relationships

catastrophe and the cure

In 1982 my mother died of pancreatic cancer. She suffered greatly to the end. A year shy of thirty years since my mom’s death, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. My cancer experience was much different from hers; she felt the misery of radiation and chemotherapies and ultimately medicine’s failure to cure; I went into the hospital one day and simply had the tumor–and my left kidney–excised. Cancer gone. Cured. Catastrophe averted.

In fact, it’s almost as if my cancer diagnosis and treatment were a book I read or a movie I saw. It was over so quickly. I often forget that my health was tripped up by cancer until I look in the mirror in the morning and see the four scars on my stomach that are the only sign that I was even sick.

I thought about this today as I shuffled through the webpages of Livestrong. (http://livestrong.org/). Livestrong is filled with some of what you might expect from a website dedicated to a specific illness. There are sections on understanding the physical and emotional impacts of the disease from experts, avenues for information for cancer patients, their families and for practitioners, including a hotline directly to the Foundation for information, the inevitable requests for donations, and a store where one can buy t-shirts, hoodies, backpacks and technical running clothing from Nike emblazoned with the Livestrong moniker.

And the famous yellow wristbands.

The iconic yellow band is as symbolic if not more than the pink ribbon in the fight against cancer. Once as ubiquitous as fancy coffee travel mugs or cups from Starbucks are today, the thin yellow rubber straps don’t seem as prominent now. In fact they are scarce compared to when every movie star and celebrity, even President Barack Obama, wore one. I bought a small cache of them when Nike first issued the wristbands during the mid-1990’s when Lance Armstrong, who started the Foundation, was battling testicular cancer.

Not long ago, I stopped wearing my own Livestrong wristband. I associated the wristband not with the Foundation and its efforts to assist cancer patients and their families in the war on cancer, but with Lance Armstrong himself. To me Armstrong has always been Livestrong. But the Did-he-or-Did-he-not controversy surrounding Armstrong’s alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs and techniques during his run of Tour de France victories tainted both the athlete and the Foundation he created. I found separating the good work of the Livestrong Foundation and the national attention it garnered to cancer, not to mention the money it raised, from the idea that Armstrong cheated his way to seven TdF wins simply too difficult. Lately, it seemed, Armstrong’s detractors had been able to amass enough evidence that the nagging doubts I had about how clean he was and which I buried out of admiration for him grew too large. Armstrong, I came to believe, is a doper like so many pro-cyclists. My disappointment was so great that one day I ripped the iconic wristband off and vowed never to support Armstrong Inc. ever again.

I was wrong.

On the Livestrong website are stories of cancer survivors who have been helped by the Livestrong Foundation and who continue the good fight against cancer. Ordinary people whose inspiring stories provide hope for tens of thousands of other cancer patients and their families. The reach of the Livestrong Foundation is amazing and the stories of cancer survivors are heartwarming.

Then it occurred to me. I, too, am a cancer survivor. I didn’t endure the hardship of endless trips to clinics to get shot with radiation or a cocktail of dangerous chemicals pushed through my veins. But does the fact that my treatment was less taxing mean that my cancer story is less valid?  (I’m currently working on an essay about my cancer story but that will wait for another time.)

I have decided that I can legitimately wear the yellow Livestrong wristband because I have authentic personal experience as a cancer survivor, both as a family member who lost a loved one and as a person who actually had cancer. I might be fooling myself separating the work of the Livestrong Foundation from the rumors and innuendo around Lance Armstrong the athlete, but it works for me for now. Whatever truths are borne out in the controversy about Armstrong’s alleged doping, for me the work of the Livestrong Foundation will stand on its own, untarnished and worthwhile.

We cancer survivors deserve our symbols I think and I’m again wearing my Livestrong wristband. My friend Harrie said to me, cancer survivors “belong to the best club in the world that no one wants to be a part of.” Whether I like it or not, I’m a member of this club and, in a way, tied to those cancer survivors who have told their own stories on Livestrong.org.

Thanks for reading…

emotions, inspiration, relationships

it’s natural to be afraid

When they were young, my daughters and I loved to read a book called “Everyone Poops.” The book teaches youngsters that doing their thing on the toilet is a natural and simple part of life. But actually seeing the illustrations of animals and people and babies pooping gave them fits of laughter.

Now, years later, having graduated from Potty Training University, my kids are learning a new, and more difficult, lesson: Everybody experiences disappointment.

