emotions

burial on the presidio banks

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein

It was merely something some guy said in a blog. I don’t even know him. But one sentence he wrote sent me careering like a drunk on a bike. The ground was gone. What had started as a pretty good day, a productive one, even a happy one, went into a nosedive so quickly you could hear the whoosh of a toilet.

It doesn’t matter exactly what the guy said. I don’t remember now. Nevertheless, I took it way too personally for words from some one I will likely never meet. I fell into an emotional vertigo, the landscape suddenly wobbly. Out of nowhere, I was hopeless.

Why is happiness such an ephemeral thing?

Martin Seligman may have answered why happiness has been so elusive for me. In his book, Learned Optimism, Seligman explains that pessimistic people are more likely to be depressed. Depressed people are more likely to be pessimists. In the simplest terms, pessimists have more trouble moving through the inevitable setbacks of life than optimists. According to Seligman, the three components of the pessimistic view are that failures are personal, permanent and pervasive.

Think about some of the times when your life unexpectedly twisted. When we fail, the pessimist is more likely to believe it is his fault. He believes whatever went wrong will happen again and again. Most important, he believes this one thing gone awry carries over into every area of his life. He is just no good.

A friend set up a date on Match.com and was quickly rejected early in the evening. The pessimist will say something like, “I’m not likable. I’ll never meet a decent guy. My life pretty much sucks.”

Optimists take the opposite view. The inevitable unexpected “bad” in life is not their fault, whatever happened is temporary and contained to this one instance. On the Match.com date, an optimist would say, “I must have reminded that guy of his ex. He must have had a bad day and was taking it out on me. It was only one date. I think I’ll see if my friends know someone I could see.”

How we talk to ourselves in good and bad times determines whether we will stay up on the bike to better times or let our fall keep us from down.

I’ve simplified the example, but Seligman’s book is quite powerful in drawing the connection between pessimism and depression. How we talk to ourselves in good and bad times determines whether we will stay up on the bike to better times or let our fall keep us down. Optimists take a larger share of personal accountability than pessimists when things go well and less when they don’t.

My wife is a classic example of an optimist. She feels things deeply. She is among the most empathetic people I’ve ever known. Yet I’ve never known anyone who can move also through sadness or difficulty so well, regaining her balance quickly.

The optimists among us still fail, get hurt, feel sad. But optimists don’t stay that way. They recover more readily because they have a healthy boundary between accepting personal responsibility and seeing the part that others play–the cause of the occurrence is outside of themselves. Moreover, their sadness is over something specific and is likely to pass soon. Optimists don’t spend a lot of time ruminating when things go wrong.

The guy who wrote the piece on his blog said something that set me ruminating, another difficulty pessimists face according to Seligman.

I made several mistakes besides the ruminating. One is being so accepting of this “expert’s” insights and taking what he said personally. The worst part is that I took it to be the capital T Truth, extending this one thing to apply to my fundamental approach to life. I suddenly saw that everything I did was wrong and I was permanently off track.

My sudden depression led to a conversation with my wife over our different approaches when the unexpected happens. We get set off by different things, she and I. For example, we decided we wanted new countertops. This led to replacing our undersized dishwasher with a regular-sized one. As with so many house projects, this meant additional work–I had to tear out the existing sink, the existing plumbing, garbage disposal and all, and the existing cabinet to make room for the new dishwasher. Not a huge project, but a sizable one. To make things more challenging, the dishwasher didn’t come with the electrical cord. It takes seven to 10 business days from the manufacturer.

The kitchen is torn up. Everything that was on the counter is now IMG_0003on the dining room table. It’s caused a minor upheaval in our home because we suddenly have no counter space, no water and no way to wash dishes. For me it’s just a project that eventually will make our lives better.

“You are the most patient person I know,” my wife said today. “Except you get flustered with the future and thinking about the past.”

She on the other hand, gets verklempt with the pace of projects like our kitchen.

I’ve learned a lot from my wife by observing how she keeps moving through life’s challenges, which are almost continual. She has a vision and confidence  unshaken by just about everything she faces.

