The Dark Side

When my daughter was younger I could’ve sworn she was Darth Vader’s child. I’ve never slept with Darth Vader. I promise. Yet somehow I found myself wondering if she really could be related to him in some strange, star-crossed way. She never wore a Lycra body suit, donned a black cape, or stalked across the room in time to those ominous duh-duh-duhs. But her voice was awfully deep, her breathing sounded more like rattled honking than actual air exchange, and for some reason she always seemed to be trying to kill me.

I was Luke Freaking Skywalker for God’s sake. Didn’t she see I was trying to do good things? I was trying to help her? Why didn’t she understand that when I said it was time for bed I was only trying to get her to rest? Why didn’t she get that holding my hand near the street meant keeping her safe? Couldn’t she see that when I stopped her from eating all that candy I was really helping her learn self control? And when I stopped her from spinning around a thousand times in a row didn’t she understand I was really preventing her from experiencing that heinous overly dizzy feeling? You know, the one where it seems like you’re being sucked into an endless black hole of death where you’ll surely drown in your own vomit and tears?

It didn’t matter if I tried to reason with her. She never listened. In fact it seemed as though she did the exact opposite of what I suggested just to spite me. Sweet mother she seemed so menacing, always waiting in the wings to turn my well-planned expectations into festering turds of disappointment and self-doubt. If I said stop she said go. If I said down she went even higher. If I said “no” she said “yes.” And if I tried to trick her by saying “yes” when I actually meant “no” she was always one step ahead of me, ready to throw the coercion back my way. Didn’t she see how sick and tired I was of feeling one step behind? Good God, mini-Darth Vader, give me a break! Why did it seem she was the only child who pushed so hard? Went so fast? Yelled so loud? Never stopped asking, prodding, breaking?

Maybe I really was broken because I couldn’t get it, no matter how desperately I tried. Then, one day the force field lifted and I figured it out. I was setting myself up to misunderstand her. I was pushing against her pull. Dragging her through the mud. It seemed like she was just a strong-willed kid raging against the mommy machine, when really I was the one making the fight. I was creating the opposition. The moment struck me like a well-timed hack from a light saber. Only it wasn’t my arm that fell to the floor. It was my heart.

Oh my sweet ever loving God…I was Darth Vader. I was the mother effing Dark Side.

I clearly remember the very moment when it all clicked into place. We’d just moved into a new house and she was having a rough time adjusting, which meant I was also having a rough time adjusting, and for all intents and purposes it meant that the entire family and basically anyone within screaming earshot of our house was also having a rough time adjusting.

She was laying in her new bedroom and I was laying next to her, trying to help her fall asleep. She was kicking the wall and yelling, “I hate this place,” on repeat. My first reaction was to stop her from kicking and then to argue my point. You know, start listing all the cool things about our new house. It was bigger. More outdoor space. More kids to play with. Basically start harping on her for acting like a dick. Only I didn’t do that. Instead I felt her pain. Let it seep into my own bones. I didn’t say it was okay or even that it was eventually going to be okay. The only thing I said was, “I know.”

I hate this place.” Kick. Kick. Kick.

I know.

I don’t want to be here.” Kick. Kick. Kick.

I know.”

I hate this place.” Kick. Kick. Kick.

I let her kick. I let her cry. I surrendered.

You see, most of our lives we try to fight back against something outside of ourselves not even realizing we are the ones creating the fight. Either we forget or we never take the time to learn that sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable, if not preferable to surrender. It doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you’re letting go of the fight.

That night it took over an hour, but eventually she fell asleep breathing her raspy breath into my neck. In those precious moments I learned that I don’t get to decide who she is or what she does. It might seem like as her parent I have that control, but no matter how hard I fight she will become who she wants to be. That fierce little girl is never going to let anyone else define her. Even if I keep pushing my agenda she’ll still be herself. I just won’t get to see her because she’ll learn to hide from me.