The simple act of living and being connected with others sets us up to have endings that are less than we might want. But so far, as I try to pass on what I’ve learned, knowing there is plenty to go around hasn’t seemed to help them overcome their disappointments any more easily. I can’t blame them. Having been delivered disappointment more than a few times in my life should make me a “disappointment ninja” by now.

Often, I still get cold-cocked when my expectations are undermined by reality just as if I were in a boxing ring. Even the fear of disappointment, as natural as it might be, is enough to stop some from even trying. The difference now–and what I eventually am able to focus on–is the universality of disappointment. I am not unique in getting bent by life. This realization often helps me put my own difficulties into perspective. And this is what I am shooting for with my kids.

For example, I recently found out that I was not selected for a job I really wanted. I mean really wanted. I was so determined to get the job that I relentlessly researched and prepared for my interviews, which all seemed to go really well. I was so confident that I would be selected that I began to make tentative connections with potential clients and associates as if I already had the job.

Then the call came. They chose someone else. Granted, the person they chose was extremely well qualified, and, if I have to admit it, even had an edge in experience. Nevertheless, I was devastated. What’s more, the call came during a family vacation, so I didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and mope. “C’mon Dad, we have to get to going. Aren’t we going to go to the Falls?” my kids implored. It was later that night in talking with my fiancé that the full magnitude of my failed efforts hit me.

No new job. No exciting transition to new worlds of possibilities. No new achievements. No new colleagues. No new salary. All the usual stuff you get when you don’t get the job.

It was when my daughter Grace asked me, “Dad, are you really sad you didn’t get the job?” that I realized I couldn’t hang out in Disappointment Valley too long.

What I have begun teaching my kids as best I can because I’ve only recently figured out some of this stuff myself is how long disappointment sticks around is a choice we all make. It’s not that life goes awry for only us. Everybody gets hit. And each of us can choose what happens next when it does. True, I put everything into getting that job and I didn’t get it. So I get to feel lousy for a few minutes and then I must move on. I can not regret my efforts because without them I couldn’t even entertain the possibilities that arise from getting a new job. I also can not let the fact that I didn’t get this job deter me from still looking.

A therapist friend has a useful approach to handling disappointment. She believes that, like a lot of feelings in life, there is a positive intent in disappointment. It’s up to us to figure out what the positive intent is. This is akin to turning the question away from, “Why me?” to “What can I learn from this?” And that serves us way better.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still not happy that I didn’t get THE job. And I still have to find a new one. But I’ve come to believe that there is something else around the corner that will be even better for me. The bigger part is hoping that seeing how I handled this and other disappointments that come my way will give my daughters confidence when things go awry for them.

emotions, family, figuring it out, relationships

Let me back in

When something is missing in your life, it usually turns out to be someone.

-Robert Brault.

My ex has a big sign up high on the wall in her kitchen. “Life is all about plan B.” I don’t know whom she is quoting. And I have the impression she doesn’t really believe in anything resembling Plan B. But it has been all Plan B since our divorce almost three years ago.

I have been thinking about Plan B a lot recently. Plan B’s are the ugly step-children of Plan A’s. They only exist because of all the Plan A’s that have gone awry. I find myself working down the alphabet of Plans with my oldest daughter Paige, who hasn’t spoken to me hardly at all the past year. One of my most important relationships is in such a bad state I have had to completely reframe my hopes and expectations.

It’s not all due to the fact that she is about to turn 15 either. Some of her angst/doubt/separation expressed as anger (toward mostly me) is as they say a natural expression of what it means to be a teen-ager. But that’s like saying that some of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s gaffes on the campaign trail are simply due to his being rich. My oldest daughter’s anger is of course tied to all the things that teen-agers normally have to deal with. Much more of it I fear has to due with me.

This is not exactly how I pictured things, even after her mom and I divorced. I mistakenly thought that expressing my love for her and her sisters often and sincerely would give comfort and assurance despite the fracturing of the family they knew and wanted. It’s not how it has turned out. A little over a year and a half after the divorce in what had up to then seemed a smooth transition for Paige, she blew up at my fiance and I and stormed into a cold February night. The language she used toward us didn’t come from the tiny baby I first carried into our home in Ann Arbor in 1997 either. I remember thinking as she raged and I dodged the fists she swung at me that there seemed little left of the adorable little girl who smelled like baby powder and loved to sit in my lap.

I tried to remain calm even as I felt the delicate bricks in the foundation of our relationship crumble beneath me. The one or two moments where it appeared we might be back on a path toward rekindling our connection since have vanished like a scented candle whiffed out by a sudden breeze.

