Thursday, October 28, 2010


Every Fall since 2004 I have taken my class for an overnight trip to Camp Hazen in Chester, CT. In spite of the demands this trip places on my time, my noise tolerance, and my sleep needs, I look forward to it every year. There are generally somewhere around 15 students—all of them eleven or twelve years old—and two adult chaperones. The kids look forward to the trip for months.

And why wouldn’t they? They get to have a giant sleepover with friends they have known well for seven years—more than half their lives. Also, the excellent staff of this YMCA camp leads my kids through some fun and challenging group-building activities, plays new and entertaining games, and belays as my kids attempt to scale a 50-foot wooden tower with all sorts of interesting and challenging elements.

I look forward to the trip each year for reasons that are somewhat different from the reasons my kids like going. I get to spend some time with my students where I am not the only adult responsible for them, I get to spend two days in a beautiful autumn setting by a lake with many trails through the woods, there is a full-time supply of coffee, and I get to see my kids in a setting that shuffles their well-established social deck in a way that gives some kids who don’t usually stand out a chance to shine.

I just returned from this year’s trip and I am happy to say it was just as good as it always is. My students did amazingly well. They treated each other with respect, they were committed to working their way through challenges together, they pushed themselves to go past their points of comfort on the climbing tower, and they had a lot of fun. When we got back to school after the trip the kids all spiraled away with their parents, dazed, tired, satisfied, and happy.

As I drove away yesterday I had a special reason to feel that this was my best trip yet to Camp Hazen. And in the end it wasn’t the kids that pushed this one over the top to make it the best. Of course, they were a big part of my happiness over the trip. As I said, they treated each other well and worked hard to stretch themselves, and these things always make me happy. But what really made this particular trip stand out for me was the final attainment of a private goal I have had for seven years.

I don’t know how common this is, but have you ever had a goal that to the outside observer looks entirely stupid, but to you means something for reasons probably opaque even to you? This has been the case with me for seven years now. I’ll just explain, since no amount of contextualizing will make this goal sound anything other than pointless. For seven years I have been trying to kick a football through a rectangular opening 30 feet up a wooden climbing wall at Camp Hazen. As with any good pointless goal, there are ground rules that have developed over the many years of trying:

I must use a football,

I cannot punt the football,

I must use my heel to make a small indentation in the grass and then stand the football up on its end and kick it from that position,

Someone else must be there to witness it,

I must let other people try if they ask, and

I must NOT let on how important it has become to me.

So, after approximately 40 attempts on my first day at Camp Hazen this week, I put the ball through the opening. It was a football, kicked cleanly from the tee I had made with my heel, and witnessed by a student. The only thing is, before I kicked it through I let on to this particular student how important this stinkin’ goal had become to me. He didn’t question this at all—he just watched, collected errant tries, and cheered me on. He seemed more excited when it finally went through than I did. Though I will admit to jumping up and down with my fists in the air once or twice, maybe…

We had an hour to kill after lunch and before we drove back to school, so I went down to the soccer field with some of the students. The boy who witnessed my kick sidled over and said, “Think you can get a ball to go from inside this soccer goal all the way to the other goal?” Without even considering the question I said, “Of course.” Thus began the next quest, but this time everyone knew what I was up to when I collected a tennis racket, baseball bat, soccer ball, tennis ball, and football and started kicking and throwing and swinging away.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Life As A Movie

I am in Atlantic City for a quick overnight trip. I am staying at the Showboat Casino Hotel and when I wake up in the morning I will have a cup of coffee from the Starbucks in the lobby, walk a mile to Boardwalk Hall, and then run 13.1 miles as fast as my body will let me.

Tonight I was out on the Boardwalk, walking from my “free” pre-race dinner at Bally’s back to my room when I heard the first few notes of a song I knew well from my freshman year of high school in 1979. It was Donna Summer’s song “Bad Girls” and because I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel my steps matched exactly the quick disco beat that propelled the song to number one on the charts all those years ago. The music was coming from speakers arrayed along the façade of a long block of tattoo studios, massage parlors, funnel cake purveyors, and knickknack emporia.

As I walked to the beat, I suddenly had the feeling that I was in a movie. It was a long tracking shot taken from Boardwalk-level and the camera followed me as I pounded down the wooden walkway past all the storefronts, weaving my way around all the other people out on the Boardwalk on a chilly fall night. In the movie it was obvious I was different from all the other people out on the boards. There was my pace to set me apart, but also the glint in my eye, the snazzy brown felt fedora on my head, my purple Converse high tops, and the unblinking focus of the camera itself.

I allowed myself to live in the feeling of being in a movie for a few moments and then came back to my senses and started to think about just what sort of a movie my life would make, anyway. The scene I was just in felt like something from one of the Ocean’s Eleven films. But even just a few seconds’ thought was enough to make me laugh at that idea. Lately, my life is certainly NOT a cleverly plotted, quickly paced caper film. In fact, the more I thought about my life as a movie, the more alone and depressed I felt. A movie of my life lately would be whatever the opposite of an action movie is…an inaction movie? An anti-thriller?

This hasn’t always been the case. When I was 17 I gave myself a birthday present. It was a jump out of an airplane and it was how I celebrated my 18th birthday. When I was 21 I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Yemen, where I learned Arabic, lived in my own apartment, taught in a Yemeni school, and hitchhiked all over the country. When I was 23 I took a two-month road trip all over America, visiting 22 states and driving over 10,000 miles. When I was 28 I moved to Billings, Montana on a whim because I got tired of driving and found a job and an apartment there my first day in town. At the time, everything I owned fit in my 1970 Plymouth Valiant named “Fuad”. When I was 30 I met Erica and within a few months we knew we would be married. After our wedding we took a six-week honeymoon in Portugal without any real plan about where we would go and what we would do.

Now, I am soon to be 45 years old and I have not done much of anything lately that I would call adventurous. I know I am still that same person who was so willing to put himself in new places and try new things, but an outside observer, (or say, a cameraman following me down the Boardwalk), would have precious little evidence of that adventurous spirit in me. Erica is starting to wonder if maybe it was all just an elaborate case of false advertising.

Which brings me back around to why I am in Atlantic City tonight. Last fall I started to get inklings of this dissatisfaction with myself and my unwillingness to put myself out in the world. I decided to set myself a huge challenge. I decided to run a half marathon in each of the 50 United States. If I finish the Atlantic City Half Marathon tomorrow morning, that will make 6 states under my belt.

Back in August I went to Montreal and spent a week doing only what strangers said I should do with my time there. It turned out to be a great week. While there I literally felt ten years younger. And now that I think about it, I am certain that feeling of being younger was a direct result of getting back in touch with that part of me that craves new places, new challenges, and new experiences.

So, as I run my 13.1 miles tomorrow I am going to spend a lot of that time playing with ideas, thinking of challenges, and trying to tap into the spirit of playing at life that I used to have all the time.