People wear masks to protect themselves, forgetting that it works two ways. Battle shields don’t just keep us hidden inside. They also keep everyone else out. On that night in the new house she helped me take off my mask. Unlike Darth Vader I didn’t look any different, but I sure saw her differently. After that I started looking for opportunities to surrender the fight whenever possible. Instead of asking her why she wanted to do something I started asking myself why not. If the answer didn’t involve harm or didn’t infringe on someone else then it was the perfect opportunity to let her be and just surrender my own expectations around her actions and choices.

She wanted to sit on the table. Okay. She wanted to draw on her walls. Okay. She wanted to cut her doll’s hair. Okay. She wanted to draw tattoos on her skin. Okay. Clear boundaries were set of course, but allowing her to be the person she created was what finally set us both free. Along with the freedom another amazing thing happened too. I finally let myself see her. I’d known her for almost four years but I’d never truly seen the person she was. She lives in the moment, sucking up the joy like a high powered Dyson. She pushes boundaries, identifying arbitrary bullshit like a trailblazer. She sees things other people miss, like wild strawberries and clouds shaped like dragons (or turds shaped like dragons). She is incredible and once I really saw her I realized I really liked her. I enjoyed being around her. I started appreciating her as a person instead of just loving her because I was bound to by genetics.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still days where we both look at each other like, “Are you fighting for The Dark Side?” but when that happens I use it as a way to renew what I already figured out. The Dark Side doesn’t really exist. At least not in the way I’ve been taught. It isn’t some evil external force trying to squash all the goodness and love from my soul. In fact it isn’t external at all. The Dark Side exists inside of me. Unfortunately life can make it seem like I need to unleash the fight at every turn, which creates more problems than it solves. We stop learning about ourselves to avoid the fight or we rage against it until it finally weakens our spirit. Neither of those outcomes are particularly uplifting and in the end nobody really wins. In fact, everyone loses.

Thankfully this life gives us countless chances to surrender.We just have to be strong enough to let go. I want to thank my daughter (and Darth Vader) for helping me understand that one of life’s biggest questions isn’t, Which side am I fighting for? but instead, Why am I fighting at all?


Killing the Fun

I’m all about solid research studies. I love empirical data. I used to hoard out-dated issues of Scientific American because I couldn’t bear to put them in the recycling bin. I swear, nothing gets me going like a randomized, controlled, double-blind study.

Research is endlessly beneficial. It explains incredible things like the color spectrum wavelength, demystifies the reason bird poop turns white, and determines which bad habits are most likely to result in death. It even re-explains things we think we’ve already nailed down. Like happiness for instance.

Wait a minute. I already know what makes me happy. Family. Friends. Coffee. Book sales. YouTube videos of baby laughter. I’m stopping here because even though I’m close to the mark I’m still wrong, and despite my love of data the research on happiness isn’t any better at finding an answer.

There are studies that tell us what happiness looks like, how to get it, and most importantly how to keep it. A recent study out of the Netherlands says long-lasting happiness comes from having a strong religious faith. That might be true to some extent but it can’t be the entire story. If it was then atheists would be miserable and those Islamic extremists wouldn’t go around chopping off heads and burning people alive.

For me, the key to happiness can’t be found in current research, probably because it’s too simple. It’s not about religion. It’s about fun. Unfortunately we’re taught from birth that fun is something reserved for weekends, summer vacation, and retirement. If I have to wait thirty more years to start living it up I might as well chop off my own head.

Why is fun something we have to wait for? Why do we cram fun into limited hobbies, shove it into little windows of time, and then feel guilty about having it? Why are we frowning and grumbling and cursing each other out? Why are we popping antidepressants like PEZ? Why are we slaving and sweating and priding those with a “good work ethic” and thinking the only way people become successful is when they give up on fun?

I don’t want my life to be work. I want it to be joyful. I want to stop killing the fun, and more importantly I don’t want my kids to start doing it in the first place. But this killing the fun thing is so ingrained in our culture it’s easy to ignore, and it’s even easy to miss when the same culture slams it our faces.

