Tag Archives: Colin

Love and Culture Shock

Love

A funny thing happened on the way to love – I got distracted by desire.

The dominant event in February was presenting at TFT14, about the relationship between technology and culture. This was a lot of fun, a great experience, and the first piece of meaty, external, professional work I’ve engaged in in over a year. I found myself almost manic in how I approached it (thinking about it constantly, up until one or two almost every night of the ten days I had to prepare), and really exhausted afterwards.

The most interesting part was watching myself not only completely loose interest in the domestic life I’ve immersed myself in (the laundry can wait, let’s get takeout tonight), but also becoming irritable and angry when it interfered with the exciting and pleasurable work going on in between my ears. I think part of what makes deliberate thinking so enjoyable is its similarity to the subtle abstraction layer that constantly runs in the background of our experience – the one we use to interpret the world, and in which we actually live most of our lives. Deliberate thinking is an amplified version of interpretation, one in which we have a feeling of control and purpose that replaces our normal vagueness, and makes abstraction feel magical, powerful and awesome.

I had a very hard time loosing myself in play with my kids; I found it exceptionally boring. I had a much lower tolerance for their bickering, for their childishness. I found it very difficult to switch with any ease back and forth between the quiet, intense, turning and touching focus I use to develop a concept and push my thinking in a new direction, and the loud, rollicking, roll-with-it easiness that makes being with little kids pleasant. For the first time, I began to question, are the roles of professional, intellectual work, and a domestic, parenting life, incompatible? I don’t want to believe this is true, but it was certainly true for me this month.

One of the key points I made in my talk, was that information is compressed experience, and this is certainly evident in the gulf between what kids know and what their parents know. We tout education as a means to transcend our more brutal instincts, and there is some truth to this. But a less commonly acknowledged truth is that with our knowledge we often adopt an intolerance for those who don’t know the same things we do. Often this is unconscious, but the consequences are still the same as overt judgement: misunderstanding, separateness, distrust. What I discovered about myself is that much of what irritates me about my kids boils down to them not understanding the world as I do, or more specifically, not complying with my worldview. We’re fighting over perspective, which, framed that way, seems insane, especially when one of the things I most wish to impart on my children is curiosity and acceptance of other perspectives.

Living with my children is like living with people from a different culture. They don’t understand the language very well, they’re illiterate, and seem to have very few customs related to emotional regulation. They don’t like a lot of the food here and frequently refuse to even try it; this behavior is accompanied by bizarre eating habits – like eating with their hands, running around with their food instead of sitting down to eat it, or preferring to eat while sitting on top of another human, usually me. They commonly talk over each other and other people, it seems that their tribe does not speak in a tennis-volley style like we do, but all at once and very loud in an effort to be heard over the other voices. Oddly, this is also a common point of frustration for them, because it is very hard to understand anything, which is exacerbated by their inexperience with the language. They are frequently loving and affectionate, but are prone to aggressive language and violent outbursts, often yelling and hitting each other or us, sometimes resulting in cuts and bruises. They are much more interested in our culture than we are in theirs, and imitate our behaviors regularly, sometimes even calling it to our attention so that they might be praised for it. And yet, with seemingly equal frequency they actively resist the things we ask them to do so that they might become fully acculturated. They are especially resistant to matters of personal hygiene, or having to do anything quickly. Also, they love sugar. They are obsessed with sugar. It must hold a place of sacred importance in their native land, for nothing else could explain the energy they put into thinking about, and acquiring, treats.

I am deeply in love with humans who are foreign to me. And when the gulf is most extreme, I yell at them, so that I might frighten all of our hearts back into their respective dominions. It is just too painful, too overwhelming, to confront what a long journey it is to meet in the middle; the miles on my side alone, appear eternal.

Another thread throughout my presentation was the idea that it’s very difficult to innovate within the context of our native culture because it’s transparent to us – we can’t see the ways in which it influences us because it’s simply become our worldview. What gets claimed, and acclaimed, as innovation is usually closer to tepid iteration. I offer that one way to disrupt this is by intentionally broadening the values and perspectives that we include in the design process of what we create. I have a very different perspective on American business and technology cultures having stepped away from them for a year and spent my time learning how to succeed survive in different culture with different values and different rhythms. I think this is valuable and I’m grateful for it, even though it’s also been painful and scary to give up an identity I’d invested so much in. And yet the reverse seems not to be true. I can see the value I bring as an outsider, surely, but it’s much harder for me to be comfortable with and open to the value of someone who is an outsider to my own experience – even though I want to. There is a weird asymmetry here. I can appreciate a business and technology perspective because I have shared it. And although I once was a child, I remember almost nothing from my young childhood. I don’t have any recollection of the experience I once shared with my own young children, and as a result, I am very quick to discount them. I don’t even mean to, in fact I mean not to, and I still do it, a lot. And if that model holds – if it is our natural inclination to automatically reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different.

