Tag Archives: parenting

Post holiday blues

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old willow tree for post holiday blues post

After every holiday comes the dreaded day after. The low after the high. As I get older, I think I’ve learned how to navigate those crests and dips a bit better, but inevitably, there comes a moment where I think, this is too low, I can’t do this… and then, gratefully, that feeling also passes…

I’ve lived a life of extremes. It’s true, I’ve seen my share of loss. Yet, I continue to get very excited about things – special times with family and friends, sharing pieces of writing, seeing my son achieve something important that he’s been working on… how can I not allow my emotions to run across the full spectrum of possibility?

And yet, you and I both know, the higher you allow yourself to be, the lower you’ll feel on the back end, in comparison. It’s simple physics. How can we navigate those lows? Surprisingly, having already banked a bunch of really awful experiences, I have a handy compass that has given me instant perspective on bad times. At this point in my life, I can honestly say that it takes a lot to rattle me. It doesn’t take the actual sting out of current pains and sorrows, but it does provide a buffer that prevents me from getting too deep into a pity party.

What I do find continually challenging, though, is witnessing the struggles of others. Sometimes it’s very hard to know what to do, especially when you know that you can pray, you can send love, and you can share a kind word, but the person you love will still be in pain, will still wrestle with their demons, still face their own fears head-on. It’s hard to accept the fact that we really can’t fundamentally change the substance of another person’s experience. We may be able to mitigate the effects from time to time, but that’s about it.

One place that can be particularly heartbreaking is in the experience of being a parent, especially as my son gets older, and I realize that my ability to intercede on his behalf out in the world grows progressively smaller with each passing day. I can’t tell you how much I treasure the time-stopping moments we share with one another, cuddled on the couch reading a book together, or watching a movie. At the same time, I realize that it’s my job to share as much of (what I consider) my wisdom with him, to arm him for the increasing task of facing the world as an independent human being. Wow. Talk about letting go…

Something that also continues to tug at my heart is the ongoing challenges of my adult friends and family. The older we get, inevitably, the more health problems we all face. Even as I work to manage my own issues, I’m acutely aware of the battles all around me. Some of them are more daunting than others. Taken together, it’s a strange collage of trial and tribulation.

Listen, I know that there’s a thin line between empathy and unhealthy identification. We can lose ourselves in the negative experiences of others, thinking that we can fix them or make it all better. At the same time, there is the danger of swinging in the opposite direction, of being so frightened by the struggles of another that we run in the opposite direction, as though mere association with misfortune is enough to bring it on one’s self.

As always, balance is key. I’m starting this day with a real sense of gratitude for my current state of well-being, and the hopes that my loved ones will each see their way through their immediate and long term challenges. I do know, from personal experience, that we are each capable of surviving things so much worse than we’ve ever imagined. You don’t know until you get there, just how strong you are. It’s something to keep in mind.

Photo courtesy of MarilynJane

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

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Last August, my longtime friend Deb Margolin performed her magnificent play “Good Morning Anita Hill…” at the Todd Mountain Theater Project, a summer theater festival in Roxbury, NY that was founded by another old friend, Suzanne Pred-Bass. Having written previously about this play, I thought it would be a hoot to go see it again in its latest incarnation, and hang out with both of these women whom I’ve known for so many years.

I thought I’d share with you this letter I wrote to Deb when I was still thinking of going.

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Dear Deb,

I will tell you a funny story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

About six years ago, Suzanne produced Anne Bogart’s play Room at the Todd Mountain festival. In a fit of synergistic ecstasy, I decided that since I knew both women for many years from completely different tracks of my life, that I should drive up to the festival and review this performance, in the context of the larger implications for me and my creative life.

