Don’t call us, we’ll call you

July 17, 2013

Of slumber parties and dating advice

Filed under: Family, Lindsay loves Neal, Motherhood, Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 9:21 pm

Last month I had a slumber party with one of my best friends. I vacationed at her house for 2 weeks so one might argue I had 13 slumber parties with her, but it was only one particular night that we stayed up obscenely late (read: 12:30 am), giggling and talking about boys and dating and first kisses. For one giddy night, we pretended that we didn’t have three toddlers that were going to wake us her up obscenely early sleeping right in the next room. We told stories of the girls we had once been, eventually getting around to how we met our husbands and created our own little girls.

It got me thinking about what advice I might give to my little girl one day when she is not so little. So here, Addison, is my almost-34-years-old, been married for 6-years-and-3-months advice. Someday, I hope we can discuss it during a late night slumber party . . .

Don’t look for a checklist. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If you find the checklist, don’t imagine that guarantees happiness or ease. Plan to marry a work-in-progress (since everybody is), knowing that you will never know what the final version of that life will look like. Think long and hard about what this person’s version of work-in-progress looks like — ask them, too; it’s a good idea to find out if you have the same ideas about what progress means — and then ask yourself, am I willing to take this person’s progress as my own? Do I want to go on a very uncertain and possibly rocky journey with him?

Speaking of journeys, take a road trip together, possibly a very uncertain and rocky one. I would be happy to come along! Nothing puts a boyfriend through the wringer like hitting the road with potential in-laws two hours after you meet them — just ask your Dad!

But don’t just take road trips: Live near each other for a year, observing his day-to-day habits. I can’t take credit for this one; it was Grammy and Gramps’ instruction to their adolescent daughter. But now I know why, because that romantic haze — wherein your new love seems perfect even though they are, in fact, a work-in-progress — is a real thing. The “dopamine bubble,” some researchers call it. Don’t be its victim.

Observe as many couples as you can, as closely as you can, for as long as you can before you get married. I lived with four different married couples and, wow (!), it’s eye-opening to sit in the crosshairs of the occasional marital conflict.

Ask him if he’ll go to therapy with you anytime you ask. Maybe therapy won’t be your thing — there’s always the chance you’re more well-adjusted than your mom — but ask anyway because his response might be very revealing. Even if nothing could ever possibly go wrong because you are like two peas in a pod, promise each other that you’ll get help together anytime one of you feels the need. You keep your end of that promise.

Make sure you think he’s funny, even if no one else does, because humor will be the next best thing if you can’t get over to the therapist immediately.

Meet his parents. Try not to throw up two minutes later in their bathroom, but if you must, you must. See if he cleans it up after gently tucking you into the nearest bed. See if they invite you back.

Never say you can’t live without him. I know it seems like a romantic superlative, but whoever he is, you have lived without him before and you could do it again. Hopefully, you won’t have to and, hopefully, you won’t want to, but you could, always.

If at all possible, find someone who will write about you as beautifully as your father has. It’s not the only way to gauge someone’s love, but it will give you goosebumps for years to come. (In exchange for those goosebumps, you may have to work to support your starving artist. No big deal.) If he can’t write, have him read this just to test whether he can at least appreciate good writing:

When she was born, the waves of that sea crested over her one last time, and then crashed, spilling away on a fading tide, draining from her lungs and clearing from her eyes. In the residue of these waters were my wife and myself and a little girl, who looked directly at us, and screamed. As we beheld this tiny sea creature, wafting ocean spray formed drops that ran in rivulets down our cheeks, and then also spilled away.

And there we were, all of us washed up on dry land. Addison, the most recent castaway, cried out immediately in bewilderment for something to take the place of the soothing waters of her life as a fish and to quench her powerful thirst. Her mother provided much of that, and would continue to do so, for the next year of her life. But in the first moment that I stroked my daughter’s hand, she grabbed onto me, without even looking, and didn’t let go. I knew that my wife wasn’t her only safe harbor.

She placed herself completely, without a hint of reservation, in my hands. It was hard to fully grasp then, and it still is. She needed me. But I also realized during that time that she didn’t just need me as I was, but that she needed all the potential in me. I didn’t immediately feel like a different person. Rather, I felt the weight of my obligation to become the best father my daughter could wish for. Some fatherly instincts were automatic; others I’ve tried to cultivate.

Eventually she lost her automatic grasp reflex, and now any time that she holds my hand it is an act of volition. When she merely held my finger she was barely on the cusp of serious decision-making, and she never wandered far anyway; but now she can grasp my hand with hers, her sweaty little octopus hand, and every time she does, my heart swells a little. Because she is choosing me.

If he knows exactly what Dad was talking about here — you summon all the potential in him, too, and that heart swell, well, it doesn’t even begin to describe it — he may just be the right person to invite on your own work-in-progress journey.

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June 8, 2012

Neal’s DadCentric guest post

Filed under: Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , — llcall @ 5:10 pm

If we’re friends on Facebook, or you’re on my family email lists, or I’ve talked to you in the last week, or you read my blog post from yesterday, you already know about Neal’s guest post at DadCentric. But I’m still super excited and shouting it from the rooftops! You would be too if this is all you witnessed during Neal’s “work” (we tell Addison to always put work in quotes) time for nine months:

So if you haven’t already, hop over and read “On holding hands.” (The comic is one of my favorites — but I may end up saying that a lot just as I do about my men in jail.)

