My (Lack of) Faith Will See Me Through

On Election Eve last week, I wrote a post on this blog called “If Trump Wins.” At the time that I wrote it, I didn’t think Donald Trump had any chance at all of winning the presidency, and the defiance and optimism I felt Monday night vanished twenty-four hours later. Like it did for a lot of you.

It wasn’t just that this spectacularly unqualified person was going to run the executive branch, or that he’d likely have congress on his side. It was the slap in the face that we really did live in a country that at the least turned a blind eye to bigotry, if not openly embraced it. Just when we thought maybe we were moving away from that, or at least encouraging a more open society. Nope. Just like that, the door was slammed shut. People of color, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, women, et. al., maybe saw this coming more clearly than I did. But I sure as hell see it now.

So when I went to bed on election night “devastation” isn’t much of an exaggeration of what I was feeling. Hopeless, hollowed out. Anguished. All that liberal Trail of Tears bleeding heart stuff people posted – I actually felt that. I only went to work that day because people needed me, otherwise I would have stayed home in my bathrobe with my dog. What I’d written Monday night seemed like it was from someone else.

But I got over that defeat. It took about a day and a half of “fake it ’til you make it,” which I did ’til I did, and the courage started coursing back through my veins. My own words, when I finally reread them, reminded me of who I really was once I was back on my feet. But there was still a long fight ahead of me. Assuming the Electoral College didn’t step in and do the job it was designed for – the job that none of us ever thought it would need to do – Trump was going to be president. A lot of people were going to need help, including those who voted him in. The question wasn’t what I needed to do.

The question was, “why?”

And that’s what I’d like to write about tonight.

* * *

It’s really a legitimate question to ask yourself as a citizen and especially as a parent trying to guide another human being into a moral life. Why do good when it’s likely that your actions will have no effect? Why do good when you don’t see any fruit coming of it? Why bother when your values are unappreciated?

It’s a question I get a lot as an atheist, or some form of it at least. People who assume that goodness comes from a deity are going to be curious about what compels we godless* to behave well toward others. If there’s no outside source pushing us that way, well, what’s the point? You hear this a lot from conservative Christians: the idea that without God to keep us in line we’d all descend into savagery and lawlessness (speak for yourselves. Actually, maybe you are.).

If you’re the kind of person who believes that your faith gives you all the reason you need to sustain you in the fight for marginalized people, then read no further. If you honestly draw all the resolve you need from your religious beliefs, good for you. No, really. If you believe that all people have basic human rights that deserve defending, then we’re on the same team, and I really don’t care what got you there. But if you’re struggling with why you shouldn’t just pack it in after this brutal defeat, then maybe I can help. Here’s what gets me through. Maybe you can find something useful here.

* * *

We atheists don’t tend to do optimism very well. If you don’t believe in a god, you’re pretty much flying through life with no safety net, and that’s not a little bit intimidating. Most deists believe in some form of a benign plan, something good that we’re all being more or less encouraged toward, whether it’s by God, gods, the Cosmos, Gaia, or what have you. If you believe that, or at least hope for that, it relieves a lot of pressure. Even if you believe that people are the instruments of that plan, there’s a vague idea there that if you fail in your task, there’s something else that will pick up the slack. Or give you strength to try again. If you’re an atheist, you’ve got none of that. You’re on your own.

Many people are telling us “It’ll be OK.” Maybe it will. But just because this country has always recovered (at least to the satisfaction of the ruling class) is no guarantee it always will. All empires fall in this world. When America falls, how will it happen? I think it’ll look a lot like this. Remember, with no net, there’s no guarantee there’s a master plan in place.

Sounds grim? Wait, there’s more.

Most deists believe in some form of afterlife. Even if it’s reincarnation, there’s something else to look forward to. Usually it’s something better, or at least part of a divine plan. There’s something more than this life here on Earth. Atheists cannot count on anything like that. As an atheist, I must accept the possibility that this go-around is all I get.