I also want to invite you to send me ideas and suggest new situations and challenges that might allow the adventurous me to wake up and come out and play again. Maybe we can turn my life from “Remains of the Day” to something a little more exciting and worth watching.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thank You, Fred Phelps, or Why I Belong To the ACLU

Fred Phelps and the members of his Westboro Baptist Church are repugnant human beings. Their “theology” seems to consist of one tenet: God hates homosexuals. The Reverend Phelps and his followers first came to my attention when they picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd—the Wyoming man murdered for being gay. The signs they carry, the things they say, heck, even their web address, are repulsive.

The last few years they have gained notoriety by picketing near the funerals of United States servicemen and servicewomen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the brutal theological world Phelps and his fellow troglodytes inhabit, God is killing American soldiers because He is mad about our societal shift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Their presence near these military funerals has garnered lots of media coverage and inflicted immeasurable emotional harm on the families, friends, and mourners at these ceremonies.

Some states have begun to pass legislation establishing protester-free buffer zones around military funerals. Based on the actions of Phelps and his followers, President George W. Bush signed the Respect For America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006. The act establishes restrictions on the time and place for demonstrations at Military burial places.

The father of one serviceman whose funeral was picketed by the Phelps menagerie was so incensed by the desecration of his son’s memory that he sued Fred Phelps in Maryland State Court for invasion of privacy and emotional harm. The father, Albert Snyder, was awarded $5 million in damages as a result of the Maryland trial. An appeals court set aside the $5 million damages award and Mr. Snyder’s appeal of the Maryland Appeals Court decision is now being heard by the United States Supreme Court. The nine justices will have to find the proper balance between a family’s right to privacy and our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

Another case in the news this week has dovetailed nicely with the Phelps case. Attorney Danny Lampley of Lafayette County in Mississippi was jailed temporarily for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the courtroom of Judge Talmadge Littlejohn. Judge Littlejohn’s orders are printed below:

Attorney at Law, is in criminal contempt of court for his failure to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance as ordered by the undersigned Chancellor and is hereby ordered to be incarcerated in the Lee County jail.

IT IS FURTHER ORDED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED, that Danny Lampley shall purge himself of said criminal contempt by complying with the order of this Court by standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in open court.”

Most Americans would agree that the things Fred Phelps and his supporters say are godawful. A large majority of Americans would probably also agree that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is the opposite of godawful. When taken together these cases explain why I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU defends the Constitution of the United States. We are not a nation of individuals or political parties or lobbyist groups or churches. We are a nation of laws. And in order for our laws to work they have to protect our freedom.

Even the freedoms to say stupid-ass shit like the Phelpsians and the freedom to remain silent as others recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If the freedom of speech protected by the first amendment to the United States Constitution is to mean anything at all, it must include the right to say things that are stupid, hurtful, and wrong. If a Pledge of Allegiance is to ever mean anything, it CANNOT be compulsory.

My ACLU renewal form came in the mail last week and I set it aside on the kitchen table. And then I read news coverage of the Phelps case and the Lampley case and I filled out the check and mailed it right in. I sleep better knowing there are lawyers out there protecting the Constitution from us flawed humans. We are a country of laws and sometimes we need to be reminded that the Constitution is blind, deaf, and insensitive to the thoughts being expressed (or withheld), but acutely attuned to each citizen’s right to say (or not) those thoughts.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reach the Beach 2010--I Learned a Lot

Exactly one week ago I was at Cannon Mountain Ski Area in the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire, sitting through a safety briefing in preparation for my third running of the Reach the Beach long distance relay. I am a member of the team called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club and Reach the Beach has become a major touchstone in my year. I love this race so much that I find myself looking forward to the next race from almost the moment the current year’s race ends.

Reach the Beach is one of those things that might sound like torture to an outsider, but is instead exquisitely pleasurable pain to the participants. It has many of the ingredients cult leaders use to brainwash followers: close quarters, physical challenges, lack of sleep, a brutal schedule, abnegation of self, and gallons and gallons of Gatorade.

In the past, I have been the seventh runner on our team of twelve. This means I have run the seventh, nineteenth, and thirty-first legs of the thirty-six-leg relay. Due to last minute changes this year I became runner number twelve, which means I was to run the twelfth, twenty-fourth, and thirty-sixth legs. I was going to be the runner who actually reached the beach, as the last 100 yards of the race cross the sands of Hampton Beach State Park. In spite of having run the race twice before and having a good sense of what to expect, this was the first year I have ever doubted my own ability to actually reach the beach.

To understand why, I should go back to Thursday night before we began the race. We stayed in a hotel in Lincoln, New Hampshire and I spent much of the night awake and suffering from a painful earache and sore throat. Once the sky lightened and day broke, I felt a little better, but I was already worried about what would happen if I got sick during the race. I tried not to worry my teammates or myself too much, so I kept a positive attitude and decided to hang out in the hotel parking lot, surreptitiously placing small magnets on the vans of other Reach The Beach teams.

Our captain, (and my wife), Erica had ordered hundreds of magnets that said “You’ve been ridden by Rosie Ruiz.” It was great fun to tag other teams’ vans with this little magnetic grafitto. As it turned out, several other teams had the same idea this year. One team, called The A-Team, had small magnets printed up with the image of Mr. T and the words “You been tagged, sucka.” By the time the whole team was up and we were having breakfast, it was clear to me that something was pretty wrong. My throat hurt like hell when I swallowed and I had what felt like a fever.

The rules of Reach the Beach are strict about what a team must do if a runner has to drop out. Rather than explain the process here, suffice it to say that everyone ends up with far more miles than they signed up for AND the legs they run are sometimes drastically different than what they are mentally prepared for. What I decided to do was take some Ibuprofin, find some throat lozenges, and buy an ear warmer. That, and wait to say anything to anyone until after my first leg was over.

Our first runner—a new member of The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club named Liz—started at Cannon Mountain at 2:00 in the afternoon. I knew that I would not be running my first leg until all the other runners on the team had done theirs—that gave me seven or eight hours to prepare. We got a late lunch, played Frisbee in a parking lot, and then started our legs when the baton got to us around 5:30. Being last to go of the six runners in my van, I didn’t start running until around 11:00 pm. So, tired, sick, anxious about the rest of the race, and worried about letting my teammates down, I set off alone down a dark stretch of trail through the pine woods of White Lake State Park. I wanted to go slow enough to have something left for my next leg, thinking I could at least finish two of my three—leaving my teammates in a small lurch rather than a giant one.

At this point in the race, teams are spread out pretty wide so there were only about five other runners in my 3.87-mile stretch of road. I kept what felt like a slow and steady pace and soon enough saw the flashing lights of the transition area up ahead and saw Liz waiting under the spotlights for the handoff. I gave her the wristband that acts as a baton and asked Erica for my time. She told me 29 minutes. I set off on a coughing jag that lasted long enough for me to do some mental math and came up with a pace of 7:30 per mile. Which is faster than I ever run.

