About Me

All of us fail to conform from time to time. That’s a strength, and I like to write about it.

I am a parent to a nonconforming child (two of them, actually). I use the term “nonconforming” descriptively here, not judgmentally. Sam is nonconforming because she doesn’t like the things that most of her peers do. She likes a lot of things girls typically do, including princesses and dolls. She likes to design dresses. She loves Lady Gaga. She’s passionate about lifeguards, school buses and mermaids. She’s uninterested in sports, and when she was living as a boy (she’s transgender), kids assumed she was gay.

My partner and his ex adopted Sam several years ago. Sam came to them when she was five. I’ve been part of the family since 2011. Sam experienced serious abuse prior to being placed in the foster care system, and she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and gender dysphoria. She’s now 18, and out of high school. We’ll have to wait and see what’s next.

We thought we were finished with parenting, and adamantly insisted that we would not parent another child. Then Jackson came along. He’s nine. We fell in love with him, and now he’s ours, or he’s about to be. He doesn’t conform, either. He has ADHD, PTSD, dyslexia, and other diagnoses. He’s funny and creative and really smart. As I write these words, he’s been part of our family for two months. We’re exhausted, sometimes stressed, very busy, and totally in love.

 

Adventures in Heresy

For most of my life, I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. But in my younger years I enjoyed spending time with him. I remember the smell of his workshop, our garage: the scents of motor oil, dirt, dampness, and the distinct odor of metal. And the images of it: those banged-up trash cans to my right as I walked in, next to the big overhead door, open in warm weather, closed in cold; half of the two-car bay empty but for tools and stuff lying on the cement floor, the other half occupied by an old truck I’m sure he tinkered on for years, a truck I don’t think I ever saw run. The room was lit by fluorescents and natural light filtered through dusty windows onto cracked pegboard walls holding tools over a workbench with its jars and coffee cans of unsorted screws, nails, and bolts, and my father’s breakfast beer, fizzing by the radio speaker. It was like Sanford and Son, but without the catchy theme music.

One day in the garage, he told me about his work in a tone that made clear he had no love for it. “I crawl into a hole and stare a light all day. Then I come home.” He was a welder, and on weekends he found ways to put his main vocational skill to use at home. He had a welder at home, and would use it on our old cars and wherever else it was useful. The first time I saw him welding, he warned me, “Don’t look at the light—you’ll go blind.”

Dad wasn’t exaggerating about the danger of staring into the light. Over the years, I did glimpse at it a few times, deliberately or accidentally, and even from yards away it caused a dull ache in the center of my skull. The brightness, apparently, could cause permanent damage and even blindness, so he wore a shield over his head and face with a small, nearly opaque rectangle to see through.

He reached into a tool box. “You have to look through this,” he said, and gave me a piece of glass like the one in his face shield, so black I could see nothing through it at all. But when he started working again, I saw the glow, still intense but not painful, and a shower of sparks. This was the light he looked at for hours on end, mending and building ships and submarines at a job he disliked to support his family.

I like Sunday mornings. I get to sleep in. When our travel schedule allows, I get to attend a church service where everyone is so nice and welcoming, and the music is great, and the message is interesting and not too long.

I didn’t always enjoy Sunday mornings, though. When I was young, I would wake up in the room I shared with my older brother to the sound of a hateful voice (it sounded hateful to me). On any given Sunday, I’d wake to the sound of an angry sermon. Dad favored Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Vernon McGee, and their voices echoed down the hall from the kitchen into my room. My father turned the volume of the radio or TV up high so he could hear it wherever he went in the house. Many Sunday mornings he wasn’t even in the house when I woke up, but he had the sermon on so he could hear it if he stepped inside from the garage where a second radio or TV blared the same broadcast. I grew to really dislike that sound, but somehow it comforted him. I think Sundays were his favorite downtime.

I grew up Catholic, but my dad rarely went to mass with us, and when he did he brought his Bible and didn’t pay attention. Mass bored me. I believed in God, and I just figured… God likes boring stuff. And I believed what happened in mass was a miracle — or magic, at least, with the whole bread into body of Christ thing. And then eating it… I wondered does this make us cannibals? The devout, I learned, do not appreciate that question.

I went to Catholic school taught by nuns, who offered well-meaning but terrible council on a range of subjects. My favorite, from a visiting nun lecturer: “You may be asking yourself why I, a celibate, should be teaching you about sex. But think of it this way: If you had cancer, you wouldn’t tell your doctor he couldn’t treat you because he doesn’t have cancer.”

And can anyone explain all the felt? Remember the felt boards? I’ve heard from non-Catholic friends that their churches were also big on felt. Walls or cardboard covered in felt to which you could stick other pieces of cookie-cutter felt. Felt Mary,, felt Joseph, felt crosses, and entire felt landscapes, a cornucopia of iconography rendered lovingly in felt. Eventually I got it: obviously Jesus loves felt.

At church, I fidgeted in the pew, my butt itching from sitting on the hard bench, watching the clock, waiting for it to be over. And while the priest droned on, blah blah blah — I couldn’t pay attention even when I tried — I talked to God. I prayed constantly, even outside of church. And I mean that literally: constantly. Every thought passing through my mind I addressed to God, like an ongoing conversation. The subject of a thought made no difference. When I felt thirsty, I would think, Dear God, I’m going to get a glass of water. In my mind, I spoke all of my observations, feelings, desires, impressions, fears, questions – everything – to God, who I believed listened to my every thought. And I felt comfort. I felt safe, and held, and protected, and valued. I felt loved.