So let’s recap: I’m alone. This life is all I have.

Disheartening? Well, I get that, but wishing for something else doesn’t make it so. I’m not going to get more just because I want it really really badly. And if you think about it this way, and really accept the transient nature of life (like Buddhists do, by the way), something beautiful happens. You stop thinking about all you’ve “lost” (which was never really there to begin with anyway – at least that’s how we atheists see it) and you start realizing how startlingly beautiful and rare and unique this life we’re living really is. You see it as something worth fighting for, not just a stepping stone to the next phase of existence. This life – it becomes the one love in your life. Existence becomes so much more precious because it’s finite.

Would you rather have someone like that fighting for your rights? Or someone who believes we’re meant to suffer here and it’ll all be worked out later?

* * *

So we atheists place a lot of value on the present because we’re not certain of anything but the present. But if that’s the case, why spend it doing good? Why not spend it wallowing in the fleshpots, debauchery, and violence conservative Christians seem alarmingly obsessed with?

The simple answer is, I don’t want to. I feel better when I do good than when I don’t. When I do something to help someone, I like myself. I give myself a little smile, and an “attaboy!” I sleep better at night, and it makes me want to help out more. When I pass up a chance to help someone, or when I fail miserably out of fear or laziness, I don’t like myself. I lose sleep. I get down on myself. I’d rather feel good than feel bad. So I try to live morally.

It really is that simple.

Years ago, I mentioned to someone – a volunteer firefighter and sometime Sunday School teacher – that I was looking for some volunteer opportunities in my life. His immediate response was, “Well, don’t expect any thanks for anything you do!” I figured that he’d recently been embittered by some bad experience, but still, his answer surprised me. I wasn’t looking to do volunteer work because I wanted someone to thank me. I was looking to do it because I felt it was important.

I do good (or feel bad when I fail to) entirely for internal reasons. I have little control over what people do with my actions or how they are received. So it doesn’t make sense for me to look for validation outside myself. I can only answer to my own morality.

So I don’t do good because I’ll be thanked.

I don’t do good because it’s effective (though I hope it is).

I don’t do good because it’ll bring me in line with what others believe (though I hope not to feel alone).

I don’t do good because I think someone is “worthy” of it (though we are all worthy, being human beings).

I don’t do good because others may emulate me (though that’s a bonus if they do).

I do good (or hurt when I fail) to stay true to myself.

So:

This is why I’ll fight on. Because this world and her people are worth fighting for. Because I have no guarantee anyone else will pick up my slack. Because this world is all I know I have. And because it’s who I am and how I want to live.

My reasons for carrying on don’t require a god. But they don’t necessarily negate one either, so if there’s anything here you can use, help yourself. I hope My Knucklehead can find some help here; that’s ultimately why I’m writing this. But we all have some work to do in the days and years ahead, and maybe that’s true regardless of who was elected. So I’m getting up and soldiering on.

Who’s with me?

_____________________

*Actually we’re all godless, but I’ll let that go for now.

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If Trump Wins

If Trump wins, I’ll be tempted to move to Canada. After all, Vancouver is just a few hours’ drive to the north, and Vancouver is beautiful and cosmopolitan and sane. But so is Seattle, and so is Olympia, my hometown. So if Trump wins, I’m going to stay.

If Trump wins, I’m going to stay right here and make a nuisance of myself.

If Trump wins, I’m going to join the resistance. I’m going to put on a trench coat and I’m going to lose the girl and I’m going to start some beautiful friendships. I’m going to sing La Marseillaise in the pub, and then I’m going to get to work.

If Trump wins, I’m going to stay and fight like hell. I’m not going to riot, rail, bully, beat up, or detonate, because all those things only feel good for ten seconds, and only to children and idiots, and then you’re left with more of a mess than you started with. But I will fight, and fight and fight and fight and fight.

