Thursday, May 29, 2008

Like Fish In the Sea

I'm thinking about development right now: brain development, personal skills development, idea development, Self development.

I'm surprised at the number of different areas the concept of 'the fish in the sea (being the last to discover water)' applies.

When I went looking for the phrase, 'the last to discover water' it was to give attribution to an idea that was animating my new understanding that Gary is not able to differentiate my thoughts from his, or his from mine. I found the attribution in Nathan Collier's blog. (Warning, I di
dn't check the veracity of his attribution!)

I read a little of his blog: Actually, fish would be the last creatures to discover water, simply because they know nothing else. They know no other reality so there’s nothing to compare it to.

And then a little more:
So, too, we are the last to discover our assumptions about reality because we are so immersed in them. We need someone with a different perspective, a different world view, to point out the things we take for granted, those things we see as “givens” or “unquestioned norms,”...

And then:
We do not understand what we do not know. We cannot comprehend “unknown unknowns.”

How do you uncover your blind spots?

So, to paraphrase a US ex-Secretary of Defense, sometimes we don't know that we don't know something! Furthermore, thinking we know something, prevents us from knowing it. (!)

It seems the task of the human brain is to make sense of the world. And one of the ways it does this is by making associations--as a short-hand way of dealing with an overwhelming amount of information.

A danger of this can be blind spots--an assumption that we already know all we need to know about something. I suppose this is the origin and perpetuation of prejudice. (Connor's teacher and I were talking yesterday about a topic that seems to have no bearing, except it is an example of this type of disordered thinking: Connor fancies himself to be a daredevil. His teacher compared him to Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. I said, "yeah, and look what happened to him"--and I was then reminded of the horrific consequence of his death: mutilations of stingrays. To some humans, the death of a well-known documentarian equated a license to kill the type of animal that had been the agent of his death. Where on earth is the sense in that? Then I'm reminded of the collateral effect of 9/11--the backlash against not only Muslims, but anyone who
resembled Muslims, even if only the most superficially.)

Clearly the brain has another task, and that is to discriminate and distinguish between associations.

I'm reminded of a parable told within the story of "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis. Someone is over-eager for the metamorphosis of a butterfly to be completed. It has emerged from its chrysalis and slowly the wings are unfolding. Impatient, the observer tries to hurry the process by blowing his warm breath on the wings. To his horror this results in deformity--the wet wings stick to each other in clumps. Unable to differentiate from each other, they are useless and the poor creature dies.

Perhaps prejudice, and anxiety cause assumptions and associations to fuse, and the ability to discriminate between the subtleties of different ideas is lost, along with the ability to be fully functionally human.


I give up!
Something very weird is happening with the text-sizing and I can't seem to fix it. I'm sorry about that, but it looks like I'm going to have to let it stand.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My stop on the Barren Bitches "Water for Elephants" book tour

This is my first time participating in a blogger book discussion. Mel(issa), of Stirrup Queens and Sperm Court Palace Jesters has organized 11 of these prior to this one. Thanks for letting me join in.

The book, obviously, is Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. I hope my first attempt is a worthy one, although I've already flopped in one important obligation of participants: I failed to come up with any questions. The way this works is that after reading each of the readers sends a list of questions about the book to Mel. She then compiles them and gives this compilation back to the participants to choose 3 to answer in their blog.

I belong to a reading group in real life. We choose our books over a marathon weekend at the beach once a year. At that time we also divide up our obligations for hosting and facilitating (I'm facilitating Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss next month). The discussions are usually pretty free-form, and I'm not used to the study questions that you can sometimes find at the end of books. I'm also one of those people who can walk around with a head full of ideas that instantly disappear when someone asks me a question about them.

With these lame qualifiers I'll launch:

Something that struck me about this book in particular was the rich, descriptive way the author handled Jacob as an elderly man. His frustration was so apparent, his physical manifestation so perfectly described, that of all of the elements of this book Jacob the Elderly is what stays with me. You had the sense that Jacob didn't foresee his latter years being the way they were, and his almost "ride off into the sunset" ending perhaps what he had envisaged for his end. Do you think about what's at the end of the road someday? When you think about it, what do you see for yourself?

Children mentioned--

The future is hazy and shrouded in mystery. Step by step the mystery is revealed. We humans deal with the same themes with infinite variation: childhood, coming-of-age, marriage, children (perhaps), loss of our parents, our own deaths. The open question of how something will be can make me anxious; I particularly wondered what the conclusions of chapters called "Adding-a-New-Baby-to-the-Family", "Toilet Training", "Starting School" would look like. Suspense is not necessarily a comfortable state for me
(Heck, I just want to know if the outcomes will validate my choices in the end.), but the alternative is 'Just Shoot Me and Get It Over With', so I live with the suspense. In terms of The (My) Last Chapter I wonder if I'll face my end with peace, grace, and dignity. The optimal will be that there's a good match with my own personal readiness to surrender rather than a life dragging on after I'm ripe to depart, or having it ripped away before my children are self-sufficient. I'd like to have a few people who will miss my company around to see me off and celebrate a life that's hopefully been well-lived. This actually segues into the next question, except I want to comment on how easily I seem to take for granted the possibility of a peaceful death. I wonder if circumstances to hope realistically for a peaceful death will continue in the part of the world I live in...there are so many in the world who would dearly love to take that for granted and cannot.