Part of what is weird, I mean truly weird, about the human experience is that we can’t imagine with any fidelity anything we haven’t experienced. The best we can do is make up a version of what might happen (or has happened) based on the reconstructed, abstract memory of something that happened to us. This means that we are wrong (in some degree or another) about everything except what is happening right now (which we also get wrong a lot), and yet we go through our lives thinking that we are mostly right, most of the time. We assume the exact opposite of what actually occurs. I can’t understand how it is even possible to do that, yet we do. All. Of. The. Time. It is amazing that anything works at all. And I think part of the reason that it does work, is that shared experience gives us a good enough imitation of someone else’s subjectivity to have it pass as our own. For it to be believable that we are in communion, and in so being, see our precious selves in another.

February’s practice had a lot of spontaneously conditional activities, which made it hard to remember how I planned to handle them, and also made clear what a large gap there is between my intention and my actual behavior. It’s hard to predict when I will get angry, talk to someone, or become tense, and nearly as hard to stay aware and responsive to those situations in accordance with my specified practice activities. The Heart Card helped with this, just having it in my pocket raised my awareness, but a lot got away from me. But despite failing a lot more than I succeeded, or in truth, probably because of that, I managed to learn a couple of things.

It’s not just me! My kids, being young and from another culture, have not yet mastered THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I knew this about them, but I didn’t realize how much it reinforced my own carelessness, until I made an effort to counter it (and I wonder why all my coaching isn’t having the impact I hope for). What also surprised me was how much other adults do not follow THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I went into this month’s practice assuming this happened because I blew the transaction with my own inattention, and of course this is partly true. But once I started deliberately offering my eye contact and full attention to the people I engaged with, I was amazed at how few people met me with an equal level of attention.

Many people in casual transactions, like handing me a coffee, or saying have a nice day, would not even look at me at all. Sometimes they would, but with very little emotional presence, as if they had good training in the rules of engagement, but were attentionally absent. It struck me that we all do a lot of hiding in plain sight. I can’t tell which way we’ve chameleoned, in or out, but we certainly seem afraid to be seen. The most pleasurable interactions were the ones in which my attention hooked the other person – they would start of non-committal, but then deepen their engagement based on my continued attention. By the end of the interaction they would be beaming, seeming equal parts delighted and mystified that a stranger wanted to see them. I loved it when this happened. It felt good, really good, to mutually recognize each other’s humanity in this way. We spend a lot of time imagining that love is big – panoramic sunsets, and epic orchestras with soaring string sections – but some of the most satisfying moments of love I experienced were when I did nothing more than witness the presence and simple actions of someone else.

The other important lesson I got was the first time I ran out of good advice. I was really mad at Colin (for what I can’t remember), and followed the directions on The Heart Card, to calm down and think of what I would tell someone else to do. Much to my amazement, I found that I had absolutely no good ideas at all. Really none, and I had not prepared for this particular predicament. I decided the best thing I could do, under the circumstances, was to just speak gently and honestly about why I was upset, which I did. What I said is also lost to memory but Colin’s reaction isn’t. He was gracious and loving. He said okay mom, and gave me a hug. And for him, a sensitive and cerebral kid, this was an off-pattern response. It is amazing how many of those eternal miles you can travel in the company of someone else.

So what did I learn about love? Nothing that I didn’t already know and have to relearn at every turn. Love is so simple as to not be believable. Love is coiled and slumbering all around us, and we are mostly too shy, too self-conscious, too hurt, too fearful to reach in and out at the same time, and gently wake it up.

The Quantified Five Year Old

Pre-filled behavior chart, predicting the future.
Colin, in an attempt to earn a toy gun, has started drawing out behavior charts. Days with check marks are good days, and days with X’s are bad days. The most charming (disturbing) part about these, is that he fills them all out in advance.