If Trump wins, I’m going to fight with weapons more powerful than Trump can ever imagine, because Trump cannot imagine the power of the weapons with which the founders of this great nation armed us. Trump cannot imagine the power of the Constitution because Trump does not know the power of the Constitution. Trump cannot imagine the power of an informed citizenry because Trump does not know the power of an informed citizenry. Trump cannot imagine the power of civic pride because… you get the idea.

If Trump wins, I’m going to help vote in the antidote.

If Trump wins, I’m going to prove to my neighbors and to the world that Trump is not Us. Trump is just the fevered Us, the Us that got away from us in a fit of pique. If Trump wins I’ll confound him through my work, my service as a nurse to my patients, my neighbors, my country. I’ll block Trump through my gifts of time and treasure to my community, especially the people I might imagine can do me no good. I’ll deny Trump his ghoulish version of America through empathy and kindness and laughter and sacrifice. I will exult in the planet around me, in her peoples and her lands. That’ll do him. That’ll frost his little apricots.

If Trump wins, I will unleash upon him the best of me, my Knucklehead, and his formidable generation. We parents will flood Trump with those who didn’t fall prey to our madness, who are better than we because we put only our best into them. Trump is everything we taught our Knuckleheads not to say, not to be. Our Knuckleheads understand that, when we, perhaps, weren’t looking hard enough. Or critically enough. Our Knuckleheads will sigh, shoulder us aside (if we will not follow their lead), and say, “We got this.”

If Trump wins, I will write against him. I will fight Trump with my words (and I know all the best words!) because against words and rational thought and reason, Trump is defenseless. Education cancels Trump. A moment’s pause for reflection cancels Trump.

If Trump wins, I will destroy him by being better than him. And when I fail, as I often do, I will face my failure, atone for it, learn from it, and better myself from it. I will obliterate Trump by being humble and human.

If Trump wins, I will need your help. Alone I’m pitifully weak, but with you, we are two, then three, then countless and insurmountable.

If Trump wins, it’ll be the beginning of the greatest loss Trump has ever shouldered. And remember: Trump has lost billions.

If Trump wins… he doesn’t stand a chance.

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Knuckleheads Under Attack!

I have a few things to say about male privilege.

Look, I’m aware that “male privilege” is a hot-button phrase, that it’s something that puts a lot of people on the defensive, others on the offensive. But it’s going to become clear soon enough that that’s what I’m discussing, so we might as well get the term out of the way early.

Male privilege.

Maleprivilegemaleprivilegemaleprivilege.

Whew.

* * *

 It’s an odd time we’re in with a resurgence of feminism and the sadly inevitable backlash that it brings. If that’s not enough, along comes Donald Trump, just in case vitriol and yahooism were somehow underrepresented in the “conversation.” We can be forgiven for not hearing the voices under the din. We can all be forgiven when we feel driven to raise our voices instead of listening harder. We need to do both, and the insane atmosphere we’re living in makes it hard to know which is needed when.

I’d like to address men who feel threatened by feminism. I believe I have some authority here because I’ve been a nurse for over twenty years. Along with elementary school teachers, social workers, and a few others, this puts me solidly in a “pink collar” profession – a profession dominated (in numbers, at least) by women. All through nursing school and since then, I have never worked in a setting or been in a classroom where my gender makes up more than ten percent of my colleagues. Every single immediate supervisor I’ve had since I stared working as a nurse has been a woman.

This is what I’ve experienced in my worst days of being the only, or one of the few men on the floor. In the past, I have experienced, at the hands of some of my colleagues:

A complete disdain for my professional abilities because of my gender. An assumption of my lack of empathy. When I’m starting a new position or learning a new skill, there are times when I cannot escape the feeling that I’m being set up to fail because somebody thinks that as a man I think I know it all. It’s sometimes assumed that because I’m working the floor, I should be called on to do all the heavy lifting. I fight a constant workplace bias that women are inherently better “multitaskers;” this is especially infuriating because “multitasking” is impossible. I’ve spent many a shift cleaning up after nurses who pride themselves as “multitaskers.” What nursing (and parenting, and many other endeavors) actually calls for is an ability to prioritize and re-prioritize on the fly, and an ability to focus intensely on what is actually most important. Nothing I’ve experienced as a nurse or a parent has taught me differently.