Accepting the idea that my vision for a tight, connected and relatively normal relationship with each of my daughters–the same one I pictured before the divorce–is no longer possible doesn’t come easily. And holding so tightly as I have to that vision causes problems for both myself and my daughters. The Buddhist in me knows that all things are in transition at all times. Nothing is permanent. Yet don’t we as parents hold on dearly to the hope that our little girls and boys will still love us and need us when they grow up? Don’t we yearn for their adoration throughout their lives? In fact, don’t we want our very relationships with them to remain basically the same no matter what?

I have had to completely reframe my relationship with Paige. No longer are we talking and joking around. I could no more put my arms around my little girl-cum teen-aged woman than I could grasp exactly what happened between us. She and I are traveling on our own roads and right now in completely different directions.
The deterioration in our relationship has cast both our futures in to new territories where the old hallmarks of our father-daughter relationship no longer apply.

And that I think is the key to understanding and, ultimately, being satisfied in life. All of our relationships, even those we covet the most, are always in transition. It is the process of nurturing them, coaxing them along to be what we want them to be that is at the core of our mission. We have to realize that our relationships are always in process, always shifting. Sometimes they will feel like shit and not be at all what we want. We may even have to jettison some relationships like my friend Abby did in order to survive.

I adore Paige and I miss her greatly. I realize that only one of us right now wants to be in this relationship. So I will wait and hope that her path crosses mine again sometime soon. And I will realize that whatever happens, relationships change.

advertising, inspiration, relationships

the exact moment of inspiration

Picture this: A busy city street. Could be anywhere. New York City, Amsterdam, San Francisco. Stockholm. A guy says “Hi, how are you? Want to chat?” to passersby. He is out of place, a stone interrupting the efficient stream of people scurrying to places beyond. Beside him, in sharp contrast to the urban plain-scape all around is a striking blue couch. It is low and modern, not big and stuffy like the one your grandparents had in the living room when you were eight. This one is made to fit in a loft in SoHo or East London. Or on a busy city sidewalk. On a small square metal table in front of the couch sits a brightly colored box of Kleenex.

It is in fact a commercial. This series of commercials Kleenex ran in 2009 and continues to have fans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRZri7jrX6g

Our guy in the commercial is eventually able not only to get some people to actually stop, sit down on his couch and chat, he gets total strangers to pour their hearts out to him. They laugh and they cry and he reaches over and hands them a tissue and it is impossible not to be touched by the message wrapped up nicely in a 61-second present.

Maybe I have a thing for blue–even though for years my favorite color has been orange–or maybe it is how out of place the couch and the guy appear against the backdrop of a busy city street, a visual non-sequitor causing havoc for pedestrians and my brain at the same time. There was for me an emotional connection forged between the electric azure of the couch and the feeling conveyed in the commercial. I know it is a deliberate prop, designed to infect our memory and permanently brand Kleenex into our brains.

But the blue couch is so much more than a piece of furniture consciously placed into a commercial to make me want to buy tissues. For me it is a symbol of what I see as the true (perhaps unintended) message of the ad.

It is about creating relationships, albeit in an obtuse and possibly offensive way, with people one might not otherwise get to know. We do this. We confide in the people who cut our hair and the bartender at the martini lounge and even the barista who hands us our coffees at the cafe. We want to tell people about ourselves. Why not do it on a busy city street on a comfortable blue couch with hundreds of strangers walking by?

The blue couch is a metaphor for the relationships I create in my life. And it’s an invitation to sit down, chat and learn about others. I started this blog and named it deliberately as a vehicle to explore all the types of relationships I have: with my children, with my fiancé, with friends, co-workers, prospective employers, people from my past, absolute fucking strangers. And I believe that relationships with the world outside of ourselves (and, as it happens, inside) contribute to our satisfaction or our dismay with our lives.

For example, we also have relationships with ourselves. There’s the conversation that goes on inside my head (all the time) and then there is this body I inhabit, which a couple times in the past year has seriously let me down. My friend Mike says I should be really pissed at my body. “So c’mon my body. Are you listening? Straighten up or I’m dumping you for a new model.”

This space is an invitation for anyone who wants to take the time to read my offerings to think about their own relationships. Through examining my relationships I hope I can give others some insights into how they are intertwined with others and maybe whether and how to disentangle from unworthy relationships. There will be no shortage of topics about which to right. I hope I can keep up.

So grab a cup of coffee–and maybe some Kleenex–and have a seat. Let’s explore together.

Thanks for reading.