Room image

Ellen Lauren in SITI Company’s “Room” – image courtesy of SITI Company

The Saturday morning of the show, I had taken Josiah [my son] to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party in a big playground in Stuy Town, in Manhattan, where he fell on his face and shredded it to pieces. Not to be deterred from my great creative moment, not to mention mom’s first sleepover away from husband and child since childbirth (he was 3 at the time), I decided it was only a flesh wound, and we could still go forward with the “boy’s weekend” (Dad, Josiah and Uncle Hector with pizza, movies, etc.) while Mom drove upstate for a weekend of creative and professional ecstasy. I even carried my bloody child in my arms around the aisles of Best Buy, purchasing the DVD’s I’d promised to bring home…

Despite Ivor almost having a heart attack upon seeing his wounded child and a very traumatic washing of the face that took all three adults to hold my son down in the tub, I remained steadfastly and completely disassociated from any maternal instincts and persisted on leaving for the trip.

Of course, I wept most of the way upstate, and ended up being late for the performance – never a good idea for an Anne Bogart show. She is a former army brat and notoriously strict about classes, rehearsals and shows starting on time. I was lucky I was able to gain entrance.

My interview with Anne went well. It was a great reunion. She and I knew each other back from the early 80′s when I appeared in an accidental production of a deconstructed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, called Sehnsucht, that came about when an earlier show we had been rehearsing lost its funding. It was a post modern tour de force, in the great tradition of Jerszy Grotowski and Squat Theater, occupying an entire three story vacant building in downtown Northampton, MA, where I was living at the time, both inside, in various rooms, looking out to the street from the glass storefront and then at the entire building from across the street. I played one of ten Blanches. Several years later, I was part of an experimental theater workshop we organized with Anne at St. John the Divine, and then still later I took a directing class with her at Playwright’s Horizons, where I was promptly declared one of her weekly favorites. So our history ran deep to my sense of what theater could be and who I could be in it. I was thrilled to catch up with her on the last decade plus of our lives.

That night, I guiltily enjoyed the opening night reception, chatting up complete strangers while trying to ignore the fact that my family was without me in the Bronx, and then even managed to indulge in a bottle of wine with Suzanne and a couple other members of her inner circle who were also invited to stay with her at her residence that night. I was totally immersed, a theater person, dammit, just like I thought.

I drove home the next day, filled with grand thoughts about how I would roll out this post-modern tale that wove together so many strands of my life. And when I arrived, I found grief, relief, and silent judgement. By the time the next morning rolled around, Josiah’s face wounds had become infected, dangerously close to his eye, and we had to take him immediately to the doctor. A round of topical and oral antibiotics later, disaster was averted, eyesight saved, but my conscience deeply, perhaps permanently scarred, like my son’s cheek, that still bares the faint outline of the injured swath of skin that ringed around the outside of his right eye in the shape of a #7.

I never wrote that article. I was never able to complete it. Instead, I was blocked by the guilt of choosing my own need to be an artist over the welfare of my child (an artificial and untrue dichotomy to be sure, but try and tell that to a guilty conscience). I also carried the sense of failure of having promised a piece of journalism to two creative people whom I admire deeply, who took time to speak to me about their life, their craft, their work, and expected me to deliver a story in return.

To this day, although I have pages of notes from my journal before, during and after that trip, the interview I did with Suzanne, the two I did with Anne, one upstate and one in NYC at a SITI Company rehearsal, I have never been able to bring myself to articulate the story I wanted to tell about how everything came together from my past and present to bring to life a show based on Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, whereupon a woman finds the joy of speaking her voice and baring her artist’s soul. Can’t you imagine the possibilities? With so many layers of symbolism, and parallel realities, and art imitating life imitating art??

So, you can understand why the fact that you are now doing your wonderful show up there stirs up certain desires in me to reconnect, bring the story to the present.

It’s actually not a very funny story. Not funny ha ha. But you know what I mean… Maybe this is just where it all led…

xoxoxo

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It turns out, I did not get up to see Deb’s play again last summer. Instead, I am left to share the vestiges of a vision where art and life intersect in many layered splendor, the desire to re-connect with old friends in this unique configuration relegated to a letter that describes what could have been…

The Exquisite Paradox of Disciplining a Child

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disciplining a child blog post by michael 1952

There is nothing in my experience capable of giving me that gut twisting mix of fear and despair more than the thought that I’m not being a good mother. Those of you out there with children know what I mean. When our kids act up at school, or don’t do as well as they can on tests, or get into fights with their friends, if we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that core of terror that we’ll be judged harshly for our own failures, exhibited through our children’s behavior.