I hear from nurses what babies and wimps men are when it comes to pain or illness, even though anyone who’s spent more than two years in patient care has learned that pain tolerance and resilience is the one thing that truly cuts across all gender, age, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.

I’ve learned to avoid break rooms and eating with my colleagues as a group. In break rooms, the loudest voices are the ones complaining about the men in their lives. I hear about worthless boyfriends, worthless husbands, worthless in-laws. I hear women describe abusive and negligent partners, then glance at me as if to say, “and you’re no different.” I hear mothers complaining about their own sons, describing genuine character defects as “boys will be boys.” I’ve heard mothers, some of them people I would not trust with my own child, tell me that all women are “naturally” cut out to be instinctive parents. When I’ve talked about a point of pride in My Knucklehead, something I believe to have been aided by years of attentive parenting on my part, I’ve heard, “his mother must have brought him up right.”

I’ve heard at least weekly unvarnished stories about sex and menstruation and childbirth and menopause, in far greater detail than I’m comfortable hearing from coworkers. Many of these are followed with cries of “Peter, you’re getting quite an education!” followed by shrieks of laughter. I’ve heard raunchy jokes from women I don’t consider to be my friends just because they like to see the only man in the room squirm.

In the break room I see coffee mugs that joke about how worthless men are. I seem to be the only person that looks at them twice.

When my son was in elementary school, my schedule gave me opportunities to do some volunteering at the school. I was never thanked,* I was never sought out for help, and the moms at the home and school association never contacted me though I offered. And then I listened to them complain that fathers never got involved in their childrens’ education.

At this point, I believe there are very few men reading this that aren’t nodding their heads in agreement. These are not outrageous examples, they are what I have been exposed to over twenty years of being in the minority. A lot of men will point to my experiences and their own as proof that men are discriminated against just as much as women are if not more. A lot of men will tell you that these reasons – and more – are why men are under attack.

I get that you feel that way, brother. I totally understand your thinking.

Now here’s why I think you’re wrong:

* * *

All of what I described above is accurate and true. My Bride can tell you about the times I came home complaining about this. But it’s important to remember that my litany of woes was preceded by the phrase, “This is what I’ve experienced in my worst days….” What women have to experience on their worst days is much more serious.

I’ve never been sexually assaulted at work, or in the community. I’ve never had a doctor “playfully” kiss me in the operating room, as I witnessed as a student nurse in an OR rotation. It’s never occurred to me to wonder if I wasn’t getting paid as much as a female colleague. In fact, I can point to two positions I was given in my nursing career that I expect my gender had something to do with. I’ve never had to give a second thought to how I dressed for work because of how women (or men) might inappropriately react to me. I have had to make adjustments in my schedule based on child care, but I’ve never had to consider overtime because I didn’t know if a support payment due me was going to be missed. I’ve never been routinely and dismissively referred to by management as “the girls on the unit.” I’ve never had to think twice about going to my car in the dark after a shift by myself. I’ve never wondered if I didn’t get a job because an interviewer worried if I was going to take six weeks off for parental leave. I’ve endured feeling uncomfortable, even angry. I’ve never had to endure open hostility or assault.

I have been taken more seriously by some doctors than equally qualified female colleagues, but those doctors are idiots anyway, so that’s a wash.

And all those negative experiences I’ve had? Honestly, they’ve usually been the result of a relatively reliable subset of colleagues.