Generally after a run it is a good idea to cool down by walking around a bit. But the rule for Reach the Beach is “Forget the cool down, get in the van.” So, I got in the van, coughed up half a lung, choked down a bottle of Gatorade, and settled in as we drove to a hotel 40 miles up the road. We had reserved two rooms to shower and nap for two hours before driving to our next rendezvous with our teammates from the other van. I took as hot a shower as I could stand, popped three more Ibuprofins, and crawled into bed, where I fell asleep wondering how on earth I was ever going to run my next two legs when I my right eardrum felt like it had been pierced by a rusty pin and my throat hurt so much I could hardly swallow.

The alarm went off what felt like two minutes later and we got up, got dressed, and got back in the van. I knew something was seriously wrong with me when I didn’t even want coffee. We drove to the next meeting point and our first runner, Christian, got out and headed to the hand-off zone. Our other van’s final runner, Damian, came up the hill and out of the darkness, handed the wristband to Christian, and disappeared into his van, off to get his own two-hours of sleep.

During this series of legs the runners in my van had some of their hardest work. Joe had a 9+ mile section with a 5-mile climb. Rodrigo ran an 8-mile leg with a short, steep climb that would kill a lesser man. Agata finished her leg looking strong and pumped up, (her tough leg had already happened her first time out.) Erica ran through a sore foot and managed a fast time for her leg, as well. As my turn approached I got out the course map book and took a final look at the elevation profile for my coming 6.87-mile leg. It was relatively flat with one 100-foot climb just before the end. The people in my van asked what sort of support I would need, and I asked them to drive ahead to mile 4.5 and wait for me with a bottle of Gatorade. That is exactly what they did and when I stopped for a moment to take a drink and hand Erica my long sleeve shirt, I knew that all I had left was 2.4 miles. Sure, there was that hill between me and the end of my leg, but 2.4 miles was something I could do even if I had a fever, you know?

Turned out the hill was not so bad. And because I had held a little bit in reserve in order to make it up a much bigger hill than I actually found, I was able to finish my second leg at a good clip. I came into Bear Brook State Park after 56 minutes of running and handed the bracelet to Liz, who took off for her final leg looking strong. I stood alone for a minute before my teammates came to me and in that minute I could tell that I had a fever. Shit. What was I going to do about my last leg? The second one passed at an 8:09-per-mile pace, which was still faster than I had wanted to go.

What I decided to do was stretch out on one of the van seats and try to sleep. Joe drove the van through some of the heaviest traffic those smalltown backroads of New Hampshire have ever seen and I managed to get a 45-minute nap. We stopped at a breakfast joint and got some food and coffee and used a VERY clean bathroom before piling back in and heading to the next hand-off point. All through the race the six runners in our other van ran faster than we expected them to and this time was no exception. Alex, Weldon, Liz, Tom, Tammy, and Damian were in the midst of their final legs and they were pushing hard to be done.

At some point in this transition from their van to ours I decided that I could hold it together long enough to run one more 4.09-mile leg. I knew it would be a long, hard, trudge, but I didn’t know it would turn out to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life.

To make it through, I broke the leg into many small chunks and then just tried to get through each chunk without stopping. At first it was something like, “Just make it to the next intersection up ahead in the distance.” With one mile left, when the course was running along the Hampton Beach Boardwalk, I was going from bench to bench, focusing two hundred feet at a time. As the course left the boardwalk and entered the sand I was down to just trying to make it from step to step. The people who lay out the course must have a masochistic streak in them to force runners across the sand after 208 miles and little sleep, yet this is what they do every year. When I hit the sand I muttered a foul word with every step.

When I crossed under the banner with the rest of Team Rosie escorting me in, it was all I could do to not collapse on the sand and break into sobs. It is certainly what my body wanted me to do. I had spent 40 hours keeping my shit together and my executive function was 99% depleted. There was no super ego and precious little ego left and my id had a fever and wanted to be home in bed. Yet I knew we still had a few hours at the beach to grab some food, take a dip, and celebrate a little before going back to our regular lives in Ithaca and Lowell and Boston and New Haven and Texas. Then there was the three-hour drive back to New Haven.

I managed to hold it together for a few more hours until Rodrigo, Joe, Erica, and I got into the van and started the drive back. I took a seat in the back and lay down curled up inside a sleeping bag. The other three were up front and they were talking and listening to music. Once I was sure they couldn’t hear me over the sounds of the van wheels and the music and their conversation, I gave up control and just let myself drop down into how utterly crappy I felt. It came out as tears and sobs and foul words and lasted a good while. When it was over and my swamp was temporarily drained I sat up and we pulled over to get a few vats of coffee from one of the several thousand Dunkin Donuts in Massachusetts.

The fever hit in earnest that night on the way home and lasted for six days, forcing me to miss several days of work. The doctor said it was the flu and laughed in my face when I told him about the onset of symptoms and how I had run 14 miles at an 8:21 pace AFTER realizing I was sick.

Erica and I have a euphemism for when an experience totally and absolutely sucks; we say, “I learned a lot.” In the particular case of Reach the Beach 2010, I can truly say that I learned a lot. As I say that, I am being only partially euphemistic. The camaraderie, challenge, and real joy of running Reach the Beach are as much a part of it as the pain, suffering and depletion. In fact, I imagine that if you ask me in a few months how the race was, I am pretty sure I will tell you it was great. And, honestly, it was.

I ran more than 14 miles at a fast pace (for me), met some great new people, helped set a team record by finishing in 26 ½ hours for a team pace of 7:35 per mile, and learned a lot about my own capacity for toughing out a hard situation. I held it together until I didn’t have to, and in a twisted way, that felt good. I learned a lot.

Link to more pictures on Picasa:

click here

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

I woke up this morning and packed up all of my stuff in preparation for leaving Montreal to go and spend a night camping in the Adirondacks of Northern New York State. Before I left I went to a breakfast place around the corner from my hotel. It has the corny name Eggspectations, but it also has big windows, great light, friendly staff, and great food.

I sat down, ordered some pancakes and yogurt with strawberries, sipped on my coffee with cream and dove into the last chapter of Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. The chapters of her book are not really chapters in the traditional sense. Instead, each chapter is a separate short story set in or near the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is the thread that ties the stories together. She is a prickly, no-nonsense woman who in some way not quite clear to me earns our empathy instead of our judgment, in spite of her off-putting bluntness and blindness to her own cruelties.

“River”, the final story of the collection, is what I was reading this morning when I knew I had to change my plan for today. In the last story Olive, old and alone and unable to understand why her son wants so little to do with her, comes in fits and starts to a new friendship and new insights about what it is to be human.

Of course, there really ARE no new insights about what it is to be human…just new people to see the same old things.

But when the narrator said:

“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

“And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.

“Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured a sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”

It hit me like a hammer to the stomach and made tears well up and out right there in Eggspectations. (I certainly hadn’t eggspected that when I opened the book.) Olive’s realization about love, set in the context of my own week away from Erica and Isabel, made me see that I don’t want or need to be alone in the woods today and tonight. I need to be around people. For all of our rough edges and annoyingness, we are the best we have. And if I can’t be with Erica and Isabel today, at least I can be around other people and try to connect the best I can. The best we all can.