But this God, I was taught to believe, was the same one that my father’s favorite evangelical preachers claimed to be experts on. And in their sermons, they were so angry, so self-righteous in their convictions. They seemed always to be talking about hell, about damnation, fire, and sin. They believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and they by God were here to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. I felt no love in their preaching, only fear and judgment. They spoke of “the fear of God” as a virtue to be clung to. And in spite of my resistance, their message sunk in.

Eventually, I understood that if it was true that they had this understanding, that this religion was the One True Faith, that God was judging me and keeping a tally, and that sinners would be cast into Hell… then there was no hope for me. I do not conform, because I cannot believe what I have been told I must.

This means that I am a heretic. A heretic is a baptized Roman Catholic who willfully and consistently rejects any article of faith. “Willfully and consistently.” Yeah, that’s right in the money. More generally, a heretic is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

I know in church circles heresy is something to be shunned, it’s not a word one embraces.  I like the word. I also like the words discombobulated, gargoyle, and nougat. But “heretic” I really like, less for its sound than its meaning. It’s a much more powerful word than “nonconformist.”

“Heretic” comes from a Greek word meaning “able to choose,” and choosing one’s own beliefs was —and still is — a practice that many powerful religious and political leaders find objectionable. They would much prefer that we all believe what we are instructed to believe, so much so that some have been known, both in the past and in the present, to threaten scary eternal punishment, or mete out earthly penalties—to this day, in some places in the world, people are fired, ostracized, shamed, beaten, tortured, and even killed for the audacity of choosing one’s own beliefs.

It is strange to me that in the church in which I was raised – and I realize this is an extreme example – I could do anything, commit literally any sin, and still be welcome in the church, still be given the church’s stamp of approval and entry into heaven if I believed and did the proper rituals. On the other hand, I could lead a life as sinless and flawless and Christ Himself, but if I were to publicly declare my disbelief in accepted dogma, I would be excommunicated.

It took me a long, long time to shake the belief that because I can’t change who I am that I am worthless. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe in is the power of Love. I value kindness, and charity, and sharing. I value freedom of thought, and unfettered scholarship, and science, and peace, and compromise, and negotiation, and respect, and compassion, and responsibility, and fairness, and equality.

I believe that it’s better to give, knowing that some without genuine need will “take advantage” than to not give and allow people to go hungry or uncared for.

I believe in erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

I believe in taking care of the planet; in the Golden Rule; and that we are all in this together.

These values and beliefs do not make me a heretic. Here is what does: I don’t believe in Hell or eternal judgment. I think the idea that God would be offended by disbelief is ludicrous. And I don’t believe in the devil as an entity seeking to drag us all into damnation. And because I know that the Bible was written and assembled by men with agendas, I cannot believe for a second that it is the literal word of God.

It seems to me that the stories of the Bible are not meant to communicate history; they are meant to transmit faith. The story is not the message; it is the vehicle for the delivery of the message.

In my understanding, the Jesus depicted in the gospels invites us to open our hearts and minds to the Love of God. Because he is human, he embodies an archetype that we can identify with and emulate. An archetype is a symbol; a symbol represents something, points to an idea. But as the great world religions demonstrate, we can become so enamored, so identified with and focused upon a symbol that we can lose site of thing to which it points.

I left the church when I came to recognize that its love was inherently conditional. I returned when I found a community that reaffirms not just in word but in action and in practice that God is Love; where the message of Love is more important than the system that delivers it; and no religion has a monopoly on the love of God.

I’m sure my father wouldn’t have liked the services here because they’re not based in “Scripture,” which he seemed to value more than anything else in his faith. He accepted without question the notion of God as a being we must all fear. But then again, he spent a significant chunk of his life looking out at the world through a very dark lens.

He had good reason to wear that shield when he was working, so he wouldn’t be blinded or burned. It offered real protection. And those sermons he studied also shielded him. They limited his view of the world and that was all he wanted to see. He even told me once, when I challenged the idea that we should unquestioningly accept these preachers interpretation of the Bible, that we were not meant to interpret it ourselves, that we weren’t qualified, that we could get it wrong, so we must be obedient, and anything else would be heresy.

I’m proud to be a heretic, to think for myself. I am happy to be a part of my new church community, because there the message I receive says, “We welcome Christians, and Buddhists, and atheists, and Muslims, and Jews, and all others, exactly as you are. Let us cultivate a community together, based on our shared values of compassion, respect, kindness, and goodwill. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s be responsible. And let’s share ideas about how the power of Love can transform our lives.”

Dad’s Passing

Dad died, and I’m waiting to feel.

That’s not entirely fair. I have feelings about it, but they’re not what I expected. Where are the tears and surprisingly-intense-even-though-it-was-expected pain of loss? What I feel is much more complicated, more subtly layered, and I have a peculiar sense of distance about it, almost as if I am anesthetized.

For the last year, Dad’s doctors had been telling Mom that he would die within weeks or days. His skin turned yellow, he stopped eating and his flesh shrank against his bones. He stopped drinking for weeks at a time. I guess when you feel like you can’t breathe, the desire to drink wanes. They said it was toxins in his system, another symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis.

Three years ago, my sister called me at work to tell me Dad was in rehab. “He had a seizure at work,” she said, which I later learned was a symptom of alcoholic withdrawal. He hadn’t quit drinking. He just hadn’t had a drink in several hours.

On hearing this, I couldn’t stop weeping. I felt relieved, and hopeful, and angry, and apprehensive, and hurt. Conversations with my father played vividly in my head, exchanges that never happened in which I told him in clear and certain terms how much damage his drinking did to our family. “Doesn’t Mom deserve to live with a sober spouse for a few years,” I wanted to ask him, “after all the bullshit she’s endured?”

