Saturday, January 24, 2009

The many faces of 'No'

I talked with my counselor Sharon about the latest revelations about users and usees and a mysterious emotional engine that drives the whole thing. It seems a common dilemma in western culture, or at least white American culture. It's a featured plot in many a sit-com: the lengths adults will go to avoid saying 'no' to each other. It's spawned a whole genre of books and workshops on self-assertion. So I know this isn't just me.

I'm wondering if it's that moment of tension that follows a 'no', or anticipating that moment of tension that generates the phobia about setting boundaries. I've been trying to examine that moment. What are the elements that make it so difficult to endure that people will do most anything to avoid. Oftentimes people do things they don't want to do rather than face that silence after 'no'.

'No' is an assertion that I am not an instrument of someone else's will, or a means to their ends. It's a declaration of differentiation.

I started this blog to document the journey through my decision whether to stay in a marriage or to leave it. This is because I've realized that a relationship is not a relationship unless there are two separate people engaged and able to negotiate their differences effectively. If one (or both) of the parties see the world as an extension of themselves, there is no relationship. There is merely anger when one's 'extension' mutinies. There is also enduring resentment. This results in an atmosphere between the two which is not what a loving marriage provides. It follows that children raised in the field generated by mutual parental respect, affection and friendship have an advantage children raised in a context of mutual dislike don't.

I've come to realize that a person who sees the world in terms of him/herself is not apt to change. Change requires insight, which requires a degree of individuation from the environment. One has to be a fish that can examine water.

If the act of saying no is a rupture, opening a separation between what others think they can expect and the reality, perhaps the discomfort springs from that moment of breach. I experience it as a gap of some kind, which seems imperative to fill with something: a reason, an apology, a promise to grant the other's request later. If I don't have a reason, or I'm too honest to offer an apology if none is warranted--and I'm too honest to offer to fulfill the request later--then the gap stands naked. It's very awkward. And I feel tremendous pressure to fill it. Sharon characterized the impulse as wanting to build a bridge, between my Self that has pulled away, and the Other who is now left standing exposed. Or perhaps it is my own exposure I'm anxious about, the breach in a simulacrum of oneness.

I told her about a current decision we need to make. One that I feel an inexplicable 'Yes' in response to.

Our house has no garage. We've lived here three years without one. With the deflationary trend, materials and labor are cheaper. Mortgage rates dropped. It's possible that we could refinance our home and remove some equity to build a garage without increasing our monthly overhead by much. I am in agreement that this makes sense, and would be a good thing to do.

Yet, this flies in the face of my determination to leave the marriage. For me to leave means another place to live. My intention is to keep this house as joint owners where the boys live full time and the adults rotate according to a half-time custody arrangement. We could share the second home. It doesn't have to be large, since it's not intended to be a home for the kids. It would make sense to buy a place, so hundreds of dollars a month aren't pouring into a rental black hole. At least we'd be increasing our assets. Sadly, it means that a chunk of earnings that could be devoted to improving our present property would be diverted. That would be one of the costs of divorce.

We are reasonably comfortable financially. We don't have much debt, but it is expensive living on the ridge we live on. There is no way that Gary's income could cover an increased payment for a garage, and a mortgage on another place.

So, my feeling of 'Yes' to a garage is kind of incompatible with the need for another place to live when I leave. Another incongruity is the strong 'No'-sense about returning to my field of work. There are some concrete reasons: Scott's situation is stabilizing but not entirely secure yet; my boys need my availability come sickness or holiday. Additionally I hesitate to return to a physically demanding job that I'm not sure my 9-years-older body (since I "retired") is equal to. It's more than this, though. I continue to have a consuming need to be alone to reflect and try to increase my understanding. This is when I'm happiest. If only there was some way I could do that for a living, or something that brings Quiet joy.

A possibility that might reconcile several of the incompatibilities is to include a living space in the garage we build. This would solve the income problem (unless Gary loses his job), and the child-care problem. We'd be able to concentrate assets on improving this property, rather than dividing them. It means that much of our living situation would not be appreciably different than it is now: basically Gary leaves before the boys get up, and he returns well after dinner and not long before bed. The main difference would be that we not sleep in the same house. Perhaps this would minimize disruption for the boys. I would continue to do what the at-home parent usually does, child care and home making. I'd be rather more like an employee, except for my status as co-owner. It's not as if I'd be a housekeeper. I would have the alone time on school days that I cherish and that's a compelling thought.

The question is, is it enough separation? Does the arrangement so resemble the marriage we have that the benefits of separation are undercut? I want to stop the pretense. I want to quit modeling a zombie marriage--living dead--for my kids. I want to end the dose of poison the boys breathe in from this atmosphere day in and day out. I want to end the confusing double message they're receiving: marriage is supposed to be about love, yet in reality the feeling is of mutual dislike.

Sharon suggested there was a metaphor between this decision and the current insights I've getting about 'No.' 'No' says, "I am not you, and I choose to not cooperate with you in getting whatever it is you want." 'No' puts distance between; it separates. My decision to leave marriage with Gary is 'No'. Which is particularly apt since he has persisted in seeing me as a (rather faulty) extension of himself.

So where does the idea about building a garage/studio that we can rotate in and out of come from? These are the questions I'm going to be mulling over. Does it represent an anxiety about that void that's opened with separation ('No')--and the imperative to fill it with a bridge of some kind?

Or, is it a credible, viable, and reasonable solution?

As I write this I realize that it boils down to an issue of money. If I had an independent source of income I would have already left, we would already have a second living place, and it wouldn't be right next door. Custody arrangements would be more formalized since I wouldn't be available at a moment's notice on days they were with Gary. Childcare on his watch would be his problem. Is it better to widen the void between, rather than bridge it? ...The issue of an independent income is in my hands. I'm really getting this as I write. If I was willing to return to the professional world I would have it. Maybe this is a subject for another blog post: What's behind the strong 'No' when I picture myself back in the work force? It's certainly fodder for some journal work, the next time I can be alone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thousand dollar dog, or, check their teeth,

He's our third Cody.

The first Cody was a cat I had since he was weaned (along with his calico sister Clea) until he died when he was 14. That had seemed like such an original name in 1987.