There’s an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball called “The Joy.” It’s basically about a how a wild and untreatable strain of joy hits the school and giddy happiness spreads all around while the teacher tries to prevent herself from contracting it. It’s so funny and so sad because it’s so true. We don’t even realize it’s happening, but adults are constantly telling children to avoid getting “The Joy.” Maybe we don’t understand that kids are born with it and we do everything in our power to squash it out of them.

Exchanging fun for seriousness is so rampant, not only do we miss when we’re doing it, we even judge other adults who keep their joy. I was at the playground with G and K and there was another dad there with his kids. Our kids were running around and whooping it up and the two of us were sitting there like lumps on a bench. He was checking something vitally important on his iPhone. I was staring into space and occasionally peeking out of the haze to make sure K wasn’t falling to her death.

Another guy brought his kids over but he didn’t sit down. He played. He seriously climbed and slid and even went down the fireman’s pole. Then he started singing. Out loud. In public. My first thought? He must be clinically insane. I mean, who does that? Then I looked closer and saw it. He was filled to bursting with “The Joy.” He was showing his kids how to have fun. I took a look at myself and iPhone Guy and realized we were showing them how to kill it.

It’s not just our actions that teach killing the fun. Our words do it too. Kids are constantly hearing, “Get down! Stop running! Put your shoes on! You can’t throw mulch! Don’t write on yourself! Get out of that mud! This isn’t a joke. Do you think this is funny? You might get hurt! You might! You might! You might!”

Adults are hearing it too, only it’s the perpetually ingrained parental voice inside our own heads. “There’s no time for fun! Take out the trash! Mow the yard! Keep that job you hate! Quit smiling! You need Botox! You’re too clumsy to dance! Do you really think you can do that? You might look stupid! You might! You might! You might!”

There are so many mights in life, and when we live in fear of them we aren’t really living. Yes, you might get hurt. Yes, you might look stupid. But yes, you might honestly have fun doing it. Oh the horror.

In order to live happily we have to come to terms with the fact that life doesn’t have to be so serious. One of my favorite quotes is from Van Wilder. Remember that movie about the drunken lush of a college-kid who ruled the school by having fun? I’m pretty sure the quote was stolen from author Elbert Hubbard, but it sounded much better in the voice of Ryan Reynolds. Anyway, the quote goes, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.”

You won’t. I won’t. Nobody will. Maybe this is where the religion part sneaks in. If we realize our time on this earth is severely limited we’ll finally stop killing the fun.

When I realized what was going on I decided to reverse all that joy-squashing and just embrace it. I took the girls to Target. I grabbed their hands and skipped through the parking lot. Every step was like a dagger through my heart. I was tearing off layers of suckitude and it was painful. I’d killed the fun for so long it was on life support, but each jazzy step was like zapping my lifeless remnant of fun with an AED. By the time we reached the door I realized something. I had “The Joy” and I didn’t want a cure. I wanted to spread it around.

We went straight to the toy aisle instead of cramming it into the last five minutes. We bounced balls. We chased each other with dinosaurs. We rode the bikes without helmets. We pushed every button and turned every crank. I’d never seen my girls so happy. I’m sure I got some “she’s insane” looks, but I didn’t even notice because I was giddy with happiness too.

The weird thing about rediscovering fun is that it hurts at first. We’ve covered ourselves over with layers of blah. Maybe to protect ourselves, or to get ahead at work, or to seem more mature. Whatever the reason I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to kill the fun or cram into places where it fits all tight and convenient. You just have to embrace it.

Start by asking yourself one question: What do you love to do? If you need to think about it, even a little, it means you are figuratively covered in sucky blah-blah. It’s sticky. It doesn’t want to come off. But the more you practice having “The Joy” the easier it gets.

I keep reminding myself to practice. It’s easy when the kids are with me because I’m obviously doing it for them. But what about doing it for myself? I’m waiting for the day when I’ll skip back into Target all by my lonesome. I’ll stop in the middle of the aisle and smile because I brought “The Joy” with me. I’ll grab myself a lollipop, and slurp my way around the store while humming the chords of “Let it Go.” Maybe I’ll even belt out the chorus with my lollipop microphone while trying on those hot pink cowboy boots I’ll never buy.