I never had that talk with him exactly. Once, during the longest of his sober periods (lasting several weeks), I asked him how he was feeling. I imagined there must be something positive about it for him. Was he enjoying more quality time with Mom? Did he enjoy greater clarity? Did he feel hopeful, or empowered?

“I’m bored,” he said dully, and had nothing else to add.

He quit for a while, a month or two, long enough for me to feel hopeful, then angry with him for drinking again and mad at myself, too, for being stupid enough to think he would or could stop. It took another two years before I gave up, and I mean that in a positive sense. I let go, finally, of the wish that he would change. And it became easier to love him.

Almost a year before he died, I flew home to see him because he was, we were told, on his death bed. We wondered if I’d get there in time. He’d stopped eating, had lost a tremendous amount of weight, he was jaundiced (for the first time), in pain, he struggled to breathe, and said he was ready to die. When I saw him at the hospital, he looked frail and weak. He winced, moaned and gritted his teeth in pain at irregular intervals as urine drained through a catheter. Yet he was much improved, they said, and expected to go home in a couple of days.

Mom said the doctor told him he had about six months if he stopped drinking. But if he stopped, he would experience more seizures, which could be damaging and dangerous. He stopped and started, and finally, a few months before he died, he told my mother, “I love you, but I can’t stop.” And he continued drinking for as long as his strength to do so allowed.

His last week or so was really hard for Mom especially. He wanted to be at home, and she wanted that for him, too. But he was hallucinating, uncooperative and verbally abusive. At one of his first stays in the hospital, he’d called home and told my mother to bring him his gun. He said he was a secret agent and the hospital was keeping him there against his will. This delusion was frightening and painful for Mom, and she cried when she told me. And they said it would get worse as his liver quit functioning, and ammonia polluted his system. Finally, Mom guiltily consented to have him brought to a hospice. He fought her on it. “I know I’ll get better if you’ll just let me stay home,” he said, which made it even harder. But she couldn’t do it, she said, couldn’t take care of him anymore knowing that the worst was yet to come. He protested and cursed, “but that’s not really him,” I said. “He’s not in his right mind anymore. If he were, he wouldn’t want you to have to go through this anymore.” We all knew and we all told her she was doing the right thing. She was. She did.

He settled into the hospice on Friday night. He was given morphine at regular intervals. He did not regain consciousness. He died Sunday morning. He was 68.

The last time I spoke with him was a couple of months ago on the phone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired,” he said.

We made small talk. I told him I loved him, and he said “Thank you.”

He said “I love you.”

And those were our last words to each other.

For that, I am grateful.

Can’t Control

I just spent a few days in New York City with Kevin. I welcomed the break, and as we sit on the plane waiting for take-off to return home, I feel sick with anxiety.

This feeling started when Kevin finished a call with Kyle and shared with me that Sam hasn’t turned in his homework this week and that she failed his tests today. Kyle was asking Kevin’s opinion on whether or not to permit Sam to attend a social mixer at school tonight. They settled on “no.” Sam was doing well as of last week, and this week, left to make good choices on her own (complete her work, practice her trumpet, turn in her work, study), she slacked seriously on the homework and studying, didn’t turn in what she completed, and skipped practicing her instrument altogether.

My emotional response is out of proportion to the circumstance. Sam did not meet my expectations this week. Knowing this, I feel anxiety and anger, and as I feel it and watch this, I tell myself, get a grip on yourself. Relax. She’s twelve. She messed up. This week. In sixth grade. This is neither surprising nor earth-shaking. And yet I feel myself shaking internally. This is how crazy people are. I am being crazy.

Several weeks ago, I agreed to join Sam on a ride at the state fair. It was one of those big contraptions that gyrate and swing simultaneously, taking one’s secure-but-flailing body into dizzying arcs of progressively increasing altitude before winding gradually back down. As we began to spin and climb, I felt that dropping feeling in my stomach and felt myself resisting. So I said to myself, This is happening—I am on this ride now whether I like it or not, and I cannot change it, so I hereby say “Yes” to it, I surrender to this, all of it, the heights and the drops, and even the feeling in my stomach. Yes. Yes. Yes. And when I quit resisting, all of the unpleasantness ceased immediately. I enjoyed the ride, and it was over very quickly.

This is what I’m practicing now as we sit on the runway. Whether I like it or not, Sam will make her own mistakes, and she will not always meet my expectations. So I say “Yes,” to this, I surrender to all of it, the ups and the downs. I cannot control her and I do us both a disservice when I try. My job is to role model, to guide, to advise, to help when I can. Then I’ve got to step back and let go of the result.

I Love Dogs

I can hear Maggie licking her butt.

“Quit it,” I say, and she pauses. She looks at me, her body still folded in half. She resumes.

“Don’t make me put the Elizabethan collar on you.”

I’ve been avoiding the big cone collar, the “E-collar” as the vet calls it (that word makes me think of e coli. Ew. But appropriate when you consider what this dog’s applying her tongue to). Maggie’s backside has been bothering her for months, despite all the dog doctor’s prescriptions, which include medicines, expensive new food, and frequent manual expressions of her anal glands (look that up on YouTube–I dare you).

Mattie’s butt, meanwhile, presses against my leg. I’ve pulled a chair up beside me for him because he’s fretting over what sounds like fireworks outside. And as I completed that last sentence, he climbed gingerly into my lap, sheltering himself and snuggling at the same time.