He drew this one this morning. Today started out as a good day, but then got X-ed over to a bad day, after he had a meltdown that Jack was being taken out for a special birthday breakfast. Halloween, is prominently featured as a good day, and his upcoming flu shot, a bad day. I asked him about the row of bad days at the end of the chart and he said, That’s August, when some bad stuff will happen.

So, apparently, at five we have in place the mental process that can anticipate good and bad things happening, and start planning our reactions accordingly. What’s amazing (disturbing) to me, is how much I still do this throughout the course of my own day. I like this, I don’t like that. I agree with this, I don’t agree with that. I’m looking forward to this, but not to that. This is good, this is bad. We do so much of this checking and X-ing that we pre-program our experience before it even occurs. Thank goodness for logic, so we can retroactively clean up and refactor the mess that we created. Time travel ain’t got nothing on our imaginations.

During the rolling tantrum that ran all morning, Brendan and I alternated between offering compassion for Colin’s hurt feelings (hugs and validation), and trying to sooth him with rational explanations (you had a special birthday day last week, now it is Jack’s turn). By drop-off time for school, we were simply relieved to not have to endure his unhappiness anymore, or our failure to alleviate it. He understood all the reasoning, but it seemed to offer no relief at all, and that is distinctly different than my adult experience. It’s pleasant and easy to share in someone else’s happiness (or at least be neutral), especially if I’ve recently had a similar experience myself. I don’t worry about getting my flu shot, because the discomfort is a small price to pay for the security of vaccination. In fact, I worry about not getting it. Sometimes, logic is the only salve I know how to apply. Not so, for Colin.

Watching my kids grow up is like witnessing the super-slow-motion implosion of the human psyche, or as it’s commonly referred to in western psychology, normal cognitive development. With each additional skill of abstraction, they create another surface onto which they can layer experience. But then they need a set of filters for making sense of the abstracted reality, and integrating it back into their model of the world. The more elaborate the model becomes, the deeper their perception of separate self. Fast forward another 30 years, and perhaps they’ll be hitting the break point, where the accumulated model reaches its limits.

Is there a better way? Is it possible to re-infuse these stages of development with some of the beautiful simplicity of the direct experience they’re shedding? Can that be done, without also limiting them? Maybe the truths of growth are always hard won, and painfully released, and it is simply our job as parents to offer safe and loving shelter.

Dead Frogs Still Say I Love You

IMG_9127
Yesterday, we were drawing with chalk in the driveway and the kids got very excited to show me something.

Mummy, Mummy! Jack takes me by the hand and walks me towards the basketball hoop.
Oh no, it’s a frog. It’s mushed. I ran it over with the car.
Like the bat, Colin says.
Yes, like the bat. I also just backed over a wiffle ball bat, mushing it into a very suitable cricket bat. Apparently the concentration and clarity developed by my meditation practice have not permeated my skill of backing the car out of the garage.
Look! Look! says Jack.
I know, the yellow jackets and the ants are eating it. Two yellow jackets and a collection of ants are feasting on the carcass. I had no idea that yellow jackets were omnivores. Oh. I’m so sad I killed this poor frog. I did not mean to do that. Do you want to say a little prayer with me?
I kneel down. Jack kneels down. Colin kneels down.
Little frog, I’m so sorry I ran you over you and killed you.
I’m sorry we killed you frog, Colin repeats.
Sorry frog, says Jack.
I feel really sad. I love frogs. I think about our frog from the garden. I hope this is not the same frog. It’s too mushed and dried out to tell what kind it was. Its entrails are still moist, but its back feet are leathery and curling up from the blacktop.
But look, do you see what the bugs are doing? They’re eating its body.
Yeah! Jack is full of earnest enthusiasm.
Even though the frog is dead, its body will still help these bugs. They will eat it and have energy to be healthy and strong, and they will take some of the food back to their nests, and feed the other bugs. Isn’t that cool?
Colin looks up at me.
It’s like saying I love you.
Yes. Yes honey, that’s exactly right. It’s just like saying I love you.

Backyard Drama, Broken Homes, and Beginning Again

IMG_8799

Several weeks ago, Jack and I were drinking our morning drinking on the deck and listening. Jack is a fabulous ambient listener, and a good noter. I frequently complain that my kids don’t listen to me, but really, they listen just fine, and choose to behave differently than I’ve requested. I know this because they laugh at me while they’re not doing whatever I asked. Maybe, if instead of every time I said “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “You’re not doing what I want!” I would start to sound as ridiculous to myself as I probably do to them. An experiment, to try.