I’m big on personal accountability. There is too much deflection in our society–we blame everyone but ourselves. Except the pessimists and the depressed. We make everything our fault. My wife reminds me that sometimes I take too much responsibility and discount the part others play.

There is too much deflection in our society–we blame everyone but ourselves. Except the pessimists and the depressed. We make everything our fault.

The dance between reasonable personal responsibility and being self-destructive is delicate. But even if we fail in this regard and shirk accountability once in a while so we can feel happier, even optimistic, that is okay with me. After spending so many years in the basement emotionally, it’s nice to breathe the fresh air of optimism. Seligman’s Learned Optimism, reinforces that we can learn to be optimists by changing the way we explain to ourselves what happens to us.

It is like a familiar, heavily-rutted road we drive every day. Our thoughts are automatic, good and bad.  Our responses become habits. By recognizing how we are explaining things, we can re-write our mental scripts. We can re-frame events as they unfold so  they are less destructive to us. It’s not that sometimes we won’t be sad or hurt. We also can see that others have a role in our experiences. We can see bad things in life as temporary. We can see them as singular events with a particular cause rather than “just the way life is” for us.

Changing from pessimist to optimist is consistent with a move toward minimalism. Becoming more of a minimalist, which I’ve written about here, requires a deliberateness of thought. Minimalism is not just about what we acquire. It is also about taking control of our habitual thinking and choosing to think about things in a healthier way.

This is momentous stuff. Seligman reinforces that like Einstein, we can keep our balance and ride forward toward a new, smoother road into the sun.

###

Martin Seligman’s book is of course available on Amazon: Learned Optimism. I urge you to consider supporting your local bookstore. We have a couple in Ann Arbor–Nicola’s Books and Literati Bookstore. One of my favorites is in Goshen, Indiana–Better World Books. There are still plenty of really good bookstores around. Amazon is easy and a phenomenal business, but so are these locally-owned bookstores. 

Be well.

emotions, figuring it out, inspiration, relationships, writing

memorial

“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  ~Kahlil Gibran

 

My sixth-grade teacher was a man named Smith Clifton. He was tall and thin and had a thick brown beard he stroked when he sat at his desk grading papers while the rest of the class and I took tests. He had a tall beat-up thermos he kept to one side. It was the kind with the plastic top that doubled as a cup he would screw off and fill with black coffee all day long.

Mr. Clifton was one of the most influential characters in my life. He was the first person to get me to write. Every week, Mr. Clifton had us record our thoughts in a journal. He gave us no direction on topics so we wrote what we wanted. Once a week or so he would collect the journals from the class, read each entry and then write comments to each of us. I was always excited to see what insights Mr. Clifton would offer and I was never disappointed.

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest. He reminded me of a hippie, he was so laid back, but more grown up. He dressed in jeans and denim shirts and beat up boots so he looked more blue collar

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest.

than he was. He displayed a kind of refined deliberateness that one might expect from a gentlemen farmer. In fact he owned a small farm in Mt. Airy, about an hour’s drive northwest from our school, but he also seemed a renaissance philosopher or poet.

I loved this man.

My 11th grade English teacher was a man named Hans Gaussman. Mr. Gaussman was German. He was short, perhaps 5 foot eight. He kept his hair close-cropped and he had a mustache and goatee, which he kept sharp as a razor. In fact, Mr. Gaussman’s personality was as sharp as his goatee. Mr. Gaussman was almost military in demeanor. He intimidated a lot of my classmates and pissed off others.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered, even in college. Mr. Clifton was the first to get me to connect thoughts to paper, but Mr. Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered…Mr Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

Mr. Gaussman’s favorite implement was his red pen. He wielded the pen like a dagger on our papers, ripping our grammar and our thinking. Mr. Gaussman would not simply pass us on to 12th grade English. His brutality in grading was also his gift. He made us think better.

I came to love this man too.