Will this joyful day ever come? Maybe the bigger question is, will it come for you? You can do it. Go forth. Skip around the parking lot. Eat the candy. Slide down the fireman’s pole. Stop killing the fun and start spreading the joy, and if you see a grown-ass woman cartwheeling down the aisles at Target it’s probably just me embracing the fun too.

**Disclaimer for the science aficionados: I’m highly aware of the lack of empirical evidence for my findings, but when it comes to happiness my own case study will have to suffice.

The Day I Got Ousted

Yesterday I was asked to leave a social-media support group for spirited children. Uh-huh. This spirited adult was booted from a spirited child support group. The reason is both funny-ha-ha and funny-ironic. I got ousted for being closed-minded. Let that sink in a bit.

The original poster vented about her spirited child and asked for ideas. Everything the parent tried for behavior management was not working and every time her daughter was angry she acted like it was the apocalypse.

Here’s where it got a bit messy. One of the parents posted instructions for how to use a car seat to strap her child down so she couldn’t get out of time-out. (Using a car seat for imprisonment! Genius!) Another poster discovered what really “got to her kid” was locking herself away from him when he was upset. (There you go. Make him feel even worse. Win!) Another mentioned how her son cried longer when she was with him so she placed him in his room alone and that made him calm down faster. (That’s it! Teach him to stuff down those feelings! Score!)

Sarcasm aside, I posted a different way of looking at the situation. It IS the apocalypse for the child. She isn’t being overly dramatic or manipulative. She is trying to cope with overwhelming feelings. The world might be ending for her in that moment, so love her through it instead of punishing her for feeling something. Because that’s really all that’s happening. She’s just feeling.

I expected some backlash. Someone said I was teaching my kids that violence is okay by letting them flip out. Another said this would only work for me and no one else. Most just thumbed-up the ludicrous punishments. But one parent asked how it was possible to love a child through a fit, and if I made one person think differently the whole debate was worth it.

I explained how it took me a long way to get here and I’m still learning, but now I make myself available to my kids when they are upset. Every time. There are times when I need to step into the other room to collect myself. Sometimes I need to blast music in my headphones when they are screaming too loud. But I’m still there for them if they need me because the tough moments call for unconditional love the most.

Here’s where it got really messy. I posted my opinion. It is cruel to strap your children down when they are upset. It is cruel to lock yourself in another room because it gets them to pipe down. And sure, placing your children in forced isolation might teach them to calm down faster, but it’s only because it teaches them that being upset is unacceptable. In this case when they’re hurting the only option is “Act how I tell you to act. Feel how I tell you to feel.” That isn’t teaching. That isn’t progress. It’s dominating and cruel.

Shit meet fan. How dare you say someone is cruel? You are so closed-minded. This is a parent support group. We need to stand together. This obviously isn’t the group for you. Please leave. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

Is it cruel to call another person cruel? Maybe. So I left without hesitation and without further comment. Listen, I am not going to support a cruel action. Even if it’s my own. Of course there are times I do cruel things. Everyone does, and anyone who claims not to is lying.

Once we were in a parking lot and Gwen ran ahead of me. I called out to her and she stopped but she was standing in the driving lane. I couldn’t get to her fast enough so I screamed for her to move back onto the sidewalk because a car was driving up the lane. She stayed put in the street and said, “I am.” I ran over to her and yanked her out of the street and yelled something about listening to me. Cruel action? Yes. Cruel person? Probably not.

My action came out of a place of caring, but also out of a place of anxiety. When we talked about it later I discovered she thought she was standing on the sidewalk because the cement was the same color as the road. We discussed what we could do next time to make a similar situation easier for all of us and I explored my feelings to find actions that truly matched my intentions.

Actions do not make anyone a cruel person. I have no doubt that all of the parents posting on that page have the deepest love for their children. It’s the actions that are cruel, not necessarily the people. Still, if we take a bad situation and make it worse by disconnecting from those around us we aren’t really helping anyone. Definitely not our children, and least of all ourselves.