Maybe that’s one reason we get so angry at them. We expect so much of these little mirrors of ourselves, and they reflect back to us the reality of our shortcomings in such accurate detail. It’s scary. My son is becoming so much like me that I often don’t know if I should hug him or hit him. Fortunately for us both, I’m not the hitting type, because it’s shocking to me the depth of the well of fury I dip into on a regular basis.

In my household, we’re about to take the leap into double digits. We’re just weeks away from the transition into what I know will be a slippery slope to adolescence, hormones, driving tests, safe sex, drugs, alcohol… oh, it’s all waiting out there, ready to embroil us in the mud and muck of young adulthood. I’m not just scared. I’m totally freaked out.

I can see the rebellious young man in my little boy. He is filled with confidence and a swaggering bravado that is fueled as much by the characters he sees on those infernal Disney tween shows as his own inner sense of strength and resilience. At the tender age of 9 (yes, I’m still saying it), he’s already lived a full life, complete with delightful adventures and shattering losses, and they have produced in him a complex and richly layered personality.

But his personal experience notwithstanding, this is a time, as I understand it, of relentless pushback and testing. Kids at his age are doing their job, testing the boundaries of their identities and the limits of what they can get away with in every area of their lives.

Oh, did I mention that boundaries are not my strong suit? Never have been. Neither are discipline, structure or housecleaning. That’s not to say I can’t be very accomplished in these areas when I want to, but it can take an extraordinary effort. So yes, I am sometimes less than consistent in enforcing these very same things in my son…

Aaah, as you sow, so shall you reap. It’s more true than I ever imagined. Children are like this little incubator of all your bad habits. They learn EVERYTHING. Don’t for a second think that they aren’t paying attention. They are. And they will come back at you with all of your worst qualities in a heartbeat, feeling completely justified in everything they say and do, because they learned it from YOU.

Here’s where it gets particularly complicated for me. On the one hand, I am teaching my son the core values of respect and manners. On the other hand, I want him to learn to trust his gut, to be on guard for injustice, dishonesty and personal violation, and to stand up for himself when he feels that his sovereignty is being threatened. I wish it were true, that all of the grownups in positions of authority over him would be kind and fair and consistent, that they wouldn’t be taking out their personal frustrations on him, or expressing their resentment at their own sense of powerlessness or unrealized dreams that his little badass attitude contradicts. But he will run into all kinds of adults as he makes his way through his years.

You know the kind of beat down you get from someone who can’t stand the fact that you are happy and filled with boundless love and exhilaration? The kind of cruelty that comes from someone who is thinking, you little shit, if I couldn’t get that feeling, I’m certainly not going to sit by and watch you enjoying yourself like that. Well, the world is filled with people exerting their power to inflict these punishing cruelties, large and small, some as subtle as a withering glance instead of a nod of approval. I, as a parent, have the awful task of teaching my son that at his age, it’s not OK to tell those people where to go, especially if one ends up being one of his teachers, or someone he encounters who is wearing a uniform of authority, in which case he’s going to have to swallow his objections and just do as he’s told.

Although there are cases of out and out abuse, and even more situations that exist in a kind of gray area, I know it’s not that way most of the time, and I have to teach him to show respect, even if he doesn’t like it. And yeah, he does have a smart mouth on him. Too smart for his own good sometimes. If I think about how angry I can get with him, and mind you, I love him to pieces, then I know that he’s going to piss off the people he’s talking back to who don’t have the same kind of emotional attachment to him than I do… and I’m not sure I can protect him from the kinds of consequences he’ll face from them!

I’m not interested in teaching my child to be docile and passive, and I certainly don’t want to break his spirit. But I am invested in him surviving into adulthood, so I’m also realistic. My son’s dad was African American, and he’s a little caramel colored boy. I understand the deeply ingrained effects of the kind of quiet racism that’s been in the news lately, and while I wouldn’t use it as a reason to excuse any bad behavior on my son’s part, I don’t rule it out as a factor in how he’s perceived by adults in his life.