On page 109, old Jacob complains about how his family keeps secrets from him: "And those are just the things I know about. There are a host of others they don't mention because they don't want to upset me. I've caught wind of several, but when I ask questions, they clam right up. Mustn't upset Grandpa, you know... Why? That's what I want to know. I hate this bizarre policy of protective exclusion, because it effectively writes me off the page. If I don't know about what's going on in their lives, how am I supposed to insert myself in the conversation?... I've decided it's not about me at all. It's a protective mechanism for them, a way of buffering themselves against my future death..." Reading this, I could see myself in both Jacob & in his family members, both in respect to our infertility situation and other matters. Whose viewpoint do you relate to most in this passage and why?

I want to take a slightly different path than this question asks, and it relates to the one above about The End. To me there seems to be an inconsistency between Jacob's life as a young man, his passionate love for Marlena and Rosie
, and his final days with his family dutifully 'doing the right thing' by him, but with little emotional connection. Somehow a man who led the life we've been shown with such a deep bond with his wife seems like someone who would not feel so isolated within his family. It seems that love would have been a unifying force in the family with him as the nucleus in old age. I suppose what might account for this was that he was never free to tell the story of Rosie with authentic detail--so perhaps this is a cautionary tale that withholding the truth isolates a person from the comforts of emotional intimacy. To the point where he would be so impoverished in his family that he would choose to run away and join the circus at age 90.

Originally forced to share quarters, Kinko (Walter) seems to have an intense dislike for Jacob. One day, Jacob helps Kinko's dog Queenie and Kinko becomes his friend because of this small act of kindness. Has someone performed a simple act of kindness that changed your feelings toward them? How did this small act affect you? Can just a small and simple thing have a profound effect?

Pregnancy loss mentioned:

I miscarried my first pregnancy in 1996, when I was 39. It was a terrible shock, and I was devastated. I had told everybody about the pregnancy, and for a while it was exceedingly painful because I kept running into people I then had to tell about the loss. The unexpected gift I received was the kindness of the many women who I'd known for years and never knew that they too had had miscarriages. My loss was a reminder of their own pain, and they braved it to offer comfort and the wisdom of their experience to me. We cried together, and the offering of their pain to ease mine is an experience I'll always be grateful for.

I'd like to also say a few of my impressions of how I responded to this book. It was an engaging enough story.
However there are some stories that inspire me to look inside of myself, or to look more thoughtfully at people and events around me...this story did not seem to open those doors. Hence my inability to come up with any questions. There were places where I had to force myself to continue; I had trouble with the brutality of the times. I dreaded reading passages of cruelty to Rosie and the other animals. Would I recommend the book? I think I'd tell someone who asked that it was a decent read with some nice moments, but there was some compelling note underneath that I look for to feel fully satisfied with a story, and I just didn't find it here.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Empty Picture Frame by Jenna Nadeau (with author participation because she's a blogger!)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Choices (long, sorry)

I've reached a conclusion that the fundamental instability between Gary and me is not fixable, because it is not available to Gary's awareness. He is simply not aware that he expects my vantage to be one and the same as his. It's very unlikely he will: as was famously said, "the fish will be the last to discover water" (Marshall McLuhan). It's hiding in plain sight. When I point it out to him his eyes glaze; he has no idea what I mean.

Therefore, the fruits of this set of conditions are very unlikely to change. These include being held responsible for knowing what's in his mind (and being punished when I fail), continued backlog of unresolved conflict, passive-aggression.

At best the field between us is polite or friendly in a distant way. It is not an atmosphere of mutual genuine warm regard and good will. And it degenerates quickly and sometimes unexpectedly.

Sadly, the boys have not known much else.

Now that I understand the anatomy of our dynamic better, I see how it's likely to continue to affect them. Already I've seen Gary answer for one of them when I say, "Do you want some dressing on your salad?" Gary will answer, "Yes, lots!" (Then is resentful when I point out that it was one of the children whose preference I asked, not his) Gary already assumes his preferences are also the kids', and when they object exacerbates the situation by either insisting on his choice or implying that there is something wrong with them for wanting something different. He wants them to want what he wants, in the same way Gary's mother wants him to want what she wants. He does not see how this undermines his own authority in their eyes. If the pattern stays unchanged this probably won't improve as they approach adolescence.

What is best for them? If part of their developmental task is to individuate from us, their parents, is it not confusing to live in an environment where one of the parents is NOT individuated and appears to condemn movement in that direction?

Of course, he is going to be in their lives: If we split I can't imagine that he would want anything but shared custody. But there are many ways to approach this.

Most important I think is that the boys not change their address. I've heard of solutions where parents keep their house and rotate back and forth as custody agreements dictate, rather than the children doing the moving. Unfortunately, this is complicated a little by the fact that the boys are now in two different schools (although I still have hope that maybe at some point Scott will return to our neighborhood school. He'll stay at Trillium for second grade, next year, though.)

So with that as a basic assumption there are various ways to accomplish this. One way would be to just make a few adjustments to our current living situation. Not much would have to change at all. He works long hours, and so our overlap time within the house is pretty minimal already. We just delineate it a little more: figure out how we'd do a conventional custody and just arrange to be gone when the other is here. An advantage to this is that I would continue to be the full time caregiver for the boys so we wouldn't need to utilize before/after-school care. This could continue to be my full time job and I would not need to seek outside employment. Furthermore, the perceived transition is less jarring to the boys.

My question about that is whether or not it's best to put daylight between the perennial conflict of my need to differentiate and his to remain undifferentiated. It's often a fraught process anyway for children to differentiate themselves from their parents : during ages 2 and 3 when the developmental need was particularly acute I remember thinking that adolescence must be like this. I had this confirmed from many quarters by people who specialize in child development: it's the task for the children to separate themselves from their parents, and it often isn't pretty. Will their task be more confusing if I don't physically separate myself from their father?