I got ousted for being closed-minded. I’m laughing as I type this of course, but if I do something that’s closed-minded does that make me a closed-minded person indefinitely? Maybe if I’m a repeat offender, but maybe not even then.

I used to work with a little boy for social language therapy. One day he looked over his shoulder at another student’s work and his teacher called him out as a cheater. He told me the story and said, “Yep. I’m a cheater now.” BAM! Self-image modified! Simple as that.

It took a bit of creative story-telling to get him to understand the meaning of cheating. That cheating happens when you intend to copy someone’s original work and simply glancing at another person’s paper doesn’t make you a cheater. Furthermore, the act of cheating doesn’t make you a permanent cheater any more than saying prayers makes you a permanent saint. In fact, you are only a cheater in the moment you are cheating, and in that same instant you can also be honest, or brave, or any other plethora of characteristics.

We are never just one thing, no matter how much other people want to box us in. We are also not defined by our actions. In fact, we get into trouble when we allow our actions to pigeon-hole us. When we let our egos (or someone else’s) get the better of us we are no longer capable of change, nor are we able to move forward or transcend what we currently are. So I got ousted for being “closed-minded.” Irony aside, my mind is open too.

Stories of Minute

“Hello Old Man,” the vet whispered into Minute’s furry little ear. Then he leaned down and listened to his furry little heart.
“How old is he?” he asked.
“He’ll be thirteen in October,” I said.
“Oh. Yeah. You’re getting old little fella. You got a heart murmur now.”
I picked Minute up off the table and cuddled him. No sweat. Just another story to add to the seemingly infinite list. You see, the thing about Minute is, there are lots of things about Minute.
I adopted him from a sweet lady who couldn’t take him to her apartment so she was going to take him to the shelter. I wasn’t worried about a dog like Minute surviving in lock up. Sure he was little, but he’d survived worse. He only had one working eye and one or two working teeth, wounds he earned from a scrapping fight in puppy-hood. If another dog came sniffing around Minute wasn’t shy about trying to bite off his nose. Plus he always smelled like a mixture of stale cigarettes and Doritos, an appealing scent for any jailhouse mutt. I knew he could cut it in the shelter. I just didn’t want him to have to cut it in the shelter.
So I brought him home, carried him inside, and sat all nine pounds of him down on the kitchen floor.
“What is that?” Brian asked.
“That’s Minute.”
“We aren’t keeping him are we?”
The thing is, I was constantly bringing home something and finding a home for it somewhere. I’m sure I could’ve found someone to take him. But I wanted to be the someone to take him. So he stayed.
Mostly he lazed around, drank water, nibbled food, and peed out giant truckloads of urine, unleashing a whole-day’s stream on a single unsuspecting shrub. Then he sauntered back inside and laid down again. He didn’t bark. He didn’t jump. He didn’t do much of anything.
We figured he needed more action, so we took him to a dog beach. I carried him into the water and then carried him back out. His head flopped awkwardly over my arm and his tongue hung out.
“That doggy is dead,” a little girl pointed and shrieked.
I decided he needed some exercise, so I tricked him into taking a daily walk around the block, bribing him with a chunk of ham every so many steps. About half way around he refused to go any further, regardless of the ham dangling in mid-air. He plopped down on the side walk and the only way he went home was in my arms.
Then one day he jumped. He was sitting there at my feet and all of a sudden he took a flying leap and landed on the couch beside me.
“Holy crap. Did he just jump?” Brian asked.
We both stared at him while he gave us a smirk that seemed to say, “Suck it.”
That day Minute came to life. Sure he still laid around most of the time, but that jump was his way of telling us to take notice. Over the next few years he found the best ways to remind us we needed to pay attention.
Like the time I walked into my closet and sniffed the faint scent of fresh crap. I inspected the carpet but couldn’t find anything. That is until a few months later when hot weather hit. I pulled out my summery shoes and strategically placed in my favorite pair of heels was Minute’s petrified turd.
He came with us to visit a friend in Key West. We were staying on a houseboat and Minute, not wanting to be left behind when we left for dinner, decided to make a break for the front door. Unfortunately he landed in the Gulf with a giant splash. Fortunately our friend with quick reflexes rescued him as soon as he kurplunked off the deck.
Storm season in Florida can get pretty tough and the thunder and wind caused Minute severe anxiety. I came home from work after a particularly nasty storm and heard faint barking. When I figured out he closed himself in the bathroom I opened the door and there he was. Sitting in the toilet. He was doused in the electric blue of 2000 Flushes and it took months before he turned back to his typical shade of brown.
Minute’s fear of storms also meant when it stormed at night he slept with us. A better description would be he paced around on our bed, shook violently and panted his face off, belting us with hot stanky breath for the duration of the storm. He also tried to climb to safety, which usually meant he crept up my pillow and laid on my head.
One nasty stormy night I must have managed to fall asleep in spite of the panting, shaking, and breath-stinking nightmare, but was rudely awoken by Minute cramming his furry little paw right down my throat in a desperate attempt to find higher ground. I can still remember choking and sputtering and then laughing myself into hysterics when I figured out the cause.
Minute’s stories flashed through my mind while I held him in the veterinarian’s office and I started thinking about the day when he won’t be around to get our attention anymore. There will be a day when all of those memories are all that will be left of his life. So go ahead old man. Step in my mouth. Crap in my shoe. I promise I won’t mind in the slightest.