When I was around his age, I used to attend Hebrew school. There was one particularly sadistic rabbi who taught the Hebrew language class. Any time a child did anything in the least disruptive, he made them stand in front of the class, whereupon he proceeded to grill them, in excruciating detail, about what their parents might do to them if he called them up. “Would they punish you? Would they yell at you? Would they stick your head in the toilet bowl?” I hated that guy, and I hated how he made kids cry with his cruel, frightening litanies. So when I got summoned to the front of the room for giggling with my girlfriend about the way a Hebrew word sounded as an English word, I was defiant.

“Would you like it if I called your parents?”
“I don’t care.”
“What will they do to you if I call them?”
“Nothing.”
“OK, you can go call your mother to pick you up right now.”
“OK, I will.”

I did call my mother, and she did come and pick me up. I felt so vindicated. Until the next morning, after my parents had discussed it, and they insisted that I write a letter of apology to the rabbi. I remember feeling so let down and betrayed by them. It was a seminal moment.

Tonight I’ll be helping my son to write his own apology letters. He was disruptive in a music workshop last week, part of a specially-funded program. In order to show responsibility for his behavior and avoid being asked to permanently leave the program, I’ve asked him to show his respect for the instructor as well as the school principal and guidance counselor, who had to deal with the incident, by writing apology letters to all three of them to express his thoughts and feelings on the matter. It won’t be fun, but it’s his job to do it, and mine to make sure that it gets done.

The ironic echoes of my past are not lost on me. I will be parsing these situations for as long as I can foresee. I hope I get the balance right, but I wonder, when my son is grown up and he’s looking back on the time his mom made him write those apology letters to the teachers at school, what he’ll be thinking…

Photo by Michael 1952

The Perfect Storm

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There’s a storm comin… yeah, they say it’s a killer hurricane called Sandy, but it’s also an election that’s going to decide the fate of the country, and there’s also a battle for the soul of my son.  Perhaps that’s a little overdramatic on all fronts, but that’s how I perceive it right now. It’s kind of a perfect storm in my own mind, actually…

Let’s start with the election. It’s topical, it’s on everyone’s mind here in the United States, or at least it’s on everyone’s TV and in many of our inboxes. Personally, I feel as though I’ve been getting spammed like crazy by the democratic party, even though I support its candidates. There’s a desperation to these missives that’s been filling me with anxiety, even as I realize they are designed to spur me into action. Yes, I’ve clicked donate more than a few times, succumbing to the relatively painless gesture of giving $5 here, $6 there. I feel as though it’s the least I can do. For even though I realize that our political system is rife with the corruption of big money’s influence, I am frightened by the embedded belief of the benefits of unfettered capitalism combined with an increasingly dangerous influence of the religious right that characterizes today’s version of the Republican party.

Here’s something I shared on Facebook recently that articulates my position:
I object to the notion that free market and business models are the answers to everything. I believe there are certain things that benefit all of us that it’s good for people to contribute to – like public television, like roads and bridges, like police and fire departments, like public parks and other natural landmarks and treasures. And yes, Medicare and other publicly funded insurance programs, social security, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other safety net programs. Because they’re not defined by the people who abuse them. They are defined by the overwhelming good they do for the people who need them. And it’s bullshit to reject that. Because everyone has needed or knows someone who has needed help at one point or another. It’s hypocritical and mean and short sighted to think that any of us is immune from ever needing that kind of assistance. Relying on churches and charities and the kindness of strangers isn’t enough.

That’s why I reject the idea that less government is the answer. People who are so busy trashing government conveniently forget the ways they benefit from government programs and services on a daily basis, which are not run by monsters, but are run by other human beings, many of whom are also trying to make a difference and help other people as they do their jobs. And, the fact is, as much as anyone would like to miscast the idea as socialism or communism or some other ridiculous notion that is code for, I don’t want anyone taking something away from me, we ARE all in this together. We share the planet, we share our communities and we have to live together and help each other. And I’m sick of the idea of privatizing every damn thing in the world as an answer to our problems. We are better than that, and humanity deserves more compassion and creativity from all of us. ALL of us.