I love my dogs. They are worth every effort, every mess, every dog-hair-sprinkled floor surface, every mischievously stolen morsel. These beasts are pure love.

I grew up with a lot of animals around the house, although I learned early not to get too attached. In nearly every case, animals did not fare well for long at our house before we had to bid them farewell.

I remember a black lab we adopted when I was in first grade. We had him for a week or two before my uncle hit and killed him with his car. I have this odd memory of standing over his body after the accident. It’s odd because I remember feeling disappointment more than grief, like we’d lost a new toy. I feel more grief now as I write this than I did then.

We had another dog, Flash, whom I loved and played with a lot. When he began to behave aggressively and started to growl at me periodically, my affection for him turned to fear. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t want to play with him anymore. He lived on a tether in our back yard year round for several years before my parents had him euthanized. If I think about that too much I feel angry at my parents and disappointed in myself. Maybe part of why I lavish so much love on my dogs now because of guilt about Flash.

My dad brought home a goat one day. It was incredibly cute, and smart, and affectionate. We named it Sheba. One day Dad and my brother took it on a walk and our neighbor’s dog ran out of his yard and killed her.

We also had a sheep. He was black, and sullen looking, as if he knew what was coming. And maybe he did, because he strangled himself. My dad tied him to a pole under the back porch, where I found him one morning still standing and stiff, having wrapped himself round and round the pole until there was no more slack in the rope.

Dad gave us rabbits, a pair of them, and their cage didn’t keep them safe. That same neighbor’s dog came down to our yard, tore the cage open, and mauled them.

We raised chickens, lots of them, and ate them. For years, each spring, we’d buy twenty or so chicks. They were adorable, and we’d play with them like pets until the novelty wore off. I liked to place them in my sister’s doll house because proportionately it looked like Barbie had a pet ostrich. But the fun didn’t last long. They weren’t, after all, very interactive. Most of them lived long enough to make it to our table. Dad would chop off their heads, then dunk their spasmodic bodies into hot water to loosen the feathers. I frequently helped.

We had some ducks. Dad slaughtered one on exactly two occasions, and never again. The first time he was flummoxed by the feathers, swearing as he vainly dunked the web-footed highly water-resistant carcass in a bucket. The feathers refused to be rinsed away, and they were hard to remove manually. So next time Dad added some Lestoil to the water. That actually worked, but it made rather a bitter marinade. And Mom didn’t know how to cook it. Try cooking a duck the same way you prepare a chicken and you get a greasy, flavorless, mess.

We had a horse once. I don’t remember where we got it. We sold it because it kicked my father in the teeth.

We had a cow for a while. My dad bought it at a county fair and brought it home in the back of the station wagon. We kept it in the chicken coop, where it got really bad diarrhea and died.

I should clarify that we did not live on a farm–not even close. My childhood home is a 1970’s Cape-style construction sitting on a single square acre. The chicken coop (aka cow-barn) was in the back yard. My parents still live there. Now and then my father says he wants to get another dog, and the family collectively cries, NOOOOOOooooo.

Sam loves our dogs, and I feel all warm and fuzzy seeing her dote on them. It’s therapeutic for her, I think. They have a lot to teach us about patience, compassion, affection and responsibility. And they’re love sponges. Mattie is crazy-smart, a chronic worrier, food-obsessed, and a compulsive licker. Maggie is more laid-back, but still a terrier. She’s dainty, mostly quiet, squirrel-obsessed, and likes to be with her person (me). She has lived here only as long as I have–she came with me when I moved here, and Sam adores her. She’s smaller than Mattie, and, well, girlier. Dainty. She’s a little Princess. Who licks her butt.

Anxiety

When I feel depressed, I catch myself thinking I have always been depressed, as if I cannot remember a time when I have breathed without this weight pressing down on, in, and through me.

When I feel anxious, as I do today, as I have for the past three days, I watch myself pacing around the house because when I sit still I think I have to move; I have to do; there is something else I can do to make things better; I will feel better when I do something, and I just have to figure out what that thing is.

I find myself thinking that this anxiety–again, this pressure–that pushes both in and out at the same time, is both my weakness and my strength. I feel anxious because I am weak-minded. I feel anxious because I care about so much that is not as I think it should or could be.

These are limited perspectives, I know. And I remind myself: this is temporary. I say to myself, breathe into this. Lean into it. That’s what Pema Chodron would say. Say “yes” to this. And this. And this. Yes.

And I feel like, No.

So I breathe into that.

No one appointed me the peace keeper of my home. But I listen, I feel, I am tuned in at all times the emotional broadcast of this house, feeling it so strongly it submerges me. I focus on it, resisting. When there is tension, or potential for it, I want to change it, resolve it, contain it. I’m watching a boulder perched on top of a hill over us, and no one else sees that the few pebbles holding it in place are loosening and ready to shift.

Sam just led Kevin downstairs and outside. A minute later, they returned and climbed the stairs to Sam’s room. Kevin, ever the generous spirit, has agreed to play “school,” and evidently Sam wanted to administer a fire drill. Outside Sam’s room, I heard her tell Kevin he could not go to the bathroom without asking because then Sam wouldn’t know where he was. Although I know they’re playing, I do not like Sam taking that tone of voice.

I admire Kevin’s willingness to indulge Sam in this kind of play. And it makes me nervous, because when Kevin gets bored with it (and who wouldn’t? I can’t stand it for more than two seconds) he begins to do ridiculous things like he’s in an absurdist play. But Sam wants him to play it straight, and this is where so many times in the past they would launch into verbal sparring ending with Sam having a tantrum.

