The Man Is More Interesting

As someone who is about to give the IRS all of her money for therapy, I’m delighted couples’ counseling has gone so well. Couples’, isn’t it? Even though we are a singular couple? So many people have told me that it’s helpful, that everyone should have it, that it would help, and I’m relieved they were right.

PS – I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now and the man across from me is quite obviously listening to a phone call on speaker wherein a bank is talking to a customer about his need for a loan. The man is not the customer. The loan is not his. Is this what it means when it says “this call may be recorded for training purposes”? It’s actually a man in a Panera listening in to make sure customer service is what it should be?

Anyway, it seems as though we might be winding counseling down. We’re certainly communicating better and the missing pieces are beginning to resolve. I’m worried that in time we’ll slip back into old habits. I’m worried that the things that were broken are only patched over but, as the therapist would say, whose to say they aren’t healing up instead of patched? She’s probably right, she often is.

PPS – I have just now coughed loudly, thanks allergies, and the man looked alarmed. Considering he has had speaker phone on in this busy, noisy place, the bank probably can’t hear me so perhaps the man is worried for my health. He doesn’t seem worried about the lack of income of the person requesting the loan.

So we will taper the therapy til it’s gone and see if we can get past the visit with my mother and make sure the patches are scars and the kind that make you more interesting – not bandaids on wounds that needed stitching.

PPPS – I think you should know that the bank lady just said “there’s a lot of static on this line” and the man is referring to a lot of paperwork he has spread in the chairs around him. I wonder if the man is legally listening in on this conversation. This is clearly a heist in action.

Besides, I love my wife and I think it’s likely we’re recovering. You’ve been hanging in there with us, for some of you ten years (or more). I thought you’d welcome a happy update.

PPPPS – The man ran out and left his laptop. I assume he’ll be back, richer, but we’ll never know.

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Holidays With

Since at least 1973, there’s a place in town that has been serving two grilled doughnuts with a scoop of ice cream called a Grills With. I have a love/hate relationship with insider language like this. The dish itself sounds amazing – I have not had it – but it implies so much. What is grilled? What comes with? Can you order it without? Then is it just called a Grills? But it’s historical, you say, and of course the menu tells you! And there are other hidden features like bacon! And chocolate sauce if only you ask! You clearly do not experience restaurant ordering anxiety but I don’t hold it against you.

The winter holidays are the Grills With of my life and maybe yours, too. There’s the basic units, in our case, me, my wife, and RR and the holiday events themselves which evolve and change over time but which have been core ingredients. They are loaded with insider knowledge, for instance, there’s no way for you to know that my family always had tamales on the Eves, on New Year’s Eve we ate pizza rolls and watched 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, cinnamon rolls dethroned overnight french toast on Christmas morning in 1986, and 11pm church services were non-negotiable for everyone. There’s also no way to know that Debra and I ban family and friends prior to 10am on Christmas morning (if not longer), that I get to hang the six tiny glass ornaments, and that we do all of our shopping for each other on Christmas Eve.

That’s the Grills With for us. Then there’s all the other things you can have with it, family, new traditions, travel, weather, etc. For the last several years, my family has been adding random ingredients into our recipe. Barring the Christmas my parents lived with us, we managed to keep Christmas morning to ourselves. But, they brought with them a load of other add-ons, some of which were their Grills With, no doubt. It made for a complicated set of holidays trimmed with anxiety over unspoken requirements and unknowable “givens”. This year, my dad is gone, my mom has moved away, my sisters aren’t traveling, many of our friends are out of town, and it looks like we will be back to basics again.

Perhaps my Grills With analogy is hard to follow, but it sticks in my head as the thing that is so simple but so complicated to actually have, much like the holidays. There are many assumptions and a coded language. There’s anxiety but also enjoyment if you can just manage it. And so, happiest of holidays to you. Enjoys your own Grills With and don’t try to explain it, just dig in and savor it. I will be.

Bad Habits, I Guess?

I’ve been informed that I’m doing it all wrong. I know, right? That is a heavy burden to carry. Yes, friends. I am proceeding through life as only the oblivious can do. Wrongly wronging with abandon. 

A more than occasional theme of late is that I’m accommodating. That I am particularly aware of how my actions/inaction will impact the people around me. That I am overly concerned with smoothing the way. This theme is accompanied by a stream of well-meaning scolding. I mean, honestly, I’d have ignored it if it hadn’t become such a thing. Apparently, my inclination to do this or that in order to minimize potential confusion or frustration is a hazard, not a perk.

Well, fuck. 

I suppose being accommodating can be seen as being too concerned with others’ feelings. I see it as pretty self-serving. I’m made more comfortable by having as few bumps in the road as possible. If I can proactively do or say something that will make our interaction better, I absolutely will. It’s not a tendency to avoid conflict either, because in the fight or flight equation, I’m full on fight. I also don’t go very far out of my way to smooth yours. Not everything can be perfect, of course, but it doesn’t mean I’m not trying.