So perhaps it's better for their father and I to not share a house--at least living in it simultaneously.

There are a couple ways to do this. I could rent a room from someone during the days I don't have custody. He would have to manage his own child care arrangements. He would also need to make arrangements to sleep somewhere else on days when I have custody. I would need to return to my profession or something that pays a living wage. I don't know if it would need to be full time. So there would be childcare needs on days when I have custody too, depending on what kind of hours I have. This of course, would be far more noticeable for the boys.

If we are both renting part-time somewhere else that's a good chunk of change evaporated each month. It's a shame to think of, when one considers that it could be going to upgrade the house we have. Perhaps the solution is to buy a small place, a little house, or condominium and own that together. So at least we are creating some value and investment, though it still fragments the resources that could have gone into the house we have.

Another question about co-owning two places is the level of cooperation it would require. Will it be possible for us to cooperate amicably to the extent that would be required? And what if one of us wants to remarry? I don't foresee that for myself--I can't imagine wanting that after a marriage lingering for 16 years and then failing. (Actually, it's probably more accurate to say it's been failing for 16 years.) I can see him seeking someone else to mirror him: in general men do have a tendency to mate fairly quickly after a break-up (remembering a statistic: the only population more depressed than divorced men is married women!) I suppose if one of us was to find another partner we'd then have to work out some kind of buy-out arrangement.

The traditional divorce would be the most disruptive. A lot of my assets are tied up in this house and I don't think it would be smart of me to walk away from them outright. Though the house has probably appreciated some in value since we bought it three years ago, it is not enough that we could expect to buy two other places in the boys' school district with the proceeds of a sale.

Of course another consideration is to just continue to be married and go on with status quo with the understanding that I am living with a spouse who is not able to be a full partner. Though my vows didn't state this specifically, 'sickness-and-health' is implicitly part of what I agreed to. The problem with that is, it doesn't look like the resentment and passive aggression is going to get better. Even though I understand better where it's coming from, I can't seem to just ignore or disregard it when he puts me down. There's not much pleasure in living in an atmosphere where at any moment he may remember he dislikes me and treat me accordingly.

Two Days Later:

Update: I read Doug' post, "Bruises" and realized the congruency of my situation. The stones Gary throws are labeled: "Couldn't you have figured that out yourself?" "It's OBVIOUS!" "I would have thought you could have seen that." "This stone is for what I was mad about the other day." "This stone is for the fact that I resent you...for some reason I don't remember."

Throwing stones is a serious matter, and Doug's post was a reminder that it's not good to minimize the effects. That said, when I consider the intricacies of separating--coming up with a value for and dividing our assets, our retirement, furnishing another household (and therefore reducing the resources available for our boys' future education)-- it sure seems like it would be a whole lot simpler if I was just not bothered by his behavior. In fact I'm aware that it could be seen that I'm preparing to do a whole lot of boat-rocking when it would just be simpler for me to shave off my corners and fit in this round hole. I'm the obstruction; if I would just give everything would be all right

Another update is that I took Scott to the pediatrician for his ADD evaluation. The check-list I filled out matches Billy's, the teacher's almost exactly--Scott meets nine out of nine of the criteria for attention disorder, and 5 out of nine for hyperactivity. The dr spent a long time with me. She said that a lot of the issues wouldn't even exist in a simpler societal structure--that school is where the behavioral symptoms manifest, since it is language-based, and requires a special kind of attending that is difficult for these kids; a lot of issues disappear once formal education is complete. The key is to get them through the school system "with their self esteem intact". It's when self-esteem is affected that the secondary problems emerge: social problems, drug abuse. She recommended medication; said that other non-drug interventions don't have a good track record for effectiveness.

So I have a lot of thinking and research to do in this area in considering what will be the best for Scott. He has been learning and showing growth in reading...math concepts more questionable. Still, as a first grader, the academic demands aren't yet too rigorous...will symptoms worsen as more is expected of him?

And, if the structure of school is the genesis of the behavioral symptoms we see in children with ADD, maybe it is ludicrous to send him to school. The fall-back of poor-man's private school, homeschooling, is a possibility, but not if I'm trying to earn a living wage. Physical therapists' hours are the traditional 9 to 5... Fortunately the school Scott is in now is probably the most understanding and kind environment for a child with ADD as can be found in the public school system. But it still relies on means of passing knowledge that require a level of focus that is not Scott's strength; and I've seen adverse behavior created when too much is asked of him: that's why I moved him from the more traditional school.

It just now occurs to me to think of this decision-making process as a slow-cooked meal--slow, moist heat softening the gristly tendons and connective tissue, and melding various flavors into something harmonious. Hopefully.

I guess the key is to keep forefront what is most important, and an eye open to decisions that will best meet those needs.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I understand now

The concept of differentiation has led me to an understanding of the connection between undifferentiation and narcissism.

In psychological terms one who is psychologically undifferentiated is unable to distinguish his/her perspective from somebody else's. People are not separate beings, but Objects. If I am an Object in my husband's world, then I am a part of him, the way a hand is a part of a body. If his conception of me is indistinguishable from his self-concept, and then I differ, it is as shocking and mutinous to him as if his leg suddenly folded under him or his hand allowed a cup of water to drop into his lap.

As I was considering this conceptualization with Sharon she mentioned the possibility that he had suffered some sort of 'narcissistic injury'. I was intrigued enough by the term that I googled it and found a wealth of information. Among the low-lying fruit was this article that I found most useful: "Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse and Gratitude" by Nancy McWilliams, Ph.D and Stanley Lependorf, Ph. D. It's about the mundane ways that narcissistic behavior manifests.

