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Recently my brother reminded me of a humorous yet tricky situation that happened when my daughter was a preschooler. Like many preschoolers, she loved watching Elmo, especially the “Elmo’s World” segment. Indeed, Elmo’s world had a lot going for it: a pet goldfish; The Noodles – silly mimes who visited; lots of crayons; and, of course, curious, giggly Elmo himself.

Turned out my daughter wasn’t satisfied to just observe this world; she wanted a real-life piece of it and knew the proper protocol for such a request. She asked me to call Elmo’s mom to arrange a play date for her and Elmo.

Oh, boy. So. How can a parent navigate this one without bursting the bubble and revealing that Elmo is not real? Well, in the years since, I thought several good ways to approach it (for example, claim that Elmo lives across the country and can’t have play dates in the area). Yes, so many good approaches years later. At the time, being sleep deficient and therefore unable to turn on a dime, I was stumped. I went with the everlasting deferment. She asked multiple times if I had phoned Elmo’s mom yet, and I said I hadn’t.

I was a total chicken! She eventually gave up. I’m not sure if her attention had moved on to other things, or if she concluded that I was unreliable on this task. But it’s funny to think about parenting challenges at 4 vs. those at 12.

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My Copilot, Bob

Bob Ross painting

My Copilot, Bob

I had a terrible road rage problem. I shouted, I gestured, I scowled. I used bad words. I am embarrassed to admit that once in a great while, I flipped someone the bird. And these things sometimes happened while my preteen was riding in the car with me. I feel ashamed to think back on it, but I want to share the truth of it because where this story ended up had a powerful lesson in it.

Much of this rage happened because my Mama Bear instinct got triggered in wanting to keep the kiddo safe – that is, responses to unsafe behaviors of others like tailgating, cutting me off, distracted driving. But, that didn’t account for all of my rage. Some was just plain indignation and refusal to accept things as they are: “How dare they?” or “It’s not your turn!” or “Why do I try so hard to be careful and courteous when it feels like so few other drivers are?!”

There was also some very emotional baggage connected to being in the car. Fear, grief, and anger related to long ago events in cars. Primarily, it was about a car accident before I was born that paralyzed my grandmother and robbed her of walking and most of her communication. Then, the same week that grandmother died, when I was 14 years old, a a good friend my age died in a car accident. Riding or driving on highways has always scared me to some degree. Luckily, the fear is usually more of a low-level buzzing rather than full-on screeching. For some reason, changing lanes is the scariest; when I must do it, I check many, many times and then brace myself.

Point is, although there may be some understandable reasons for over-the-top reactions to to others driving badly, the facts remained that a) overreacting didn’t help these situations (and in fact, the adrenaline rush probably degraded my judgement); and, b) I was ashamed of how I acted in front of the youngster. It wasn’t the way I’d want her to behave as a driver.

The turning point came one day when I swore and threw my hands up in disgust at another driver, and my daughter gave me feedback. I can’t remember exactly how she phrased it, but she made it clear, in a respectful way, that reactions like this made her uncomfortable when she rode with me. She also said that my reaction was beyond what that situation warranted. I was still seething but luckily I could take a step back and not turn the anger on her. I didn’t snipe. I knew she had a right to express her opinion and feel comfortable in the car. I may be driving, but it was her ride, too. I apologized, and let it be for the moment. I remember thinking, this is how I am, how I’ve always been, and it’s won’t change. She may have to get used to it.

A few days later I tearfully explained to my daughter about what had happened to my Nana and my friend Jenn, and how these events still made me feel scared and angry when other drivers drove badly. She told me it was sad to hear these details, but that it helped her to understand where I was coming from and why driving was so fraught for me. She otherwise knew me as a reasonable person without much of a temper, so “Driver Mom” had seemed a whole different person to her.

After that, I thought. A lot. About her feedback; about the person I wanted to be vs. who I was being; about what qualified as in my control; about being a role model. And though my pattern of behavior behind the wheel had been etched for over 25 years, I decided I needed to try my best to change.

I thanked my daughter for the honest opinion she had given me. I acknowledged that it can’t have been easy – she took a risk that I might get mad at her. But it turned out to be critical for me to know how my behavior affected her.

After that, I came up with the following approach – it was highly personal and so I realize it might not work for many folks – but in case any of it may be helpful, here it is:

1) I acknowledged that the root of my reactions was a negative baseline perspective of others driving. I saw them as opponents or potential nemeses, which set me up to expect the worst of them, all the time. Even if it wasn’t going to be true, I needed to find a way to make that baseline perspective of others to be neutral, or maybe even positive. It would also be important for me to separate actions from people – that a deed doesn’t define someone’s whole being. I went with the phrase “friends” to associate with other drivers – sure, kind of touchy-feely, but I need big ammunition to counteract my views. So instead of, for instance, “What an @$$hole!“, I’d say aloud, “Sometimes our friends on the road don’t make good choices.” This acknowledged that something frustrating happened, but didn’t get me keyed up and leave me with such angry, hopeless feelings. It was goofy, but it worked for me.

2) I took it a day at a time only. If I got through a day without a bad outburst, I put a quarter in a jug. It was fun to see the stash grow, although this particular approach only last a month or two because I don’t usually have change and it became a pain to get ahold of change to do this. But in the beginning it was a good tangible way to see my progress!