Shortly after the start of the school year, Mr. Gaussman held conferences with us. This was a private conversation, out of the hearing of our peers, where we had the chance individually to learn the failings of our work. We all dreaded these sessions as much as we did the school lunches. With a Cheshire smile, Mr. Gaussman systematically dismantled any notion we might possess of being smart or good writers.

“So, Mr. Gaussman,” I ventured once, “what do you think of my writing?”

He only paused for a second before he stabbed me in the chest: “I wouldn’t make it a career.” That was all he had to say.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t wander the halls in a daze after such an overt criticism. It was one of the few times in life that I didn’t pack up my toys and move to a different playground.

He said, “I wouldn’t make it a career.”…I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer.

I took Mr. Gaussman’s words as a challenge. I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer. This is the part in the movie where the main character–me–drops the f-bomb in his face. When Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian Johnson tells Mr. Vernon in his essay that he can’t diminish his classmates with his bullying. Or when, in the last scene, Jud Nelson’s John Bender defiantly holds up his fist, flipping off every self-absorbed and bullying adult in addition Mr. Vernon.

I put everything I had at age 16 into changing Mr. Gaussman’s mind. And I did. In a couple months, I was getting A’s and I noticed Mr. Gaussman treated me differently. He engaged me with a respect he reserved for very few of his students. I felt elevated, more important. But not like a teacher’s pet. It was one of the first times in my life I felt respected for my brain and especially for my work ethic.

Mr. Gaussman instilled in me a sense that good writing and thinking requires hard work. He helped create in me an identity as a writer. It doesn’t matter that I have never since written a novel or even a got a short story published.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us.

It was his gift, his hard-assed, judgmental criticism of my work set me on a path I could not change. A few years later I would remember both teachers when I sat at my typewriter, trying to finish a story for deadline for  the newspaper on which I wrote. While my red-haired and red-faced editor yelled for my copy, I paused and silently thanked them for their efforts on my behalf.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us. Who take time to challenge us to push toward our potential and who expand our abilities. People who are like bridges to better, more enlightened versions of ourselves. People like Smith Clifton whose peaceful demeanor taught me about kindness and how to get stuff out of my head and onto paper. People like Hans Gaussman whose disciplined approach forced me out of the comfort of slushy, unrefined thoughts to greater competence upon which I could build a career, even if that career is still blossoming.

 

emotions, family, figuring it out, health and wellness, relationships

they move on tracks of never-ending light

“Things change all the time, so why do people make such a philosophical to-do that things are constantly in transition?”  — Twyla Tharp

I often walk in different worlds. Since my divorce nearly five years ago and my remarriage, I am a member of three families. It’s awkward sometimes.

There is this family blended from kids from my previous marriage and my new wife’s kids. Then there is this family in which I live most of the time which consists of my wife and I and her two kids. Thirdly, there is the family of my three daughters and me, the one most familiar and the one that feels the most upended by my divorce. This latter family is the one that causes the most discomfort because it serves as a constant reminder of my limits and failures. It is also the one for which I have to deal with my ex-wife, who hates me.

I would not have guessed five years after the fact that crossing to a happier, more fulfilling life would be so burdened by the difficulties of this transition for my three daughters and for me.

I have always felt as if the ground upon which I built my life was never too solid…Never quite settled. Never feeling the full comfort of ritual set down and repeated over time.

In fact, I have always felt as if the ground upon which I built my life was never too solid, like the sand above the water on a beach.  I try to walk or run, but I lose my footing as the sand slides away and I nearly fall.  Never quite settled. Never feeling the full comfort of ritual set down and repeated over time.

My parents forgot my 17th birthday. My mom had been sick with migraines or sinus headaches–a precursor to the more significant and deadly battle she would lose to pancreatic cancer just four years later–and my dad was inexplicably down too. At the last minute my mom emerged from thin the eir darkened bedroom with a credit card, telling me to go get the adidas tennis shirt and shorts I  coveted. I drove the hour to the tennis shop clutching that credit card and eagerly bought the shirt and shorts. I bought myself some socks for good measure too. In the moment, I focused more on the gifts I was buying myself than on the fact that my parents had forgotten my birthday. Years later I realized how deeply I buried this hurt. Kids don’t expect their parents to forget their birthdays.  