A week after Riser died just over a year ago I took in another golden retriever in a moment of weakness. His name was Cody and I returned him to the rescuer after a month. We went from the best-behaved dog in the world to the worst. Someone with the right amount of patience, time, and a fenced yard could probably still make a really good dog out of him. I am not that person.

The boys started badgering for a dog again in the fall. We applied to a couple of golden retriever rescue organizations, but nothing was happening. When the kids got particularly bothersome I told them to check the Humane Society website. When they sorted the list of animals by the criteria "good with cats", "good with kids", "affectionate", "comes when called" two dogs came up. One of them named Cody.

Well, I guess we'll never have a problem remembering our animals' names. Connor had chosen the name "Sheila" for the cat because it sounded similar to "Clea". So now whenever I have to use the two of their names in a sentence I'm stumbling and saying "Cody and Clea" instead of "Cody and Sheila". Maybe we should just rename the cat.

As for my advice in the title, if you're adopting a dog from a shelter, take a look at their back teeth. The ones that are hardest to get a look at. I'd noticed that his teeth were pretty tartared, and the Humane Society vet had noted that too. But they did not note what my regular veterinarian and I found upon his check-up/rabies shot yesterday. He has two infected teeth, one of them loose, and another one broken. Wa-a-a-ay in the back. Estimate? $750.

The HS had given us a 'gift' of one month of pet insurance. I checked their website and was disappointed to see that they don't cover dental work. My expectations weren't high that they would. I need to call the HS back and ask them what they would have done had we not been able to afford this and had to give him back (not that this is going to happen. This is not loose change for us, and we're swallowing pretty hard, but there is no way my kids would ever surrender that dog now. They've fallen hard.). (In addition, when I read over this guy's fact and history sheet, along with the comments about what a big gentle lover of a dog he is, the prior owner had only had him 2 years--he's 8. And, they'd gotten him from the Humane Society! And they had been the third owners! We're the fourth! Oh my goodness. This dog, it's true, is an exceedingly gentle-tempered dog. And very loving. He must have really suffered to go through all these ownership changes and trips to the HS. Even if my kids didn't love him it would be cruel to give him back.)

So, including a fee to put a hold on him so we could go see him, the adoption fee, and yesterday's check-up/shots bill, we're about to spend $1100 on a dog we've had a week today. I scheduled the dental surgery for today. It occurs to me that he must be in pain--his mouth really did look awful. And to think that he may be in pain and yet still such a sweet animal--well, it just seemed urgent to do.

They wanted him there at 8:30. I told them I'd be a little late since I had to take Scott to his school first. But in the school multi-purpose room was a screen featuring live feed from the inauguration. Michelle Obama had just come out with their daughters. Well, there was no way I could miss the swearing-in of the first African American president of the United States. So I called the vet to see if I could wait to bring Cody in just long enough to see the oath of office. This is the first inauguration I've seen in 12 years; I simply could not bear the last two.

I wonder if I would have been able to feel that heightened anticipation that was palpable in the school auditorium between Biden's swearing in and Obama's had I been out somewhere and not watching in a roomful of people. It felt like a collective holding of breath in those seconds just before it was Obama's turn.

After 9/11 I sensed for a period of time, all too brief, afterward a softness, and thoughtfulness in Americans. People across the country were reaching out to each other--to people they hadn't talked to in years, maybe had been estranged from. It's a tragedy that Moment was wasted. I sense another Moment here, where people are hopeful, inspired, filled with humility and desire to serve. I so hope this moment won't be lost...they are rare and precious. I think as Americans our ability to be good citizens in this world depends on the wise channeling of the energy of Moments like these.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dead on arrival or why I'm so slow to call it a duck

In the time before children, cell phones and laptops, I was a physical therapist working for a home health agency. My job was to address whatever physical needs a person might have with a goal of optimal safety and functioning in the home. My...clients, patients, whatever...were usually elderly, but sometimes I'd see some homebound younger people.

On this particular day there was a man on my list who was a new patient. He was just home from the hospital that very day. I was the first in our agency to go and see him, get the 'admittance' paperwork done. His referral said he was about 50, had had a heart attack and coronary bypass surgery.

The door was slightly open when I arrived. Inside the front room was an elderly woman who I startled, and two big dogs. She said that her daughter, my patient's wife, was en route from California. I got the impression that there'd been an emergency of some sort, and this lady was staying with him to help out.

She showed me to his room and left. Ah, shoot. I hate having to wake people up when they're probably enjoying some relief from their discomfort. So I gently said his name, and when his eyes didn't open touched his shoulder. Patted his shoulder. And then realized this man had died.

I dialed my office. Asked to speak with my supervising nurse. Put on hold. While waiting, I looked at him and wondered if I should do CPR, or rescue breaths at least since chest compressions on a healing chest seemed a recipe for more harm than good. (Debora, the man is dead. He's beyond first aid!) I could not bring myself to do it. Even as I wondered if maybe there was still an ember of life deep inside of him, which was going out as I stood there on fucking hold! (Mental scenario: it's possible that he'd expired just as I walked into the room and still could be revived; should I make an effort, just in case? Yeah, the odds of that were low since his color was bad and his skin cold, but still...)

I depressed the receiver to call back. Was pushing in the numbers as I brought the phone to my ear and realized I'd started dialing before getting the dial tone. Depressed the receiver again and listened this time. No tone. Pressed the button again, held it down longer. No dial tone. Hung up for a moment when the elderly woman came to the bedroom door. I told her that he had died and she gasped, "Ohmygod!"

This time I had a dial tone and started pressing the number. Hands shaking I misdialed. Hung up. No dial tone when I raised the receiver. Hung up again. Dialed, answer. Hung up the phone. Next try got me through to the receptionist who said she'd transfer me to my supervisor. Limbo. Limbo. Hung up. Tried again. Said it was very important that I talk to my supervisor. Transfer, pick up. Not my supervisor. She's stepped out. Did I want to leave a message? I told her I'd just arrived at the home of a patient was was dead and I needed to know what one is supposed to do when one has a dead patient. She said she thought I should call the patient's doctor and she'd go find my supervisor. I swear this was not the last iteration of this. I've had dreams where I'm trying to make an urgent phone call and keep having frustrating delays--a mistake pressing buttons, accidentally dialing the wrong number, no dial tone, circuits overloaded tone. This was my waking nightmare. I gave up on my office and looked on the chart for the doctor's phone number. Of course this guy had a list of physicians, various specialists, a mile long; I finally found where someone had penned his cardiologist in, almost an afterthought.