In its most benign manifestation, the narcissist has created a False Self as a defense against perceived vulnerabilities and flaws. Frequently this False Self has some grandiosity. The narcissist then demands that those around him/her serve as a mirror (Object) that reflects only this grandiose self-image back to the narcissist. People around serve to protect the fragile ego of the narcissist.

As a child, to the extent that I participated in reflecting back only what the narcissist wanted to see, I was a "good" child ('good' in the moral sense). My behavior was a barometer of how 'good' a parent my parents were. Misbehavior on my part reflected badly on them, and the heat that released was part of the intensity of the punishment I received.

I can't speak for others' experience, but my childhood seemed to be firmly embedded in a stream of narcissists demanding their False Selves be gratified. I think quasi-religious Americana which is rife with authoritarianism is a breeding ground for this. In a sense this seems to be institutionalized--there are stories all around us of not being able to 'contradict our elders', even when we know our elders are flaming wrong about something. To disagree becomes conflated with disrespect. For myself, I became hypersensitive to the possibility of offending others, so that I had a 'spidey sense' that tingled when I was aware that something I might say could seem to imply criticism of another.

I grew up in a bind. If what I observed contradicted the reflection the narcissistic adults around me demanded, I could not tell the Truth. Yet it was demanded of me that I not tell lies. Furthermore, I was dependent on these people who had absolute power over me. I was also expected to be an independent agent, even while it was demanded that I be a 'good' Object.

Frankly, that is why I wrote. The bind was painful--writing gave me a space where I could be myself and tell the Truth, as well as help me sort out the contradictions. Mainly though it was an expression of my angst--if my thoughts were critical of others I instantly blamed myself and thought there was something wrong with my vision of the world: I was selfish, I was narcissistic. ...Most important of all, I wrote to alleviate my suffering.

Mercurious had a wonderful post summarizing the Buddhist Path. The Second Noble Truth is about the causes of suffering: karma, cause-and-effect. Raised to be a good mirror I attracted a lot of men who were narcissistic. They adored me until my needs asserted themselves and then they left. It seemed perverse, but predictable: if I loved them back they left. It was baffling to me then, but perfectly clear now. It's also clear that though eventually I was able to sidestep that dynamic, I would not see the signs that the man I married was not able to distinguish me from him.

There were signs. He is not particularly grandiose, but his mother's ego has loomed over us. Early on I noticed that he seemed hamstrung by a need to not offend her and that protecting her fragile feelings seemed to take precedence over protecting the integrity of our relationship. I attributed this to some unworthiness in me--that I was childish, possessive, insecure.

So basically the work I've done for all these years has been to get me to here. To this understanding that I was tied up in knots in service to others' False Selves. I understand this now, and I think I'm just starting to grasp the implications of what it might be like to proceed without undercutting my every move by questioning my motives.

I wonder where I'll go from here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Where things stand

James Hillman's essay has shaken loose a number of insights, mainly on the theme of differentiation.

I've realized this for a long time, but I get it more deeply now that the seat of the fissure between Gary and me is the fact of conflict.

After years of a similar pattern to our struggles I realized that part of what really twisted inside me about them was that they often rose when he held me responsible for something that I could not have known, unless my brain had been sitting behind his eyes. More and more it became clear that in his dealings with me he was fully expecting that my perspective was indistinguishable from his. A minor manifestation of this might be the two of us trying to maneuver a long table through a doorway:

Gary: "Move the end to the the RIGHT! ...the right!!!!" Me, having moved the 'end' to the 'right', totally puzzled and stung by his tone. Then it turns out he means his right, and by 'end' he means the upper end, and by 'move', he means tip. I've pointed out to him before that because he can see something from his vantage, it looks different from mine, and more precise language rather than increased volume might get better results. I can tell by the acoustics that he doesn't 'get' this, that he really feels I had all the information I needed and if I didn't it was on account of stupidity (mine).

I see now that this is just one mundane example of a common thread that is pervasive in our marriage--he really believes that what he sees is what I see too. And when I differ to him it feels like a betrayal--as if I realized my eye had been 'telling' me the tree was green, but it really is red.

The fact of any conflict at all between us, and in this sense I define 'conflict' as a divergence in how we perceive a shared event, is offensive to him. Because if I were indistinguishable from him, then there would be no conflict.

So this is why we haven't been able to get a handle on even the basics of conflict management: we're not supposed to have conflict in the first place. Therefore attempts to resolve conflict, beginning with acknowledging the presence of conflict has already offended him and he is coming from a place of resentment--which creates more conflict.

This explains the curious spiral nature of the issues between us, where conflict A happens, I name it, he a) dismisses b) diminishes c) criticizes my response, and then conflict A is still unresolved and now there's conflict A1 to deal with too. Eventually we may come to a sort of resolution, but the cost has been that he harbors resentment toward me and feels I've brow-beaten him into 'admitting' he's 'wrong'.

I've not correctly apprehended the nature of this very basic problem. I have assumed that he is a rational person and tried to point out to him that essentially he's expecting me to read his mind and this isn't a reasonable expectation. I've been baffled by the fact that he doesn't seem to see this, and the basic problem recurs in a different form, at all levels of our relationship. I've wondered if it is me who is expecting too much, if I've made an error in my reasoning somewhere, or if I'm 'too sensitive' and therefore susceptible to his tone--in other words I've wondered if I'm at fault.

To consider that this is an issue of differentiation makes a lot of things clear.