But on this particular morning, Jack and I are simpatico. We are listening to all the sounds and saying what they are: air conditioning unit (dragon), truck (truck), siren (fire truck), plane (plane), crickets (I don’t here crickets, oh yes, now I do. Crickets.), what’s that? (cicada), birds (birds). Lots of birds. In particular, a very upset robin.

What is that?
A robin. It sounds very angry. That’s how they sound when they’re upset. It’s probably mad about a predator. Maybe a cat.

A shrill yeep, and then the lower-toned stutter that sounds like skipping friction, like rubber soles on a high-gloss floor.

I look up at the sugar maple, to my right, where they have a nest. Nothing much is going on, although I can’t see the nest directly from the deck, only from below. Jack and I continue to talk, and listen, and talk. It’s not until he moves from his chair, that I understand what all the fuss is about. Through the railing, I see something small and brown in the lawn, moving just a little bit. A fledgling. I hear the robin to my left. It’s on my neighbor’s fence – it drops down to the lawn, fretting and clucking, flies off, then down by the baby, and back to the fence again.

What was a mildly unpleasant background noise is now a drama of the highest order. Has this bird left the nest too soon? Did it fall? It’s clear across the yard from the nest – how did it get all the way over there? Did it come from another nest? Is it supposed to happen this way? Seemingly not, given how upset the mother is. It’s so vulnerable, it will surely get eaten by a neighborhood cat. Perhaps we should go get it. Perhaps that is a terrible idea. What do I know about raising robins? As I play out the logistics of bug finding and feeding, I decide my loving care is unlikely to improve the chances of this little bird surviving. I wish the mother robin would stop making such a racket – it’s drawing a lot of attention. Wouldn’t quieting down be much more helpful to her offspring?

I am totally sucked in. I keep watching, sure that any second, I will see the slinking, long-haired end of this little one creep into the yard, or perhaps, just blaze from behind the flower garden. Instead, I see the mother bring the fledgling something to eat. This is good. It has not been abandoned, it’s being taken care of. I definitely do not need to rescue it. Now, if only the mother would just stop making so much noise.

We eat breakfast. We go inside. We get ready to go out for the day. I walk across the driveway to check if it’s there. It is. It’s moved a little, so it’s probably not injured. I don’t get too close. I’m worried I’ll leave a smell and the mother will stop feeding it. I remember being told this as a kid, that birds will abandon their young if they’re touched by humans. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t want to get too close. I get the kids all packed in the car, and take one final look. Still there, still alive.

As I drive away, I know I will probably not know what happens to this robin. When I get home it is gone. I don’t see any feathers. Maybe it flew. Maybe it was carried off. I don’t know. Statistically, it probably died – only 25% of fledglings make it through the summer. Nature took its course, and it was a proper course, however it ended. But I can’t help myself – I hope that it spread its wings and flew.

A week or so later, I am in the back yard and I see the arresting blue of robin’s-egg-blue.

Look Colin. Look. It’s an egg from the nest. Look how beautiful it is.
Golden, tacky yolk rests in the cone of the egg. It’s beautiful. I feel sad.
Oh. And here is part of the nest.
A thick, curved shelf of tawny, white-pine needles. Oh no.
Something must have gotten into the nest.
I look up. Unwound plastic bobs in the breeze. Ragged edges press into twigs and bits, like a seamstress lipping a mouthful of pins.
Oh, look. Here are more shells. Something got into the nest.
What did?
I don’t know. Maybe a cat, or a raccoon.

What kind of animal wrecks a nest for eggs? I’m not sure.

We scoop up the chunk of needles, and the shells, and place them in the shade of some hosta leaves along the fence.

Last week, Jack and I were on the deck again. It rained hard overnight. I am sitting without a cushion, on the rubbery, white plastic slats of the chair. Jack is sitting on a towel on the cushion. The air is very still. I am watching the leaves on the oak trees at the back of the yard not move at all. Sunlight shines at just the right angle to reveal a large spider web between two leafless branch tips, about a foot apart. It looks like the branches are not healthy, but they’ve made perfect loom for weaving a web.