Dialed. Receptionist. Transfer. Doctor. Doctor! First try! I told him his patient was dead, that I had come to evaluate him and found him dead. "You poor thing", he said. Tears came to my eyes. He told me I needed to call the county coroner. He didn't have the number. Now anyone who has ever tried to look up any government service in a phone book understands what a maze that was, but I finally got their office on the phone. I spoke with the man who took the address and said he'd be over within the hour.

I'd been at this house for an hour already and I had other patients so it didn't seem feasible for me to wait. The mother-in-law was sitting in a recliner in the living room, smoking. I asked her if she would be okay waiting alone for the coroner. She said she would. I left, and as I made my turn onto a main street I saw a county vehicle heading the direction I'd just come. I was glad. End of story.

But there's another version to this story.

Wife of patient comes home from work. She'd gotten out early in order to come and care for him. Her mother was sitting in the chair. She looked in on her husband, saw that he was asleep, closed the door to not wake him.

There's a man at the door. Oh, dammit--he's a county guy. I can see a bit of his car through the window. One of the damn dogs must have got loose again and someone complained, again. Opens the door, thinking she's talking to the dog catcher...

You know, this poor woman must have been pulling up just as I was leaving. God knows how long the grim comedy of errors went on with her thinking the coroner was the dog catcher, and him perplexed because I'd passed on the misinformation that the wife was on her way back from California. Maybe he thought she'd arrived early. Anyway, this is how she learned that her husband was dead.

She called the doctor's office hysterical, and I received a barrage of questions the next day from that same office. Slowly the doctor's nurse and I were able to piece together what really happened:

The mother-in-law was demented. Seriously, she had Alzheimer's. In fact, where I'd gotten the impression she was looking after him, he was supposed to be babysitting her. The wife was not en route from a trip to California; she'd been at work. (I'm picturing a map from above with dots marked, 'wife', 'coroner', 'therapist' moving around, unknowingly crossing paths.) I called her to tell her how very sorry I was, first that her husband had died and secondly my part in the dreadful way she'd had to learn. "I thought he was coming about the dogs, and then he kept telling me I should sit down, and I couldn't understand why he would be saying that when he was there about the dogs."

A series of coincidences had led me to believe I was dealing with a very different context than I was. Because the mother-in-law was functional and appropriately answered my questions I'd taken her as a credible narrator when she said her daughter was away. Though my interactions with her were brief, she said just enough in just the right tone that I didn't detect that she was wholly unreliable.

That's what kept me from concluding I was being used by Carpool Family. What if it was just a series of coincidences and misunderstandings that was adding up to the impression I was getting and they weren't users at all?

Then again, there are limits to the benefit-of-the-doubt rule: I'd have been doing rescue breaths on a dead man if I applied that rule as far as I did Carpool Family.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Another facet of Users, Usees, and the Truth

I was looking over the comments that people made on my recent carpool posts. I had to smile at the 'emperor's-new-clothes' congruency: as I tiptoed cautiously around the term, hesitated to apply it, and even blamed myself for it, the commenters pointed out the obvious: "Users!" I was busy examining the DNA of the feathers (so there'd be no mistake) to confirm that it was, indeed, a duck while you were all calling it what it was: "Duck!"

This realization was further confirmed when I was talking with a social worker friend of mine. Here I thought I'd been having this private experience of angst, and it turns out that it's so widespread there's a name for it. Well, I don't remember the name for it, but it falls into a classification of 'personality disorder'; and, one of the signs that I'm dealing with someone with a personality disorder is that very feeling of revulsion (ick) I was feeling.

It's curious to consider that an internal experience I have in response to another person might be a clue about them.

I suppose what felt icky was the fundamental untruth in regards to the nature of the thing. They were treating their request(s) as if it(they) came from a context of us being equal participants in a reciprocal relationship. For me to accede to their expanding requests meant to lie about what was really going on. To be in alignment with Truth, there would have had to have been a mutual acknowledgment, initiated by them, that they were asking me to put my needs and priorities behind theirs. In the absence of such candor I was being asked in effect to lie.

Now what's interesting to me is the anguish this caused me, faced with the prospect of telling the truth and setting the record straight, or going along with the fiction. What on earth was generating that electrical shock feeling that deterred me from seeing the situation as it was--and in fact feeling as if it was a flaw in me that I would have feelings that were telling me I was being used?

Apparently it's been very important to allow myself to be used, and to suppress any contrary feelings that surfaced as a result. It's actually been nearly second nature, as I look back over my life (through my written record of diaries) and find that I was ashamed when I had feelings objecting to contributing to the smooth running of somebody else's world. I truly thought the feelings meant something unworthy about me. Something would have to be wrong with me for accusing a family of using me when the 'evidence' seemed flimsy. I must be imagining it, or projecting something small in myself onto them. Or I must have invited it, somehow--maybe led them to believe that it was ok to ask...Why was it so much easier to blame myself than assign responsibility to the Other?

At any rate, naming reality was as painful, or maybe even a little more painful, than just doing as I was "asked" (in quotes because the implication was that 'No' was not an acceptable answer). It was excruciating to me to be in a situation where lying feels fundamentally wrong , but telling the truth was in effect an accusation. And one of the ways I coped was to be 'confused' about the truth--how can I say for sure that someone is seeing me only as a means to take care of their needs? How can I know that's true about them? And since chances are if it was true they'd never admit it, I never can know. And if I can't know, shouldn't I give them the benefit of the doubt? Maybe it's my feelings that are wrong.

The other day I came around to a way of looking at it that made confronting the truth less frightening for me--if I need to set boundaries it doesn't have to be a reflection of the other person's worth. And this is why it felt so uncomfortable, 'icky' to me to say no to Benjamin and have him protest that he wasn't 'trying to impose.' It was uncomfortable for me because it seemed like it was unacceptable for me to be seen as a person who was accusing him of imposing. It seemed I was impugning his worth.