These sound like excuses though. And as much as I don’t think it’s a big deal, everyone else seems to, which is in direct opposition to being accommodating. Here’s an example that I suspect will make you nod and agree with my wife:

I’m sitting in a coffee shop across from a man who has his backpack on the chair next to him. It’s a busy day and a small shop. I have also noticed that our table is the wheelchair accessible table which has filled me with low level angst the whole time I’ve been here. Several people have eyed this chair as they walked past, a mother and child, a lady with a mean cell phone voice, and a befuddled man with a cup of coffee who has circled the table three times. He looks like he’d like to ask for the seat but hasn’t for whatever reason. He also doesn’t look like he’s used to contending with fancy people, like backpack man, for space. While I don’t want to ask the man to move his bag myself, it tripled the anxiety I was feeling about working at the shop at all and being at the accessible table in the first place.

Not my backpack. I’m not taking up too much space. I’ve only been here 20 minutes. This is a common work location. Just because I have the skills to deal with a fancy backpack man doesn’t mean befuddled guy didn’t. This is not my concern. Still though. 

Another example. I’m having, again, dreadful problems at work. I go out of my way to get as much management training as possible, I practice what I learn, and I get rave reviews about my communication and support for my team. However, it turns out that I’ve been trying too hard to cushion the more difficult issues and, as a result, there hasn’t been as much suffering as there could be. Or something like that. Rather, I’m the one doing all the suffering. Even I’m aware that less hand-holding is required. This smoothing the way habit has definitely backfired. 

Obviously, that’s vague and doesn’t make for great reading. Suffice to say, now it’s not just my wife and sister telling me I’m too accommodating, it’s work, too. Which apparently pushes me over the edge. Fun. I can’t even effectively blame my mom for this since it has definitely gotten worse in the last several years. There’s no conclusion to this and I wish I’d remembered to warn you about that so you wouldn’t waste your time but there it is. 

And there it is. Literally. Right above us. I clearly have work to do. 

6,700,000,000

That’s the results you get if you google “how much can one person take”. It’s also at the top of the autofill list if you get all the way to …one person. Of course, in my search results, it looks like this. Please don’t ask me to explain lot lizards.

The first result there is for a stress quiz from Oprah. I clicked it for you, dear reader. It was not a quiz (bummer) but was instead a link to a stress meter. It was not a fun drag-the-arrow sort of meter (bummer) but rather a PDF to fill in All The Feelings (super bummer).

Basically, I can’t take the amount of stress that worksheet is giving me. You can’t even drag and drop those colorful doodads on the right which I totally would have done. For you.

And while couples’ counseling is hard, and so are pets, and eight-year-olds, and broken down cars, and friends that move away, personnel problems are really hard. Especially on top of the rest. I’m in it, friends. And have been, since last year at this time. Knee deep in one problem after another and I am so exhausted. I realized today that all I want is for someone to help. Not to explain the rules or commiserate or sympathize. I just need help. 

I’m not without it, never fear, and it can’t go on forever (although, after a year, I think it’s fair to be worried) but I feel like pieces of me are flaking off and they are the only good pieces. I’m worn to wire in places, nothing but policies and best practices. And a wireframe doesn’t make friends easily, or cuddle nicely, or bend back into shape. At least wire doesn’t break. There’s always a bright side, right?

And Us and Them and We

Apparently, practically everyone has been in couples’ counseling. Not you, of course. Well, at least not all of you. Probably. In my old age (I just had a birthday and that was nice), I’m realizing that I give far fewer fucks than I used to about what people think. I’m also realizing that the last few years of personal and professional challenges have drained me deeply; I now have a small margin of self-restraint before I will tell people my business. It’s like my tire treads are worn out and I just sort of slide into the corners with a teenager’s confidence that it’ll all be okay.

I do have a fair amount of restraint at work, thank goodness. There it’s all black ice all the time and I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t care if I spin out. Everywhere else I seem to be more than willing to say, “we’re in couples’ counseling, you know” I don’t ever say why. I don’t think it would make me feel better if I did. Once, Debra and I found out some distant acquaintances were in counseling and we spent some time speculating whether it was an affair, or drugs, or abuse. We shouldn’t have, of course, but we were young and didn’t understand that they were working hard to fix something rather than settling into contempt or giving up. Fifteen years of wrinkles, that much experience, and no shortage of humbling communication snafus later, and it seems obvious. 

I was talking with my stylist (this makes me sound more fancy than I am) and she said that it’s remarkable, really, that couples make it as long as they do. You can’t expect people to stay the same. They change and grow and they don’t always grow in alignment with one another. They don’t always grow at the same pace. Someone one veers off while the other races ahead. Someone sinks in while the other reinvents. Not every couple should stand fast. Sometimes they need to help each other along, even if along means out

So even though I’ve always thought that couples’ counseling was reserved for couples careening into a split, now I’m finding that many people I tell have ALSO been in couples’ counseling and that every single one of them is a happy person, fundamentally satisfied with life. I thought counseling was reserved for couples with deal breakers. I thought it was something to keep quiet. But I’m not in a deal breaker situation, I’m not in a situation at all, and it’s a relief to hear that others have been here and that it doesn’t have to be forever. It feels hopeful. 

