Who’s Your Daddy?

The first thing I did after The Bloody Divorce was to buy a big-screen TV to replace the thirteen-inch model that, along with the dishwasher, had become the focus of my husband’s crazy interpretation of what was wrong with our family. After he’d gotten a new therapist and Iron John showed up on his nightstand, he started saying things like “I’m the man of the family, and if I say we’re moving to Montana, then we’re moving to Montana!” He took the thirteen-inch TV out of the house when we weren’t home, and when the dishwasher broke, the new one I bought had to sit in the box in the living room with a potted plant on it for six months.

Over the years since the divorce, the TV screen size has grown along with the kids and now, at fifty-eight inches, is limited only by the width of the wall it hangs on. It’s like a huge frame around a display of favorite family members’ pictures: ours include Angus MacGyver, Jim Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, men who had no children in their fictional lives but paradoxically—I realized recently—have been fathers to us, thanks to Netflix.

Note to the data-mining gnomes: not everyone is actually watching TV even when they’re ripping through seven-seasons series back-to-back, nonstop, and then doing it all over again. Over the last few years while my younger son and I have been in college (with him as a student and me as a teacher), we must have logged in at least twelve hours a day of big-screen background sometimes, as we cranked our way through our respective piles of assignments. I know this must sound bad—maybe it is bad—but we are at least discriminating about the characters we live with, which is more than you can say for a lot of families. We don’t generally allow drama, for instance, because it requires too much attention, but we feel right at home with characters who manage to get themselves in trouble regularly and can laugh about it, or who can get out of trouble like MacGyver, using only a gum wrapper or a paper clip. They go about their business while we go about ours, looking up once in a while to laugh when Higgins starts droning on about the Yorkshire Regiment, or Angel goes out the window after promising Rockford he’ll stay put.

There are multiple advantages to having a television family: for one thing, dad is the kind of guy you like to have around, and he’s always home, there in the background, trying to make a living—or at least stay out of hock—while you’re advancing the family’s prospects by tackling machine language or rhetorical modes. He doesn’t care about conventional success, so he’s not all up in your face about performance; he only gets mad under extreme provocation, like when a friend he’s trying to help leaves him holding the bag, and even then he’s good-natured about it. He will give everyone a second, and third, and so on, chance, even the bad guys. He doesn’t carry a gun even though he knows how to use one, and when he takes someone else’s away, he usually just throws it in the drink.

He’s smart but he’s not an asshole about it. People betray or misjudge him in every episode, but he never reciprocates and he’s got a smile that can make you feel okay about the world, no matter how bad the case. He had a good dad himself, and has a soft spot for boys who don’t.

And, of course, things always work out in the end. So every forty-seven minutes or so—or about fifteen times a day around here—no matter how knotty the problem you’re working on in real life may be, you hear a theme song from a few decades ago that manages to capture the innocent thrill of a happy ending, and you laugh at yourself as you hum along.

There are other, more complicated, fathers we also have loved—most notably Andy Sipowicz and Lenny Briscoe—who did have fictional children and who spent most of their time trying to make amends once they got sober, but as with real-life alcoholics like my real-life father, these stories are not good background material and not the kind of thing you can laugh along with. Nevertheless, I count them as family too because they meet my newly-developed definition of a good dad, which is pretty simple: a good father is someone who puts his child’s welfare ahead of his own—always, and no doubt about it. Nothing else really matters all that much.

When I was a child along with television itself, my grandmother used to watch The Guiding Light every day, and she sent greeting cards to Papa Bauer on special occasions as if he were a real person; I’m not sure whether she believed he was real, or, like me, just incorporated fantasy into her reality as a creative prop—but I admire her, either way. So I’m sending this Father’s Day thank-you card to Angus MacGyver, Jim and Joseph Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, as well as to the real men who played and created them, especially Stephen Cannell, with whom I share the good fortune of having had Ralph Salisbury for a writing teacher. (Cannell credited his long, successful career to Ralph, who told him “spelling doesn’t matter” and thus set him free from dyslexia to write The Rockford Files and many other television shows and best-selling novels.)

Last, but certainly not least, Happy Father’s Day to Jean-Luc Picard and Gene Roddenberry for the most enduring TV family of all, role model for the next generation of our entire species, not just the lost children. It’s playing in the background as I write this—can you hear the theme song?