Now I see that refusing to go along with a loaded situation that threatens feeling bad/icky as a consequence (punishment, deterrent) of refusal is reality clarification. It is saying, excuse me, but I am not an extension of your will. Furthermore it says, You are behaving as if I am an extension of your will and I beg to differ. I guess there's no other conclusion the 'User' can come to than that he/she has imposed.

And, I. Don't. Care.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Field trip to OMSI

Walking to Van, crosswalk:

Gabe! Scott! Wait at the corner! (Gas station at that corner with driveway immediately adjacent to crosswalk; as pedestrians cross cars coming from our left are allowed to turn left, often heading for that gas station driveway.) Gabe! Wait! damn it

Felix, Scott, Mia, Gabe. Everyone here. Cross driveway safely. Now let them run, except for Mia, carrying her stuffed pink whatever, talking nonstop: We built a snowman. did you build a snowman? I wear my red mittens when it's cold. I like my red mittens. Do you like red mit..."

Gabe! Scott! Felix! Come back, the van is back here!

That's a nice lamb, Mia.

It's not a lamb; it's a poodle.

Figures. I've already been barking like a dog and am probably in for more of the same.

Unlock it! Unlock it!


I'm sitting here; no I'm sitting here because I want to sit next to Scott.

OK, fine, that means I get to keep the Bionicles comic book.

Everyone clicked in? Seatbelts?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Oh boy! We're going on the freeway! Yay! The freeway! Freeeeeeee-way!

I'm hungry.


What's so funny!

Something in the comics.

Let me see, let me see, let me see!

In a minute.

Come on, let me see!

I wish we could stop at Subway and pick something up! I had breakfast but I walked a half mile to school this morning and so I'm hungry.

Tricky merge ahead of a bottleneck downstream. Blind spots in van. Blinker on, checking and rechecking.


eye-twitch Slip into open slot between dumptruck and sports car. Look for another slot to merge over one more lane because the two right lanes must exit. Around, everyone is doing the same. Some trying to get to the far right lane from the far left. Do I take the opening next to me or is someone from two lanes over on the left angling for it...can't quite see signal...

I was going to give it to you when I'm finished but I don't really want to now because you called me a name and shouted at me.

I hope Billy has little juice boxes for snacks. I hope he brought those and has...



Look, Felix, Gabe said he'll give you the magazine when he's done with it. If he's not done with it before we get to OMSI, you shall have it on the return trip, I promise.

...granola bars

Stop light. Restaurant. Garlic smell.

I smell Pizza. Oh, yes, pizza! Pizza! It smells good!

It's torture.

Yeah, it's torture!

When we went to Nebraska we went to a waterpark.

There's a place to eat!

A waterpark.

I wonder what Billy brought.

We went to a waterpark.

Wasn't it cold in Nebraska in December?

Let me see that marker.

I had a swim suit.

My marker!

My father and I went down a tube three times.

I'm keeping it because you pushed it in my face.

Give me back my marker Felix!

It's not your marker.

It's my marker!

No it's not; it's MINE

I brought it from my pencil box!

It is Gabe's, Scott. I saw him bring it from the classroom.

Give me back my marker!

Not until you apologize for pushing your marker in my face!

Scott'smom, he has my marker

hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY! everybody sing hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY! hunGRY!

He doesn't get it back until he says he's sorry!

I'm thirsty.

I hope he's brought the apple granola bars.

Even though I had some water at school I'm still thirsty.

I don't like the OMNIMAX. I'm scared of it.

It probably won't be scary this time (are there things to scare us in a film about the Nile River?)

OK, fine, you can KEEP the marker!

It wasn't enough.

We have to keep together in the parking lot. Look. There is a car backing up. You must stay with me. Gabe! Scott! Why are you running when I just said stay together?

I'm really really hungry.

Sidewalk. Relative safety. Relax radar a bit.

Headache. Other parent drivers dodging the movie. Didn't dodge soon enough...decide to stay in theater to help with adult/kid ratio; reassure Scott.

The trouble with the Omnimax is the misuse of power. Because they can give a visceral experience, they insist on shocking with it. So, in the last experience, "The Human Body," the camera has you gazing into a perfectly still eyeball, and then suddenly hyperaccelerates you through the iris, past the retina, along the optic nerve and slam into the visual cortex of the brain with no warning. Accompanied by an escalation of the intrusive volume of soundtrack. Scott hasn't forgotten this. Neither have I.

The feature this day is an adventure story: the first raft and kayak descent of the (Blue) Nile River from its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia (this is the largest of the two major forks, contributing 80% of the flow. The other fork, the White Nile, originates in southern Rawanda. They meet in Khartoum, Sudan.). Scott's class has been studying ancient Egypt, and part of the theme of the movie is the river's historical role in the lives of various civilizations extending to this day. So there's some connection with their classwork.

This omnimax experience is a great improvement over the last. One has the feeling of flying above the river, sometimes skimming the surface and sometimes high above. Of course they can't resist throwing in some stomach-wrenching banks and dives. Several times when the camera was obviously in the bow of the raft, bouncing through major rapids, careening toward and then spinning away from rocks and holes, I closed my eyes to minimize the queasiness. Still, this was an experience of the Nile I would never have imagined. It makes you realize how strongly our visual sense dominates what we perceive.

It was very cool. I'm glad I stayed. Scott pronounced it the "best movie ever."

Ah, but there was still the journey back to the school--another aural experience I could do without. I was glad to be rid of the lot of them.

Yes, I do. I do hate children, I do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What I've come up with

I spent the morning thinking about 'icky'. And, I think, in a nutshell, it boils down to this:

There are people in this world with whom I feel a strong need to keep my boundaries explicitly clear.

This can be interpreted as my thinking something is 'wrong' with them, the other people. In fact, in white-bread culture there's an implicit rule against highlighting boundaries: the implication is that it's impolite. That it implies something negative about the other. That it will hurt someone's feelings. That it is selfish. ...This is probably the dynamic that runs the widespread and fabled reticence of saying 'no' to a request, at least in white American culture. There's a sort of phobia to being anything other than 'nice'.