Later, after my mom died, well after the doctor grossly underestimated her complaints about the pain in her abdomen, I felt shitty about being angry at my parents for forgetting my birthday. My guilt over my pettiness when my dad lost his best friend and my poor mom succumbed to cancer stayed over the years.

It’s as if the three of us, my dad, my sister and I, retreated to our own private place, all living in the same house but ultimately leading separate lives. There were suddenly no rituals. The rituals we had as a family died with my mom.

It was a transition yet again–from complete family to something resembling a family but not quite whole. It’s as if the three of us, my dad, my sister and I, retreated to our own private place, all living in the same house but ultimately leading separate lives. There were suddenly no rituals. The rituals we had as a family died with my mom.

After mom’s death, I breezed through job after job. City after city became like a playground for me. When I got tired of the kids on my playground, I quit. I chose a new city and a new playground and a new job. I switched careers several times as I sought the perfect fit, hoping to fill a hole left by a deeply held sense of abandonment. People become adults at 21. Not true, at least for me. I was still immature at 21 when Mom died and for many years after. How I lived throughout my 20’s and into my 30″s was surely anything but maturity.

Before I knew it I was married and divorced and living with another woman who eventually would become my second wife.

I operated on an immature emotional plane. When I got uncomfortable, rather than discover what was motivating me, I moved to get rid of the discomfort.  I expected my wife to take care of me emotionally and when she didn’t, I transferred all of my emotional needs to my daughters. At first, this was okay. I could be a great dad and get all of my emotional needs from my kids.  Meanwhile, my relationship with my wife and my marriage crumbled.

I was somewhere approaching 50 before I matured. That’s one long adolescence. My second divorce–another difficult transition–gave me my biggest “aha” moment. Almost like turning pages in a book, I looked at parts of my life and my decisions and realized so much had been about how I responded to discomfort and fear.  I realized I needed to change. I needed to grow up.

We can not stay where we are. Ever. Life is a continual flow whether we realize it or not. Everything is always moving forward. I  didn’t understand that until now.

Our kids don’t stay kids for long. They need parents to be adults if they are to grow as well. Because I’ve seen it in myself, I recognize immaturity and it astounds me how many people walk around with baggage from their childhood.

Our kids don’t stay kids for long. They need parents to be adults if they are to grow well. Because I’ve seen it in myself, I recognize immaturity and it astounds me how many people walk around with baggage from their childhood. It colors everything we do with our kids as well as how we interact in our careers and with friends and our closest relationships. Recognizing my immaturity has been especially helpful in finally building deeply respectful and fulfilling relationships today.

Yet I am amazed at how often I slide into habitually immature thinking. The pause is the greatest tool in my backpack when this happens.

I’ve learned to  recognize transitions by stopping for a moment and breathing. Breathing reactivates the parts of our brains that give us logic. It allows our intuition to meld with right thinking, as the Buddhists might say. Without taking that breath, without pausing to slow things down, I react as a kid rather than respond as an adult

I’ve learned that life is about discovering and refining who we are–our wants and hopes and fears. We are always in transition. I used to think that transitions meant something was wrong, that the world was off kilter and I needed to right things again so that I felt comfortable. It fascinates me that I have been so fearful of transitions when I am even more fascinated by the concept of the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible is all the potential outcomes that might follow depending on which choice we make when faced with a particular obstacle or challenge. We cannot know all the potential great things that might happen yet because we have not yet passed through the door right in front of us. Think how different your life might be if even one choice in the past you made differently. It is both tantalizing and scary, because for most of us uncertainty is uncomfortable.

“A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are. Embrace the change, no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you’re in and take advantage of it.” –Nikki Giovanni

We expect certain things in life to be constant. The sun rises everyday. The four seasons pass. We run out of milk. And our parents stay married.

Imagine how divorce must have felt for my daughters and for my new wife’s kids. We expect certain things in life to be constant. The sun rises everyday. The four seasons pass. We run out of milk. And our parents stay married.