April 30, 2012

Blogosphere, meet Neal

Several weeks ago, one of my friends said this to me: “So what exactly are you doing right now? Your life is just so . . . different.” I like to think she meant different in the best possible way (but then, that’s one of my core personality traits: I assume that people think I’m awesome until they tell me otherwise or literally cut off ALL contact with me.) (Which an old friend I love actually did about two years ago, and Neal still occasionally has to remind me that she is done as evidenced by her lack of response to my phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, and snail mail — I guess I have a hard head when it comes to friendship). Well, the answer to that what-are-you-doing question is kind of lengthy, so I’m not really going to answer it right now. But I can tell you something that Neal is doing since a couple of weeks ago he launched two blogs he’s had floating around in his head for a few years.

One is called Raised by My Daughter and is (obviously) about parenthood.  I love so many things about this blog (and he’s only written a few things on it).  His writing.  His sense of humor.  His comics.

from this post

His photoshopped pictures of Addison.

from this post, which also explains a teeny bit more about what we're doing

I typically edit his posts for him, so I have read some of them about 10 times, but I still find myself rereading my favorite parts and chuckling out loud.  I know it seems crazy to some people, but I would rather be the sole breadwinner (not that I am right now, mind you; no one is at the moment) in our little family and get to read his writing than have him get a job and stop writing.  I was spellbound the first time I read his work in April 2005, and I still am.

The second blog, English Major versus the World, is a tougher sell for me because it is a sci-fi/fantasy review blog.  Not only is it not up my alley in terms of reading material (still a nonfiction girl at heart), but I also thought I had completely convinced him to focus on other projects instead . . .  only to come back from my vacation a few weeks ago to find that he had worked on almost nothing else.  So annoying when people don’t let me boss them around, you know?!  But now that I have read some of the reviews and have a better vision for how this plays into some of his other long-term plans, I concede that I was wrong.  I really like this blog too . . . it’s made me want to read Moby Dick and The Road (although I’ll need to work myself up to such an emotionally difficult read) and it’s almost made me want to read Red Mars (which may or may not be his key purpose in creating the blog).

Check out his blogs if you’re interested!

Also, he really would like you to call him Hawkeye.

February 20, 2012

Neal’s Sacrament Meeting Talk: 1 January 2012

After I posted my recent talk in Church, Neal gave me permission to post his talk, despite the fact that it was not as carefully crafted as he wanted it to be (but that’s not really his fault since he had a sick baby and a sick wife in the days before).  But it was still wonderful, says this unbiased president of the Neal fan club.  I have to say, though, that probably more than mine, his was one that you had to hear in person to get the full effect.  There’s a great joke midway through, but it doesn’t really come through unless you are looking at his full beard and nearly shoulder-length hair.  And he actually cried — a lot — and he never cries so there was just a certain poignancy to all his words.

I want to explain a little about the journey that I took as my wife and I named Addison, partly because Elder Ballard opens his own talk with similar thoughts. He explains that for about six months, his mind had “repeatedly focused on the subject of the importance of a name” as several great-grandchildren had come into his family. He says that each “received a special name chosen by his or her parents, a name to be known by throughout his or her lifetime.” He explains that it is true in “every family, and it is also true among the religions of the world.” I want to extend that little introduction he gave into an analogy that has helped me to think about what it means to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how my little family right now is a microcosm of the gospel family that God invites us to join.

When my wife and I were expecting Addison, we would sort of haphazardly flip through name books, maybe pick a page and run down a list. You know . . . Amberly, Ambrosia, Amelie, Americus, Anemone. It all seemed kinda silly and just whimsical at first. And you learn that people are actually naming their kid “Aurelius.” But I also learned that Lindsay actually recorded the names we’d talk about, and would bring them up periodically in later months.

“So,” she’d say, “do you still like the name Sophie?” I’d look at her blankly until Lindsay pointed her finger at the word on a notebook page dated two months prior. “No, not really,” I’d say, sort of perplexed at what must have been going through my head on September 13. Not that I had anything against the name Sophie, I just couldn’t recall any special connection to it. Then she’d say, looking at her notes, how about “Edith,” and how about “Olivia,” and how about “Emma?”

“They’re fine, I suppose, as names go.” And I’d peer at her page. “Did I really say those?”

The thing is, I hadn’t gotten serious yet. To me, Lindsay’s bump was still so far removed from a baby, it was hard for me to imagine just how real she would be in just a few short months. Lindsay was much more attuned to the little creature in her tummy . . . she kicked, she turned, she gave Lindsay indigestion and horrible rashes, and she kept Lindsay company during night, after long night, as Lindsay lay sleepless and hurting in bed. I still feel guilty that I wasn’t awake more during Lindsay’s suffering, to help alleviate her pains; but I know also that Addison and her mom grew close in those nights, and that Addison was a healing presence, one to combat the sometimes despairing darkness. I think back on it now, and I see a microcosm of the battle between good and evil in that experience; I see Joseph Smith’s struggle in the Sacred Grove, and the saving grace of God at the end of it.

But for a long time, I was either too busy or too oblivious to really contemplate the miracle that Addison would be, and in fact, already was. And frankly, I hadn’t thought very carefully about the power of names.

Near Christmastime, about a month and a half before Addison was born, the accumulation of my negligence spilled over the edge, and Lindsay told me, in no uncertain terms, to get in the game. She had her own anxieties about naming, and needed my help. For her, a particular obstacle was how to determine a name for someone who must have already had a name in some form, in the eternities. Do the names of this life supplant others? And is the name that we choose to give our daughter one that she’ll have forever, millions, and billions of years from now? If we name her wrong, will it be a curse?