Sam having a tantrum equals a twelve year old yelling and carrying on angrily in what is ultimately an impotent explosion of her frustration at not getting her way. This being so, I expend a disproportionate amount of energy fretting about when the next one will erupt. That’s an old habit I’m ready to give up.

Twelve and Throwing Tantrums

At twelve years old, Sam has tantrums on the scale of a two year old. She is still learning how to handle her emotions appropriately. Fortunately, these tantrums are limited now mostly to yelling, some stomping around and some door-slamming, so we’ve seen improvement. Each time she gets in trouble for acting out in this way, we remind her that she earns consequences not because she’s gotten upset, but because of her behavior when she is upset.

I find her tantrums extremely stressful. Way more often than I’d like to admit, I’m walking around on edge because I can feel Sam’s emotions building, and I anticipate a fit. Somewhere along the way I must have decided it was my job to control Sam, that I could control her and that I should. Saying that out loud or writing it, I know it’s ludicrous, but I catch myself believing it anyway. I feel the adrenaline and cortisol rising in my blood when I sense her becoming agitated. My stomach ties itself in knots, my breath constricts, my chest caves inward, and I think, futilely, I must prevent her from acting up again. This is where I get pulled into a struggle with her, where it’s been hardest for me to disengage. I’ve become a lot better at it, though some of the time I put on a performance of calm that conceals distress so palpable I can barely stop myself from trembling. And it’s here that I realize that what I’m trying to teach her–how to deal with his emotions in a healthy way–is just what she’s teaching me. She’s showing me what not to do (flip out), and as the adult, I’m trying to remember to breathe, choose my words with care, and act instead of reacting. That’s not easy for me as an adult, so I can appreciate his challenge as a twelve-year old (with PTSD) in handling herself properly when she feels this way.

An acquaintance who happens to be a psychiatric nurse shared a theory with me the other day. She said we develop some important emotional skills when we’re around two years old, that this is what’s going on during the so-called “terrible twos,” that we learn then to moderate our behavior when we feel strong emotions. And this makes sense, because at two years old, Sam was being seriously abused. Could it be that this part of his development was interrupted? Since that conversation, I’ve been able to feel more compassion for Sam when she fails to control herself as I would like. I’ve been able to maintain a more genuine calm (despite my stress) in the face of his upset. And I still want to help her as best I can to develop the skills she needs to control herself.

Kevin and I often debrief after one of Sam’s tantrums, and its usually to remind ourselves of what we already know. Experience demonstrates that when we decline Sam’s invitation to join her in her drama, it all fizzles out much more quickly. Still, we occasionally let ourselves get sucked in despite ourselves. We argue with her. Routinely, we used to declare consequences during one of her tantrums on the theory that it would show her we meant business. This only escalated things like fuel on a fire, so eventually we learned (mostly) not to do this. It’s not that consequences aren’t ever in order, just that giving them while she’s acting up has proven counter-productive. To date, the best advice we’ve heard has been to disconnect, to take away the audience. When she’s upset, Sam wants to argue aggressively, and to do that, she needs someone to fight with her. We’re still learning how not to be drawn in. Kevin still argues with her more than I do, and we have argued about that. I say, if one party (the adult) stops, the argument is over. Sam can’t keep it going by herself.

This is something we more or less agree on, and it’s often difficult to remember in practice. Like Sam, we’re so attached to being “right.” But as the parents, we hold the power, and we give it away if we allow Sam to hijack a conversation and turn it into a shouting match. It’s hard to walk away when she’s saying something obnoxious, defiant, or otherwise disrespectful, but it quiets her more quickly than anything.

It’s not always feasible to walk away. If we’re cooking dinner, or working in the living room, we cannot evict ourselves every time Sam acts up. So we tell her to go to his room. Usually, eventually, she will stomp his way up the stairs and slam her bedroom door in classic angry-kid fashion. But sometimes she seems intent to perform an aria of outrage. It’s as if she believes she could make us cave if only she could rage loudly enough. If that’s the aim, it’s puzzling because it has never, ever worked. Not once have we ever given in to a demand when she’s disrespectful or obnoxious. Which leads me to believe that if she’s not getting her way from it, she must be getting something from it, or wouldn’t she have dropped the habit by now? I suspect what she gets is some release. She gets the feeling out.

We’ve talked about that with her. “You can have your feelings–they’re always okay–and you don’t have to get in trouble if you can do something else to get them out. Go to your room. Listen to music. Go outside and ride your bike. Punch a pillow. Write down your feelings. And you can talk to your therapist about it. She can help you, give you some ideas of some things you can do instead of having a fit.” She doesn’t say anything to this. Her expression seems to say, “yeah, maybe.”

A few months ago, I did something different. Sam was carrying on and escalating about homework or something, had refused to go to her room, and began rapidly increasing his volume and intensity. She even started jumping up and down–just like a toddler. Spontaneously, without thinking, I began to do it, too. “I can yell, too!” I said. “I can act like this, too! Aaaaaaaaah!” And I jumped up and down.

Sam stopped cold, like she’d been struck. Her whole energy shifted. The rage turned to what looked like sadness or grief, and she ran outside crying, telling me I was mean and horrible. I felt really bad, and at the same time I realized that in a way, it had worked. She had shifted.

I told myself I wouldn’t do that again, but since then I have done it, about three or four times. Last time, before I did it, I said, “Sam, lower your voice. Would you like me to start talking to you the way you’re talking to me?” And on she went, and so I mirrored her (that’s the word I would like to use, because it’s kinder than what I fear may closer to the truth: mocking). Within thirty seconds she was leaving the room of her own accord. She wasn’t any happier, but she was removing herself.

