realized home can be a relative term.

“Oh,” she replied, crestfallen.

That was when I told her the truth, unvarnished, like I usually do.

Trust is a precious commodity. Cliche, I know – but for good reason. I don’t like being a kill-joy, but I want her to believe me when anxiety has its grip on her, and I tell her why everything will be ok. She’s old enough to remember the times I told her everything wasn’t, that I don’t shy away from inconvenient, uncomfortable, or unsettling truths. I hope she remembers those moments of candor when the truth doesn’t hurt.

Although folks say I’m too skinny these days, there’s a big but in the room.

I realize there’s still a need for comfort; that there’s a way to discuss disappointment in a way which doesn’t flatten wide swaths of hope. I suppose I’m like a lot of parents when I say I wish I was better at it.

Maybe this is one of those times I should let myself off the hook. Words can’t solve every problem, sooth every ill. Many lessons are learned best through experience, and she’ll see things are much better, even if they don’t live up to her original expectations.

The good news is she’ll get to see this weekend, along with the rest of us.


Unheralded classics

Among the likes of the wheel, the steam engine, integrated circuits, the moon landings, and the polyester cotton blend, one of humanity’s greatest (if overlooked) achievements is the Koosh Woosh.

In the late 1980s, a small toy company made a bundle selling funny little balls made of strands of rubber. Maybe you never had one. Maybe your parents didn’t love you. We had several – think indoor snowball fights (or as close as you can get in Florida).

Yeah, my parents have some regrets….

Lucky for us all, the Koosh gravy train didn’t end with a funny little ball-like lump of rubber. One Christmas morning I unwrapped a funky lycra disk stretched over a springy wire frame – the Koosh Woosh. Think Frisbee, but not. Ironically, it was voted “least likely to still be around in twenty years” by its gift class. It was a rough crowd that year. Yet my Koosh Woosh has followed me everywhere since: from college dorms and apartments, to condos and our current home.

I could lie and tell you it’s my favorite toy, but there are two problems. One, I’m not a liar; and two, you already know my old PowerBook fills that spot in my heart. On the other hand, I can’t think of another toy that’s been around so long or pops up so often. It’s THE (seemingly) omnipresent toy in the house, good for a glide across the room any time the urge to throw something (in fun not anger) strikes.

The kids have my old Legos, but they don’t love them like I did. This may be my greatest failure as a parent.

It’s lightweight so it doesn’t do indoor damage. Its frame is flexible, springy, and resilient; making all kinds of ricochet shots possible, while keeping it’s shape through years of abuse. And it’s soft, making it easy to catch for the little ones.

I don’t remember why, but we spent a lot of time indoors this weekend… and it didn’t matter. Adam and I had a blast. I used my full arsenal of Frisbee shots: the line drive, the forehand, the backhand, the skip shot, the vertical bounce (a Koosh Woosh specialty), curves, come-backers, soft glides, and bank shots – all indoors – and we have a small house. Think bumper-pool, Frisbee, and (almost) no rules. The only time Adam wasn’t smiling was when he was concentrating on imitating one of daddy’s throws. It was great fun.

When my kids get older, have kids of their own, and the subject of me comes up (there goes my runaway ego again), I hope it’s days like this they remember. We can’t always choose our legacy to our children – not the kind I’m thinking of anyway, but we can at least give it a nudge. I hope I give them enough good memories to be the kind of parent I want to be (if I don’t always succeed).

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Back to me

Back to you? I wasn’t aware you ever left the subject?

There are people in my life, people I love dearly, who’ve been dealing with issues that don’t revolve around me, and it felt wrong to hold the usual self-hate-fest during their time of loss and sorrow.

So I’ve been holding out on the rest of you.

I’ve been tinkering with a post on depression – what it ultimately means to me – but I’m not happy with it yet. I’ll share it with you soon.

In the mean time I thought I’d give you a little status update.

Single father week ends today. Cheryl and Beth are flying back in from New Hampshire this evening, and I can’t wait to see them. Although they’ve been gone, and a piece of my heart went with them, this last week has been kind of special. This week I got to focus my attention on Adam, and all things considered, we’ve had a great week.

We haven’t done anything special. I didn’t try to buy his affection with regular trips to McDonald’s. We just hung out. When it was time to do chores, he jumped in without asking wanting to help. When spare moments appeared we took advantage with spontaneous acts of fun. Slipper toss was an unexpected blast.

My goal in life is to be this kind of father all the time – to be the kind of father who finds love and joy in the little moments of life. Depression knocks me off the rails at times, but I think this week came at just the right time. I didn’t have to divide my time. Adam got a full dose of his crazy daddy and we were both better for it.

Another piece of encouraging news: my weight seems to have leveled off the last few weeks. For the first time since October my weight plot looks like a flat line rather than a winter olympics event. Wether it’s been the medication, circumstances, or working hard to focus on the important things in my life, my appetite has slowly returned. The unintended weight loss is holding at 50 pounds. Although I wasn’t trying, it’ll probably be good for me in the long run… if I don’t put it right back on.