It makes me think of a passage that probably all of us have read, whether two years ago or fifty:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

To Juliet, Romeo’s name is an “enemy,” and it makes her question the very value of names. She claims that without the title “Montague,” Romeo would still be the same person. She cries for him to “doff” his name, to shrug out of his family history, as though it were a label that could be easily removed.

But the play does not end with the two teenagers changing their names and running off to live happily, and anonymously, in Tahiti. No, if anything, Shakespeare’s play is an illustration of the power of names, and how a name can guide a person’s trajectory in life. In naming Addison, I wanted that power to be used for good.

I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, and began researching different principles that Lindsay and I had discussed, starting with the idea of “Grace.” I followed a string of articles, from “grace” to “salvation,” from “salvation” to “salve” (S-A-L-V-E), from “salve” to “salvia,” which is Latin for “to heal,” and which is also another name for the plant “sage,” which has been used medicinally for thousands of years as a treatment for nearly every ailment. I compiled a 40-page document tracing the etymology of each of these words back as far as history records them, and submitted them, with a suggestion for a name, for approval from my wife.

I gave this stack of pages to Lindsay and she said something like “you’ve got to be kidding me;” and banned me from any further use of the Oxford English Dictionary until my semester of school was over. But my suggestion passed her muster, and our little girl became “Addison Sage Call.” Our salve, our healer, our light in the dark, since as a medieval saying puts it: “Why should a man die, whilst sage grows in his garden?”

In naming her, and then again while giving her a baby blessing, I promised all of these things to Addison . . . not as something rigid or confining, but as an available blessing from her Father in Heaven, voiced by her earthly father, should she choose to accept and live up to it. You might also say that by naming my daughter, the healer, the soother, our Addison Sage, I set up an agreement not just between Addison and God, but between myself and God . . . that I know God has given me the opportunity to raise a child in order that I become a better person, and that if I can rise to the challenge, then she will be an agent of healing and grace for me, just as her name promises.

Elder Ballard describes taking Christ’s name upon you this way: that “you that have entered into the covenant with God” should strive to “be obedient unto the end of your lives.” It sounds daunting, perhaps even stringent, but I think God offers the name of Christ to us with the same affection and tenderness that I offered a name to Addison.

We always hear that being parents helps us to better understand God’s purpose and his joy in his creations. Well, my process for naming Addison was the best I could do to articulate my love for her, my hopes for her, and my desire to protect her with a reminder of what she is capable of. It was the best gift I could think to give her. Our Heavenly Father, I think, feels similarly, and gave His Son to us, both in body and as a name, as a way of showing his love, expressing his hope, and offering protection.

Before I got serious about naming Addison, none of the many names I encountered seemed to particularly matter. I just felt sort of avoidant and haphazard. In a similar way, I don’t always think of myself as a follower of Christ. It’s so easy to just call myself, and let myself be referred to, as a Mormon, an easy nickname, and one that carries no more special import, to me, than many other nicknames. What it seems to mean, both to non-members, and often to myself, is that I belong to a church where I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I dress conservatively, I’m encouraged to be neatly groomed and trimmed . . . to me the term “Mormon” evokes prohibitions, or perhaps historical events, like the Mormon Trail, or traditionally exploitive descriptions like “Hide your children, the Mormons are coming!” But to be a follower of Christ, to define myself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, that goes beyond what may turn out to be very temporal prohibitions and definitions. To be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ is, I think, to focus less on prohibitions, and more on blessings and opportunities. It is a focus on the Atonement. The name of Christ is a name that matters, because it is a gift from God.

Elder Ballard points this out in Mosiah, Chapter 5, when we are cautioned to “remember also, that this is the name that I said I should give unto you that never should be blotted out.” So, I shouldn’t hide Christ’s name under a bushel. Like a family name, Christ’s name is ours to keep, to never blot out, to use as a strength and a guide, a compass to remember who we are and what we can become. It need not come and go with each little good action or mistake we make. We are told that we should “remember to retain [His] name written always in our hearts” and Elder Ballard entreats us to think of Jesus Christ, not just as a convenient way to end prayers, but as the man who, as it says in Mosiah, “atoned for all who would repent of their sins,” and who “broke the bands of death and provided the resurrection from the dead.”

And I find some comfort in the fact that we can still take on Christ’s name, not because we are sinless or perfect, but because we seek to repent of our sins, and strive to become perfect. Or, as the sacrament prayer says, we witness a “willingness” to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. That prayer describes the intersection of man and God — the intersection of imperfection and perfection, with the link being not absoluteness, but continued effort, and continued willingness.

May 24, 2011

Overhead around the house . . .

Filed under: Family, Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 2:50 am

This:

Me: I’m leaving. I came in to tell you something sweet and you just ruined it with a Derrida reference.

Neal: Couldn’t you have predicted that?

And this:

Nothing gets me through paper-writing like Captain EO!

May 11, 2011

Guest post: Surprise encounter, by Neal

Neal and I decided that every year we would each write a letter to our little girl.  Just before her birth, check.  First birthday, check, though delayed.  Two years in a row, that’s a pretty decent start.  While mine this year was an actual letter, part of which I posted yesterday, Neal wrote more of a personal essay — which makes sense since he was taking a personal essay writing class this semester.  But I declared that it counted (and that he should let me post it, despite the fact that he still deems it a “B-” essay with plans for revision) because one day I know Addison will love to read something so very authentically Neal, especially since she gets to sneak in as the surprise center of attention.