When one of the constants in our lives proves not to be, we are in transition. I did a lousy job preparing my kids for life and helping them through the transition from mom and dad being together to mom and dad being together with someone else. I had a hard enough time handling me. My poor daughters had to do a lot themselves.

There is, however, hope. My youngest sees the upside of the divorce–that she will be better equipped to handle rough patches in her life and possibly to avoid some of the things that led to my divorce. Maybe she and her sisters will be able to leave adolescence much earlier than I. At the right time and intact. They all show signs of doing a better job than I did.

###

The title of this essay is borrowed from a song by the post-rock group This Will Destroy You. They are currently on tour and recorded a live album from one of their concerts in Reykjavic, Iceland. Here is their page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thiswilldestroyyou

This Will Destroy You is one of a couple post-rock bands in which I find great joy in listening along with Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, Signal Hill, Mogwai, Hammock, Tristeza. Thanks always to my friend Keefer to sharing his headphones  so long ago and turning me onto post-rock.

emotions, family, figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, psychology, relationships

raining world champion

“I’m a good man, with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start. But I finally learned to let it go…I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over.” – John Mayer, Shadow Days

John Mayer played this morning on iTunes. Though there are plenty of lyrics in Shadow Days, I found myself focusing on just a few, particularly the line, “I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over now.” 

On the car ride to school the other day, my 11-year-old daughter said how my divorce from her mom would make her a more aware person. If she were to go through similar hard times with some future husband, she would know better how to move through them. She said experiences like the divorce help teach her how unexpected turns are part of life and knowing how to deal with them is important.

This exchange is exactly what a parent in a divorce hopes for. The growth from my youngest daughter shows that our children can weather the shit parents do in their quests to find happiness and maintain identities, especially when a marriage ends.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. That is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. This is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. IMG_0991We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

She said she had noticed that both her mom and I seemed happier now than when we were married to each other. In fact, she went on that both of us seemed better now than at any time in the five-year transition from married and unhappy to these new lives we lead today. It’s been a messy road and my daughter’s sense that things have turned out okay was a revelation.

She said, “You seem better now because before you were chunkier and had long hair and were sad. Now you are thin and fit and you seem much better with (my wife). And Mom seems happier with (her boyfriend) too.”

Her comments felt like an affirmation of something I have noticed over the past year or so: I am emerging from my own dark time–my own shadow days–of difficulty, anger, immense hurt and guilt.

It hasn’t been that I haven’t felt sadness occasionally, even the kind that sometimes stopped me in my tracks (and I’ve written about it here). Who doesn’t ever experience emotional pain, disappointment and epic failure in their lives?  I have tried to be philosophical about it most of the time but sometimes life has felt endlessly and relentlessly difficult. A big bag of doodoo.

But imagine for a moment that it is possible to actually lollygag through life, bouncing like a butterfly from one great experience after another, never shedding a tear, in a fairy tale world where nothing bad ever happens. Doesn’t it make sense that butterfly person’s happiness would be muted eventually because only good experiences would be the norm? This butterfly person wouldn’t know the difference between one experience or another because everything would be felt as equally happy.

Without failure, how can someone know success? Without disappointment, how could someone know joy? Without tears, how could there be sunshine?  The sameness of every experience would have to lead to despair. 

My youngest daughter’s sense that bad things are as normal a part of life as good made me do some reframing of my own. I’m certain good things happened in my childhood and throughout my adult life. But if you were to ask me, I would not characterize my life until now as happy. Most of my memories as a child are of sad times, hurt, disappointment. And as an adult, I tend to see my past as failure, missteps, things not turning out. In fact, I was like a butterfly of despair–I only knew bad experiences.

The work of reframing I have done over the past couple of years has led me to view life with more balance. 

Experiences are just experiences. How we choose to frame them determines our happiness…It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward..has essentially done what I’ve hoped for.