And You Get A Trophy, And You Get a Trophy…

I have opinions about participation trophies. Not that I’d begrudge a kid a little trophy for showing up, I just haven’t particularly supported that approach as a way to motivate or reward them. You know the arguments – hard work is the reward, they won’t value real trophies, it dilutes the work of the kids who deserved them, etc. As with everything parenting though, everyone has an opinion and everyone is right.

RR received a trophy for swimming this summer. She had just barely graduated past Flailing and Sinking when we signed her up. We didn’t put sign her up for meets at the start since it wasn’t at all clear she’d survive the experience. Thank goodness for lifeguards. I was also concerned that swimming would go the way of soccer where we spent most of our time watching her pick flowers and pass the ball to friends who hadn’t had a turn yet, her team or not. Or perhaps ballet, where she spent her time gazing in the mirror. I wasn’t at all confident this would be a success.

But she liked it. RR, who spends a lot of time being neutral about things, actually liked swimming. So we signed her up for swim meets. And she liked those too, once she got over the disappointment of it not being a swim meat.

RR: Mama, what kind of meat will it be?
Me: A swimming compitition, where you race the people next to you.
RR: Yes, but what kind of meat will they put in the pool? Pork? I’m hoping for pork.
Me: …

She wasn’t good at swimming and she didn’t win a thing. In fact, she mostly kept other little girls from coming in last. But she went to practice everyday. She tried hard. She coped with the weekly disappointment of not getting a ribbon and of not coming close to winning, even in the slowest heats. She has even been enthusiastic about the idea of continuing over the winter.

This weekend we had the awards ceremony for the close of the season. The look on RR’s face when they called her up was priceless. She was amazed and shocked and grateful and overwhelmed. She kept holding it above her head as all the kids came to the front, bouncing with excitement. She high-fived her friends (RR has friends!). She was breathless when she came to the back to show us. I had no idea that a participation trophy could make such a big impact on a tiny person. She was so proud of herself and it was clear – that little gold swimmer packed more motivation to try harder and get better and go faster than anything anyone could have said to her.

So here’s to yet another milestone: participation on a team and motivation to do it again.

Make a Decision

You know, I’m a competent professional. Part of my work is to make decisions, forecast the future, design plans that will move us forward into new places, and sprinkle the whole thing with innovative ideas. I’m good at it and I like doing it. I’m not a waffler, although at home I’m deliberate; at work I make decisions relatively quickly, accepting that if there are mistakes we can right them the second or third time. That would be a problem in fields where decisions are exceptionally costly or life-saving, but I work at a library, folks, none of my decisions are going to be disasters.

My wife likes to consider all of the possible options before settling on a decision. We’re incompatible this way (at home, I’m not always interested in options) but we are very compatible in that the time I prefer to make a decision (again, at home) is pretty close to the time she needs to consider all of the options. I like to think of it this way – she will lay out a range of options and then I can make a quick decision after having taken awhile to consider them all and we’ll end up landing in about the same place. You might recall that we had paint samples on our bedroom wall for a year.

My mother wants me to make instant decisions about things that are important to her. And then she wants me to do those things right then and there. Under duress, I can usually accommodate one preference, but not the other. For example, she wanted to know if I would take a lovely fountain and a fleet of end tables so that she didn’t need to move them. I said I would on the spot but they will certainly hang out in my basement until I’ve had time to consider where I’ll put them. This will take awhile, my brain space is occupied by other things, and it bothers me not at all that we don’t know where we’ll put them yet (or ever).

It agitates her that I sit on things past the .15 seconds she has provided for a decision. What dates am I thinking of traveling? Where am I planning to go? What do I think I’ll do when I get there? If there’s not a plane ticket, hotels, or a friend’s couch involved, those decisions may well come once I arrive. When we went to Disneyworld, I bent my entire will toward planning out the trip (although leaving plenty of flexibility) but this is not my regular approach. I head somewhere down the middle but closer to the last minute.

For example, earlier this month Debra and I decided that we might go away for the weekend. Two weeks prior, we decided on a location. A week prior, we made a hotel reservation. Three or four days prior, we decided what we’d do when we got there and we decided when to leave about 15 minutes before we got in the car. Of course, this is for a relatively local vacation. I don’t consider most of that last minute but I watched my mother practically tremble with agitation and judgement as we waltzed through this process.

Today I’m spending the afternoon with her wrapping up the tail end of her packing. I am well aware that she will expect me to make more split decisions about what I want to take and leave. I’d prefer to decide later once I’ve brought it home. I’m not asking her to delay any moving things and my decision will have no impact at all on her. I just want the chance to consider the greater picture and, if she behaves as she usually does, this is going to drive her insane. I’m not feeling particularly accommodating today. I’m trying not to think of this as a looming disaster.

I accept that there’s a happy medium here and that the stress she’s under doesn’t give her the flexibility to move outside of her comfort zone. The impending conflict is completely within my control. Clearly, the teenager in me is trying to act out – I could make decisions quickly, I just don’t want to. If I can just get that cantankerous 15-yr-old to cool her jets, I might be able to make it through this.