Sam and I have talked about it. When she’s in a positive mood, she talks freely and openly about what’s going on with her during a tantrum. Last week, I said to her, “I know it doesn’t feel good to you when I act like you when you’re doing that. But honestly, it’s the only thing that has ever gotten through to you to make you stop for a minute. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want you to see what you’re doing.” She just nodded.

Two days ago, when we were talking about alternatives to yelling when she’s upset, she said, “You can always act like me again.” She seems to agree that when I’ve done that, it’s helped her shift. But I don’t like it.

Effective or not, I am not sure if mirroring her like this a good idea. I do know that it doesn’t feel good to me, and based on that, I am resolved not to make this a habit. Still, when all else fails, I often feel at a loss for what to do, how to respond. I guess in those cases, I can always take my own advice, whether or not it’s convenient, and disengage. Just walk away.

Dad

I wrote the following in a my journal in December 2010:

I’m at my parents’ house for the week of Christmas. I haven’t spent more than 48 hours here in fifteen years. I feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place. I want very much to leave. But I also want to be here. I can do this. My being here means a great deal to my parents. They’re so happy I’m here.

I spent the day with my mom. I drove us to the beach–I hadn’t seen the ocean in a couple of years. We shopped in the afternoon, and in the evening went to a Christmas concert at my nephews’ school. We got back a couple of hours ago, and my father was still up. This was unusual for the hour.

“Would you care to sit down for a bit?” he asked. He looked vulnerable.

He was watching a thriller of some kind on TV. A bloody face filled the screen. I didn’t want to sit with him, nor did I want to watch this show.

“I’m not interested in watching that show,” I said.

He hit the power button the remote, and the screen went dark.

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to watch the program. I asked you if you’d sit down.”

I did not want to, but I did. I can do this, I thought. For him. So I sat on the couch, leaving enough space for another body to fit between us. He smiled at me through an anesthesia of alcohol, something between a grin and a wince. Then he reached out to me tentatively. He wanted to touch me, to hold me. I let him. He sighed and held me close. I can do this, I told myself. It was ok, easier than I thought it’d be. Love to him, I thought. I can do this. I visualized light in my chest, allowing the glow to reach out to him.

“Thank you,” he said, still holding tight. “I feel it,” he said. “I feel… penetration.” I almost laughed at this choice of words. He let go for a moment, then pulled me in again. “I’m not done,” he said. He caught his breath as if laughing or sobbing. Then he sat back and looked at me blearily.

“You know,” he began, and hesitated. “In two years, it’ll be 50 years your mother and I will be married.”

“I know.”

He was silent for a few seconds while he stared toward the wall. Then he looked back at me and grinned. “You know, if you want to… if you really want to set her off… you…” and he leaned in toward me, pressed his lips against my shoulder, and exhaled. I felt the warmth of his breath seeping through the fabric of my sweatshirt. Then he sat back, smiling mischievously. “If I really want to upset her, all I have to do…”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said.

“What?”

He couldn’t hear me. I had to speak loudly.

“Let me ask you, why would you ever want to ‘set her off?’ Why would you want to upset her?”

He was flummoxed. I repeated the question. His expression shifted as he considered, looked confused, then unsure before a bland look came over him as he said (as if it should be obvious), “It can’t be all love.”

“Why not?”

He seemed to think this a naive question.

“Because it’s not out there.”

“You choose your behavior,” I said. “You choose to be loving or not. Why would you choose to upset her, on purpose, ever?”

He thought this over for a few seconds.

“For fun,” he offered.

“It’s not fun for her,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “It’s not fun for her, but…” and he went silent, then looked confused again.

“I don’t understand why you’d do that,” I said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said, shifting his body to face me. He was searching for words, clearly wanting to have a talk, to educate me.

“I don’t care to have this conversation with you when you’re this drunk,” I told him.

“What?”

“I’m not going to have this conversation with you while you’re drunk.”

Hearing this, he released me. “Oh. Ok. Good night to you.”

I went down to the guest room.

Twenty minutes later, I opened the door and stepped to the bottom of the stairs, listening.

“He’s downstairs,” he was saying. “What the fuck is up with that? That’s not right,” he told my mother. “There’s something wrong with that.”

“Don’t use that language,” she scolded.

It is very hard to be here.

I love my father. That hasn’t always been easy to say. When I was a kid I frequently told him I hated him. I was always so angry at him. I didn’t trust him. I experienced him as moody, erratic, unfair, creepy, invasive. He enjoyed teasing me. He admitted this years later. I got into the habit of just avoiding him, making myself invisible. I was good at it.

I’ve seen my father a few times in the last several years, on my brief visits back to the northeast. He’s ailing badly now, and his doctors have told him he won’t live long. Mom says he hasn’t had a drink in over a month. This time it’s not because he’s on medicine to curb the desire, or because he’s reached a resolution, but because he always feels like he can’t breathe. I guess that cuts the appetite for alcohol.

About ten years ago while I was in grad school, he and my mom visited me in Iowa City. While they were there, I set up a video camera and interviewed them as they sat in my living room. Not too long before this visit, I had recorded a conversation with my grandfather days before he died, and now I thought, why wait until they’re on their deathbeds? So they agreed to do it.

I’ve lost the recording. I had it backed up on a couple of drives, and last year when I tried to look at the files, they were irretrievably corrupt. But I remember.

“You used to hide all the time,” Dad told me.

I knew exactly what he meant. I didn’t say anything.

“Tell me about when you started drinking,” I said.