Today, it feels like I am becoming whole. This awareness–that experiences are just experiences and how we choose to frame them determines our happiness–has been hard-won. It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward–all the books I’ve read and the therapy sessions and the late night conversations with my wife, Elin–has essentially done what I’ve hoped for. Almost without notice, all this effort to improve has incrementally made me better, more able to choose happiness over sadness.

My long period of shadow days, years in the making and years ending, appears to have passed. My awareness allows me to see, like my daughter, that bad events are temporary and not always caused by me. I can take a healthy amount of responsibility and let go. My bad experiences have even helped me grow. They have allowed me to be better equipped to see happiness or peace as a choice.

I can choose love.

I can choose to feel happy. Alive. Special. Talented.

I can choose to feel badly about something I did and then move on. I can acknowledge my responsibility and feel guilty and then forgive myself for being flawed.

This might be automatic for some; it has been anything but for me.

“It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real. But it’s nice to make some love I can finally feel.  Hard times let me be.”

My shadow days are over.

 ###

emotions, family, figuring it out, relationships

six days at the bottom of the ocean

I have failed as a father and ruined my children.

I have done so poorly and with such regularity, one could call my shortfall as a parent epic.

Parenting done well is among the most difficult endeavors anyone will encounter. It’s up there with being president of a country, which you could say is a little like parenting a nation, except you have a few more people who refuse to go to bed on time and who need time outs.

To be sure, failure is a regular part of parenting for everyone, not just me. That’s  not much comfort. I try my best but still make one mistake after another raising my three daughters and two step-kids. It’s like a science experiment that spans 21 years, with collateral damage and ruined test tubes scattered about.

Parenting is up there with being president of a country, which you could say is a little like parenting a nation, except you have a few more people who refuse to go to bed on time and who need time outs.  

As parents we read Brazelton and talk to other parents, even our own, who also failed often and magnificently, looking for the short cuts to perfect children. But a funny thing happens once we get into it. Once they stop being babies and become real people, it’s as if all that knowledge is wiped from our brains. At least it was for me.

When my girls were little, I knew I was going to be one of those dads who broke down barriers, who went against the norm. I was going to be so close to my daughters that every dad would be jealous and every mom would wonder why they married their guy.

When they were babies, I just had to grab a  bottle and when they wailed, wrap their fleece blankets and my arms a little tighter around them. I would whisper silly sounds. They would soon be cooing in their blanket cocoons.

I could almost always make them laugh.  I’d drop down on the floor as they crawled and make goofy faces and roll around and they would giggle until they fell asleep. When I came home from road trips, they would  be in my lap, telling me in their little girl voices all that had happened over the previous couple of days. I felt significant, like a real father. At night I used to wake and go into their rooms and watch them sleep. I’d listen to their soft, rhythmic breathing. And the world would be right.

At night I used to wake and go into their rooms and watch them sleep. I’d listen to their soft, rhythmic breathing. And the world would be right.

Now the parenting territory is like scorched earth. How do I know? My gauge is how my kids behave and how they treat others, including me. My daughters’ difficulties the past couple of years seem symbolic of my inadequacy as a father. I don’t blame their mother, whom my wife reminds me is at least half of the equation. I take blame because, ironically, I believe I am more conscious and aware and therefore have greater culpability.

My oldest daughter hates me. We have barely spoken since she blew up in my house at my now wife and I three years ago.  She has had it exceedingly difficult since her mom and I divorced in 2009. She’s lost friendships. She lashes out frequently at schoolmates and her younger sisters. Her mom once broadcast a fight between she and my oldest on FaceTime just so I could see. It was just like watching one of those family breakdown reality shows on TV I despise so much.

My other two don’t have their older sibling’s volatility, but are nevertheless also a challenge. Because we haven’t had the same conflict, I have occasionally mistaken this for an invitation to have one of those cliched daughter-dad talks. You know– school or life or music or, yes, boys. First I get the look, which I consider a victory because they rarely look up from their smartphones. Sometimes I say things just to see if they are listening. If I persist, I usually get a one word answer and then they return to the important stuff on Instagram.