I don’t want to squander this day, consciously or unconsciously. So I am going to be out in the city, walking where my feet take me, talking with anyone willing, and looking forward to being home tomorrow with the people I love best.

Montreal--Day Three

Day three in Montreal once again involved covering lots of ground. I started the day with a four-mile run from my hotel down to the riverfront and along the water to some canal gates. It is nowhere near as humid here as it has been in New Haven, but it still gets hot by mid-day, so I got my run in before the day really got going. Montreal has impressed me with its infrastructure for walkers, runners, and bikers. The city has far more space to work with than Manhattan does, so the municipal government has had an easier time incorporating room for bike path and sidewalks. There is a clear commitment to making cars optional. The subway system is extensive and you can buy an unlimited-rides one-day pass for $7.00. This pass also works on the bus system. I parked the Volvo in the garage when I got here and haven’t needed it once.

After my run I got on the green line Metro and went out to the Olympic Park, which was built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Much of the complex certainly LOOKS like it was built in the 1970s—it has a retro-futuristic feel to it with lots of curved concrete forms and shapes somehow reminiscent of UFOs. I paid the $15 and went up the Olympic Tower in the funicular. (By the way, if you have never said the word “funicular” out loud, you should.) I absolutely love being way up high and looking out at the lay of things. When I have a window seat on an airplane I spend most of the flight looking down at the world, trying to recognize highways and towns and rivers and geographic features. I have done the same thing here in Montreal, only without the airplane.

I climbed the Clock Tower at the Port, Mount Royal, and now the Olympic Tower. Each time the skies were clear and I was rewarded with some excellent views.

After the Olympic Tower I got back on the train and went in search of the best poutine in Montreal. People I asked told me to go a restaurant called La Banquise, so I did. I had the traditional poutine, pictured below, and a “Detroit hot dog,” which turns out to be a chili dog, sort of. The poutine was good, but I must say that I am partial to the poutine Jason makes at Caseus in New Haven. His is less beefy and the cheese is better.

Once I was done with lunch I decided to walk the two miles back to my hotel. On the way I found a barbershop that was just re-opening after a lunch break. The woman turning the sign from “Fermee” to “Ouvert” smiled at me and that was enough to get me in her chair, explaining my plan for the week. I told her to do whatever she wanted to my hair and she went to town. Of course, even the most skilled artist is limited by the quality of her materials, so in the end, my haircut looks like it always does to me. But it was fun to give up all sense of control. And after four days without any of the daily human touch I get living with Isabel and Erica, it felt good to have someone focus her attention and touch on me, even if it was just a haircut when all was said and done. Is that pathetic?

Late afternoon I went to the Vitrine—the one-stop place to go to find out about any-and-all cultural events going on in Montreal. The woman behind the counter was very patient and friendly. She was the same person who directed me to the production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in one of the large city parks the night before. She told me about a concert at a local cabaret and I took her suggestion. And I was glad I did. It was a small, dark bar and the singer and her band were hanging out with all their friends before the show, drinking and having a great time. When she got up to sing she blew me away. The band was great, too. Her name is Marie Christine Depestre and she has an album coming out soon.

All in all, a GREAT day in Montreal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Montreal, Day 2

Exactly one year ago this week we were in another part of Canada. Isabel spent a week at a camp, recreating life in the 1840s, and Erica and I spent the week tooling along the coast of New Brunswick, watching whales, hiking, camping, and enjoying a great week together. It was one of those times when, even in the moment, I was aware that something good was going on. During that week, something clicked for me--something useful and important about relaxing. I was able to really just be in the moment for much of the week and when we left I took a rock with me. It fit nicely in my palm and in my pocket and most days I still carry it with me to remind me to take a breath and slow down and just NOT freak out so much. I have that rock with me right now and I noticed yesterday that it is much smoother and shinier than when I found it.

I had a busy and excellent day yesterday here in Montreal. I didn't go for a run, but I must've walked ten miles as I went wherever the strangers I asked told me to go. The pictures below show some of where I went and what I did.

A typical cobblestone street in the Old City of Montreal

Statue of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, overlooking the entrance to the harbor and providing "good help" to those who need it

This clock tower was built a hundred years ago at the entrance to the harbor. I climbed its 192 steps and was rewarded with a great 360-degree view of the city, the river, and the surrounding lands.

Montreal is actually a big island in the Saint Lawrence River. At the heart of the island in Mount Royal, a 764-foot high hill that is a city park. I climbed the hill yesterday and the views of the city were worth the walk.

There are many small, green parks sprinkled throughout the city. I sat and read in one yesterday that has a statue of King Edward. This is certainly no way to treat a monarch.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Montreal--Day One

Day One in Montreal is drawing to a tired close. I got here around 3:30 after an easy trip through the border. I don’t have our GPS unit with me, so navigating into and then through Montreal was tricky. (How quickly the technology has changed our way of getting around.) I was glad to have gotten a map before I got here so I had a fairly good sense of where I needed to go and how to get there. I found a funky old hotel with amazing rates right in the heart of everything. It is the Abri du Voyageur and it costs only $70.00 per night because the street in front is ripped up and closed to car traffic and they are having trouble getting people to stay here.

I spent a few hours just walking around town, getting the lay of the land, and enjoying being out of the car. Montreal reminds me of the bastard child that might be the product of a fling between Boston and New York, if that child somehow came out European.

The guy at the front desk speaks English as well (or as poorly) as I speak French, but I was able to get his suggestion for a good dinner place. The waiter there gave me his favorite beer (brewed on the premises) and his favorite dish and both were excellent. The woman at the Tourism Office gave me a plan for tomorrow morning and I am all set. So far, so good.

Below are some pictures from the trip here today. The first is one I call “Garden Thong” and I think it speaks for itself.

The picture below is my hotel room. It is spacious and has a good air conditioner and, best of all, it is cheap. And did I mention it doesn't cost much?

This is my first real view of Montreal from the bridge on the Interstate. It was doing 65 MPH, so it's not the best photo in the world...

This is the border station monument, welcoming me to Quebec.

And this is a weather vane on top of a rest area in the Adirondacks. It was pointing me in the right direction.

Marriage Sabbatical

Yesterday my wife and I made the 80-mile drive up I-91 to a college in Massachusetts, where we dropped our daughter at a week-long gymnastics camp. As we drove away from the college dormitory where Isabel will be staying we both felt lonely, but only some of that loneliness was attributable to the absence of our girl. Another big chunk of it, for me anyway, was a sort of premonitory loneliness. I was sitting in the car with Erica, listening to her read from our current out-loud book and sharing an intimate conversation, yet I was already missing her.

Back in early June Erica and I started to wonder just what we should do with a week to ourselves. It is often hard to find more than just a day or two with Isabel safely and happily in someone else’s care and we wanted to take full advantage of the week. As we were wondering, we were also spending some time talking about our marriage and what was working and what was not. Something in the “Not Working” category was the quality of our daily conversations. One of the ways we came up with for bringing some interest back to our conversations was to spend time doing interesting things apart from each other. This idea led to the proposal that we spend Isabel’s camp week as a “marriage sabbatical” week.

