A Memory, Nostaglia, & Foolish Games

1 - Sac City LRC

Sacramento City College, 1998.

The day I truly took interest in him, the quad was blanketed with leaves, leftover remnants of the previous night’s wind storm. I was caught up in a momentary fit of nostalgia (autumn evenings do that to me), and was walking briskly across the campus over the red and yellow pathway. He was ahead of me, backpack slung over one shoulder, novel in one hand. He glanced back toward me and grinned. “You’re in Fryer-Smith’s class, aren’t you, kiddo?”

“Yes, I am.” I answered a little too formally. He asked my name. I already knew his.         His name was Joey.

“Yeah…I thought that was you. You usually have your face buried in a book.” I smiled, pleased that he’d taken note.

I was 18 years old with a toddler and had recently completed high school on independent studies, meaning that I’d basically spent the past two years of my life in solitude as I balanced motherhood and schoolwork. Social life was minimal. Dating life was non-existent.

That first semester of junior college was like a re-birth for me. I emerged from the cocoon that was my high-school experience, wrought with memories of personal rebellion, social missteps, and school failure. Suddenly I found myself in an environment where I was free to completely re-invent myself. My reputation didn’t follow me, and neither did my previous school record.

Now, here I was blossoming into a 4.0 student and social butterfly. Every day was a dizzyingly entertaining mix of new faces and ideas. I was in love with my budding identity. And along with my academic success and new-found social sweetheart status, came a refreshingly improved dating scene.

I was completely unprepared for that. Whereas in high school, the majority of my boyfriends had been poster kids for the “bad-boy prototype,” the guys who pursued me now were of a different nature entirely. They came to me with their minds full of goals and ambitions, and hands full of sonnets. I swear to you, that first semester I spent nearly as much time swooning as I did studying.

But as the days grew cooler and shorter, I found myself spending the majority of my time with Joey. We were as different as could be. He was returning to college after years of living the quintessential California dream. Coastal living, surfing, and reveling in the glory of uninhibited youth. He was nearly 10 years older than I was. I was fresh out of 12th grade, with all the responsibilities of an adult, but none of the experience. Despite this, we shared a love of literature, philosophy, writing and coffee. For months, we met for late night discussions in the library during which we mulled over the writings of Nietzsche & Darwin. We attended a baroque quintet concert at the Crocker Art Museum, and convened for afternoon reading sessions along the Sacramento River. He introduced me to Kerouac’s On the Road, and I tried to convince him to consider reading the works of Peter S. Beagle (I’ve always had a soft spot for fantasy). I knew I was in over my head when he invited me to dinner with his family. We dined at a Thai food restaurant (I had never had Thai before), and afterward had dessert at the family home in Davis. I met his brother and his brother’s longtime girlfriend. His father was a lawyer, and that night I learned of Joey’s plans to transfer to UC Berkeley to pursue a law degree (Which he eventually did, followed by a graduate degree from a prestigious east coast school). Everyone was friendly, and overall the night was lovely. But my youth and inexperience were obvious to all, and it showed in the overly kind way that they humored me. It was the first time I felt unequipped in the world of adulthood (though it wouldn’t be the last).

The week before finals, he invited me over to his house for dinner and a movie. No one was home that evening but us, and I stayed late into the night. I talked about my son that night, perhaps a little too much, because in the end I think it highlighted the fact that no matter how bright, charismatic, and “datable” I was, I was the mother to a very young child. I was a package deal. And though I was largely inexperienced in the dating scene, I knew that this fact alone was a deal breaker for most.

I saw him once more after that, and the interaction was cordial and brief. The evening of our class final was a rainy one, and when I walked to the parking lot that night, I didn’t even bother pulling out my umbrella. I sat in my car for a while, watching the windshield wipers push away the water drops as quickly as they fell. Jewel’s Foolish Games was playing on the radio. And though I felt the tell-tale euphoria that every student experiences after finals are completed, I also had the sinking feeling that something very important to me had ended. It’s funny the small details we remember.

You’re always the mysterious one with
Dark eyes and careless hair,
You were fashionably sensitive
But too cool to care.

I tell this story now because I think of it as one of my life’s many lessons. A story to tell my children later during a discussion of relationships and infatuations. Soon after the “Joey Semester,” I came across a poem by Veronica A. Shoffstall that I’ve retuned to time and time again over the years. It continues to move me to this day.

This morning, as I slipped on my peacoat while taking in a long sip of coffee and simultaneously searching the counter for my keys, my mom shared with me that she’d recently come in contact with a former beau with whom she’d once been intensely obsessed with. He’d shown only a casual interest in her, and at the time she was crushed. Now, decades later, she’s realized how profoundly different they are in all the ways that truly matter. She mused about the potential misery she’d avoided on account of his indifference.

And that’s the way life runs it’s course. In the present, we can never truly grasp the reasons why we face the trials we are given & the rejections we are subjected to. If we’re lucky, we’re blessed with the hindsight that brings everything into perspective. But often, we’re not. And in the latter case, I choose to hold tight to the belief that there is always a higher plan, even if we can’t make sense of it. And if that plan is never revealed, at least it makes for an interesting story to tell, years later when time has graciously dulled our feelings, and the only things remaining are a few recollections, scattered across our memory like leaves on a walkway…

 You Learn

 Veronica A. Shoffstall

After awhile you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn that love doesn’t mean possession
and company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises and you begin to accept
your defeats with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of an adult not the grief of a child.
And you learn to build your roads today
because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
and futures have ways of falling down in mid-flight.
After awhile you learn that even sunshine
burns if you get too much so you plant your
own garden and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
that you really are strong
and you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn…

Rules of Engagement

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2014 has begun, and many of us are prompted to reflect on the personal changes we’d like to make in the coming year. I’m hearing talk of fitness & organizational goals among other things, but I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking on my communication habits and how I can improve all daily interactions, especially at home.

The past couple of months, I’ve noticed a rash of relationship advice posts going viral. Interestingly enough, all of the most popular ones are written by men, and shared mostly by women. (Personally, I think that speaks to the infamous male/female communication gap highlighted by John Gray in his well-known book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus). I can just visualize it: Ladies across the nation, clicking on links while juggling nursing babies, sinks full of dishes, a pressing work deadline or perhaps, all of the above. They are met with the eloquent musings of a thoughtful male, and quietly nod in agreement, hoping that their partner may read the words and change a few of his ways. Very feminine mystique-ish, don’t you think? Anyway, if you’ve somehow missed out on these little online gems, I’ll do you a favor and offer a brief synopsis of each:

1) Marriage Advice I Wish I Would Have Had (AKA: Divorced man’s marriage advice):  Basically, a list of 20 things guys can do to be the epic husband that every woman desires. Loving, light-hearted (but not lackadaisical), selfless, attentive to detail, romantic…you know, the kind of spouse that Bruno Mars would be if he lives up to everything he croons about in his songs. Hindsight gives a clarity that cannot be achieved when we are caught up in the eye of the storm, and apparently Mr. Rodgers now has 20/20 vision. I am really curious as to what his ex-wife’s take is on his widely shared, “How to Be the Best Husband Ever” post. But that’s another story, I’m sure. Moving on…

2) Marriage Isn’t For You (AKA: Guy gets schooled by his dad in Relationship 101): In short, a man expresses doubts regarding his upcoming marriage, and is given some strong advice from his father—advice that quickly became internet viral once it was published on his blog. This guy (Seth Adam Smith), basically concluded that marriage is not for YOU, but for the person you marry. “You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy,” Smith recalls his dad telling him. “More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children.” Um. I’m sorry. But I kinda think that marriage should be for you, in addition to all those other wonderful folks mentioned. Is that selfish? Never mind, don’t answer that. Next…

3) Brad Pitt’s Love Letter to Angelina (AKA: Fake love letter that has been circulating around the internet since 2009, but has suddenly resurfaced with Brad Pitt’s name attached to it): This one is truly silly. Full of grammatical errors and lacking any real substance, it’s claim to fame seems to be the closing line which states, “And then I realized one thing: the woman is the reflection of her man. If you love her to the point of madness, she will become it.” Oh my goodness, people. How gullible can we get here? Obviously this letter was not written by Brad. It’s been discredited  by Snopes and several other sources, but even then…obviously. Okay. Well, apparently not that obvious, because it was shared millions of times by people who presumably thought it was legit. sigh. I guess that madness/love talk really moves us, huh?

In light of all these wildly popular advice posts, I’ve decided to take a little ride on the relationship advice blog bandwagon. Not because I’ve had a wonderful track record in these matters…I haven’t. Or perhaps I have, depending on who you ask. In any case, I was in a long-term relationship for 14+ years. I’m now in a fairly new relationship, with someone who happens to be an excellent communicator—in addition to being open-minded & well read —yet even he steers clear of these viral columns. Why? Because, in the end, the advice they contain is quite arbitrary.

Our relationships are so wildly varied that it’s impossible to create a list of do’s & dont’s that applies to each and every one of us. This goes for marriages, friendships, and parenting roles. Naturally, there are societal norms that are agreed upon, and for good reason. Infidelity, BAD. Physical & mental abuse, BAD. Open communication, GOOD. Honesty, GOOD.  But aside from all the obvious, there are infinite grey areas that cannot possibly be generalized and remedied by any one help list or another. All of us have behaviors we will tolerate, situations in which we will compromise, and things that will prompt us to back off completely. Sometimes relationship issues will resolve themselves beautifully, other times they will fall to pieces despite our efforts to hold them together. I believe in commitment, in nuclear families, and in giving it all that you’ve got. That said, I also know that life endures should these things fail. Families carry on. Love may whither, but can be reforged and recognized in new ways in the wake of sadness & hurt.

Here are some of the relationship observations that I’ve made over the course of past years:

1) Do not ever assume you know what is going on inside someone else’s relationship/marriage. Chances are, unless you live with them, you don’t. And even if you DO live with them, you probably still don’t get the scope of it. How many times has a couple announced they are splitting, and the reaction has been, “But they seemed so happy together!” People have a way of masking their issues, even from those they know best. And the inner workings of a couples private relationship-especially the negative aspects- are not something they are likely to parade around at the neighborhood block party. Sometimes issues are hashed out for years, away from public sight, until it finally comes to a head which is usually when outsiders begin to catch wind of it.

2) When a loved one is going through a break-up, set aside your judgement and surround them with support. If you can’t put aside your judgement and personal feelings toward the split, tactfully say so, then step aside. Pretending to do otherwise can cause harm, even if you don’t intend it to. People naturally take sides when a break-up happens. Heck, look at the whole Team Aniston/Team Jolie fiasco that surfaced during Brad Pitt’s overly publicized divorce. We can’t help but to silently judge others on their decisions, even if we may not have the slightest idea what was behind the break-up in the first place. Relationships don’t just fail. There are typically a plethora of issues behind the decision to split. Most of the time, each person comes out of it with their own version of events. And who’s to say whose truth holds more validity? This is not the time to play jury. If you are a true friend, this is the time to be a listener. To be a supporter. A tear-wiper and a hand-holder. Regardless of the circumstances, breakups are an extremely trying time…add the burden of being subjected to other’s opinions and gossip, and it can truly take on the feel of a public trial. And no one wants to be subjected to that.

3) Men, treat your women as you would hope your daughter’s husband will treat her someday. Women, be the wife that you would want your son to marry. This one is a no-brainer. What our children witness in their homes in regards to parental relationships, is what they will go on to seek and mimic once they begin relationships of their own. Growing up, I watched my parents argue diplomatically, negotiate fairly, and forgive liberally. Though their union eventually ended based on other issues, these were the key lessons I took away from my childhood. Sadly, at the time of my divorce, I barely recognized myself, as I was not holding true to the manner in which I was raised. I intentionally used words to hurt, and I held grudges. In addition, I also found myself repeatedly tolerating behaviors that I never thought I’d put up with. We had become different people than those we had set out to be, and together, it made a poor example for our children.

4) Hindsight is 20/20 (But only if you allow it to be). If you are honest with yourself, you can learn valuable lessons from your past relationships, as painful as they may be. For a while there, I seriously thought I had done everything right. Well, almost everything. Little by little, I begin to slip off my high horse as I contemplated my role in the desolation of the marriage. It literally took sinking to the lowest of lows, and coming back up again, to realize just how flawed I had been. In my current relationship, I have been able to gain clarity on the harmful habits and shortcomings that are characteristic of some of my interactions. Now that I can see them for what they are, rather than hiding behind my own justifications, I have begun making a conscious, dedicated effort to correct myself. It’d have been easier to just blame it all on my past relationship, but that kind of outlook provides no room for growth.

I hope that, for you, 2014 brings closure where needed, growth when welcome, and peace in all areas of your life. If you are like me, you begin your days  contemplating ways to bring about a more positive world, for you, your loved ones and your children. But at the end of the day, serenity is bred and taught at home. If we can not find refuge in our relationships…then where?

Carry on with your public resolutions, those which focus on your health, your career aspirations, and your financial goals…but I urge you to silently make a pact to yourself, and use the coming year to improve on the interpersonal bonds you’ve been meaning to strengthen. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Communicate, reach out, connect, forgive. I think we’ll be surprised at how much improvement we can make in our own little lives, without ever having to read through another self-help link again.