There have been nurses who have challenged me in my career, but not because they wanted to see the man fail. Some have challenged me because they saw in me a kindred spirit who shared a common desire to help our patients, and they worked me like a rented mule because they believed, A) I could take it, and B) it would bring out the best in me. I came to my current position as a hospice nurse as a middle-aged guy with all of the fear of change and setness-in-my-ways my demographic is famous for. Instead of throwing up their hands and saying “I can’t work with this!” the staff at my hospice (two women in particular!) had the wisdom, the grace, and the infinite patience to mentor me. I literally would not have made it this long without them.

Looking back, I have had several mentors in my nursing career, all of them women. All of them people who were smart, strong, experienced, and eager to encourage and educate someone who’s heart was in the right place. If I had let myself be swayed by the colleagues that got under my skin, I would have missed out on the friends and mentors that have made me a better nurse, and that challenge me still.

And for every mom who dismissed my contributions as a dad, there were women – comrades in parenting! – who appreciated my thoughtfulness as a father. These women, and a few dads as well, were the people I turned to for parenting support and advice. The people who didn’t respect me weren’t going to be helpful, anyway. The people who took me seriously I took seriously as well, and I made it through The Knucklehead’s childhood with the support of some good, solid co-parents. I like to think I was helpful, too.

* * *

So here’s what I want to say to men who feel besieged: You’re not, but I understand why you feel like you do. You need to realize that the “discrimination” you’ve felt is infuriating, and that’s legitimate, but it’s not really “discrimination.” The other side gets what you do, plus a whole lot more. That doesn’t mean you have to like it when you hear how shitty men are, but you need to understand that that isn’t what feminists are complaining about. They’re complaining about problems that very, very few of us have ever had to face.

To women who don’t get male entitlement, this is where I’m supposed to plea with you for greater understanding, but I’m not going to do that. Please feel free to call out idiocy when you see it; god knows you’ve earned it. But if you really want to educate, it helps to know the other side. Remember: to these men, their pain is real. If the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life is a headache, well, then that headache by comparison to the rest of your life is excruciating. If you deny their feelings, you’ve lost them. But if you tell them, “OK, that sucks, and I can see why you’re pissed off. Now imagine if you also had to go through this….” If they’re still beyond reasoning, the hell with them. It’s not your responsibility to fix what you didn’t break. Seek out those of us who are willing to listen. Maybe there are more of us than you think.

Soldier on, sisters and brothers. We’ll get this country there.

* * *

Now, white privilege, that’s a whole different matter.

Entirely.

____________

*Except by one teacher; thank you, Daria.

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The Nest-Flown Knucklehead

It’s what I’ve been dreading almost since My Knucklehead was born. It’s the nagging thought I’ve less and less successfully push away from the forebrain as my child has grown up and hurdled one milestone after another. I think it’s harder for us dads, because it’s generally not as acceptable for us to talk about, especially when it comes to our sons. Maybe it’s even harder because The Knucklehead is my only knucklehead; I don’t know, I can only speculate about that.

Technically, of course, it’s I who have flown the nest – I left for the west coast just this past spring while my boy was still in his junior year of college in central Pennsylvania. The timing of events nudged me a year before he would have sprung himself, but that hardly seems to have mattered. My son, somewhere along the collegiate path has seemed to have turned his attention away from the acorn of family to the oak of the outside world. I first noticed it just after his homecoming from a semester abroad. Like Odysseus returned, he seemed to keep an eye to the sea. Like Telemachus, I wasn’t fooled.

No matter which of us left first, I knew that my days of having The Knucklehead at hand were winding down. Whether it happened last April or next, it was inevitable. And as I sit here in early October, baseball waning, winter on the rise, 3,000 miles away from the boy I love best as he plans a life apart, one question keeps nagging and turning and tugging:

Why don’t I feel worse than I do?