As soon as Erica said the words, we both felt an excitement at the prospect of a week to go someplace interesting and do something fun or challenging or new. It was like finding a whole bunch of money and getting to spend it on whatever we wanted. We set some quick ground rules to the week and both started trying to figure out where to go and what to do. The ground rules were these:

1) stay in the country in case anything happens to Isabel and we need to get to her fast,

2) don’t spend a lot of money,

3) don’t tell each other much about what we are doing so that we can share our stories when we get back together.

I made a long list of possibilities for the week and was having a very hard time settling on one destination. At the same time, I started talking with friends about the idea of a “marriage sabbatical” and getting their ideas about where to go and what to do. At some point in the process I stumbled upon the guiding idea for my week. I decided to let fate and other people decide for me where I would go and what I would do. I took suggestions and tabulated them and then I asked people to vote. The winning destination was Montreal, Quebec.

So right now I am sitting in a hotel room in Lee, Massachusetts, on my way north. At each step of the trip this week I am going to engage strangers in conversation and ask them what I should do. As I get near Montreal I will ask people where I should stay and then I will take their suggestions. I will ask someone where to go for breakfast tomorrow morning and then do as they say. I will ask my waiter or waitress what they would do if they had a day free in Montreal and then I will do what they come up with. This plan will force me to talk to lots of strangers, (which is no easy task for an introvert like me), and allow me to experience many new things I would probably otherwise not have done. I am looking at the week as an experiment and I am excited about it.

It was funny to get the reactions of our friends when Erica and I told them about our marriage sabbatical. Many people had the wrong impression right away and assumed we were both going to go fool around with other people. (Projection?) That is most certainly NOT what this week is about. Rather, it is a chance to get out in the world and do things and meet people and have experiences that we can then bring back to each other as a way to make ourselves more interesting and more complete. Nobody can be EVERYTHING for someone else and this week is a way to remind ourselves of the importance of being separate so that when we come together, there are still things to discover and learn from each other.

Some of what I experience will be posted here, but not so much as to have nothing left to tell Erica about when I get home. If you have ever been to Montreal and have something you think I should do, respond to this post or send me and e-mail and let me know. I’ll do it.

Right now, I am going to take a run before I get in the car and drive 250 miles north. I wonder what the best four-mile running route is? Think I’ll go ask at the desk and see where they send me…

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How Pleasure Works

I have just finished reading a wonderful book by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. It is called How Pleasure Works but perhaps it should have been called The Varieties of Pleasurable Experience. In his book, Professor Bloom catalogues the many ways humans get pleasure, ranging from the basic, (food, sex), to the sublime, (music, art), to the shocking, (cannibalism, memorabilia collecting).

While discussing examples from history, literature, current events, news reports, and laboratory and real-world psychology studies, Bloom makes accessible the theories of many insightful researchers who have spent years studying aspects of the common but complex set of emotions we call pleasure.

Activities as wide-ranging as playing sado-masochistic sex games, collecting and looking at paintings, riding vomit-inducing roller coasters, killing, cooking, and eating a volunteer “victim”, and reading books about pleasure are discussed and examined in order to lay out an overarching theory of pleasure.

Bloom argues compellingly that much of what we experience as pleasure is rooted in the human belief in essentialism. It is a widely-studied and documented tendency in humans to attribute an almost magical power to some people and objects. We see it with small children and their favorite blankets, with athletes and their lucky talismans, with keepsakes and souvenirs from special places we have visited, and with our willingness to pay huge sums for objects once used by celebrities.

Just try replacing a child’s security blanket with one that is slightly different. Brad Pitt’s sweat-stained undershirt would sell for much more than mine would on eBay. Two visually identical paintings are worth vastly different sums of money if one is done by Vermeer and the other is an exact copy by someone else. Much of what we experience as pleasure comes not from the object or experience itself, but from some hard-to-define quality we attribute to someone or something connected to the object or experience.

Bloom’s book gave me much to think about while on vacation in Montana last week. I had a lot of free time to read because we were staying at Erica’s grandfather’s cabin and there is no Internet access at the cabin. Reading his book engaged my mind, entertained me, and gave me things to talk about with friends and family. I liked the book a lot. And, as I said, the reason I was able to finish the book in just a few days was the lack of Internet access.

But now that I am home, (and once again able to access the Internet any time, day or night, in any room and even on the front porch), I am pondering an aspect of pleasure Paul Bloom did not address in his otherwise excellent book. Specifically, I am wondering why it is that I am awful at accurately predicting how much, (or how little), pleasure I will get from spending time on my computer?

When I step back and watch myself, I am forced to conclude that I MUST get a lot of pleasure from spending time on the Internet. After all, I spend hours a day checking the weather in Billings, MT, looking at my checking account balance, reading news of politics and gossip on the Huffington Post website, seeing how many people have visited my blog, catching up with all of my friends on Facebook, reading the newspaper, and following my unfettered curiosity as it crashes haphazardly through the limitless trivia and marginalia available on the Internet.

I must like it, right? After all, time is the single most precious commodity humans have. Our hours are numbered and the total is unknown to us. And for me to spend so many of my hours on the Internet clearly means I must derive immense pleasure from my time there, right?

And yet…why, when I finally hit the “Sleep” command and step away from the laptop, why do I feel like shit? It is not pleasure I get from my time online. In fact, it is the opposite. Spending a chunk of time on the computer usually makes me feel slightly manic, somewhat angry, and mostly depressed. Tell me something Paul Bloom, why do I consistently choose to do something that gives me the opposite of pleasure?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Love the Way You Lie

My daughter has recently graduated from riding in the back seat of the car to sitting up front in the “shotgun” seat. As a result, I have gotten a crash course in the state of pop music in 2010. Before the move, our car radio rarely strayed from the far left end of the dial where our two public radio stations reside. Now the tuner makes regular forays all the way to the other end and I know far more about Jason Derulo and Ke$ha than I frankly care to know.

Isabel is ten and it was right around ten that I started to develop my own musical tastes, so I am trying to be as open-minded as possible about what we listen to. My parents somehow made it through ad naseum playings of entire albums by Styx and Foreigner so I figure the least I can do is bite my tongue as Isabel goes from station to station looking for Usher’s OMG one more time.

However, just last week a song that entered our car made me seriously consider my laissez-faire approach to Isabel’s musical exploration. It was Eminem’s duet with Rihanna called “Love the Way You Lie.” The song is a passionate first person look at a dysfunctional relationship and it ends with a threat of murder. It includes an infectious chorus sung by Rihanna in a sweetly angelic voice. Problem is, the words of the chorus excuse horrific male behavior, lies, and threats of violence with the refrain, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s alright because I like the way it hurts. Just gonna stand there and watch me cry, but that’s alright because I love the way you lie, I love the way you lie.”