3) I considered what was calming to me, and realized one clear winner is the painter Bob Ross. His voice has always soothed me, and his gentle way and encouraging messages hearten me. So, I printed a big ol’ picture of him in his Afro glory, smiling and painting a beautiful landscape and taped it to my glovebox. He has become my soothing copilot. Glancing at Bob does help calm me! Sometimes I chat with him a little, too. I’ve gotten all sorts of positive reactions when people see my Bob Ross pic – from friends and strangers. It’s been fun and surprising to see how many of the younger generation know Bob – maybe from You Tube?

My daughter is more comfortable riding with me these days. She told me she is proud that I’ve worked so hard to change how I act behind the wheel. I’m proud of me, too. I have occasional slips but that’s ok – it’s nowhere near the intensity and frequency it once was. But I showed her that her opinion matters even if she’s a kid, and that even older folks can learn to make a big change if they want to badly enough.

Heroes

The Grinch.
The Prodigal Son.
Scrooge.

What do these fellows have in common? For one thing, these central characters all behave in a way that goes against what their peers consider socially acceptable.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” – A Christmas Carol

 

“Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?” – How the Grinch Stole Christmas

They may not be considered out-and-out villains, but they’re seen as misbehavers at the very least. Then, they all have dramatic transformations of their core personalities and perspectives, and afterward are enthusiastically welcomed into the fold.

Those I was always more curious about in these stories are people like the gentler Whos in Whoville around the table at the big feast. They perhaps never experienced an extreme change, but certainly many have tried all their lives to do the right thing. They’ve had quiet struggles – because anyone trying to do the right thing will sometimes struggle with it – and they’ve mostly succeeded. What of their stories? I think most of us are like these folks in the background – no showy celebrations for our small wins. Who’s our character to rally behind?

I understand the need for a big redemption in order to add interest and drama to a plot. The endings of these three fellows’ stories are quite satisfying, if you don’t overthink like I do. Maybe the main takeaway is that us quieter, small-win folks can see that, if seemingly wretched folks like those dudes can soften their hearts and choose a better path, well, so can we.

We may all have latent heroes quiet or otherwise inside of us; but a villain waits there too.

What is a hero, really, but a villain that struggled and succeeded?

At the Confessional

I would say that blogs are the new confessionals: anonymous tale-tellers offloading their thoughts to an anonymous listener. I would say that suggestions offered in blog Comments are the new Penance for Sins committed.

I would say these things if I still believed in the concept of Sin, but I do not.

I do believe in the idea of misguided choices; in the concepts of kindnesses withheld, dysfunctional adaptations, poor coping skills, cognitive biases, and overwhelming frustration. But sin, no, not any more.

Life is complex, and relativity reigns. If an overarching and judgmental construct such as sin even existed in any tangible way, what constituted a sin would be enormously subjective! Perspective on this could probably vary by generation, religion, gender, and culture, and in reviewing history it seems those in power at the given moment get to choose who is sinning, and how.

Even a simple directive such as the Christian commandment to Honor your Father and Mother becomes a messy gray area if your father or mother is ordering you to break a different commandment, yes?

What content creator was naive enough to believe there could be 10 such rules that would never intersect? For instance, could a fib never help you better honor a parent? Is it not possible that stealing, a la Jean Valjean, could keep a child in your care from starving to death and thus you would then not be in any way responsible for the child’s “murder”?

I think we all yearn sometimes to live in a world that is certain, one as black and white as we believed it was when we were children. But that is not the world we occupy, and tightly gripping that ideal past its point of usefulness will help no-one.

The Loudly Desperate

I’m rather jealous of Thoreau’s men of quiet desperation.  I generally experience my desperation loudly, obviously, flagrantly.

Yes.  I lead a life of loud, flagrant desperation.  Some days I wonder if others will smell it on me the way dogs supposedly smell fear. Perhaps I believe that keeping it quiet will be unhelpful; that sharing is purging.

I have not gotten many wrinkles in middle age, except for two deep creases between my eyebrows.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  It’s like my face is trying to announce, “There are things to be concerned about, and I’ve been trying to address them by thinking really deeply about them.  And being loudly desperate.”

A Poem, of Sorts

a poem, of sorts, that was in my head this morning:

I try to be clever
but I exhale crumpled moth wings

A brain can ache
like a stomach can ache –
it’s when you can’t escape your own self

The other night I went to fold the laundry
and I didn’t want to do it
and I didn’t want to not do it –
how can this be?

my biggest fear is not death,
but being sent into outer space
alone
to a place where I discover bodies do not die.

You Better Not Pout

While driving in to work this morning I was realizing I’ve experienced several different phases of close surveillance.

As a youngster, it was Santa: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, yadda yadda.  Earn valuable prizes yearly for obedience and self-control.

After that was busted open, I believed it was a Judeo-Christian God spying on me: watching me half-ass practicing piano; shaking his head as I talked back; possibly snorting at my lame church confessions (I couldn’t really keep track so I guessed based on what I figured most kids my age were doing wrong).  But then I grew into an agnostic who has a sense that it’s unlikely anyone is keeping such a close tally and if they are, I find I don’t much care what their opinion is.

But now….now,  it’s the scariest viewer of all.  My kid.  She doesn’t see everything, of course.  But she sees plenty and she’s watching closely.  For hypocrisy and discrepancy.  For lessons.  The biggest difference, and the scary bit, is that I didnt have to be held responsible for influencing Santa’s and God’s paths.  They would not potentially base poor decisions or family negotiations on my actions.

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