Which makes a great segue to the next part of this essay. My son. His mind is being taken over by video games. Or more accurately at the moment, I-phone apps. I had resisted the call of the hand held gaming device for over three years. Back when he was six, I told my son, you can have a DS when you’re eight. Well, his eighth birthday showed up and I was not ready to let his attention be stolen by a portable hypnotizing machine. Gifts in the form of a Wii, and later a secondhand I-phone came to him from an uncle, and I let them lie fallow for as long as I could. The Wii remained un-hooked up for over a year, until an older cousin finally did us the favor of connecting it. Still, the phone remained hidden away in a dresser drawer. The drumbeat grew louder, and the pressure mounted as children in every sphere of my son’s life continued to acquire one device or another.

Finally, at the age of nine and a half, when even his six-year-old next door neighbor received an old I-pod Touch from her older brother, it seemed that my insistence on keeping him hands free was bordering on deprivation. I gave in. I activated the old I-phone so that he could download some inexpensive games on it, and participate more fully in the ongoing conversation about Fruit Ninja, Plants vs. Zombies, Angry Birds, Radiant, Flick Home Run and Slender-Man.

Within seconds of acquisition, I realized that I was going to have to inject and enforce some major limits into our new normal. Absolutely no gaming before all homework and chores were completed to my complete satisfaction, strict time limits on game play, and close monitoring of where the device was being used, including no bringing it to school, etc. This was going to take some real effort on my part.

Sadly, I realized we had entered a world of electronic enhancement of the worst aspects of my son’s personality (emblematic of most kids his age) – a tendency to want to do fun things instead of work, fulfillment of instant gratification in favor of long term goal achievement, and a desire to connect with friends over the coolest, latest thing, as opposed to doing anything your parents tell you to do. In short, I was screwed.

Within the first week, I witnessed him rushing through haphazardly completed homework and household chores, so that he could get back to his little charged up friend, dazed responses to my questions whenever I tried to talk to him as he played, almost losing the phone at a crowded Halloween party (that would have been it) and a reversion to old patterns of behavior that he knew were not acceptable in my eyes. After several days of this, losing patience with him over yet another transgression, I took it out of his hand, angrily slammed it down on the table, and cracked the casing.

There’s a lesson in all this. You can’t piss mommy off endlessly and expect nothing to give. Talking had not worked, yelling had become too exhausting, and I don’t do spanking, so the anger was finally directed at the object of my frustration. Somehow, there’s a lesson in this consequence.

That was last night. Today is better. We’re both cooled off a bit. In fact, we had a nice evening of cuddling together in front of an old episode of Once Upon a Time (love it) and just enjoying each other’s company. And although it seemed at first that the games would no longer work properly, today things seem to be back to normal, or at least at an acceptable level. It’s a mixed blessing. I almost wish the damn thing had broken down completely.

Which brings me to the final leg of this essay. The storm. It’s almost upon us. The mayor has ordered the transit system shut down as of 7pm this evening, school is cancelled for tomorrow, the supermarket shelves are rapidly emptying, if not already emptied, and the winds are starting to pick up. I have one more meeting this afternoon, then it’s home to hunker down and await the inevitable loss of electricity and hopefully nothing worse. I already survived a tree toppling onto my house during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, so I know it can get bad. I also know that when nature stops us in our tracks, we have nothing else to do but slow down, get quiet and be with one another.

Sure, we’ll fill up the gas tank and charge the phones and clear the porch of all things likely to become projectiles in high wind, cook up some soup and perhaps rely on the stocked up crackers, peanut butter, canned food, water and candles, and then prepare to hunker down and make the best of it.

What will come out of all this upheaval? When the winds die down and the waters recede, what will be left and what will be our next steps? Do we really need a disaster like this to get us thinking about what’s important to us? What does it take to make us understand our true, human connections to one another? How do we maintain that contact, past the divisiveness of the elections, the ongoing isolation we feel as we get caught up in our own electronic devices, the anxiety over our own safety and security in the face of increasing uncertainty over, well… everything?

Can you feel this? Everything is changing. Everything. Get ready people.
Photo courtesy of NASA