“I remember when I was a kid,” he began, “I used to see aunt Rita and Uncle Charlie pour themselves a whiskey, and they’d fill a glass like that…” He held his fingers out to suggest the size of a tumbler a little larger than a juice glass, which he then mimed holding and filling to the top. “And I saw them do that, and…” he searched for words. “I admired it. I wanted to be able to drink like that.”

Wow, I thought.

“So when I was old enough, I started drinking.”

I’d never heard this story before.

I’d asked the question because his drinking affected me, it affected all of us. I believe it’s one of the main causes of our strained relationship right from my childhood. I always knew he drank, but somehow I didn’t understand until I was a teenager just how much. When I was in high school, I got up one morning, and in the kitchen found what I thought was a flat, stale glass of beer on the kitchen counter left from the night before. I poured it down the drain. Not long after, I heard him moving angrily through the house asking “Who dumped my beer?!” I told him I did. I remember feeling very self-righteous and angry about it. I didn’t apologize, I just said, “I never imagined you’d be drinking this early in the morning.”

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I talk to mom just about weekly, and sometimes she hands him the phone. Our conversations are short. He sounds more pleasant, less gruff than I’m used to. Softer.

And it’s easier now for me to feel my love for him. I don’t feel angry with him anymore.

Butt Out

“I’m not saying this to be, uh, mean, or disrespectful or anything, but…”

“Just say what you have to say, Kyle.”

It occurs to me that one cannot render an insult or disrespectful remark benign by prefacing it with a qualifying preamble. Today I was instructed to “Butt out” by my partner’s ex. I’d called him to share a conversation I’d had with Sam and her Resource teacher at middle school about a proposal she offered, an alternative to our ongoing at-home conflicts with Sam about her school work.

At the request of my partner, Kevin, I’d stopped by the school during the last period, when Sam was in the Resource room. During this period, Mrs. Green checks to see that she has written down his homework assignments for the day, and to make sure that she has any handouts that have been given in her classes that day (which she’s demonstrated a talent for “losing”). She also reviews her behavior report for the day, and when she gets high marks, she earns coupons that she can redeem for treats, pens, stickers, or other stuff kids like. I went to speak with Mrs. Green because Kevin and I wanted her insight on how we might help Sam help herself.

Sam sat stonily in a chair, jaw set, eyes narrowed and sullen. “She’s not happy with me right now,” said Mrs. Green. She had her behavior report for the day, and it showed that she had not handed in her math homework. Sam had insisted that she had handed in her homework. Or tried to. But she hadn’t followed the teacher’s very clear, simple instructions. The math teacher tells students to take out their homework, then he walks by each student’s desk to note the work’s completion. Sam had taken it upon herself to march to the teacher’s desk and say “Here’s my homework.” According to Mrs. Green, the math teacher told her to return to her seat, and that he would be over shortly to check it. When he arrived at Sam’s desk, she “didn’t have it anymore.” I suppose she just refused to take it back out. I don’t know. So here Sam sat, angry at the world for holding her accountable.

“You appear to be angry,” I said to Sam. “Is that accurate?”

“No,” she said angrily through clenched teeth, “I’m just FRUStrated.”

I was feeling angry. I mean, what the hell? How is it always everyone else’s fault to her? Carefully moderating my tone, speaking slowly and quietly, I told Sam that she would not earn back her privileges (TV and video game time) until we had a good report from her teachers. I said that she was doing good work, but that by not turning it in, she was asking for D’s and F’s, and that she deserves better.

Then Mrs. Green spoke to her. “Are you having a hard time with middle school? It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Sam barely nodded.

“Is that a yes? You know, it’s hard for a lot of kids, and you’re going to be okay.” And she went on to talk to her about taking care of her school responsibilities in pretty much the exact same way that we have been talking to her: plainly and directly. She didn’t like what she had to say, but she seemed to listen.

When I interjected with agreement a point she made, Sam hardened visibly.

“Your parents are doing what all parents do, Sam,” she said. And she talked about her son, about how he had a hard time in school, and about how she constantly asked him about his school work and checked in to make sure he was doing it. “They have to do that,” she told him. “What are you so angry about?”

“Everybody’s always after me, and I just want them to leave me alone.”

“Do you think you can do this by yourself? Do you think you could do your homework and get everything done on your own if they left you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I have an idea we could try. If it’s okay with your dads–and we’ll have to check, it’s up to them–we can try something. Is this okay if I make a suggestion?”

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“For the next week, if your parents say it’s okay, you go home, and they’ll ask you what you have for homework, and you say Science or whatever, and then that’s it. You do the homework and they’re not going to check it. You take care of it all, you’re responsible for getting it all done. And they’re not going to help you, either, unless you ask. You have to ask if you need help. So you get your work done, and they’ll back off, and then when you come to school you have to answer to me. Does that sound like something you want to try?”

Sam nodded and was relaxing visibly.

“You’ll still be responsible,” she said, cautioning her. “You’re not getting any less work, you’re just going to come and answer to me, and I’ll check on you. Would that be okay?”

I said it sounded great to me.

“And you can all just talk about other things for a change, instead of homework. You can actually enjoy each other’s company.”

If this was at all successful, I thought, it’d be a dream come true. I said so.

“If this doesn’t work after a week, we’ll tweak it. Do you know what ‘tweak’ means–we’ll change it a little?”

Sam nodded.

As I left, I thanked Mrs. Green, and she said she hoped she hadn’t overstepped her bounds. I hadn’t felt that at all, and said “I think it’s a great idea, thank you for suggesting it. Thank you.”