There's a difference between feeling a need to delineate boundaries and a criticism or accusation of another. But sometimes that distinction gets blurred and it's hard to tell one from the other. Certainly it's not occurred to me before to interpret that feeling inside in that way, instead: I need to make my boundaries absolutely clear became I-don't-like that-person/something's-wrong-with-that-person (which in turn became something's-wrong-with-me-for-feeling-that-way). I've interpreted it before in terms of the 'worth' of the Other. To see it instead as a need for distinction puts it in terms of mySelf. This feeling is a fact; I can't deny that I have this feeling. This is about a personal internal experience which has little to do with another's intrinsic worth.

It's interesting that in the same way distinctions between the need to clarify boundaries and the worth of another become blurred, I think it's the sense of an impending boundary breach that activates the need to clarify. Most other people I know don't activate the need, but occasionally someone enters my life who does. Traditionally I've second-guessed that need and thought if I wanted daylight between myself and another that it was because there was something about them I didn't like and there must be something wrong with me for feeling that way. Maybe it meant I was mean-spirited. And I'd be troubled when the feeling persisted.

In a way I owe this family gratitude. It was through my ruminations about the escalations of their requests that I got the 'Yes/No' insight, which was big. This latest insight...might be huge.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Ok, now I've got to do another blog post because I just feel icky.

Since I wrote the post about 'No' which was inspired by the 'carpool' situation there have been a few developments.

I put "carpool" in quotes because it's really not a carpool--it's a favor. Recap: Scott was adamant about resisting carpooling and so I withdrew my pending participation with the group of people I'd been discussing it with. However, one of the families was in a bit of a jam with the father going to be out of town for about 6 weeks, and they had one day they needed coverage for, and so I offered to pick them up on Wednesdays. After several weeks of this the mother began to email me to ask me to do more, maybe increase my 'participation' to a couple days. I suffered angst, because there seemed to be no 'good' reason to refuse, since it's not that far out of my way to go and I go that way every day. Then I realized, that the feeling of 'no' inside--that was sufficient unto itself. Just No. And I emailed her back to tell her that for now I was just going to stick with Wednesdays. Maybe do more later if it worked for my family.

Anyway, the dad came home just before the holiday break. Last Monday, first day back at school after the break, I happened to see him and asked if he still needed me to pick up on Wednesdays. He said no.

However, on that Wed, in the afternoon, he e-mailed to ask me if my "offer still stood." Something about a car problem that "should be resolved by tomorrow, or Friday at the latest." Said they 'owed' me dinner and let's schedule a time. I picked the kids up that day, but I sensed that there might be another request for Thursday. In my email response I said specifically I wasn't available. Thursday, to my dismay I got another call from him, also in the afternoon, asking if my "offer still stood." In the first place I'd not made an offer, in the second I'd already said no. Perhaps he hadn't gotten the message? It was perplexing, and somewhat irritating and I called him back to say there was a misunderstanding: I wasn't available.

I had a feeling the issue wasn't going to die and I may be dealing with it again. And sure enough when I got home from volunteering at Connor's school this afternoon, their number showed up on caller ID. Would I bring the kids home, and let's plan a date to have dinner at their house.

Dinner. I've been thinking about this. If I'd had my insight about 'no' (No) before I'd withdrawn from the carpool, I wouldn't have offered Wednesdays. I only offered because I couldn't think of a reason not to ("Just" 'No', of course, didn't seem sufficient to me then.). It seemed they were in a jam, and I had the means, so I 'should' do it, because I could. However, if someone was providing me with peace of mind--that I could remain at work secure in the knowledge that my kids' transportation was being taken care of--I would be offering something to reciprocate. I would be eager that they know that I intend to respond in kind, even if circumstances weren't allowing me to at the moment. I wasn't hearing this from them. The fact that I was getting thanks, but no offers, made it clear to me that this wasn't really a reciprocal arrangement. I was ok with that; I'd kind of been aware that this was what I was signing on for, but this was different from the 'it'll-all-come-out-in-the-wash" understanding that people who do favors for each other have. After 8 weeks of transporting their kids to afterschool care 'dinner' just doesn't seem to be an in-kind reciprocation. But still, I thought, maybe I'd accept the invitation. Perhaps a bit of time with them in their home would give me a better sense of who they are. Then I'd see if I even want to be partners with them in a carpool when the point arrives that works for Scott and me. But even the invitation's a little odd. There are two other members of my family. Is the invite for dinner just for Scott and me? That's kind of weird, for me to leave Gary and Connor at dinnertime and go to dinner with Scott somewhere else. But they haven't said anyone else is invited. Intuitively it feels strange, as a guest, to ask if I can bring 2 more guests.

It's just kind of a messy situation. I guess what's not clean is the context in which this is taking place. Is it an assistance situation, or is it a reciprocal situation. Since I'm not benefiting from the 'carpool', it's a favor, assistance. Yet, in a way, in asking me to increase my commitment, they're kind of treating it like a reciprocal arrangement. Is there something I said or did that gave them the impression that I'm open to take the kids every day if necessary for them? (Technically I can, but I don't really want to.)

So I just called the dad. I decided I was going to have to just say it while we were communicating directly so I'd know that he'd heard it. I told him that today wouldn't work for me. I told him that I wanted to clarify where I was at with the carpool thing, which was that I'd essentially pulled out of it when it was clear it wouldn't work for Scott. I told him that I'd seen that he was going to be away and there was a need for Wednesdays, so I made the offer, but I didn't want to do more at this time.

He said, "Fair enough." He apologized. Said he was just 'checking out their options'. Said they were having trouble with car registration at the DMV, and so they only had one vehicle available...something about his not having a license to drive. Said he'd also called some friends who had helped out before. Said he was just now putting on his shoes to walk over to the school--at least 2 miles. Said his wife had taken off that morning with his wallet in the car so he didn't even have money for the bus. Said he had not intended to impose on me and apologized.

I guess he read me right; there's no way I could say his request wasn't an imposition, but I'd tried to stay clear of that and just state the facts: I wasn't available today, and my participation in the 'carpool' is limited to the Wednesdays I'd agreed to. I kept my tone neutral, because I didn't want to imply an accusation. So it was awkward that he seemed to hear it as one anyway. I told him that I hadn't meant it that way, that I'd let his wife know that I was wanting to stick with the Wednesday schedule until later; he'd been away so I wasn't sure if he was aware of how I was conceiving of my role in this carpool. I told him I'd wanted to let him know how things stood with me.