Fallen Clowns

As fall creeps toward Halloween I am reminded of a time about eight years ago, when we were still living in the land of the perpetual sun.  Though, on this particular occasion the sun was nowhere to be found, or rather it was facing the other side of the planet.  Night parades are paramount in Florida.  Those and fireworks.  People can never get enough of them, although admittedly throwing candy and beads at people in the dark and shooting fireworks off on a residential street could result in someone losing an eye.  Or worse.

This night was fraught with parades, fireworks, and costumes, because Floridians also adore costumery.   Brian and I were both dressed like clowns, which might have foreshadowed our entire relationship.  My costume was purchased via the “world wide web” as it was probably called back then, to match his that was of course plucked from the seasonal Halloween rack at the Valrico Goodwill.

The moment Brian spotted that God-awful clown suit he proclaimed that it must be his, though it was a child’s large at best.  Still, he stuffed himself into that polka-dot nightmare that left him gasping for air as it squeezed his ribcage, also leaving him in the vulnerable state of needing someone else to unsnap him so he could use the toilet.

He tried it on right there in the aisle, next to the other used and abused costumes. As soon as the partially snagged, rainbow mess touched his skin he said it was magic.  The fabric of the arms and legs only came to mid-elbow and calf length, leaving him to look like an overgrown weed who happened to want to dress like a clown.  It was only fate at work when he found a bright red, ruggedly-used wig, and put that on too, because why shouldn’t he wear a wig that someone else’s head had already sweated into?

As we stood on the sidewalk watching the floats drift by, Brian smoking a cigar, me trying to avoid staring at the scantily clad, the unthinkable yet simultaneously hilarious happened.  He was there standing next to me, and all of a sudden he was gone.  I looked around wondering where he had wandered off to, yet again.  Then I heard it.  A cry for help.

I looked down to see him splayed out in the street gutter, trying to roll onto his side to get up, and failing epicly. His arms were outstretched, holding up his cigar in one hand and his miraculously un-spilled beer in the other, trying to keep those items out of the gutter while the rest of his body wallowed in it.

“My knee gave out!” he shouted.

I stopped then to watch the hilarity of a grown man unable to lift himself from a supine position on account of a too-tight clown suit that had him literally trapped in the gutter.  Even though I was sitting next to him, my arm outstretched in aid, I couldn’t help him because I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t stand up either. There we were, two clown who were trying and failing to not be “fallen and can’t get up.” Only now I know that we are still those same clowns all these years later, and God do I love it.