Meanwhile, I retreat, sullen and defeated, with a heart that aches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Parenting has been one continuous opportunity to mess up. When my daughters needed space, I barged in to talk. When they wanted to talk, I was often distracted or unavailable.

My divorce has only clarified how badly I parent. They live most of the time with their mom, who also hates me by the way, and though it’s only slightly longer than 10 minutes door to door, I might as well live in New Zealand. Sometimes I’ve played hardball and made them stay at my house. That made them miserable. Other times I’ve been advised to “let go of the rope” and let my girls have a say in things. This usually has meant I don’t get to see them.

 

Sometimes I say things just to see if they are listening. If I persist, I usually get a one word answer and then they return to the important stuff on Instagram.

 

Now I have two more kids for whom I feel responsibility and whom I’ve come to care about deeply, my step-children. I’m going to stop using the term “step-” because it carries so much baggage. They’re kids. Now, they’re my kids too.

I’ve seen divorced couples who actually make it work. These people set aside their lives and dedicate everything to their kids in the difficult transition of ending a marriage. Which is probably why I have failed so greatly. I used the opportunity excommunicating from my marriage to completely change the way I approach life, including parenting.

In the past couple of years, as I reflected on how things have gone, I felt that I had missed opportunity after opportunity for success and growth. After the divorce, I was like a rubber band stretched to the limit, then sprung the other way. I became obsessed with fixing my past. In the course of moving forward from my former marriage, I have been accused of moving away from my kids. True, I have changed my approach to parenting, trying to be more paternal, a little more distant and less compliant, because I have come to believe my kids need a strong male figure in their lives, not the doormat I once was.

I was like a rubber band stretched to the limit, then sprung the other way. I became obsessed with fixing my past.

When I was a married I was exceedingly needy of my kids. My ego was paper thin. I used my children for validation because, well, I needed it and couldn’t get it from my ex-wife. You might think I’m being too hard on myself, but let’s be honest. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we are also mature. I see so many, including my ex-wife, run around with their egos exposed, seeking validation like heroin addicts needing a fix.

Healthy people who look in the mirror and see exactly who and what they are deserve respect. They see the flaws and the good and accept both. As my wife says, healthy people don’t spend a lot of time feeling guilty. They accept the right amount of responsibility for their choices. Not an ounce more.

Healthy people also keep moving forward. I have built a life-long habit of ruminating over my past and it always makes me feel like crap. I indulge in guilt. I accept blame for everything even when I shouldn’t.

My ego was paper thin. I used my children for validation because, well, I needed it and couldn’t get it from my ex-wife.

Now I see how burdensome it is to ask of little hearts and minds. As I try to take a healthier approach to parenting, I seem a stranger to them. They are unsure of me because of this inconsistency between the way I was when I was married to their mom and how I try to be today. Who wouldn’t be a little freaked out?

My intent is honorable. I want my children to be happy. I especially want them to grow into well adjusted adults, prepared to make it though the challenges of life. Intent is good, but it only goes so far. We parents can’t keep honorably messing up our kids and wash our hands of it even if our intentions are good.

I won’t ever stop trying to figure out parenting. I’ll probably keep failing too.  Meanwhile, my kids will move toward adulthood and I will mean less to them. Until, that is, they have their own kids and will fail and fail and fail on their own.

IMG_0469Maybe that’s love. Maybe that is parenting. You keep trying and trying even though you epically screw up.  What else is there to parenting–and life–but one series of experiments where we mix the ingredients, see the results, and try something new to get different results. Or keep doing the same damn thing and ruin our kids.

Maybe failure is the wrong word. Maybe I’m a moron for expecting parenting to  feel good.

 ###

The title of this essay is taken from a song from one of my favorite post-rock bands, Explosions in the Sky. My wife and all my kids don’t like them much, so I listen when they are not around or put on headphones.

Great reading lately, including this post from a new favorite, James Altucher. Here is one he wrote about comedian Louis C.K.’s genius: http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2014/02/louis-ck-and-the-hare-krishnas-used-this-one-trick-for-success/.

Thank you for reading.