* * *

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above the occasional self-pity party now and then. I still think of my last live sight of him. We’d had dinner out together before my drive west, and I’d hugged him goodbye outside his dorm. As he walked back inside, I watched him all they way in, thinking desperately, don’t look back-NO, PLEASE, TURN AROUND-no don’t I’ll never keep it together-HOW CAN YOU LET ME GO?! I knew that I wouldn’t see him again until after the new year. He was going back abroad for an internship that summer (see, I was right about the Odysseus analogy), and we’d agreed he’d fly out for the January portion of his winter break. Eight months. By far, it would be the longest span of his life we’d spent apart from each other.

Am I a little jealous of his mom, and her large extended family just a short drive away from campus in my old home town? Sure. Right now The Knucklehead is there for a fall break, and for the most part that side of his family gets him all to themselves for the rest of his undergrad term. More than that, if he stays in the Northeast. But if that worried me, I never would have left. He loves his mom’s side of the family, and he loves me. If anybody in the Keystone State wants to turn that into a competition, they’re welcome to see where that gets them.

No, it’s actually the baseball playoffs that I thought would jerk the tears. This is always the time of year when my boy and I had our favorite discussions about the sport, one of the backbones of our relationship. So when Knucks and I talk baseball, there’s a wealth of memory behind it. Take this recent (edited) text exchange between us on this year’s playoffs:

KNUCKLEHEAD: Who are you pulling for: Blue Jays or Rangers?

ME: Blue Jays. Easy.

KH: Easy? What’d the Rangers ever do to you?

ME: I’d rather live in Toronto than Arlington. Bush was an owner. My friend Amit is from Toronto.

KH: That is all true but the Rangers have a much better stadium, they don’t have Bautista, and they didn’t boo Showalter. Besides, I like seeing people touch Beltre’s head.

That exchange taps on a motherlode of history between the two of us. One of our favorite discussions was “Who Are You Rooting For?” in which geography, ethics, politics, loyalty to friends, and many other factors were weighed. The discussions were always long and encyclopedic, and sometimes would still be going on after a game was over. And the Beltre reference is pure gold:

For those who don’t know, my son and I are both Boston Red Sox fans, and during the 2010 season (Knucks would have been 15 that year) Adrian Beltre played for Boston. Since we watched a lot of Sox games, we noticed something: Adrian Beltre does not like people touching his hair. How did we know this? Because Adrian Beltre positively flips out when anyone touches his hair. The man seriously flies into a rage. So his teammates, being the paragons of maturity we know all baseball players to be, would make a point of tousling Beltre’s hair whenever possible, and the NESN cameras were always on the lookout for it because it was so damned entertaining. I mean, yes, it was wrong of Beltre’s teammates to violate his personal boundaries, and that was so noted by both father and son. But, honestly, most of us learn sometime before the third grade that if something weirds you out, you downplay it. The last thing you do is provide spectacular entertainment to your tormentors. After the 2010 season, Beltre went to Texas, and he plays for them to this day. So in the years since he left Boston, whenever one of us sees the Rangers playing, the other always gets called into the room in case Adrian loses it in the dugout. It’s become a family tradition.

* * *

So, watching a baseball game with my son is never just watching a sporting event. It connects us to hundreds of moments, conversations, places, and people in our lives. Baseball is a touchstone in our relationship, as are films, music, and books. All these things lead to more important parts of our lives, but all these things are the packaging as well. I can’t watch baseball without thinking of my son.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of the last World Series game my son and I watched together. I was still in Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from his university. I made a point of allowing him his distance, and freedom, but I wasn’t ready to give up watching a World Series game with him. We picked a night he was free and went to a sports bar near campus to have dinner and enjoy the game. We weren’t glued to every pitch – we never are when we watch a game together. Knucks had brought some homework, and knowing this, I kept myself busy with a crossword puzzle I’d brought. This is how we watch most games together. A lot of it passes in silence. When one of us comments, it’s usually to recall a player or situation we’ve seen together before. At moments when the game demands our concentration, we’ll drop what we’re doing and play barstool manager. We cheer, we groan. We tap into our whole past.