The leaves rustle. A robin has landed in the oak on the left. Another one lands, above it. They fly off again. And back. This time, I think the female has a stick in her mouth. It’s hard to see. They are very busy on a morning where most everything else is quietly absorbing. Back again, this time with an unmistakable bundle of grass in her beak. She disappears behind the leaves, tiny bits of scrap float down to the lawn. I am suddenly awestruck by the complexity of this task, and capability of this little engineer. Finding and assembling every fiber of the structure, one mouthful at a time. Shaping it with a beak and a wing. Choosing the right blend of materials for structural integrity. Reinforcing it with worm castings (just finding them seems impossible). Lining it with soft grass for warmth and comfort. She is common, and exquisitely skilled. I am humbled by this little mother, with fire in her breast and knowing in her bones. It is time. I know how. I will do each part, not because I was told, not because I think so, but because it is the way. It is the way of my existence.

Tuckin

Mommy?
Yes.
Will you lay with me for a couple hours?
Yes, I’ll lay with you for a little bit.
Mom?
What.
Mum?
Yes darling.
Mum, can we play the whisper game?
Yes.
I’m going to whisper the name of a sea monster, and then you say it back to me.
Ok.
But we have to talk quieter.
Ok.
Mum….
He speaks softly into my cheek. I shift my head so my ear is in front of his mouth.
What?
Mummy, I think you are a great mom.
You think I am a great mom?
Yes.
Oh. Thank you honey. Do you know what? I think you are a great son.
Ok. Mom? Do you know manta rays are always beautiful?
Do I know manta rays are always beautiful. Yes. I do know that. I’m glad you know that too.
Why?
Because it means you are paying attention.
Mom?
Yes angel face?
He’s quiet for a while.
Mom? Do you know that red angels and blue angles are different?
Of course.
Why?
Because know two angels are the same. What makes them different?
Well, red angels have blasters, and blue angels have light sabers.
Oh really?
Yes.
The red angels are the bad guys, and the blue angles are the good guys.
Yes. There are all kinds of angles. Thank goodness.
Yeah.
We lay in the dark. I have cold pasta on the stove. Tomatoes and mint in a bowl. Cheese on the counter. Brendan is in the shower. It’s 9:15. He gently pythons his arms around my neck.
Good night darling.
Staywithme.
Good night sweetness.
He squeezes.
I love you darling – Now let go of my neck!
I feel him tense, unsure.
I smile my cheek into his. He laughs. I laugh. He laughs for real.
Say it again!
I love you darling – Now let go of my neck!
We laugh.
Good night darling.
I push away. His arms fall away.

Desire, it’s Tricky

I had a great experience dropping Colin off at daycare the other morning.

We’re in his classroom, I’m talking to some of the other kids. They’re doing these poses and I’m telling them the yoga move it looks like. You’re a tree! That’s a warrior three, it’s a very advanced pose. Nice job! Colin, when he’s nervous or anxious, does this weird, non-verbal activity, usually on the perimeter of whatever is going on. It’s almost a spasming to thrust himself into reluctant participation; like a pantomime of anxiety. I notice this happening, so I go over and talk to him.

What’s going on buddy? You okay?
More gesturing. Raised eye brows, open mouth. An awkward downward dog.
Hey buddy, come here. I pick him up. What’s going on?
Well, Mommy, I really love you, and want you to stay here with me. But you said you would do my shark game.

It takes me a second to process this.
Ohhhh. You like having me here, but you also want me to get your new video game set up on your tablet. But I can’t do that if I’m here with you, right?
Yeah.
Yeah, it’s hard when you want two different things at the same time. Isn’t it?
Yeah. I don’t know what to do. It’s tricky.
It is tricky. You’re really smart. I love you.

He rests his head on my shoulder, and I twirl side-to-side. I am so proud of him. He’s grappling with internal conflict, in a way that’s so simple and so human. So four-year-old. It’s beautiful. He’s torn. He’s acting it out because it doesn’t feel good to keep it inside. He’s trying to figure out how to reconcile two things he wants, but can’t have at once.

We talk a some more. I watch his classmates swirling around Jonah in his car seat, and try not to get too distracted. Loquacious Julia comes over and wants to show me more poses. I panic a little at being asked to split my attention. I really want to stay focused on Colin. I don’t want to hurt this little girl’s feelings. I want them both to be satisfied. It’s tricky. I decide to just tell the truth. I’m going to talk to Colin for a little longer. Julia skips off.

I’m delighted to be going through this experience with him. I’m glad to just be a part of it. I feel so lucky that I got this glimpse inside my beautiful boy. I feel so lucky that I get to hold him as he works it out. So grateful that the baby isn’t crying, that I’m not thinking about being anywhere else but here, in these excellent moments.