What I understand about Theory of Mind comes to mind here. I hope I don't offend in mentioning it, because I know that many parents of autistic children dislike it intensely. But I think it applies in this case to a person with a typical neurology--it certainly explains what I've been experiencing. To illustrate Theory of Mind a child is shown a film of Millie who has taken a bar of chocolate out of a drawer, eats some, puts it back in the drawer, and leaves the room. A few moments later in the film Millie's mom removes the same chocolate, uses it in cooking, and puts it away in a different drawer. The child watching the film is asked which drawer Millie will look in to find the chocolate when she comes back. An immature child will think that Millie will look in the drawer that he saw the mother put the chocolate in, not realizing that Millie is carrying a different construct in her head based on her experience. In essence, Gary is not distinguishing his perspective from that of Millie--he expects Millie's behavior to be based on his perspective. Furthermore, he doesn't see that he's not separating his perspective from hers.

This would account for the sense of dead space between us, where I just don't feel I've connected when I try to explain to him that I couldn't possibly have known what he meant about something.

This is a big problem. It's a primary source of conflict in our relationship; it's a primary obstacle to being able to clean up after a conflict. It's a source of resentment from him toward me. It's the source of often poisoned air between us. It's like living on a fault line and at any moment a gap will open underfoot to fall into. It's difficult to anticipate the next time he will expect my perspective to be identical to his so I can compensate for it in advance. He is blind to it, so it is unrealistic to expect him to adjust his behavior.

The big question is, how is this affecting the boys? Is living in this zone ultimately more harmful to them than the trauma of a parental separation/divorce?

Monday, May 12, 2008


At the beach with the 2 K-2 classes. Down on the sand, Scott has joined me after playing in the dunes with some children. Felix approaches, a solemn look on his face: "Scott I talked to my dad. You know what you said about not wanting to be my friend any more? Well, it's just an 'empty threat'. It's an empty threat and you will want to be my friend, and we'll be playing together again soon. Do you understand that Scott? It was just an empty threat." He paused, waiting for Scott to acknowledge the error of his ways. Scott spun around a piece of driftwood, spinning, skipping, oblivious. "An empty threat" Felix repeated gravely. "It means nothing."

I reflect that Felix is on the right track. I see that his problem is that he is unable to leave it at this. He hangs around anxiously, wanting immediate fruit for the seed he has planted. I see that it is very important to him that Scott see things his way, and he's waiting for confirmation of this. I feel sympathy for his inability to leave it. He's too invested.

I'm watching to see if any of this is sinking into Scott, but it doesn't appear to be. Felix could be reciting a rhyme, or speaking another language. A pause, then, "Well, if you don't want to be my friend any more then I won't ride home with you in your car." A few beats more, then "Well, maybe I will ride home in your car." The two of them ran off toward the dunes leaving me bemused.

Later that night s'mores have been made and consumed, stories the kids made up themselves told around the fire. It's getting dark and as kids do everywhere, they're revving up. There's a vigorous game of chase with obscure rules going on around the building where we've gathered. One adult has called to the children that they need to start settling down. They're running clockwise around the building, so I go counter-clockwise to intercept Scott and tell him it's time to go get ready for bed. I encounter Felix and his crumpled face first, and realize with sinking heart he's crying. Of course it has something to do with Scott. Felix wails, "I was chasing Scott, and I knocked him down--and I hurt him--and he said I did it on purpose!!!!!" Scott's nowhere to be seen: "Where's Scott?" "He lied to me!!! He's lying to me!!!! He said I did it on purpose!" At this moment his father appears and I leave them, trying to find Scott. Behind me I hear, "Scott was threatening me! He always threatens me!" As I rounded a corner I could see Scott standing with another little boy under the tree, holding up an elbow with a spot of blood on it. Behind I hear someone's query to Felix and his answer: "Oh, I just had some trouble with Scott."

Scott's furious. "Look what he did! I told him to go one way and he went another and knocked me down. He wasn't following the rules! He did it on purpose." Fortunately Felix's dad has pulled him out of earshot for their own little heart-to-heart otherwise we'd be in for an earsplitting "yesyoudid/noIdidn't" howling match. Each throwing gasoline on the other's flame.

These are the very tricky issues to negotiate. Children this age don't have a working understanding yet that another mind behind another set of eyes comprehends shared events very differently. It's so delicate to try to differentiate between one's experience of outside events, and one's perception of that experience. To a child they are one and the same: I'm hurt, therefore the one closest associated maliciously caused it. There is no way that Felix can comprehend that to Scott his turning right when Scott had told him to turn left, resulting in knocking Scott down it's obvious that he, Felix, acted on purpose. It is so clear in Felix's mind that he didn't intend harm that he can only feel Scott is lying if Scott accuses him of this. In this way a single misunderstanding compounds and then compounds upon itself again.

However, they played wonderfully well the next day and seemed to enjoy their ride home in the car together. (A lesson for parents in differentiating their relationships with each other from their kids')

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Trauma--reproductive revelations--Pt 2: Scott (Or, more good talks gone bad)

I took a more lackadaisical approach to talking to Scott about the particulars of reproduction. A few months ago I started to worry a little about it, wondering if he was a victim of typical second-child neglect. This manifests in the photo albums empty of the second child’s baby pictures, less alacrity in setting up playdates, and less vigilance as far as schoolyard justice goes.

It seems like it’s worked out, sort of. I managed avoid the temptation to maneuver him into asking The Question just so I could answer it. Perhaps if I’d left Connor to his own devices he’d have also been nearly 7 before it would have occurred to him to ask.

With Scott, it happened very naturally. We have a book I got back when Connor had a passion for all things human body. Scott’s recently rediscovered it and we’ve been re-reading it.