I am no prude when it comes to lyrics. I cannot put my iTunes on shuffle when I am at work or when Isabel has friends over for fear of the “wrong” songs coming up while other people’s children are in my care. I am not especially protective about what Isabel sees, hears, or reads. Nor do I have a problem with Eminem—I find his brash, insulting, violent, and misogynistic singing persona interesting, insightful, and often very clever.

But at the same time I want my daughter to grow up to be a strong, self-assured, independent woman who will not sublimate her feelings and needs to those of an asshole. This song has presented me with a real parenting challenge. It is so catchy and so compelling a song that it is sure to be everywhere all summer long. I certainly can’t ban it from Isabel’s ears. Nor do I really want to.

What I have decided to do is to let it play every time it comes on, even to sing along full-throatedly as we tool down Whitney Avenue. And then, sometimes when the song ends, to have a conversation with Isabel about the lyrics and why I find them so horrifying. I do not want to be one of those humorless liberals who takes all the play out of life with political correctness, but I just cannot let his lyrics stand unchallenged. When I look to my right and Isabel is singing along with Rihanna’s excuse of atrocious male behavior, I want her to know that Rihanna herself was the victim of a violent man and that there is no excuse for violence in a loving relationship. Eminem is a masterful provocateur and instead of censoring him from our car I want to thank him for writing such a catchy conversation starter.

On the other hand, when Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” comes on, I simply exercise full parental control and change the station within the first four notes.

Friday, July 9, 2010

This Year's (Illegal) Garden

Here are some pictures of our front garden. It has been an excellent year for our tomatoes, the sunflowers are 8-feet tall, the beans are hugely prolific, and the basil is feeding my pesto addiction quite nicely. The zinnias, black-eyed-susans, and mums are doing what they always do. A friend watered things for us during the heat wave while we were in Montana, (thank you, Sarah), and now we are gearing up to eat a pound of green beans per person per day for the duration.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Keeping in the spirit of simplicity that ended my last post, Isabel and I have invented a new game. To play you need a ball and a swing. (We call the game Swingball, for obvious reasons.)

When we come to visit the relatives in Laurel, Montana there is the danger that Isabel will wake up early and watch way too much tv. It is a constant parental struggle to get her outside and active—partly because she wants so badly to vegetate and partly because we want so badly to vegetate while on vacation here.

When we are at Grandpa Andy’s cabin or visiting the “cousins” in Bozeman, there is no such struggle. There is no tv at the cabin, and in Bozeman there are too many kids and too much fun to be had to waste time staring at a screen, watching other people pretend to do stuff.

But here in Laurel life can quickly settle into a bad pattern of staying up late in front of a movie and then waking up early, (since we are often still on Connecticut time), and turning on the television to kill a few hours before everyone else is up and about.

This morning at 7:30 Isabel and I went over to the park just around the corner from Grandpa Andy’s. We brought a shiny red soccer ball with us but had no real plan. We both just knew that in the direction of the tv lie sloth and self-loathing.

Isabel started swinging and I started to throw the ball at her feet as they climbed on the upswing. Sometimes things connected just right and the ball went flying over my head and over the fence surrounding the playground. We quickly devised rules and a system of points to be awarded for each player based on goals and saves.

Here is what we came up with, though you should feel free to modify it based on your particular setting and skill levels.

The goal is roughly 30 feet wide. The goalkeeper stands 25 feet from the swinger, with the goal behind the keeper. The keeper throws the ball at the swinger’s feet as the swinger begins to come forward—you may need to practice the timing of your throws.

If the swinger connects and the ball goes forward it is the keeper’s job to make the save. If the ball is stopped on the ground by the goalie, the goalie is awarded one point. If the ball passes the goalie on the ground, the swinger gets a point.

If the ball passes the goalie in the air at a height between the goalkeeper’s feet and head, the kicker gets two points. If the goalie stops the ball in the air between his/her feet and head, the keeper gets two points.

If the ball goes over the goalie’s head without being caught, it is three points for the swinger. If the goalie manages to block or catch a ball over head level, it is three points for the goalkeeper.

You play until someone has 20 points. Then you switch roles and start over.

That is all there is to it. We are off to play another round and take some pictures.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The best food--EVER

Isabel asked me a little while ago: “What is the best food you have ever eaten?” The timing of her question was perfect, as it was about 92 degrees and the air was so thick you could sip it up with a straw.

Without hesitation my mind zipped through 22 years and thousands of miles back to a stretch of Red Sea coast just south of al Hodeidah in Yemen. It was spring, which in that part of the world meant high temperatures and high humidity. My friends Tim and Nick planned a three-day backpacking trip along the coast and they invited me to join them. Being a sucker for a dumb idea, I agreed.

There was nothing along the coast where we hiked except for two or three small fishing villages inhabited by Yemenis who turned out to be fairly suspicious of our motives for sleeping in the hot sand. I can’t say I blame them for being suspicious. Here were three “Amrikis” walking along a stretch of coast that never saw a tourist, taking pictures, speaking Arabic, and sleeping just outside the village at a time when the daily high temperatures were close to 110 degrees.

We were dreadfully underprepared for the conditions and on the first day I came as close to heat stroke as a person can get without actually succumbing. In the early afternoon we stopped in the meager shade of a few palm tress—some standing, some fallen—and had a nap. Though calling it a nap implies some sort of agency on my part. Really what happened was I took off my pack and the next thing I knew it was late afternoon, there was sand stuck to my face, and my muscles were all cramping up pretty bad. I had passed out next to the fallen palm where I had sat to get my pack off.

We had assumed we could get water—though now that I think about it I really don’t know what we were thinking. When we all got up that afternoon we scouted for the wells we had heard were present on that part of the coast. Eventually we found a pit in the sand with some stagnant water full of mosquito larvae twitching around in the heat. Even they seemed really uncomfortable. This was the well.

And, even though we were fairly dumb, we did understand that we needed water or things could get a lot worse. So, we used a tee shirt to strain water into our bottles. We managed to keep most of the visible wildlife out of our water containers and hiked on to a spot where we could sleep.

Yemen is not too far north of the equator and the sun sets fairly early there year-round. And even though we had probably burned several thousand calories hiking in the heat of the day, none of us felt hungry. We built a small fire from driftwood and bought a couple of fish from the fisherman next door. We tried to roast the fish on sticks with little success. We went to sleep by eight o’clock that night with semi-raw fish and who knows what all-else sloshing around in our guts.

The sand holds on to the heat of the sun far better than the air does, so that night was terribly uncomfortable. It was like trying to sleep on one of those heating pads people plug in and adhere to lizard enclosures to provide the cold-blooded creatures steady warm temperatures. The problem is, I am not cold-blooded and it is hard to sleep when you are being slow-roasted. Eventually exhaustion won and I fell asleep.

Hunger woke me at 4 am, and I laid still for a while, hoping it would just go away and let me drift back to sleep. It didn’t go away and when I opened my eyes I was rewarded with a sight I will not forget. The Southern Cross was there in the dark night sky, hanging out over my head like it had been hoping to get my attention, to catch my eye—just to say “hey.”

I was by then awake enough to have to actually do something about my hunger, so I reached into my backpack and grabbed some Turkish soldiers’ bread called kudam. I ripped off a chunk of the dense bread and crammed it in my mouth. And within a few seconds I spit it back out and my mouth felt like it was on fire.

Turns out some painful biting ants had crawled into bag and gotten into the bread and were not pleased with my efforts to reclaim the bread. I fell asleep full of resentment and more than a little hungry. When dawn came I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The second day was better, in the same way that the second day of radiation therapy is probably better—not because anything is really improved but because the parameters of the pain have been set and you know what to expect a little bit better.

We hiked a few miles and set up camp late in the afternoon. Nick thought there might be a small town a mile or two inland and set out walking. I joined him. And he was right. In the village we bought some bottled water, had a bowl of bean stew at a shack, and then discovered the best food I have ever eaten. It was at a non-descript little market stall with a portable generator. The man who ran the stall had a big cooler full of homemade popsicles. We each bought one and ate it at brainfreeze pace. We then each bought another and ate those as we walked back to camp to tell Tim what we had found.

I made the roundtrip one more time with Tim and ate two more of the popsicles. They were made of Vimto and nothing has ever tasted better to me, before or since. After fortifying ourselves with popsicles we hitched a ride back to my apartment in Hodeidah, where Tim and Nick showered and caught the next bus out of the coastal plain and up into the mountains, where they lived in 7,000+ foot altitude of the capital, Sana’a.

So, I told Isabel about the backpacking trip and the near-heat stroke and seeing the Southern Cross and the ants biting my tongue and then the miraculous taste of the Vimto pops. And now, at least for a couple of days, I will remember that sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dora the Exploiter

“How about this one? It’s only got 12 grams of sugar.”

“Yeah, but look at the serving size. It says this little box has TWELVE servings. If you ate the whole box that’d be 144 grams of sugar.”

“But I won’t eat the whole box.”

“Over the next two days you would. Right?”


“Put it back.”

When I shop with my daughter we have a series of conversations, all very much like this one, throughout the store. All the way from Produce to Frozen and on to the checkout line we debate the merits of food item after food item. Most fail to pass parental muster.

It is getting downright annoying to Isabel. And frankly, it is getting annoying to me, too. Why is there high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, or some combination of this terrible triumvirate in just about everything that looks good to Isabel?

A newly published study by Yale University doctoral student Christina Roberto of the Rudd Center might just explain some of Isabel’s preferences. For years companies have sought to link their products with celebrity spokespersons the buying public feels good about. They hope the good feeling will rub off on their product and sales will go up.

The strategy must work, because corporations continue to compete for the endorsements of major stars like Landon Donovan, Drew Brees, and Tiger Woods. Of course, sometimes the brand risks the taint of scandal if the endorser happens to get caught doing something the public finds distasteful. It becomes a little awkward when your cereal-box model is a serial adulterer.

Companies that make food designed to be eaten by kids don’t have to worry about the whiff of scandal if they choose animated beings as their spokescharacters. Dora the Explorer is unlikely to be caught in a three-way with Diego and Boots. So, as long as there are new three-, four, and five-year olds discovering Dora, Dora will be an effective endorser.

Roberto’s research asked kids to compare the taste of identical food served from non-identical bags. One bag was clear, the other had a cartoon character sticker on it. And, as chance would predict, about half the kids said the food in the stickered bag tasted better. But much more significant was the percentage of kids who said they would rather eat a snack from the stickered package. According to a report on CNN, “between 50 percent and 55 percent of the children said that the food with the sticker on it tasted better than the same food in the plain package. (The percentage varied with each food.) And between 73 percent and 85 percent selected the food in the character packaging as the one they'd prefer to eat as a snack.”

Roberto’s research seems to indicate that children can be easily manipulated into preferring one snack over another simply because of the packaging. This is not surprising news—we have all been children. We have all been duped by bright and shiny packages.

When I am at the store with Isabel and she pleads for a particular brand of yogurt or fruit roll or cereal, the package is often the main attractor to her—though she might deny this, (none of us wants to admit being manipulable.) But the plain fact is we are subject to manipulation and advertisers know this. And children are the most susceptible of all.

In recognition of this fact, Norway, Sweden, and Quebec Province have banned all advertising during children’s television programming. Over 30 other countries set limits on advertising during children’s shows. Some of the laws on the books specifically ban marketing using cartoon characters.

An analogous situation exists in medicine, where prescription drug makers have been advertising their drugs directly to consumers, who then do the adult version of crying and screaming and whining and wheedling to their doctors to get specific prescription drugs. Sales of heavily advertised drugs go up. And doctors are being put in the same position as parents who know what is best for their child but can’t always fend off the most persistent requests.

My response to studies like this shows me that I am certainly a liberal who believes the power of the government should be exercised in the public interest. Corporations are going under the heads of the parents and advertising directly to kids, who then whine and cry and scream and wheedle and do their own manipulating of their parents in the grocery store. And CERTAINLY it is the parents’ job to just say “no.” The government cannot take the place of parents. But just as certainly, parents and government can work as partners to improve the health of the nation’s kids.

Before Isabel and I go shopping again I will talk with her about Christina Roberto’s research and try to manipulate her. I want her to feel used by advertisers and resentful about it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just go to Plan B, which is to shop only when Isabel is at gymnastics practice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The National

I have had the great good fortune to see a group called The National three times in the past 14 months and I want to share them with anyone who might stumble across this blog. There is a good, quick review of the band and its history on Wikipedia, so I will not give you all that stuff here. All I want to say here is that The National are the first group to have caught my attention in the way REM did in 1984 since…REM did in 1984. They are smart, insightful, melodic, soulful, and LOUD.

I saw The National last night at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and they blew me away. My wife and I were right up front and the proximity allowed us to see what we could only intuit from our earlier shows: the band has a lot of fun onstage and really seem to get along well and understand each other. Our clothes were vibrating in the blast from the woofers and still every word of their impressionistic lyrics was clear.

The other times we saw them were at the House of Blues next to Fenway Park in Boston. Both shows were amazing and I was a little nervous about how their often dark and atmospheric music would translate to an outdoor, blue sky, bright sun kind-of-day. Their first song showed me I was crazy to have any trepidation at all. I’d say they blew the roof off, but there was no roof.

Here are a couple of pictures:

And here is a live (in the studio) version of their song called Runaway

Monday, May 3, 2010

Trying Something New

“If I knew back when we met what I know now about you and about marriage, I never would have married you.”

“You know what? I wouldn’t have, either.”

“Weird to think about that, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. I gotta go to sleep now. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”



This is not a verbatim transcript of the end of a conversation I had in bed with my wife recently, but it is pretty darn close. And it tells me just how far my views of marriage have traveled in the almost-14 years since my wife and I exchanged vows.