So I discussed it with Kevin, who shared my opinion. We will do this. And since Kevin is out of town on business, he asked me to call Kyle and share the plan with him.

Kyle didn’t share our enthusiasm and openness to the idea. He seemed to take it personally. He argued. I could hear his voice shaking. “I am so sick of all these professionals telling me how to raise my kid. I’m so sick of them telling me what to do, and I disagree, and then it turns out that I was right. Sam needs to be held accountable. She just has these fits because she doesn’t want to do the work! And I don’t like what this will teach her, that she doesn’t have to take responsibility…”

“But she will be held accountable. Someone will be checking her work, it’ll just be Mrs. Green instead of us. I see this as a way to possibly ease some of the conflict at home. We’re always fighting with her, it’s always such a struggle to get her to do his work. I think what you need to ask yourself is, are you willing to fight with her like this over school until she’s an adult ready to move out?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, we’re not. I do not believe that fighting with her is necessary or constructive. Of course Sam needs to learn to be responsible. She needs to find her own initiative, to do her best on her own, and to get her work done. And by fighting with her all the time, getting angry, and scolding, and punishing all the time, she’s not learning or developing that skill, that initiative. We are providing, through this fighting with her, the motivation to do her work. We give her that motivation in a negative way. I believe that if we back off and let him report to Mrs. Green, that she will fall, and she may not get right back up. But eventually, she will. And she will have done it for herself.” I pointed out, as Mrs. Green did, that we can still check grades online, and we can check in with her teachers. That we still have to sign her practice log for band, and her reading log.

“We’ve already tried this,” he said. “It didn’t work.”

I think he was referring to a period of a few weeks in fifth grade when Kevin stopped checking Sam’s homework, having agreed to allow her to face the consequences with her teacher if things were incomplete or unsatisfactory. I said that was is not the same scenario, that here Sam has a person with whom she checks in three times each day, that she had more support at school this year to help her do this. Furthermore, when her grades are bad, we could still impose consequences.

About here, Kyle looped back to the same arguments he’d already made. I felt I understood where he was coming from, and that he was misunderstanding me or unwilling to listen because he’d already made his mind up that this woman was trying to tell him how to parent. And when I told him that I respectfully disagreed, he told me to butt out. You know, because I’m not a real parent here.

“I need you to know,” I said, “that Kevin and I will do this. I understand that you disagree, and you will do what you must at your house. But Kevin and I have agreed to go with this plan.”

That didn’t go over well. Unable to agree to disagree, Kyle phoned Kevin. By now, he’d arrived to collect Sam, who spends the night with him half the week, and I watched Kyle pace up and down the driveway while yelling at Kevin on the phone.

Late Homework Gets an F

Sam is four weeks into sixth grade, and although her completed work would earn her all A’s and B’s, as of today she has two F’s, two D’s, and two Cs. This is because she has not been turning in her homework. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

We’re stumped as to what to do about it, not sure what the problem is. Since Sam is in honors classes (except for math), some teachers purposely do not ask for homework. Instead, they have a tray or mailbox into which students have been instructed to submit their homework. Sam has consistently failed to do this, even though she says she sees other kids doing it, and even when she’s in a class where the teacher does ask for the homework.

“Why didn’t you turn in your homework?”

“I don’t know. I just didn’t.”

Okay, then. “You understand that although you worked hard on that, you’re not getting credit. You’re getting an F because you couldn’t be bothered to hand your teacher a piece of paper.”

Blank stare.

What now?

And this all leads me to question, once again, the one-size-fits-all education system. I understand the thinking behind setting the expectation that students hand in their homework without asking. Setting the bar high is often a good idea. And I disagree–strongly–that a student should be given an F for not handing in homework right on time. Let me explain.

As I see it, the grading system is intended to be a measure of how well one has learned the material in a specific subject and how well one has performed in the subject. In Sam’s case, she often knows the covered material well, but is struggling with something else: organizational skill, or self-motivation, or personal accountability. So if for whatever reason she fails to turn in her work on time, her grades very rapidly start reflecting those deficiencies rather than her knowledge or skill. Academically, intellectually, Sam belongs with the Honors students. She does well. At the same time, based on her emotional and social skills and her current ability to be self-motivating and hold herself accountable, she fits in a Special Needs category. She’s a hybrid of honors and special ed. I’m sure there are lots of kids like this. So Sam would be ill-served by being placed in classes beneath her academic ability, yet she is failing some classes because of this procedural rule. Her grades, the primary reporting medium of how well she is learning, are inaccurately reflecting her progress because of a behavior that, while important, has no bearing on whether or not she knows her spelling and vocabulary words.

I suspect that for many students, a strict late-homework-means-an-F serves to motivate them, so the policy serves them–it’s good for them. It would have motivated me as a kid. But Sam is not like most kids, and she is not served by this practice. And I appreciate that school teaches a great deal more than the subjects that appear on my stepson’s report card. She’s learning responsibility, study skills, social skills, she’s learning respect, to be on time, to be a part of a community, and so on. She’s learning life skills. But she’s not receiving a Life Skills grade, she’s getting grades in Math and Science. Great. I say let those grades reflect her real ability and progress. Let’s grade her on behavior and timeliness some other way. Bring on the detention and other consequences for late homework, but let her grades for her subjects be based more solely on what she’s learning about those subjects.

To the school’s credit, they’re taking steps to provide Sam more support. As of yesterday, Sam is now on a behavior-monitoring system. She has to carry around a sheet for teachers to sign whether or not she’s participating in class, whether or not she’s come to class prepared, and whether or not she has handed in her homework. It’s only been one day. We sure hope it helps.