Posted in family, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Things I wish somebody had pounded into my head early on…

…or that I wish I could remember long enough to pound into my own head, even now:

1. Half of life–at least half–is about cleaning up after whatever you are doing in the other half. And it always takes way longer than you think it should.

2. Your forties and fifties are the most productive years of your life, unless you have chronically underestimated #1 and are hence behind the curve.

3. By your sixties, you have been around enough of life’s blocks multiple times to have a pretty good grip on the neighborhood. You want to improve it a little before you move on. You have good ideas and big plans, but principle #1 is still operating in the universe, now in tandem with #2. This may explain why old people don’t bathe enough. And don’t even care: time is short and energy is precious.

4. Time is short and energy is precious! If you don’t know what to do with it, at least conserve it. The day will come.  Try to tidy up as you go: wash the pan right after you fry the egg, throw dirty clothes in the basket instead of on the floor. The tendency to just let things drop is a bad, bad habit because life feels shitty all the time, except for the brief moment when you’ve done a massive cleanup because it got SO shitty you couldn’t stand it anymore. There are implications for emotional work here: talk about it right away–don’t let the sun go down on some sweaty, mildewed laundry pile of bad feelings.

5. Nihilism is a phase, not a sophisticated intellectual achievement. The idea that nothing matters because you’ll probably be dead before you’re thirty anyway is not one you want to get in bed with; its bad-boy appeal ages badly.

6. Life isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of deal. There are a million in-between options. The crap your internal critic offers up–well, you’ve blown it so there’s no point in even trying–is crap. Or if you want a fancier intellectual label, it’s a false dichotomy. Nothing is really either/or; if you look hard, there’s always a third option, and a fourth, and so on. Even when it seems like someone else is in control, has a gun of some kind to your head, you still have the option of choosing how you respond.

7. Children who are wanted swim in love like a warm ocean; they bathe and roll like newborn whales, as if being surrounded by wisdom and guidance were a given. But even if nobody in your family wanted you, you have a right to exist: to take up space, to sing some song of your own making, to want something for yourself and go after it.

8. Life isn’t a contest.

9. With all due respect to John Lennon, love is not all you need unless you still have parents who support you or millions in record sales. But love is all that matters in the end—and by love, I mean the inclination of our hearts toward the good, no matter what we have or haven’t done, no matter how big the laundry pile.

Leaning toward the good, like plants toward the sun, is all that remains of choice in the end—yet in that stripped simplicity there can still be found all the warmth and guidance life has to offer, which is the paradoxical joy of age.

10. I once heard a Jungian psychologist say that the role of elders is to give blessings; I’m pretty sure an immaculate house isn’t part of the job description, nor even is a successful career or financial security—mercifully, we don’t have to be hedge fund managers or highly organized and educated in order to fulfill that role.

Blessings can be pretty simple: telling a child who has never heard such a thing that she is beautiful; listening to someone in turmoil with empathy, and without judgment or advice;  applying the balm of understanding to our own troubled past and its inhabitants.

I suppose that excludes trying to pound things into their heads, come to think of it. So that leaves one more for the list of things I want to remember: writing is underestimated as a path to at least modest gains on enlightenment. (Good news, fellow slackers: write more, vacuum less!)

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Blogging v. flogging

Note: this is something I wrote a few months ago when my writers’ marketing group was discussing blogging; I thought it might be useful for other writers too.

If I felt like I had to blog, I would immediately abandon the whole thing. But just because most everybody else in the writing world sees blogging as a way to build that required platform (a metaphor that I find distasteful on all fronts), and hence they give us onerous imperatives like “blog, blog, blog,” that doesn’t mean we have to see it that way. Blogging that’s done dutifully, out of a sense of obligation, or under duress, can feel like punishment and/or self-flagellation, no doubt! But there’s another way to approach blogging that feels more like coming unshackled—and then finding your way home.