I had visions of driving past him and his three kids, walking home because I refused to drive them. I had the power to make their lives easier, and I was refusing to do it.

Fact: there is a something inside of me that feels trapped and entangled in regards to the adults in this family. Something that yells, "Make tracks! Run!"

Fact: refusing to help someone so resembles Scrooge's "are there no workhouses?" that I feel uneasy. Because I can't quite distinguish between myself and a "not-my-brother's-keeper" stance in a credible way. Besides, aren't there times when I need help, too? Aren't there times when my requests might be an imposition on someone else? Wouldn't I hope for kindness if I was in a jam, not a refusal? A refusal based on "I don't feel like it", rather than, "I just can't"? (Is there really a difference between the two?)

I just needed to write out the ickies. To get an idea of their contours. There is a very strange boundary between what is someone else's problem and when it becomes mine. It's an uneasy place, when I have the power to make someone's life easier--in fact it's a choice of mine that someone else's comfort rests on.

Cleaning up, or As Above, So Below

Connor had a couple friends spend the night on Saturday. I very foolishly cleaned house before they came. It's been wet here lately, and the ground soft and gushy. "Take off your shoes", or the shorthand "Shoes" I'd yell every time I'd hear a door to the outside open. They're all 11, and I'm exasperated when I hear the sound of shoes walking around, well inside the house (on floors I'd just vacuumed).

I've been reflecting a lot on Whole vs Parts. I've noticed that the world we rely on, the one that our senses are able to read, often gives the impression of solidity. We treat it as if it has a life of its own, and it exists to serve us.

I'm fooled by the apparent reality of my car. It's more than a car; it's a tool. It's the means by which I get my kids to school. It's a solid object in the world I don't even think about.

But I did get started considering it, when I had a thought about all of the parts, all of the details that make it up. Then I thought about what we ask from these materials--the kinds of forces and temperatures we subject them to. And I realized that even something as insignificant as a nut might be crucial to some vital component of my car's safety. I then realized that while I treat my car as an abstraction, there are thousands and maybe tens of thousands of details that compose it, each needing a certain amount of care.

So many things potentially to go wrong. It seems hard for me to believe that fallible human beings could have built something so intricate so reliably. (I hope)

I've lived in the world with an assumption I didn't realize I had: Adults are in charge of things and the details are taken care of. And the details will take care of themselves,

I think Hurricane Katrina, and the failures of the response systems were the beginning of my loss of innocence. And I think that George W. Bush was a victim of the deception of apparency. My guess is he too believed that the Adults would take care of it, that the Adults had Things in place, and furthermore Things would take care of themselves. There have been other hurricanes and Things were taken care of then too (at least there weren't the glaring failures that everyone in the world could see). Why shouldn't things take care of themselves this time, too?

He forgot, as I'm frequently guilty of doing--that the functioning of a Whole--all the agencies and systems that have performed well in the past--function because someone was paying attention to the details. The Whole works because all of the moving parts required, and the integration of the moving parts are details that are maintained and attended to. We saw the results of what happens when systems don't work together seamlessly. One can't rely on the appearance of the Whole--one has to understand that its apparent solidity obscures the many components that make it up.

I have a feeling that some similar kind of delusion may have been at work in the failures of Iraq, and Afghanistan: a belief that the Adults were in charge and it was all going to work out.

The trouble is, We are the Adults.

Realizing this has made me feel rather vulnerable.

So I've got 3 11 year old boys and one 7 year old in my house. They came up to raid the kitchen and left behind a trail of counters smeared with jam and littered with crumbs. This along with the jars they'd taken from the refrigerator, none returned to their place. Next morning I make Connor clean it up. When he protests that he 'didn't do it', his friends did, I tell him he needs to get his friends to come clean up. I tell him he's responsible for his friends and if he doesn't want to ask them to do it then he has to. An angry response, leaving me perplexed. Why should someone be angry when being held accountable for their own mess?

As I watched him clean I could see the level of details that accomplish the goal of 'clean up after yourself'. I want the boys to clean up after themselves to a certain standard. But there is incredible detail in accomplishing this. and I feel tired at the thought of taking them through every step. It comes as second nature to me; apparently it doesn’t to them. When laid out, every detail of what it takes for them to meet that standard is overwhelming for them. It overwhelms me: put the lid back on the peanut butter jar. Find a cloth. Wipe off what you’ve smeared on the side of the jar before you put it away. No, no, not THAT cloth—that cloth has been on the floor—use THIS cloth which is for counters. Wet the cloth. No, that’s TOO wet—wring it out. Wring it out more. Get it to just the right level of dampness that you can use it to clean up without making a sloppy mess. As you wipe the counter, sweep the crumbs that are there because of the sandwich you made into your hand—not the floor! Now, go wash your hands. Dry off on the kitchen towel—no, the kitchen towel is not what you use to wipe the counter! It’s too long, more difficult to control its level of wetness and besides I want to use it to dry hands on. Now look at the counter. You call that clean? Look at those crumbs there. Look at the way the light reflects off of spots there. You have to clean those off too. You already put the dishrag in the sink, in a bowl of soggy cereal that you left? Now you have to rinse it again—rinse all that stuff out of there, otherwise you just smear it on the counter…

I realize that I've had some 40-odd years of practice at cleaning up after myself. In those years I've been able to streamline the details so I don't even think about them--wiping a counter takes all of 5 seconds.

I'm still going to make them clean up, but I realize it's not realistic to expect them to do it to the same level of detail I do so easily. They've not yet had 40 years to learn. This is a classic example of them not being able to see the forest for the trees, and me missing the trees for the forest. So I guess for a while longer I'll be cleaning behind them, at least to get it back to my own standard of order.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Exerpts, January 2007

In a synchronistic way I found in an earlier journal some insights that are like precursors to the themes occupying me lately. I thought I'd include them here.

The book I'm referring to is called Bush On the Couch, by Justin Franks.

1/02/07 Tues, 11:38

I’ve been really indulging my thirst for information, reading for hours. Got stoned a little while ago. What I’m really indulging is my reveling in the silence of the kids’ absence. The first day back at school for them, and the return of reliable hours to myself. Only 4 7-hour stretches this week, but it feels like a lot in comparison to what I’ve had since December 13. They had nearly 3 weeks off. I’m mostly glad to be looking ahead at a prolonged stretch of time offs-from-parenting, and behind at the long stretch I knew was coming.

Helena made an interesting remark that I actually misunderstood, but still felt as an insight. I can’t even think right now of the context of that—the greater conversation. Well, the overall conversational topic was our difficulties with the men we’ve married. But more than a bitch-fest; genuinely using each other to help us work out just what our experiences are, and our responses to them. Trying to make sense.

Anyway, it was in that context, but not the closer context, that Helena made the remark. I’d said something about Gary’s relationship with his mother and she made the analogy to roles that people often play in alcoholic families: “He was being ‘the good son’. And now he’s expecting you to be ‘the perfect mother.’” That’s where the noise in the room had risen a second and obliterated the word “mother” and I thought she’d said, ‘son’. Which filled me with an understanding that maybe as Gary had been ‘the good son’ to his mother, he expected me to “be a ‘good son’ to him.” I think I remember the overall context a little better: the notion that …I keep remembering back further. I think we may have been talking about Melanie Klein’s theory that at the base of all of us; within our core, there is a basic anxiety over our birth…that is, our ‘expulsion’. And that perhaps this ‘birth’, and the anxiety that accompanies it, is what has become in judeo-christian collective narrative: ‘original sin’. And that, the infant, in his primitive consciousness, delegates the information coming in to two basic categories: things that give warm and fuzzy feelings/things that feel yucky. The anxiety of having to wait for the caregiver and feeling great anger, and the anxiety that comes from feeling destructive emotions toward someone that is so depended upon would also be great, and considered as ‘bad’. I can see this as the very mechanism by which humans developed religion, and the whole good/evil dichotomy. So as humans when we pass laws it’s to protect us from the consequences of our own destructive impulse, and that of others. When we do something out of fear for being wrong, we are motivated by that fear of the destructive impulse. Same as when we are motivated by guilt. Perhaps I was saying something like that—having made a parallel with Gary’s kind of being bound up in some sort of compact to not hurt his mother’s feelings by setting limits with her. Or something about his seeming to expect that he act in disturbing ways and I say nothing. That the offence isn’t in what he has done, but in that I named it. Or the expectation that I somehow know and anticipate his needs without him having to say, and Helena pointing out that this is part of infantile rage against expectations not being met.

(I’m diverging from that idea for a moment to write down a more coherent understanding of the Human Condition—at least western-style. Given this deep anxiety over our own destructive impulses as an assumption, even when perfectly parented, it’s probably not perfect enough. As infants, nothing can insulate us from ‘feeling yucky’ experiences. However, if, as Justin Franks says, the infant has repeatedly the experience of its anxiety being absorbed by Another, and then given back in a transformed state, the infant can grow to be a person with a deep integration within—that is, all his parts, shadow and otherwise. When that process is interrupted, or just not done, the infant has to develop all sorts of defenses to protect itself from the deep feelings of destruction it harbors. We live in a culture that has fostered exactly that. People have been warped in their development by the defenses they’ve adopted. Consequences are people who are unable to connect intimately, or feel empathy, or face reality. Or be authentic, or keep agreements. Some of us become needy and emotionally dependent. And then these disfunctions cause more friction, more wear in unnatural ways, more deformation. Our souls as human beings are so deformed. It is deeply shocking to me how humans have given their assent to horrible ways of killing each other. Ignoring the fact that there are innocent people beneath the bombs. Ignoring the fact of mass killings. The strange idea of sending our soldiers out into the world to do what we don’t want done here, in the U.S: wholesale violence and terrible suffering.)

(I’m also wanting to write about something else that seems odd. Reading this stuff in Franks’ book feels like a revelation to me. It seems to make the pieces fall into place to form a story that’s more coherent about human beings and the way we operate. I felt very excited at this deeper understanding, and this lens of viewing it through: I felt held inside. Yet, I don’t think I thought of anything in terms of this yesterday, even as Connor was giving some destructive element inside himself full rein. So it seems weird that something that seemed so significant days ago I’d nearly forgotten yesterday and today.)

Another couple thoughts about ‘belief’.

It seems that belief might have the same function as a mask. That it’s the face presented to the world, and that face obscures the one beneath. (I suppose it’s no accident that human cultures often have masks, some highly ceremonial and elaborate).

My father’s questioning of Connor the other day when Connor was complaining about having not gotten what they wanted was not meant to help him appreciate what he had. I felt that so clearly. It was meant to express disapproval, and to say that Connor was being wrong. It expressed a belief that’people should be grateful for what they’re given’. Or, by extension, to Connor: “*You* should be grateful for what you are given and your feelings run counter to this and you are so wrong.” It was aggression, really. It was meant to make Connor feel bad, not to help him through his feelings. The basic message was: “Your feelings are wrong and you are wrong for having them and wrong for not controlling them.” It was meant to punish him for expressing his feelings and for having them at all. They also judged him for not having an adult standard of conduct in dealing with some disappointed feelings and wanted him to “shut up about it”. I think it was also based on taking those remarks from a child personally. Feeling personally stung by a child who can’t possibly have an adult perspective. And all that driven by a belief, and by the mistaken belief that a child has the same level of perspective as an adult and should be held to the same standard of conduct.

I guess I’m trying to show Connor how to manage strong destructive feelings by transforming them, and the first step is to name and understand feelings. And understand feelings without the filter of a belief that feelings are right or wrong. And I saw it happen. I saw his feelings get transformed. I saw him at peace with himself again, and at ease, and happy. And he didn’t have to disown his feelings to do that.

We see evidence every day that people live through their beliefs, and not reality: “children should wear their coats”, “children should eat their food”, “people shouldn’t name what another person has done to hurt them” …And a strange loyalty to these beliefs—and a strong indoctrination into them. About a “right” way to be.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Loser Talk

Behind the 'person I'm not supposed to be' is an even more formidable Guardian to the gate of True Self: Shame.