The book starts out with a circle that represents the globe (I have it here in front of me and just noticed that it is the eastern hemisphere represented, from Africa to Australia. Nary an American continent to be found.) Beneath the globe it says: “Every human being on earth starts life the same way.” On the adjacent page is another circle, the exact same size as the globe, and this represents a single cell—a fertilized egg. Below: “You started life as a tiny cell—a dot so small it can only be seen under a microscope.” Scrolled across the top of the two pages is a progression of images from unfertilized egg being approached by sperm, to penetration and the formation of one cell, through the myriad cell divisions that form a developing embryo, to the fetus awaiting birth.

Scott enjoyed dwelling on this page. I seized the opportunity to introduce the concept of ‘seeds’; his father’s seed joining with mine to create the fruit that eventually was him. He seemed taken with the idea for a while and kept talking about “When I was a seed”.

Sometimes we’d get bogged down in some technical questions whose subtleties I wasn’t sure how to parse for him: “I weighed zero pounds when I was a seed”. He doesn’t have fractions down yet.

The trouble started last night when he was talking about being a seed and how he’d seen Connor when he was inside me. I explained that he wasn’t inside at the same time as Connor (although it just now occurs to me, I guess in the technical sense, ‘he’ really was—lying in wait in an ovary somewhere. Shit; I might have saved some heartbreak had I had the presence of mind to realize that. Damn my oh so literal mind.). His brow furrowed and he zeroed in on this new concept: “How old was I when Connor was zero?” “Well, you didn’t exist then.” “What????” “You weren’t around yet.”


To my dismay he began to sob. “I was a seed? I was a SEED?? It’s not fair!”

“But Scott, we ALL started as seeds. I was a seed. Your Dad was a seed. Grandma and Grandpa were seeds. Billy was a seed.” But he was inconsolable.

“When I was a seed, I was cold, and I was hungry, and I was all alone, AND I NEVER WANT THAT TO HAPPEN AGAIN!!!!!! “No, Dear, that will never happen to you again” (in this life). By now he was in my arms, sobbing and hiccuping against my chest.

Perhaps I’m projecting, but I think that maybe his 6 year old mind was contemplating, for the first time, a concept that is too much for even the adult mind: the concept of our own non-existence.

Nice Job, Mom.

Today I tried a different tack. I explained to him that zero is in the middle, and to one side of it is positive numbers, and to the other, negative. So that when he was zero Connor was positive 4. And when Connor was zero, he was negative 4. He seemed to brighten at this, so I continued: “…and when I was zero, Connor was negative 40, and when I was zero, you were negative 44. When my mom was zero, I was negative 21.” To my surprise, he brightened up considerably. The notion of continuity must be soooo important…

So whoever gave us the concept of ‘zero’, and invented negative numbers did me and my little boy a big favor today.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Something to get through

I've agreed to drive and (gulp) chaperone a group of kindergarten thru second graders on a camping trip to the beach.

The positive side is we'll be sleeping in yurts. This should be a huge improvement over 2 years ago when against my better judgment I took Scott on a campout with his then pre-school class. I took a tent on that one. We got rained out so badly that all of the campsites flooded. Any place that held a tent was underwater. While a number of families bailed and high-tailed it back to Portland Scott and I stuck it out. I pulled the seats out of the van (put them in the tent) and we slept in the van.

The bad news is I won't be in the yurt by myself. It sleeps 8. If I'm lucky maybe there'll be another adult, and 6 children as opposed to me against 7. I wistfully imagined myself in a yurt with girls playing Barbies, but since I'm chaperoning a son that's probably not to be. I'll be in the yurt with the yells, the sides billowing, the fart sounds. Note to self: earplugs! I can stand anything for one night. Yes? ????

So, we leave tomorrow at 9. We meet for lunch (maybe) at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Then on to Nehalem Bay campground.

We should be back sometime in the early afternoon Friday. But I may be too traumatized to write for a while.

Pray for me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mother's Day

I hate occasions where it is mandatory to feel certain sentiments. I hate mandatory sentiment. I hate tokens of sentiments being elevated to the level of authentic experience.

I hate 'Hallmark Holidays'.

I wonder if going to be cause for regret someday.

The cynical and rebellious part in me feels that Mother's Day, Grandparent's Day, Father's Day, and yes, "Everybody-Under-the-Sun-That-You-Ever-Have-Occasion-to-Encounter's Day" (Christmas) are 'made-up' holidays that are examples of the emperor's new clothes. Everyone gives them allegiance because, well, everyone gives them allegiance.

As a mother myself now, I'm not a purely unbiased party. But I still think I could do without it.

I wonder if I'd feel differently if we lived far enough away that it wasn't a 'shared occasion' with my mother in law. We did have 5 mother's days away, though, when we lived in St. Louis. I was indifferent there too, come to think of it.

Gary wanted to take a boys' ski trip. When the MD weekend appeared to be the one that was fine with me. Maybe we'd get to escape a stressful mandatory brunch in a restaurant (Scott and Connor both get restless in restaurants that aren't fast-food franchises. An overcrowded over-busy Mother's Day promises long delays and for food that doesn't delight them.). The boys are not comfortable with Gary's mother and generally she wants only to talk to Gary about things that aren't of interest to them--lots of detail about neighbors they've never met and issues that don't concern them. Since we've returned to Portland and proximity to her this is a once a year event I'm just as glad to be done with. The thought of getting to skip it this year was a pleasant one.