The last post I made on my blog was a year ago, and I’m still getting visitors—admittedly, not a lot of visitors, but that doesn’t matter to me because I don’t see my blog as a marketing tool. I started blogging because I realized that such a vehicle would:

—be a way for me to say some things I want to say right now, instead of waiting until I get around to working them into a book and then get around to trying to publish that book

—let me say those things off-the-cuff, low-stakes, in pieces, in whatever way they come to me, whenever they come, without considering regularity, saleability, marketing, or even coherence

—serve as a central, virtual file cabinet for ideas, insights, ponderings, sketches, and whatnot to replace the scraps of paper, dinner napkins, post-its, abandoned journal efforts, and computer files that have vanished into the writerly Bermuda Triangle over the years (this advantage has been HUGE, because I have multiple “drawers” in the form of multiple private blogs, in which I can store drafts as well as posts: in this way, I’m working on several books or book ideas, and I’m actually reminded of what those ideas were from time to time, because they’re all in the same place)

—set me free from publishing prison, both the supermax New York version and the contemporary minimum-security Amazon: I don’t need anyone’s approval, and publishing is completely free, immediate, and world-wide (this advantage becomes more apparent as time goes by and the monetary rewards of publication continue to shrivel)

Of course, I don’t make any money at all from my blog. But when has any ordinary person made a living at writing anyway? Even poet laureate Ted Kooser sold insurance. And while it used to be possible to get a six-figure advance for a well-written memoir (nostalgic rush here), even those heady numbers won’t pay the rent if you consider the number of years it takes to produce such a thing (six, or ten, or—in my case—twenty-five and counting). A big advance wouldn’t even provide coffee money, if you consider the number of such books you have in you.

So once I accepted that, a whole ‘nuther world opened up (the title of my blog applies here). The opening widened when I realized that my real audience consists mostly of a small tribe of thoughtful pilgrims and sojourners in this strange land—so what’s the point of trying to publish my work like Fifty Shades of Grey, or any other mass-market success? Instead, I can just write something, put it in a blog bottle, and toss it out on the Internet sea, trusting that in time it will find its way to the right shore, and be passed along if it’s worth reading.

If I were writing a novel instead of memoir and essay, things might be different—although I still think I might use a blog in some similar way, since blogs are so fluid and  can be updated, moved, deleted or resurrected, and made private or public at any time. I’m not saying that my approach to blogging would fit everyone, just that it turns out to fit me quite well—and maybe some aspect of this alternate view might fit you, too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

As an unexpected side benefit of blogging, and having made no effort to advertise other than an initial email to a few friends, I have discovered a deep connection with a small but international community of kindred spirits. It startled me when I realized that most of my readers are in the UK (maybe some kind of Celtic magic is at work here). These are people I have come to know and care about, and such a virtual connection suits my introverted, writerly nature perfectly: there’s no obligation to read, or write, or respond—so everything is a gift.

It’s really quite beautiful.

When I think of some of the things these people have said to me, and vice versa, and of the numinous quality of our ordinary lives, I have to reach for a Kleenex! Right now, for example, I’m thinking of a young man in London whose observant, wry, and increasingly melancholy posts I’d read for several years, and about how happy I was when a post showed up in my inbox after a six-month silence that ended with “Apart from that, and the fact that I actually married the world’s most perfect woman, I can’t say anything of importance has happened.” :-)  So I have him to thank for reminding me that despite the apparently real British need for understatement, life sometimes delivers happy endings. And for this song, from one of his earlier posts: “Even if you, like me, have no idea what it’s all about, I still guarantee that you’ll feel at least, ooohh, 2% happier after listening.” (Click if you need another 2%, or if you’re worried about the fate of the younger generation.)

I have the blogging world to thank for the miracle of connection without borders or intermediaries, and for the ability to offer aid or insight without the preliminaries and reciprocation that in-person interactions require. If I’m too buried to even sleep, let alone blog—as I have been for the past couple of years—I don’t have to explain that to anyone, or feel guilty about not holding up my end of a relationship, or beat myself up for failure to perform. The blogging world that I inhabit is the antithesis of “platform” mentality, and instead of making me feel like a captive of conventional advice, it has provided me with an antidote.

In this writers’ medium people understand long absences, emotional interference, financial exigency, physical limitations, and other constraints on how we roll. Yet our work here persists over time as opposed to being shredded after ten days on a bookstore shelf, and it exists in a searchable world not confined to amazon.com. In this medium we can find and be found by our real family—or, in writerly terms, our audience. Even more important, this medium is amenable to deep, ongoing conversations, which makes it more like telling stories around the tribal fire than conventional publication, which isolates writers from readers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to get our work published or look for ways to make money at it; I’m just saying that we’re free to be completely happy as writers right now, and that I’m grateful for the ability to share things that matter to me without anyone’s stamp of approval and at no cost.