At the Healthline website is a description of "the Self-conscious emotions". Among them is Shame, described here:

"It is a highly negative and painful state that also disrupts ongoing behavior and causes confusion in thought and an inability to speak. The body of the shamed person seems to shrink, as if to disappear from the eye of the self or others. Because of the intensity of this emotional state, and the global attack on the self system, all that individuals can do when presented with such a state is to attempt to rid themselves of it. Its global nature, however, makes it very difficult to dissipate."

Merriam Webster's definition:

1. a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or improriety

2. the susceptibility to such emotion

3. a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute: ignominy

4. something that brings censure or reproach

Healthline goes on to discuss some of the dysfunctional things people will do to rid themselves of such an excruciating feeling.

Ultimately, I suppose this is the power that any given culture can wield: the collective blunt instrument of Shame.

Behind Shame is the specter of 'Loser'. Which has Shame at its core, in a tightening spiral. To be a Loser is to live in a permanent state of shame worthy only of the contempt of others and trapped inside one's own skin with it. Forever.

The tight bond between Shame and sexuality has always perplexed me. In some cultures, the entire worth and character of a man's life was judged by whether or not his daughter was 'virtuous'. Why? Why does the crime of rape have a charged connotation to it in comparison with a mugging? Why, in some cultures, are women who have been raped deemed ineligible for marriage, so that rape becomes an instrument of war, of ethnic cleansing (because she is eliminated from the gene pool)? Why did I hear a mother say, during the Kosovo War, that she'd rather her daughter be killed, then raped? And why, in Iraq, do we hear of families who refuse the return of their kidnapped daughters because "we don't know what 'they' might have done to them.?"

Somewhere along the line a collective agreement has been made that rape is in a special category which carries such unique and potent shame that the survivor must be relegated to a continuous state of humiliation. She may as well have died, because living in a continuous state of shame is worse than dying.

What's unspoken here is the role of the survivor's very people. If rape is the nail, cultural agreement that the victim is permanently shamed is the sledgehammer. Their agreement to assigning rape this value is what gives it its power: If there was no shame in being raped, a weapon of ethnic cleansing would be neutered. And a gesture of contempt rendered toothless (not that it would be any less undesirable to be raped, but the pain would be confined to the crime itself and not infected, exacerbated and extended by cultural environment).

I digress.

I think well-meaning adults, rather than viewing True Self as a diamond in the rough to be shaped and polished over time, saw True Self as an animal to be caged, and broken. Shame and humiliation seemed like logical tools to use. The people we are 'not supposed to be' wear the garments of 'Loser'. The ultimate threat is being the archetypal Loser, a soul worthy only of a life of perpetual shame, cast out, beneath contempt.

Of course, we can withdraw our own consent to this agreement. What's hidden is that it's our own agreement that gives these Guardians their potency. Once neutralized, perhaps the pathway to True Self is open...

Sunday, January 4, 2009


After a few weeks of uncharacteristically accurate weather forecasts, the northwest meteorologists have returned to usual form. We returned home from California on December 31. The temperatures were predicted to warm, bringing rain. We woke on January 2 to 5 inches of new snow on the ground. This was completely unforeseen. But since that was Friday and forecasts persisted in their warming and rain predictions (complete with flood alerts) I didn't worry...

It's snowing right now.

Tomorrow was to be the kids' first day back at school after their 2 week break was extended to 3 by the snowstorm in the middle of December.

I didn't realize how much I was counting on tomorrow until the prospect that the schools might close started to look serious. I realize now that what equanimity I've had through this period was based on them returning to school, and the return of my quiet time.

If they close the schools tomorrow I may do as David Sedaris's mother did in his childhood: throw the kids out in the snow and lock the doors and sit drinking, stonily oblivious to their cries.

My guys are nearly hysterical at the prospect of another day (or two, three, woo hoo) off. Eternal vacation.

Me, I'm pretty bummed out.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Poignant (children ment.)

We did make it out of town through a window in the weather. We left early (at my urging) on Tuesday Dec. 23rd. Drove on packed snow on the windy road down our hill to access a state highway south to Interstate 5. From Portland to Salem took 2 hours; normally it's about a 45 min drive. It was white-knuckles the whole way to Salem on solid ice, broken and rutted. We have the 'studless' snow tires and didn't put on chains. The Fear was that traffic, which was extremely heavy, would come to a complete stop on an incline and we might not be able to get moving again. To our good fortune though, south of Salem the ice turned to slush turned to wet pavement and even became dry. Our speed returned to normal highway speed and the climb over Siskiyou Pass was uneventful. It would have been unbearable to be in icy conditions all the way to California when the elevation would drop.

Turns out we left at just the right time. Had we delayed any longer we'd have been caught stuck for several hours on the stretch of highway and I-5 that the Dept of Transportation closed to scrape the surface clean.

After Christmas at my parents' we drove to San Francisco to stay in the heart of Chinatown. Monday morning we went to a dim sum restaurant, the kind where they push around the carts. We'd had a successful experience the day before at a little dim sum stand, so I thought the boys would enjoy this. However Scott's food sat nearly untouched on his plate.

It had been cold, and both boys were wearing their new hats. Scott's was a beenie he had pulled down on his head nearly to his eyebrows. Just below the margin of royal blue was the edge of his bangs that had also been pressed down. So he was looking up at me from below the hair and hat rim, and the blue made his eyes look very vivid. Of course, at seven, he has that beautiful nearly waxen skin and he looked particularly luminous that morning in the bustling restaurant. As I ate he began asking questions, looking deeply into my eyes as I answered. At one point I caught my breath as I marveled that this beautiful child was mine.


"Yes, Scott."

"You'll always be my mother." Part statement, part question. It was clear he needed a response, a corroboration. He does this quite a lot ("Mom, a cat is a mammal", "Yes, Scott, a cat is a mammal." Sometimes it drives me nuts.) So I said, "Yes, Scott, I'll always be your mother." He kind of nodded to himself as if this confirmed a hypothesis.

"And you'll always be my mother, even if you die."

"Yes, even if I die, I'll always be your mother." This time a little smile with the nod as if he was not only affirmed, but also reassured. His face was so open, so innocent and earnest that I nearly started crying there in the restaurant. It makes me tear up even as I write.

Boy they slay me sometimes. I think I'm walking along with the same-old usual, and then I fall right into a hole I hadn't seen.