Coaches & Critics

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Early this year I had the opportunity to accompany my 7 & 11 year-old-sons to their  annual baseball tryouts. The tryouts take place over the course of two weekends, and land in the  middle of January which means parents  & players alike withstand the bitter northern California chill for several hours as coaches draft their teams. Though my boys have been playing little league for years, this was the first time I’ve ever attended tryouts. Typically, this task has been delegated to their father, however circumstances had it that I was the chaperone to what my children claim is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the season. My boys were excited but jittery as we arrived at the field that day. Nerves aside, the overall energy of the place was infectious. Clearly, everyone in attendance that morning was excited to be kicking off yet another season of baseball, even if it was at an ungodly morning hour in the biting cold. As the young players formed lines and greeted friends from seasons past, I found myself hanging back a bit (partly due to the fact that I was one of only a handful of mothers in a sea of dads). As I sat on the bleachers inhaling my warm coffee, I quickly fell into observation mode. 
I watched as each child took their turn at the designated drill and quickly began to notice a pattern of interaction and reaction from the parents of the players. Save for a few outlying personality types, I had the overwhelming sense that the parents on the sidelines fell into two categories: the coaches, and the critics.
The coaches were pleasant to watch. These were the parents who, even after their child missed a pop fly, struck out, or failed to field a grounder, maintained a positive approach to their young player. Encouraging, and reassuring, they offered constructive criticism & instruction without being demeaning.
The critics, however, were by far more difficult for me to observe. If you have ever attended a children’s sports events, you’ve seen this parenting style, and perhaps, like me, find yourself cringing at the tactics used. Critics can be ruthless. Rather than pointing out the players strengths, and acknowledging the effort, they go straight into attack mode. 
My grouchy, judgmental self got the better of me that morning, and I found myself silently criticizing the “critic” parents for their lack of understanding and encouragement, and their failure to praise their youngling’s accomplishments before offering suggestions for improvement. As I ushered my kiddos into the parking lot after tryouts had ended, I felt smugly confident in my superior communication skills, and was sure my children were better off for it. 
That high-and-mighty phase lasted all of five minutes because as soon as I returned home, I was greeted by a hungry toddler who was literally throwing herself against the fridge in a desperate attempt to find a juice box and a teen complaining about how his brothers are constantly finding ways to break into his bedroom in search of gum, money, pocket knives, and anything else  that might be of value to them. It was there that my refined parenting skills were forgotten. In frustration, I swooped up my blubbering toddler and stuffed a banana into her mouth (to take the edge off her hunger, of course). Then, I went after the boys. I began this completely disjointed tirade about how I remember how maddening it was to have a younger sibling rummage through my stuff and how-ironically- at one point I was ALSO the younger sibling who had complete disregard for her older sisters things and because I was a middle child I could relate to BOTH ends of the issue BUT that the bottom line was that everyone needed to shut up & relate to MY needs as a mother whose only desire was to come home from a long morning at tryouts to a quiet home, free of bickering and screeching 3-year-olds. (*deep breath*) When I had finished yelling, I realized my kids were staring at me blankly as if I’d gone mad. (I had). My 6-year-old then politely offered me some sunflower seeds as my toddler smeared banana onto the back of my neck.
For the rest of the month, I unintentionally analyzed each and every conversation I had with my children to see if I was coaching or criticizing. I found that, especially when the stress levels were high, my tendency to be a critic was more frequent than I’d like to admit. Not only that, I took notice of how my children reacted to each style of communication. When I was even-tempered and fair in my reactions to things such as unfinished homework assignments, botched attempts to load the dishwasher, and sibling warfare, my children were infinitely more receptive to my intervention & instruction. When I was short and critical, they quickly shut down and we’d get no where. 
 This is true of almost every interaction we have in family life–whether it’s with a spouse, co-parent, or stubbornly autonomous two-year-old–we are generally  able to accomplish more through warmth & constructive feedback than we are with aggression & criticism.
Not long after the tryouts, my 11-year-old pulled his favorite Aesop’s fables book from his shelf and brought it to me for bedtime readings. By coincidence, I opened to the story of the The Wind & The Sun. For those of you unfamiliar with this tale, it begins with the wind and sun arguing over who was most powerful. As they are bickering, they take notice of a man strolling along the road below dressed in a heavy winter coat. They decide to see who will be able to persuade him to remove his coat. The wind blows with all his might, but the man only draws the coat tighter around him in an effort to fight off the cold. All at once, the sun shines her warm beams upon the man, and he quickly takes off the jacket. In short, the moral of the story is “gentle persuasion is stronger than force.” As I finished reading the fable, my 7-year-old turns to me and says, “We sure are lucky you are warm like sun. The wind is cold-hearted!” 
And there you have it. The wind blows.
Pass the sunflower seeds. 🙂