That’s a pretty good deal for the money.

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About memoir

The best writing in any genre is an act of love, not explanation or even insight, not contrition or justice—and surely not reprisal.

Such an act doesn’t require thematic justification or any other reason for being, so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to pitch it. Love doesn’t need a tag line or an elevator speech: it just needs to be real. That’s not to say it’s easy—loving this beautiful, brutal world or anyone in it so much that you have to draw their precious outline on a page can be consuming, even desperate, and if unrequited for one reason or another (the need for a day job, the interference of people who need us, the barriers of anxiety and doubt), we pine and wither.

And then, often, we get subverted into thinking that we need to write about ourselves. After all—isn’t that what memoir is supposed to be about? Isn’t memoir by its very nature all about us? Our memories, our lives, our trials and woes and joys and transformations?

I don’t think so.

Not really.

That capital I, so unavoidable in memoir, stands up tall only in witness, not to dominate the text or claim singular importance, but rather to testify: to honor what the writer has seen, to obey love’s imperative to cherish and also set free the people we have cared about–including those who did not, or could not, reciprocate.

Memoir is sometimes an elegy of love that allows us at last to touch those who eluded our reach in life, to hold them steady in the light while they rage, to return compassion for ignorance and fear, to warm them inside our coats until they thaw, revealing hearts that beat like our own. And sometimes, of course, memoir is the best chance we have at paying tribute to those who held us under their coats next to their generous hearts, and to keep gratitude alive in this unforgiving world.

So if you struggle with the “I” in memoir, if you think that you’re supposed to be writing about yourself and thus need to make your story sound, somehow, important enough to warrant a book—relax.

Memoir isn’t really about you at all.


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What writers do

We bear the weight of humanity’s stories, compressed and carbonized over time by their sheer mass, transformed into potential energy that smolders like an ember in the heart, a live coal with the possibility of shedding light in a darkened world—but also hot as hell and hard to handle.

Is it any wonder we sometimes seem a little strange, out of the social loop, unable to interact like normal people, distracted, preoccupied—maybe even completely crazy?

We are conscripted—by nature, I guess—and tasked with carrying both the burden of our mutual history and the vision of our possible futures.

Like it or not, we notice things. We care about them inordinately. We need to understand what is beyond belief, to explain—or at least to record—the astonishing range of human behavior, including our own.

At our best, we transcend our limited and troubled selves when we embrace the danger of the task and, despite the risk of being burned, breathe the ember to life.

Maybe we should go a little bit easier on ourselves.

Posted in Creativity, Identity, Perfectionism, Self-doubt, Writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Feel Better Book: what to do when you feel overwhelmed

First, resist the impulse to make a list. Well, okay —maybe you have to make one list, just to get some illusion of control. But not two, or three, or four, ordered by importance, and definitely not a rewrite of any list in an effort to organize it better by using highlighter or red felt pen.

(Obviously, there’s a little projection going on here. But maybe you have similar tendencies? In which case, read on.)

Forget about the lists. Admit you simply have too much to do, because unfortunately, you’re only one human being. Give up trying to change that, to be better, or at least good enough, to keep up with successful people whose lives look organized, doable, under control, admirable.

You’re not one of them, possibly because you care too much about too many things, because you focus on what should be done instead of what can be done, because you think about what people need instead of what you want. So really, it’s not all bad in the big scheme of things; at least you have good motives. Or maybe, like me, you just screwed up your earlier life, so now there’s hell to pay. Still. Either way, let’s just admit it: our kind of list is overwhelming.

So stop thinking about it, for just a few minutes. (God knows, it will still be there later.)

Resist the impulse to crawl in bed unless you really need a nap, in which case, take one. (If you find yourself dreaming about the things on The List, though, realize that’s a sign that you really need to try something different!)

Don’t resist the impulse to cry, because that means you will have to find a Kleenex, which will get you up and moving.

Just get out of the chair and start walking around, doing stuff at random—it doesn’t matter what: walk down the hall, find the Kleenex, eat a carrot, gather up one bag of trash, put a new light bulb in the fixture that’s been out for six months. Wash one dirty dish. It doesn’t matter what you do: just keep moving. Sort one pile of paper into bills and junk mail. If you find a real letter in there, rejoice at the miracle and answer it. Brush your teeth. Go open the door and stare outside for the first time in weeks. Vacuum one room and leave the vacuum there.