I’m sitting on the back pew, waiting the 15 minutes before church starts. My wife is next to me. She wants me to put my arm around her. I can tell, because she has just said “put your arm around me.” I’m resistant. I’m currently in my favorite listening posture, with my body slouched, and my legs extended, crossed at the ankles. My shoulders, more than my back, contact the hard wooden backrest. My arms are also crossed in front of me. I’m comfortable. Yet I know there’s a problem, completely unrelated to the callousness of a husband who will not extend his arm and become a cushion. My bearing, simply put, does not signal respect or reverence; I muse idly about this, considering the inconsistency of arriving early to church only to act ready to leave. In college, I was once involved in a conflict resolution training that taught me that my favorite body language indicates being “closed off” and unengaged, while good posture and even leaning forward indicate being open and interested. Forming Xs with body parts is a no-no. And yet, when I’m uncomfortable, I don’t listen very well. I’m pretty sure that my favorite posture extends the amount of time I can sit and be talked at by a factor of 2, maybe 3. Which means that, given ideal circumstances, I’ll be able to force my attention on the distant speaker for 6, maybe 9 minutes. Which means I might actually get close to listening to a talk all the way through. Does recognizing my problem in any way mitigate it? I wonder if I would sit any differently if a larger-than-life crucified God were staring me down . . . but such gruesomely aggressive displays are never to be found in my church, and I am vaguely glad of the fact.

I’m hoping there will be good speakers today . . . speakers who recognize nuance and difficulty in living fragile, messy everyday life according to perfected principles. There’s nothing that chloroforms my mind like a talk that spouts easy definitions or explanations without any awareness that definitions are by nature recursive, and language in general a failing attempt to put into words things that transcend them. Barring a sermon given by Derrida or Foucault (and really, I’ve got to admit they’d probably bore me too), I often appreciate a speaker who uses a preposterous extended metaphor, something like “God sends blessings to the faithful much like Wal-Mart ships inventory to keep shelves perpetually stocked,” or “The comfort of the Holy Ghost is a lot like a pair of old running shoes . . . ” or even that wonderful blend of potty humor and self-righteousness, “If there was just a little poop in the brownie, would you still eat it?” Whether or not the talk is insightful or insipid, conceits such as these will likely get me leaning forward, on the edge of my seat even. Are they really going to try to carry this one through to the end? Or will they drop it when things get messy? My comfort be damned! This might be entertaining.

My wife digs her elbow into my ribs. 13 minutes to go. She has our daughter, Addison, sitting quietly on her lap, a rare occurrence. If I don’t get my arm around her fast, I’m in trouble. I’ll be the destroyer of the perfect moment. I sigh, and she rolls her eyes as I scoot back up, and place my arm behind her across the bench top. I’d like to just let my hand dangle, but instead I cup it around her shoulder, and give a squeeze. See, it says, I’m being good.

My wife makes the most of this, and leans contentedly into me. To keep from being toppled over, I have to stretch my leg out to the side and plant it firmly to get some leverage as I push against her. In high school I weighed in at a husky 135 pounds for my 5 foot 8 inch frame (barely avoiding the designation “underweight,” which I have now achieved), but I’ve dropped a pound or two every year since then, and that was 12 years ago. A sedentary life makes most people even more soft and cuddly . . . but it has just made me skeletal. Sometimes I hold up my hands and think, Damn, these are bony. I should lift weights or something. I should get some protein powder. I think about whether I should just let myself go limp, and allow us all to tumble sideways in a heap. It’s a fun daydream as I imagine what the young couple next to us would do, especially if I didn’t get up, but just lay there across the guy’s lap, slowly sliding to the floor. I smile to myself. My wife nuzzles her head into the crook of my neck. She probably thinks I’m enjoying being close, and that’s okay.

Twelve minutes to go. In about thirty seconds, I’ll have repositioned myself again, this time probably leaning forward, my elbows on my knees. If the all-X’s slouch is my home, the forward-hunch is my summer cottage. Sometimes you just need to get away. But it’s always nice to come home. I spend a lot of time traveling between the two, as evidenced by the shiny spot on the seat of my pants. I try to let my wife enjoy her moment, but the count is rapidly ticking down for my anxious body-clock.

I have a hard time sitting still. It’s not as though I have ADD or anything, although that would be a convenient excuse. I just don’t like sitting in one position. My back starts to hurt. Or my shoulders get tight. Or I get an itch right under my thigh that would look bad if I scratched it, which means I have to try to rub back and forth unobtrusively on the padded seat. Basically, I think that my body might be part shark. If sharks stop swimming, they die, or so I’ve heard. Something to do with water flowing past their gills, I think. I don’t have gills, but there’s something similar that happens in my body that I swear I have no control over. If I sit still too long, my brain sends an emergency signal to some part of my body that screams Move – quick! – or you’ll die! Sometimes I suddenly realize that the waistband of my pants has hiked way too far up, and it’s sitting in an awkward spot, definitely not where it’s supposed to be. Or I realize that my tie is too tight . . . in fact, it may be my shirt neck that is too tight – strangling me almost! Or my shoes – they’re cramping my toes. Did they suddenly somehow shrink a size? If I go too long without doing something, without repositioning myself and redirecting my thoughts, I start to break out in a sweat.

My wife thinks I’m a big baby. Especially at night, when I’m supposed to be cuddling her. Addison is in bed, and the daily tasks are either done or given up on, and she wants me to lie in bed curled around her, a loving husband giving his wife the physical intimacy she needs to drift to sleep exhausted, but happy. I do my best – body against body, whispering sweetly in her ear, “nothing, nothing, nothing . . . .” It lasts for about a minute, and I start to fidget. My hands get clammy. My fingernails suddenly feel as though they are too close to the skin underneath. And the underarm! Circulation slows, as my wife’s beautiful body crumples the arterial walls, like a heavy foot on a hose. And then my attention goes to my back. Did one of my vertebrae, perhaps L1 or L2, just do a little shimmy? Did it shriek, “Move, you idiot! Move or die!” I’m weak. I give in to little L2. I groan and turn the other way. Sweet relief! I curl into a ball and press my back up against her, sure that she’ll understand I’m still being close, that my dorsal side is loving her just as much as my ventral side was before. I nuzzle her a little with the bony protrusions of my spine. In the morning, she’ll complain with bags under her eyes that I kept pushing her out of bed with my back. And that when it wasn’t my back, it was my knees. That I wouldn’t stop turning over. And then we’ll decide, once again, to sleep in separate beds.

Ten minutes to go. Our idyllic family embrace is a thing of the past. My wife has leaned away to chat with another couple, whom I ignore. I don’t really know them, while my wife seems to know everyone. She waves or smiles to most of the people who walk into the meeting room. I’m watching Addison crawl towards an electrical socket. I’ll go rescue her before she gets there; I estimate I have maybe ten seconds. Addison is in a dress, and her normal crawling motion isn’t working, and she’s frustrated. Her knees hold down the dress fabric, and she keeps face-planting as she tries to move forward. She glances back at me, Are you going to help me or what, Dad? I shrug my shoulders and spread my hands, palms up, as if to say What do you want me to do? Disgusted, she continues her journey, now resorting to a spider-walk on her hands and feet, her bum raised high in the air. About a half second before Addison’s delicate little finger enters the socket hole, I swoop her up into my arms. Indifferent to the harsh realities of gravity, she tries to jump. When she realizes I won’t let go, she begins swatting my face repeatedly, making an ear-piercing sound like a little howler monkey.

Nine minutes to go. We’re back in our seats, and Addison is standing on my lap, doing squats. As churchgoers walk into the meeting room, Addison beams up at them. If they walk by without noticing, I’m both relieved and offended, the former for my own sake, the latter for hers. What, you’re so busy feeling the spirit you can’t smile at a baby? I believe I’m being objective when I say she’s in the 95th percentile for cuteness. Just the other day, while my wife and I were out with Addison, we bumped into a friend with his daughter who is just a few months younger. I’ve since been told that I’m never allowed to say such things, but I determined after a careful examination that his little girl is cuter than ours, by at least a percentage point or two. I announced it to all present. My wife didn’t appreciate the comment, but why do we feel like we have to lie about that kind of thing? In any event, little Addison is pretty far up there, and she knows it. I pass her to her mother so I can enjoy the attention she gets without having to engage it directly.

I like our spot at the back of the room. It’s worth coming to church early in order to claim it, as I’m not the only one with this preference. It is ironic that such dedication is required to secure a spot on what I deem the slacker row. My wife, the overachiever in the family, prefers sitting closer, which again is ironically where we end up when we arrive too late to snag the better seats.

Seven minutes to go. A gunfighter, when choosing a place to sit, never leaves his back to the door. Am I a gunfighter? Not in real life, I suppose (although I did play a game in my head last Sunday that went a little bit like this: the Bishop is being held hostage by the guest speaker. I’ve got a single bullet in my Winchester. Do I take a shot from the back of the room? Or do I low crawl behind the pews until I can achieve a more likely kill shot, knowing the dude’s got an itchy trigger finger? And what if my gun jams? [I just can’t seem to get around to cleaning it] Could I make a knife throw from this distance?). But it still seems a good rule of thumb to have a view of all entrances and exits. Don’t get shot in the back, literally or figuratively. Be in a position to observe. Be ready to make an escape. Sitting at the front of the room in the congregation is like standing on the precipice of a cliff as though preparing for a back dive, facing away from the empty vastness, facing away from the thing that could kill you.

Six minutes to go. On the stand at the front of the room, the Bishop sits. We both survey the flock, he from the front, a point of attention and respect, and I from the back, his secret, unacknowledged counterpart. I see the defenseless backs of the congregation, he the guarded fronts. I feel it is almost my duty to imagine what may be hidden under the surface, what might be deflected by an intentional expression, but which cannot be hidden from the unanticipated eye (mine) directed from the most unexpected angle. The toddler that just dropped his mother’s phone into the purse of her neighbor. Should I tell her? Or just enjoy the ensuing confusion? The man whose clothes are a wrinkled mess, and his wife next to him, her clothing perfect and starched, and not a hair out of place. Which of these considered sleeping in? Which hoped to be looked at? The couple who each have mussed hair, but definitely not bed-head. What were they doing? Celebrating the Sabbath? As of yet, I’ve not been asked to share my insights or suspicions with anyone. Which is probably just as well; my thoughts tend to get rambling and involve gunslingers or sharks.

I’ve heard some people say it’s easier to pay attention in the front, but I don’t buy it. The main difference is that from the front, one is watched, and being watched lends an uncomfortable undercurrent of paranoia coursing beneath any diverging thought. Did they see my head dip in fatigue? Do I still have Gerber squash in my hair? Did I just drool? From the back of the room, the mind can wander (if wander it must) in comfort, because all eyes are directed away, and the doors are in sight. And if my head droops a little, I’m too far in the back for it to be a slap in the face for the speaker. Or so I tell myself.

Five minutes to go, and my eyes start looking for escape. I am thinking about climbing things. When one’s attention wanders, or I suppose that I should just say that when my attention wanders, lest I unfairly implicate others in frivolous fantasy-making, it inclines towards looking at spaces in ways that they were not intended to be used; and in particular, I imagine how I would enter and exit spaces in a variety of unlikely scenarios:

  1. I am a secret agent and all of the traditional exits are blocked.
  2. The doors are holding back a flood of water that will soon fill the meeting space.
  3. There are snakes or Tyrannosaurs coming towards me very fast, and, again, there is no possibility of leaving through the doorway. (Methods for avoiding either creature would differ greatly, but they’re both reptiles, so I’ve lumped them together.)

The focus of my attention is usually someplace near the ceiling . . . an air duct or an inaccessible window. And the task is to figure out how one would get there. Certainly leaping off of pews would be involved, as would using things like light switches and thermostat boxes as handholds and footholds. Pendulous light fixtures are a no-brainer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I really do try to pay attention. Most of the time. Well, a lot of times, anyway. But even after the infrequent sermon that has my eyes welling with tears — likely something about fathers and sons (or since Addison was born, daughters) — my brain goes to its safe, happy place for a breather.

The speakers behind the pulpit settle in to place. I take a deep breath and prepare for the plunge. Today, I tell myself, today I will get something out of this. Today I will invite something in. Today I will grow up a little, and not seek a distraction everywhere I look. Three seconds to go. Two. One.

I’ve made efforts over the last six years to invest more sincerely in religious experience. When my wife met me (six years ago) I was not much of a church-goer. On the occasions that I did attend a service, it was more to observe pageantry and practice mockery than to connect with any higher power. I’m a product of post-modernity, and if there is anything I have learned in my studies it is that everything can be broken apart and that there are no absolute foundations to stand on. There is not a lot of room for faith in such a world.

And then, I met my wife. Our love story could be the subject of another essay, but suffice it to say that something changed for me when I met her. I realized there was space in my heart for things larger than myself. I realized that there are things bigger than my own preferences and comforts, bigger even than my own easy skepticisms and anti-establishment adolescent cynicisms. And now we have a baby girl — or hardly a baby, now, because today she strung eight steps together to make her longest trek ever. She toddled. I have a toddler. On her first birthday, February 16th, I have a toddler, a little girl who walked eight steps, the farthest she has ever walked, to get to me. With each one of those steps, with the fresh and unjaded look of excitement on this beautiful girl’s face, I am reminded why I’m now a churchgoer. Why faith matters. Why there exists something tantalizingly indescribable and yet wholesomely undeniable behind the pageantry and tomfoolery, something that gets at things that go beyond words or definitions, something that I may never understand but that can run a sudden charge of hopeful electricity through me.

And so I sit in pews, feeling talked at, sometimes enjoying my childish little fantasies, sometimes fighting them off. And I’ll continue to sit in these pews, not because the meetings are enthralling, and not because I even hear half of what’s being said, but because I hear anything at all. Despite my X’s, despite my post-modern fidgeting and the thread-bare seat of my pants, I know I’m here for a reason. In between moments of my frivolous escapism, my mind’s self-focused efforts to evade the clichéd and uninteresting of pulpit-talk, sometimes something much bigger floors me, something completely unexpected. I wonder if it was there all along while I was swinging from the light fixtures. As I pace the back row with my fussy daughter bouncing on my shoulder, I’m only half-listening. And then, in a moment I can’t pinpoint, a simple story or scripture about family, about falling, about redemption breaks through the wild six-shooting, snakes hissing, wall climbing. I’m whole, with no need for the jokes, diversions, or criticisms. My daughter cranes her neck and looks at me curiously as my tears splash onto her face. In a few minutes I may be eyeing the ventilation ducts again, and she may be going for the electrical socket, but right now my daughter is all wide eyes and seeing something new. So am I.

December 15, 2010

What a conversation with Neal is like . . .

Filed under: Family, Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 8:07 pm

Just replace “Batman”

with

“climbing walls using only knives”

or

“ding-dong-ditching bags of flaming dog doo”

(How xkcd.com/Randall Munroe understands Neal so well, I’ll never know.)

September 14, 2010

King of repair attempts

Filed under: Family, Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 10:00 pm

If you have ever taken a marriage and family class, you probably know what a “repair attempt” is.  Of course, even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen these at work in relationships before.  John Gottman, relationship guru, explains a repair attempt this way in his excellent book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (I highly recommend it, even if he is a bit full of himself):

This name refers to any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.  Repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couple — even though many of these couples aren’t aware that they are doing something so powerful.  When a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way.

I have to confess something here: I’m not so good at stopping the escalation and sending a repair attempt instead.  I’m a bit of tiger when I feel I’m right, and let’s face it, if you’ve met me, you know I feel I’m right an awful lot.  So poor Neal, one of the most conflict-averse people you’ll ever meet, has a wifey that, truth be told, enjoys a little bit of escalation every now and then.

Thank goodness for Neal and his innate ability to send repair attempts, which usually come in humorous form.  Repair attempts are typically unique to each couple, based on their own idiosyncratic behaviors, so  I’m quite sure that some people will be horrified when I admit that one of Neal’s go-to repair attempts is to say, “Well then, I’ll puncture your lung.”  Of course if I ever worried about Neal actually puncturing my lung, it wouldn’t be funny; but since I don’t and he wouldn’t, it seriously cracks me up.  Conflict defused.  There are many non-humorous repair attempts, but I maintain that this is one of the important reasons to find your partner funny because most of us will need to laugh at ourselves and each other to get through this life peaceably.

And all this background is simply to introduce the following note that I found sitting next to a stack of my papers when I came home after a particularly frustrating conflict last month:

Awesome.  About 10% repair attempt, 10% straight-up apology, and 80% trying to get me to throw stuff out.  That’s my Neal.

June 17, 2010

Neal recommends: Landscape paintings. Real ones, fool.

Filed under: Neal's writing, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 6:00 pm

I’m not sure what format Lindsay is putting these “recommends” posts in, so this probably won’t match any of them.  But she just pulled up wordpress and pushed me into a chair and demanded that I write something.  Or I go to bed without supper.  Which usually involves fighting the rats in the basement for scraps of food.  Also,

I recommend paintings.  But not just paintings.  Paintings with landscapes in them. Here is why:

They are awesome.  And they are awesomer when they are abstract landscapes.

Here’s a few.  Click on them and they’ll get bigger.  The magic of the internet, baby:

These are by a Norwegian painter named Ornulf Opdahl.  I like to spend time on Google image search looking for great landscapes and landscape paintings, and Ornulf is my current obsession.  It sure beats doing homework.

Why are landscapes so great?  Well, here’s a blog I found that talks about how landscape paintings, in particular, have healing qualities that photos or other mediums often do not:

http://www.nancyreyner.com/painting-blog/2007/11/healing-power-of-landscape-paintings.html

You can tell it is legitimate because the blog quotes a doctor who says things like “…Life Energy will be high,” which makes me kind of feel like I’m playing a video game.  Or watching Avatar.

Anyway, I’m a big proponent of authentic, one-of-a-kind paintings rather than prints or reproductions.  Thomas Kinkade, rot in hell.  So if you don’t have the bucks to buy one of these, do your own – just make sure you call it an abstract landscape, and no one can say squat. Below is one I did.  And what is it, exactly?  It don’t matter, fool!  It’s abstract!

February 11, 2010

“It turns out, it’s kind of a big deal”: Neal’s thoughts on childbirth

A few weeks ago Neal approached me about doing a guest post on my blog — giving his perspective on this great childbirth adventure.  Well, I have pretty rigorous standards for guest posts, but I eventually agreed  :).  So yesterday while I napped on his bed, he wrote the following.  It’s longer than I expected, maybe mushier at certain points than I expected, but I’m going to post it anyway because only a man would liken childbirth to having a limb amputated and being “selected by an alien race to be their personal representative to humanity,” all in the same paragraph.

Lindsay’s due date is one day away, and we agreed that it would be nice if I set down my thoughts for posterity. When the little belly monster gets here, I suppose I may feel that holding her is more satisfying than writing about her.

I guess to start with I’d say I have a lot of anxiety about the birth. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also one of the most traumatic things a woman’s body can go through, or ever will go through, in this life. Lindsay and I have watched a lot of childbirth videos in the past few months, and it really hits home just how significant this event is, not just emotionally or spiritually, but physically. That time I had to get an IV for blood poisoning? Or when I got Lyme disease? Or when I got road rash all over my legs, back, and arms? None of these can compare with childbirth; none of these give me the tools to fully comprehend its intensity. It is interesting that it seems such a common occurrence in society (despite the fact that the birth rate is dropping and many women are electing to wait quite a while to have kids), and we say “so and so is having a baby,” with about the same feeling as “so and so just got a new car,” or “so and so went to Hawaii on vacation.” It’s kind of cool, but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal, at least from the outside. But going into labor and giving birth can be just as traumatic as having a limb chopped off, and at the same time the happy result is bigger than any other good thing that will happen to a person. We’d never say nonchalantly of a friend or loved one: “Oh, yeah, I guess I forgot to tell you that Becky had her arm chopped off on Tuesday.” If we were being fair to the experience, I think we should talk about having a baby with the same excitement as if someone we know personally just got elected President of the United States, or suddenly cured cancer, or got selected by an alien race to be their personal representative to humanity (all very cool things, I think). Of course, I don’t really do any of this – I’m just as nonchalant about other people’s births as the next person. But it strikes me as interesting how little I thought about it until it actually happened to us. It turns out, it’s kind of a big deal. (Edit: as I go back and read this, I see the possibility that it is more of a male thing to take the birth experiences of others for granted).

Which brings me back to my anxiety. While I would never want to change places with Lindsay (I just don’t think a man’s pelvis is meant to stretch like that; seriously, I’d crack in half), I feel like there are some particular trials for me in the experience. During the birth process, Lindsay will focus mostly on herself (which is fine, that’s the way it should be.) But I have to focus on her. Hers is a more inward experience, mine more vicarious. And for someone like me who is very introverted, the idea of spending 5, 10, or even 50 hours being someone else’s cheer captain, therapist, best friend, and medical advisor is really daunting. Add to that that I may need to give her a blessing in an emergency, and I’m pretty nervous about the whole thing. What are the possible complications of childbirth? Just about everything. And while I believe in the power of faith and prayer, we wouldn’t give birth in hospitals if we thought that just faith and prayer were enough. I know that for some women birth goes smoothly, and that’s great. But if you only plan for the best, and it doesn’t happen, I’d call that a big mistake.

All of this brings me to my main thought about this whole birth and pregnancy experience: gratitude for Lindsay. Given the significance of the experience, I feel like she’s given it the attention it deserves. It’s like, you wouldn’t expect to do well on the bar exam if you didn’t spend time studying in law school, right? Well, Lindsay has put in the study, the kind of study that to me really takes seriously how important this event will be.

I make fun of Lindsay for how many birth books she has read (and for a lot of other things) but in this instance I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t express how proud I am of her for treating her birth as something that she can influence for good, based on her preparation. I’m proud of her for making sure that I play a role in that learning. It makes me feel that we are truly partners in this process, and that our joint education and decisions about the experience have, and will continue to bring us closer together. I feel like we’re in it together when I go to all of her medical appointments, boring as they sometimes are. After the fact, I always feel that I’ve just done something to show how much I care about her, something I always need more of. I know that she feels vulnerable at these appointments, and it allows me to fill a protective role in a way that I hardly ever get the chance. And this isn’t just about positive attitude; you can’t throw a stone without hitting a study that shows that knowing what the crap is going on in birth, and owning the experience, will seriously increase the positive outcomes. There are no guarantees that what we hope will happen will happen; but even if things don’t turn out exactly how we want, I truly believe that we can make the best decisions under the circumstances. When you’re about to embark on the most powerful experience you will probably ever have, why wouldn’t you treat it as seriously as a single dumb course in school, for which you might spend twenty or fifty or one hundred hours studying in a semester?

Of course, I say all of this as someone who was forced into it. Had Lindsay not been so dedicated to having the best possible birth that she could have, she probably would have let me do what is natural; in other words, she would have let me mostly ignore learning about the experience, she would have allowed me to hide my anxiety under being too busy to deal with it. I do that in plenty of other situations, and it would have been easy for me to do in this one, even though that anxiety would have probably snowballed in my psyche, making it harder and harder for me to even think about the birth without wild feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty and loss of control.

I still feel those things; but because of Lindsay’s determination, we’ve done preparation that makes me feel like we’ll be up to the challenge. Before we do our nightly routine of “childbirth prep,” I usually feel like I have too much to do, or that I just want to be left to myself. Sometimes I think that in the middle. But by the end of most of our nights, we’ve found some additional things that really seem like they work. Like, we now know that Lindsay responds to touch, and massage, right on the small of her back, probably more than any other coping technique we’ve tried so far. It’s taken us weeks of talking and practice to discover this, but I think we’ll be glad we did. I’m glad that we could be frank enough about my concerns that we chose to hire a doula, just to make sure we had another head in there with us that we could trust to help us express our desires to doctors that have itchy trigger-fingers with interventions. Plus, I’m crap at giving massages, and the price of the doula is worth it just for that. I’m glad that Lindsay respected my anxieties enough to know that having a helper, and not leaving all the burden on my shoulders, would allow me to be there for her even more, rather than curling up in the fetal position and moaning (which I’m prone to do in stressful situations). Under pressure, I start to retreat, and we’re doing everything we can to avoid that. Our number one goal is the best birth possible, and I’d give a lot for that.

I’m glad that we are using nurse-midwives. They always ask our permission to do something, like when they perform an exam on Lindsay, or when they suggest a medication. They never try to scare us into doing something that isn’t necessary, which makes me feel that they are really on our side. And it helps that they are all trained nurses – so they pretty much know everything the doctor does, but without the extra piece of paper.

I’m so glad that Lindsay and I have practiced coping and comfort measures for the birth. We’ve had her hold ice cubes for as long as she can while focusing on breathing and relaxing, we’ve practiced different positions, and we do a relaxation routine every night. How many of them will work in the moment of birth? Who knows. But they sure as heck are more likely to work now that we know what we are doing with them. We’ve found certain things that seem to focus her better than others, that seem to allow her to deal with pain. I’m really proud of Lindsay for wanting to do a birth her way, based on sound medical research, to increase the chances of a healthy baby and healthy mom. And as much as anything, I’m glad that in these practice sessions we’ve found things that I can do that will legitimately help her.

I’m especially proud of Lindsay for putting the well-being of the baby first in all of our practice and research efforts. There is no question that many of the things that doctors do are intended for the benefit of the doctor, not the baby or mother. And there’s no question that some of the pain and heartache that goes along with births in general could have been averted with preparation. I’m really glad that we know what some of those things are, so that we can begin taking responsibility for our little girl, and protect her even at this stage. Having said this, I’m not anti-doctor; I’m the one who required that we give birth in a hospital, just in case, and with a great doctor on-call, just in case [Editorial note: if the on-call doc becomes necessary, my daughter and I will have the distinction of being delivered by the same doctor, 30 years apart. That’s a little bit cool].  I’m the one who is always saying “But the doctor said X, so we better do it.” But I’m grateful to Lindsay for helping me to man-up and take on the responsibility, even at this stage, of protecting and caring for our little girl. I know that being a father will require me to grow up, and while that can be hard for me, I know that it’s good for me.

I’m excited, and a little terrified. But mostly excited. With some terror thrown in. But still, mostly excited. I can’t wait to hold our baby girl in my arms. It’s been a long road. I pray to God that I’ll be up to the challenge. I love Lindsay, for everything she does for our baby and our family, and for welcoming me into her world of effort with understanding and open arms.

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