But it's not to be. Gary's big on form, and satisfying these social shoulds. So he's going to be cutting his trip short because he can't miss mother's day. The other night at dinner he said he would be home. I said, "You know, you really don't have to do that" (although I'm aware that it's not really for me, but his mother, that he's doing it). Connor's ears pricked up: "You don't like Mother's Day? How could a mother not like Mother's Day?" I said, "I don't like any situation where you're supposed to feel a certain way, or act like you feel a certain way--meaning enrich the greeting cards and flower and chocolate companies. I don't like any situation that implies that you're selfish or heartless if you don't want to participate."

Yesterday Connor came down with a rash at school, and I was on the way down the hill with him to the doctor's when a mother's day ad came on the radio. I wasn't even listening, but he said, "I see what you mean about Mother's Day, Mom. They do lay on the guilt." We talked some more, me with an uneasy feeling that I might just be giving him permission to never observe Mother's Day for me. And am I prepared for that? It is the logical conclusion of my honest judgment of it as one of those arbitrary social-consensus type 'made-up' affairs that I can't put my heart into. Will I regret this? Will I be 90 in a nursing home someday watching my fellow residents being taken out in their corsages and hats while I'm left with standard nursing-home grub? Would it be hypocritical to say, "I for one do appreciate a bit of heart-felt appreciation", or does that amount to: "I think it's stupid, but I'll be hurt if you don't do it for me anyway?"

I decided to let my words stand and take whatever consequences come.

But I have to acknowledge a terrible, quiet place inside of me, an awareness. My awareness is that there's A Glow In the Woods, a terrible, sacred place for women, Mothers, to gather. Mothers who have lost their children. The Abyss is in them, and they live with It constantly. They give comfort to each other in this Place, and my heart aches so for them. It makes me quake, and tremble.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Very moving and inspirational

I wouldn't be surprised if you have seen this already. It's 18 minutes long, but is so riveting the time passes quickly. Highly recommended.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who had a stroke. She remembers the details and recounts them here along with the insights she gained from the experience.

I remember once Sharon talking about the dichotomy of the brain: on one hand "cagey and strategic", on the other capable of experiencing one-ness and expansion. I was reminded of this when I saw this video. Enjoy

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Trauma: Reproductive Revelations Pt. 1: Connor

I was 13 years old before I pieced together the puzzle I first noticed when someone explained (in hushed tones) what the word scrawled on the fence meant. Since she was only 7 too I just assumed this was a concoction of the worst she could imagine. Before then it had never occurred to me where someone might put things. I put it out of my mind for years.

At 10 my mother dutifully followed the recommended disclosure path using a Disney “How Do I Tell My Daughter” kit complete with pink-boxed sanitary pads and belt, and a book called, “It’s Wonderful Being a Girl”. (I think all mothers of 10 year old girls had one of these kits hidden in their closet. My friends and I discussed them at length long before they were actually produced.) I was satisfied with this partial information for several years until The Question finally dawned on me: “How does the male sperm get inside the woman to fertilize the egg?” Maybe there was some credence to what the girl had said to explain what was on the alley wall after all?

Not only did I get confirmation from a girlfriend in one of our intimate spend-the-night talks, but there was a name for it too: “sexual intercourse”.

Some years later I read an article in a magazine called “Born Knowing”. This woman said that basically fresh from the womb she started telling her child about the actions that had resulted in her birth.

It seemed like a good idea. From my own experience of figuring it out on my own to myriad TV sit-com scenarios I could see that there was a major two-way discomfort in having ‘The Talk" that was alienating. Maybe having the facts out on the table as a given would foster open talk without the wrenching embarrassment.

However a little more time and reading tempered my enthusiasm. One must take care to not read too much into children’s questions and overwhelm them with more information than they were asking for.

I didn’t start at birth with Connor. It was during my pregnancy with Scott that I saw the opportunity to start to ‘tell’ him.

I’ll admit that while I tried to restrain myself I did kind of tip the playing field so he would ask how the sperm got to the egg before he might have been inclined to on his own. He did take the news calmly though, and I was glad to have it over with.

A couple days later he said, “Mommy, when Clea and I get married I will put my penis in her vagina and we’ll have babies.” Uh oh. Clea’s the CAT. She had been 10 when Connor entered the world, and hadn’t forgiven me for it yet. I didn’t like the image that came to mind… As calmly as I could I said, “Well, Connor, humans don’t usually mate with animals.” He said, “So then I’ll have to marry YOU and we’ll have babies.” I said, “Mothers and their sons usually don’t marry”. To my horror he became agitated and heartbroken: “Well, then how am I going to find a woman! How am I going to find a woman!” Sobbing, he concluded: “I won’t be able to find someone to marry so I’ll just have to marry myself!”

OMG, what had I done? This clearly had not gone at all well. Belatedly my mind showed me shades of the future: Connor divulging the information I’d given him to his pre-school friends and furious phone calls from parents. Exploring scenarios to try to proactively prevent this, in my mind’s eye I saw myself confusing him further: “WHY can’t I talk about this with my friends at school?” (“Is there something WRONG with it?”) Another frightful image: what if he suggested trying it with one of his friends? The worst though was that he was clearly suffering from this taste of the fruit of knowledge, and it was all my fault.

I’m the worst mom ever.

At least he didn't try anything with the 14 year old cat. What an undignified memory to have to carry in her declining years.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Split seconds

We paused to regroup. We had hit a rapid that had spilled each of us in succession. One of us tipped over first and while our leader and teacher Jim was attempting to assist we got swept into a larger, more complicated rapid that dumped most of the rest of us. Jim flipped too, and unusually, for him, was unable to roll upright again. Five of us were out of our kayaks in swollen Eagle Creek, each attempting to extricate ourselves. Some of us ended up on one bank, some on the other.