Don’t finish anything. Don’t stay too long in one place. Just keep moving.

I’m convinced that this is the only distinguishing characteristic of people who accomplish stuff: They may be overly responsible deep thinkers and worriers too; the difference is that they Just Keep Moving.

Try it. I just did, and not only does my house feel a little less like a landfill, the list got shorter while I wasn’t obsessing about its length. Also, between the bag of trash and the light bulb, I took time to write something on this blog for the first time in months, and thus have made a start on one of the book projects I’ve had on my back burner to-do list for several years: The Feel Better Book. I know there’s an audience for this title.

But I’m resisting the impulse to move it to a front burner list: I’m going to keep moving, taking care of whatever I find in my path, knowing that I’m at least doing something, trusting that in the big picture, the good will prevail even if I’m off duty.

Grace, after all, is a gift—not something we can acquire like an item on a grocery list, nor can we extend it to others by pursuing a chore list, no matter how well thought out or correct that list might be.

Maybe what we really need to do isn’t even on the list. Maybe it’s waiting to be discovered, somewhere down the hall.

Just keep moving, and keep looking. I know it makes me feel better, whenever I remember to do it.





Posted in Perfectionism, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Right here, right now

Faith is a choice we can make, like recovering addicts, one day at a time. There is no evidence of what’s ahead, only the certainty of what we leave behind: the deficiencies of selfishness, fear’s corrosion of body and soul, the ultimate monotony of evil.

Faith is a decision to live as if God exists—without the coercion of heaven or hell, without proof, without even hope, really.

Faith is rather an act of love, a choice to reach for the good and to wait for it, even when we must do so blindly in this dark, deceptive world—even if there turns out to be no such thing.

When we have said no to all the imposters, with their accusations and their evidence and their rule-bound, shriveled hearts, faith is what remains: a longing for something beyond what we already know, for a world in which entropy is reversed, where life strains toward conscience like plants toward the sun, where meaning can be infused into matter.

In recovery, they say just “do the next right thing.” How does an addict in an evil world even know what that is—and yet we do, don’t we, even if the next right thing is as limited as saying no to the next wrong thing.

Or to the next wrong idea about ourselves, or the next wrong belief that our society or culture or institutions or family—or our internalized versions of them—offer up. The thing about deception is that no matter how sophisticated the presentation may be, it is detectable upon closer examination: it always smells a little off, like it’s made some kind of toxic plastic, no matter how good the paint job on the surface.

It’s all about sniffing out the motive, and deception’s motive is predatory. We can learn to identify predatory people or ideas by paying attention to our instincts—even when the predator lives in our own heads. Ask yourself: Where is this line of thinking taking me? If you realize that you’re being clubbed and dragged into some isolated emotional corner where only fear awaits, you can simply choose not to go. That’s the beauty of the truth: when its light shines on deception, you realize that the power of the adversary’s illusion depends on your buying it.

Unlike real predators, deception can’t close its teeth around you once you realize they are just phantom teeth. It can’t own you if you don’t marry it, if you make a choice to wait for something better, something you can wholeheartedly give yourself to because it never tries to drag you anywhere.

Faith is something we choose by rejecting the predator whenever we recognize where it’s taking us. Even when we are mobbed by fearful thoughts, judgment, and self-blame—even when we can see no way out, and even when there is no way out of some hard fate in reality—we can still choose what we love, what we hold to and hold out for. To be disappointed or betrayed, to lose faith or feel abandoned, is impossible when you make such a choice; love asks nothing back, needs no reward, doesn’t bargain for reciprocity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we always feel secure, at peace, calm, wise, enlightened, or even happy. Predators and threats abound, and for the faithful romantics among us, who aren’t asking for a ring and a date in heaven, or even thinking about any kind of life other than what we have here and now, the future can look pretty grim.

But what’s ahead doesn’t matter: faith is choosing not to go back.

What’s continually amazing to me is that every time I make that choice—which is often many times a day—I realize again that I am loved: right here, right now.

It’s the kind of love you breathe in, an intangible drawn into the world through a portal that your love unlocks, the kind of love that resurrects a vision of some home you haven’t yet seen, and shows you how to make it real: right here, right now.

Posted in Faith, Identity, Love, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments