midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “authenticity”

Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

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No More ‘Working for The Man’ Just for Health Insurance

pic_0123On the eve of the first Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) mano-a-mano showdown in Congress – well, at least the participants were in the same boxing ring – I re-emphasize my position that after all the overinflated chatter is aired and convoluted schemes are floated, the only real, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable solution is a single-payer health care system (Medicare for All, universal health care coverage).

I’ll give the Republicans a chance, with their Repeal and Replace initiative (or Repeal and Posture, or Repeal and Delay, or Repeal and High-Five) and monitor the trends and see where we are a few years after implementation. As I advocated on my sister blog site Sirenian Publishing, the Democrats should not participate in crafting an Obamacare Replacement, so it will be a pristinely GOP invention without Democratic fingerprints and can be evaluated as such.

Why discuss Obamacare in a midlife blog? Because I’m one step away from needing health insurance through a system like Obamacare, and I may need that program or something similar in the future as I grapple with transition and living authentically in midlife.

In my transition to a new career as a mental health counselor, I eventually had to leave full-time employment to meet my graduate program’s internship and class requirements. And with that move went my health insurance. I was lucky I have a wife with an employer-sponsored plan that I could join. But we all know how tenuous are jobs – and the potluck health insurance that may come with them – in today’s economy.

I’ve written about joining the Gig Economy since my transition, working multiple part-time, temporary, or entrepreneurial jobs with no health insurance or other benefits to cobble together an income. While I may sometime again have a full-time job with health insurance benefits, I plan to stay a member of the Gig Economy for the rest of my career by establishing an independent counseling practice. And I abhor the thought of health insurance posing a major barrier to venturing out on my own. A single-payer health care system, or perhaps an Obamacare-like system, could remove that impediment for me and many others with an entrepreneurial bent who no longer want to be obligated to ‘working for The Man’ just so they can have health insurance.

I wrote extensively about the merits of a nonprofit single-payer system and the tribulations of Obamacare in my political memoir about my campaign for Maryland delegate, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Get Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, as advocating for a more equitable, less costly health care system was a cornerstone of my campaign.

Read more about the looming health care battle below…

Sirenian Publishing Blog Post: No Democratic Lifeline for ‘Repeal and Replace’

New Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said if congressional Republicans, in conjunction with President-elect Donald Trump’s exhortations, vote to repeal Obamacare, Democrats won’t participate in crafting a so-called “replacement.”

“If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it,” Schumer told The Washington Post. “Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Schumer’s approach and urge Democrats to stick to that plan, instead of capitulating to the Republicans and trying to modify or soften whatever plan the GOP hatches once health care coverage is thrown into uncertainty, or worse, chaos, and millions potentially suffer.

To do so would be akin to the Democrats turning over ownership of a marginally inhabitable building to the Republicans, who level it with a wrecking ball and wander aimlessly through the rubble, only to have the Democrats return with hard hats and shovels and mortar to salvage the wreckage, with the promise, “We’ll help you rebuild from these ruins, but we gotta warn ya, dollars to donuts, this building will be condemned.”

As I advised Democrats previously, Do The Opposite, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza. The GOP will expect Democrats to come running to save the day for people who may be losers in the Obamacare tug-of-war. Then they will become complicit in whatever is enacted. Then they can be blamed for screwing up whatever plan Republicans wanted to enact in the first place, which of course will be the reason said GOP plan isn’t working as effectively as touted. Don’t do it. Let the GOP plan ride; measure the results.

I argued in my political memoir detailing my campaign for Maryland state political office, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, that Obamacare is largely a piece of legislative manure that leaves the foxes – the health insurance industry – guarding the henhouse, but that it’s certainly an improvement and does a number of good things for people who need health insurance.

“Obamacare is a Rubik’s Cube—lots of turning, spinning, head-scratching, reverses, glitches, bad moves and confusion,” I wrote in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “Historic and groundbreaking yet torturously overwrought, the law certainly does some good, but adds yet another layer of preposterous bureaucracy and complexity and supposed ‘consumer choice,’ which really is massive consumer overload and confusion, onto a preexisting byzantine miscreation, and will become another cement-hardened convention impossible to undo.”

My campaign for Maryland state delegate in 2014 was largely based on advocating for accessible, affordable health care for all – universal health care, single-payer health care, Medicare for All – whatever you want to label it. My call was for a system that covered everyone, regardless of employment status or personal wealth, one that constituted a right rather than a privilege, and that reduced the corporate profit motive. It was for a more humane system that would put Maryland – and ideally, ultimately, the rest of the nation – in line with the rest of the democratic, industrialized nations that provide all their citizens basic health care at about half the cost or less per person than the U.S., and achieve better health outcomes on many common measures.

Numerous grassroots and health care organizations continue advocating for such a system, and several state legislatures have made attempts to establish one. But entrenched, opposing, big-money interests are strong – hence, Obamacare was the best we could get.

Wendell Potter, a health insurance public relations executive turned industry critic, nailed the dynamic in his insider tell-all book Deadly Spin, as I quoted in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “The health insurance industry is dominated by a cartel of large, for-profit corporations…[T]he top priority…is to ‘enhance shareholder value.’ When that’s your top priority, you are motivated more by the obligation to meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations than by the obligation to meet the medical needs of your policyholders.”

I still believe a single-payer system is the only real, equitable, sustainable solution to the ongoing health care mess. Perhaps a failed “replacement plan” full of tired old ideas like Medical Savings Accounts and insurance sold across state lines and free market competition that can be laid squarely at the feet of Republicans could stoke a revival of a single-payer revolution.

Of course, that will bring out the critics and naysayers who will charge that single-payer is an un-American, “socialist” system, an asinine argument. What is Medicare? What is Medicaid? What is Social Security? Socialistic! For that matter, what are our police forces and fire departments and public schools and state universities? Socialistic! We all contribute toward them because these systems and institutions are deemed to be beneficial to society collectively. American rugged individualism is a great concept. But in some aspects, like outstanding health care and the overall health of our citizenry, we are all in this together, and will be stronger as a nation for that.

So, as Schumer said, no lifeline. There could be regression and pain in the short-term, but maybe it could turn the tide for the long-term.

An Authentic Conversation at College Reunion

In a previous post about participating in an author signing to promote Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet at my Colgate University college reunion, I challenged myself to break out of my comfort zone and strike up conversations with people whom I had never met or barely knew.

I’m an introvert on the personality tests, but not so far from the extrovert side of the measurement. I just have to be in the right mood, or make a conscious effort to be more outgoing.

My social experiment went pretty well. I hung out with an old friend I had known since middle school and two of his college friends, who I had not known before. I sold one book on the spot just by introducing myself and talking with a classmate, who got out her cell phone and ordered from Amazon before we departed (at least she said she did).

Colgate University Reunion Torchlight Procession

Colgate University Reunion Torchlight Procession

I talked with one drunk graduate 25 years my junior about his entrepreneurial idea to launch a website to help locally-owned retail businesses in small towns to increase their online sales, and a drunk nurse who turned out to be the daughter of the owner of a popular pub in the college town. I’m counting the drunkards even though they tend to babble on endlessly, just because I stuck with it long enough to learn about them.

But the most interesting conversation of the reunion weekend came out of the blue. I was hanging out with my new buddies in a side room where the soda dispenser was located during our class dinner, not feeling much like mingling in the main hall because I was enjoying the company of these guys. A woman walked in who I recognized. I had never known her well, but I knew we lived in the same dorm freshman year and must have had many mutual acquaintances from that time.

I introduced myself and we wound up talking by the soda machine for maybe five minutes. There was nothing spectacular about that. Anyone can chit-chat about the weather, where they live or their job for five minutes. What was exceptional about this conversation compared to any other I had at reunion was the depth of the content in a time so short that it would normally be reserved strictly for small talk.

She told me she was going through a divorce after about 20 years of marriage and three sons. I replied that I had experienced a similar situation, except with younger kids and a shorter marriage. I asked if she was the one who wanted the break or if it was mutual. She responded that she didn’t want a divorce; it was at her husband’s initiative. I said mine happened the same way. She acknowledged that divorce “sucks.” I asked her how her sons were handling it. She responded that the two older ones seemed OK, but the youngest, a teenager, was having a hard time coping with it.

Then she told me what was weighing heavily on her mind as part of the divorce package: she was faced with selling her house and moving within a month or two. Again, I told her I had been through a similar scenario. I wished her the best in handling a difficult time of life. She knew I had participated in the author signing and expressed an interest in the book, so I took down her e-mail to correspond later.

And then we said goodbye and she left the room. I saw her again at breakfast the next morning, but from a distance and only long enough to wave hello. And that was that. I did e-mail her with information about Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet after I got home, but didn’t hear back.

This woman invited me into the most consequential happenings in her personal life during a brief encounter. Why, I don’t know. We could have just as easily talked about nothing for five minutes, or just said a quick hello and gone separate ways. I was grateful she engaged in a conversation with meaning.

I got to know her – the real person with real life issues – just a little, and it felt genuine to make an authentic connection, as brief as it was. Such authentic conversations in which someone dares to reveal something personal and meaningful are all too rare, and makes life and personal interaction so much more lively and interesting.

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