At the time we first got married, I hadn’t ever really even thought about what a marriage was. I just assumed that the enormous momentum provided by the explosive power of falling in love was enough to propel us along a trajectory leading to happy dotage in side-by-side His and Her rocking chairs. A sort-of Relationship Big Bang. (More truthfully, I probably hadn’t even given the idea as much thought as that last sentence implies.)

The intervening years have shown that it would be hard for me to have been any wronger than I was about marriage.

For starters, I have come to see that no matter how hard I try, I just never will be Everything for my partner. My naïve view of marriage held that once you commit, you pretty much agree to forego anything you can’t get from your spouse. This seemingly romantic and idealistic misperception has turned out, in reality, to be a slow-acting poison that has done some real harm to my relationship with my wife.

Over time it has become clear to us both that we aren’t each other’s Everything. Sadly for me, it has become clearer-er that I am not able to be her Everything even more than she is not able to be my Everything.

The mechanism behind this state of affairs is one we have been long aware of in other realms of our lives together. An illustration so you’ll know what I am talking about: If the room is too cold, I will put on a sweater; Erica will tromp downstairs and turn up the heat. Another illustration: If our neighbors are being noisy while we try to sleep, I will close the window or put a pillow over my head; Erica will talk to the neighbors and get them to be quiet. A third illustration: If our yard has no fence, I will take our dog, Ginger, for a walk every time she needs to pee; Erica will call a carpenter and have him build a fence.

I change myself and my expectations to fit the situation; Erica changes the situation. In the end and after much thought about these two ways of being, I have concluded that really and truly neither approach can be deemed superior. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, changing yourself really is the best way to deal with dissatisfaction. Other times, changing the situation is far preferable.

Applying our individual problem-solving approaches to our relationship has been a real struggle for us. Both of us have been dissatisfied by several aspects of our marriage and we have come together with the best of intentions over and over again to try to work things out. Yet, inevitably, we find ourselves going over the same well-trodden ground every few months. Erica will say that she needs more. I will respond by trying to give more of what she needs. Over time, we both realize that what I am giving is not what she needs. She identifies the problem and tries to change the situation. I acknowledge the problem and try to change myself.

I will tell Erica that I need more. She will listen and acknowledge my needs and try to get me to have deeper and more satisfying friendships and relationships with other people so that maybe I can get what I need from them. What she suggests is that I build myself a life independent of her and invite other people and activities and interests in to give me what I want from life. All I really want is for her to adopt my approach and change herself to give me more.

But it doesn’t work. So we find ourselves several years older and no closer to a satisfactory solution to our problems.

When we are NOT focused on our dissatisfactions, we have a pretty great marriage. We love each other more deeply then we did 14 years ago. We respect each other more than we did 14 years ago—and that is no small accomplishment. We give each other something valuable. I give Erica a place that is home. She makes me want to stretch myself and grow. We are allies and cheerleaders for each other. At the end of the day, we both want to come home to each other, and that is more telling than any other detail.

So just last night, Erica came up with what seems to be a real solution to our perpetual dissatisfactions. It is a solution that both of us, with our diametrically opposed approaches to problem-solving, can live with. Erica proposes that we simply decide to be happy with the marriage that we have and forget all the ways in which we wish it were different. She can stop trying to make it different and getting frustrated when not a lot changes. I can stop trying so hard to be more like I think she wants me to be (and failing) and just be who I am.

What this means for us and what comes next are unclear. But even in the moment as she said, “What if we just stop trying so hard to change our marriage and appreciate it for what it is?” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I don’t know what our marriage will look like, but the prospect of ending all of my trying so hard and failing so often is enough to make the experiment well worth it.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Like It Or Not

The right wing blogosphere was apoplectic a few weeks ago after President Obama said at the nuclear security summit he hosted in Washington, D.C., "It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."

The reactions of the 2008 Republican ticket to President Obama’s comments were interesting. Both Sarah Palin and John McCain spoke out about President Obama’s statement and, not surprisingly, both misinterpreted what President Obama meant. Sarah Palin’s misinterpretation was the more benign of the two, (she being the member of the ticket dangling her very expensive shoes at the high end of the intellectual seesaw). Governor Palin said, "I would hope that our leaders in Washington, D.C., understand we like to be a dominant superpower. I don't understand a world view where we have to question whether we like it or not that America is powerful."

Soon-to-be-Ex-Senator McCain’s misinterpretation also demonstrated a lack of understanding of what the President was saying, as well as showing McCain’s belief in the myth of American Exceptionalism. "That's one of the more incredible statements I've ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times," McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, told Fox News. "We are the dominant superpower, and we're the greatest force for good in the history of this country (sic), and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower."

I don’t have a direct line to the Oval Office, but when I stopped to think about what President Obama said, it became clear that he was saying, “We are a dominant military superpower and because of this, for better or for worse, we are automatically involved in any conflict anywhere in the world.” His statement was a description of reality, not a regret of American power. For better or for worse, we have to have an opinion. For better or for worse, we have to take sides. For better or for worse, these conflicts often cost American lives and treasure.

President Obama was expressing the truth that being powerful brings with it responsibility. Sarah Palin’s response gives evidence of her inability to see the nuances of life as a superpower. She thinks, “power: good” and that is as far as she takes it. John McCain takes it several steps further. He believes America is the best country in the world and God has had some role in making this true. Therefore, it is our right and duty to exercise our power in pursuit of our goals. This sort of belief in American Exceptionalism had its fullest recent expression in the foreign policy of George Bush. He believed the American version of freedom was the best thing in the world and therefore all countries should have it, too—even if it we had to force it on them.

This belief--that America is God’s instrument for all that is right and good and holy—can, from a slightly different perspective, be seen as arrogant self-interest. Barack Obama is able to walk in the shoes of the people of the other nations of the world. His perspective is not as narrow as that of George Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. Because of this, his mind can hold onto the idea that with power comes responsibility and headaches sometimes.

John McCain seems to think that if America takes an action, that action is automatically good because we are “the greatest force for good” in the world. Barack Obama understands that there is more to it than that. He takes American power seriously and wants to exercise it in a way that makes the world a better place, but he understands that God and exceptionalism have nothing to do with it.

John Calvin preached the “doctrine of election” hundreds of years ago. It stated, in part, that God shows whom he has favored through the accumulation of wealth and power. Those who believe in American Exceptionalism have taken this idea and applied it to countries. To them, America’s wealth and power are obvious signs that we are God’s elect among nations. To me, our wealth and power are an historical accident based on our geographic isolation and surplus of natural resources.

It is simply an extraordinary claim that God has chosen the United States to be His instrument of foreign policy on Earth. I do not believe in God. And the God I do not believe in doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the economic dynamism and military might of various countries. The God I don’t believe in wants people and nations to exercise their power with reluctance, humility, and the utmost deliberation and care.

So, yes, Barack Obama had it just right. Like it or not, one way or another we get pulled into conflicts. I am not happy about this, but I find it far preferable to launching wars of choice in the mistaken belief that we are right simply because we are the United States.