At least we were able to retrieve our boats, paddles, and we were unhurt, if a little shaken. We shouted to each other for a while across the roar of the current. Jim must have been on my side of the creek, because I remember a line strung across. He must have tied it off at our end and then ferried it across in his kayak. I think that Ruby used it to cross, and then Jim called back to me to see if I wanted to use the line or if I thought I could paddle across on my own. For some reason I felt confident and my voice must have convinced him because he nodded and I threw him my end. Now the only way across was by my own skills.

The tricky part is crossing the ‘eddy fence’, the wall that divides the slack water by the bank from the swift-moving main current. The technical skills required are to keep the nose of the boat pointed upstream at a distant point on the opposite shore, then balance and timing to paddle madly when punching the current. The laws of fluid dynamics and force vectors will take you neatly across if you can balance all the forces, and remember to lean downstream. It’s like not-thinking of a white elephant. When the current strikes and you feel your body start to tip downriver, the tendency is to overcompensate and lean upstream, which then presents the deck of your kayak as a lever to catch the force of the current and you’ll flip right over. I got knocked—I leaned upstream, I flipped. Bye bye.

Away I went. I caught a glimpse as I went underwater of my companions beginning to run downstream to follow. I tried to roll, but I’d not yet even rolled in a flat pool, let alone in combat conditions. I came out of the boat and tried to get in defensive position: sitting, almost, hips and knees flexed, heels thrust forward to fend off rocks. I must have lost my paddle; I’d tried to hang onto my boat but got separated sometime back when I was trying to swim into an eddy where I could gain the bank. But the current was too strong. A logjam presented itself—a split-second decision, I ducked underwater and was washed through. Later Jim told me, “I had a real bad feeling when I saw you being swept toward those logs.”
Shortly after that I made it out of the creek and onto shore. We were all in disarray again. I located my paddle, or maybe someone else had fished it out. Got my various pieces together, but other members were still in trouble.

Pat and I were given the job of sitting up on a rocky overlook. I can’t remember for what. Maybe to see if some lost equipment would come washing down; maybe waiting to for some upstream friends. Alone, we talked for a bit, edging closer until we were in each other’s arms kissing experimentally. In dry suits that functioned in this case as chastity belts, there was no easy way in or out we joked. Before we could get to the point where it made sense to start thinking about ripping them off we saw our companions walking on the bank below and so returned to the business of getting to the end point of this misbegotten journey.

It was indeed misbegotten. We were all former kayaking students of Jim’s. Patrick and Ruby had been in an earlier class, so they were a little more experienced than Charlie and me. It was November, there had been some good rains, and this creek was really too much for our skill level, and it was too much for Jim to be trying to take care of all of us by himself.

Still, we were at a stretch that looked fairly straightforward, and that maybe we had a chance to finish and get to the take-out where the truck was waiting. On each side of the creek was private property and Jim was loathe to have to go find a hostile property owner and beg permission to use his road to come and get the rest of us.

So we reassembled and started again. But again the elevation dropped and the banks narrowed and the current accelerated. I tried to pull out at an eddy and got swept into the low limb of a tree. I was pinned there, my head above the water, but not far. I began to moan.

It seems like it was only seconds before the others were around me. They had gotten out of their boats and were standing next to me using the limb my boat was pinned against for support. Charlie used some line to tie my boat to the tree. Once it was secured, Jim said, “OK, Debora, it’s time to come out of your boat.” Oddly, it was hard to leave—it was a moment with its own stability and making a move had some risks I didn’t want to think about. I exited and surfaced in time to see the current catch my boat. The nose point caught briefly on the limb and as the tail swung it may have hit a rock or another obstacle. Whatever force carried by how many cubic feet per second were flowing that day was concentrated on the cockpit and it folded like a piece of paper... Because Charlie had tied it off it wasn’t swept downstream.

At this point it became preferable to Jim to humble himself before a property-owner than to try our luck again. Four of us hung out on the bank watching my boat unfold while he went to take his chances with an owner. Later we rode out in his truck.

Later still it occurred to me how easily things could have gone in very different ways. Just for me alone the log-jam could have been a life-ender, had there been another log beneath the surface where I ducked. The force of current could have pinned me underwater and I would have been powerless to overcome it. No one would have been able to get to me on time and they may not have been able to do anything even if they had. Suppose I hadn’t exited the boat before the current bent it? At any number of places in the whole adventure the outcome could have been shunted down a different path—an arm stuck out at a place where there was a tight fit and small tolerances, a boat hitting a rock at a certain angle and bouncing to a certain position. It seems an incredible amount of luck kept us all intact.

I think the river became a sort of crucible for me—an object lesson in the role of split-second decisions in the face of random chance and chaotic input. I never felt I had my skills down to a point where I could trust them to put me in the best position to be lucky. My worst fear was that fear would cause me to hesitate just a beat too long before taking a necessary action, or that I would try to think too much and miss a crucial moment.

I’ve often thought of the river as a metaphor. I tend to be anxious when I can’t see too far ahead, and I’m not sure if I’ll have what it takes to make it through a tight spot. Then I fear that this anxiety will keep me from having the looseness and flexibility a tight spot might require.

I have been seeing the river in my dreams, lately; turning blind corners where I can hear a roaring but can’t see, or I’m perched above a drop where I can see that it’s like threading a needle, and I need to know that I can make the right moves where and when necessary.

I’ve had some nice experiences with luck where my mind shut off and without knowing beforehand I made the right responses with the right timing. My problem is not knowing ahead of time I can do this.