All that happened that night, and it didn’t matter that we were in a public house and not on our couch. We had a great evening, and as I drove home I felt like that one game together was all we needed. I didn’t have to take in every game of that series with my boy. He had given me one evening out of his college week, and I was grateful to be close enough to take it. One more game with my son.

This year, I’ll have none. Sure, we’ll text, but he won’t be in the room. No laughing at each others’ reactions. No sharing greasy food. No antics with the dog when he jumps up as we stand to cheer. So, again:

Why don’t I feel worse?

* * *

I think the answer is because we left nothing on the field. When we had the opportunity to spend time together, we didn’t squander it. We took advantage of the times we were geographically close, and though I didn’t know it at the time, we were banking it for the future. If I hadn’t taken the time to grab a game with my kid when I was close, I’m sure I’d feel regret. I’d kick myself for having missed an opportunity that’s no longer available to me. But because I grabbed key moments when I was able, I’m filled not with sadness that those moments are in the past, but with gratitude that they were there at all.

I remember times when The Knucklehead was a toddler of two or three, and the sight of me after a long day of work would fill him with sheer glee. I remember him running to me, I remember the feel of his little arms around my neck and his soft baby cheek against mine. And I think I remember those moments so clearly because all I could think of at the time was, “This is it. This is life. This is everything.” And when you feel something like that, it becomes part of you forever. It’s always there. You can’t lose it.

I don’t regret that those moments are in the past. I’m grateful to have appreciated them as they happened. I’m not sad because I won’t have my son with me on the couch for October baseball this year because I was fully present when I had the opportunity, and I know I will be when we’re together again.

I’m at the beginning of my “empty nesting” stage, so I can’t know how I’ll feel five, ten, twenty years from now. My Knucklehead hasn’t yet put down roots anywhere, so the permanence of this stage hasn’t settled in yet. But I’m cheered by how I’m feeling now, and a little bit surprised. I wasn’t aware of how nourishing those memories could be, and it gives me great hope for continuing to teach my son his father’s place in his life.

This relationship, this bond my boy and I have built together; it turns out it’s pretty strong. I had no idea how much comfort it would provide. Since we built it together, I know it reaches out to my son as it reaches back to me. If I left nothing on the field, neither did he, and maybe the same memories that warm me will warm him as well. If I feel like I’m going to be okay, it’s reasonable to expect that The Knucklehead, no matter how far afield he roams, will be okay, too. If our moments together fill me with love instead of longing, perhaps they’ll sustain him, too, instead of holding him back.

My boy will soon head out into the wide wild world, and neither of us knows where he’ll land or for how long. Could be that it’s a long, long time until we get to watch October baseball together again.

Why don’t I feel worse?

I have no reason to.

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The Epistolary Knucklehead

About three years ago, I wrote wrote a post about writing my Knucklehead weekly letters at university; you can read it here. I’m still at it. At some point last spring I passed the hundred-letter mark in his college career, and now that I’m on the other side of the continent from him, those dispatches have gained relevance. The venue has changed – instead of composing his letter Tuesday nights in a central Pennsylvania brewpub, I’ve settled into a Sunday brunch rotation at Olympia dives and eateries. I’ve picked up quite a collection of stationery and note cards, but unfortunately The Knucklehead sees none of them; they don’t hold enough writing. Those are for quick notes of thanks or sympathy. Knucks get news, and for that I need space. The Knucklehead gets pages torn from a 10″ x 7 1/2″ moleskine notebook, finely spaced. He gets two sheets, both sides, and that (I recently estimated) amounts to about 1,600 words per letter. To keep that up over eight semesters requires two things: time and subject matter.

The time I spend – two hours, give or take – turns out not to be something I’m giving up to my kid as much as something I’m giving back to myself. Sure, it’s an act of love for a father to write his son week after week, but the writing has become something I’ve come to look forward to. For two hours, I remove myself from everyday surroundings, treat myself with a long leisurely meal out (possibly paired with a grapefruit IPA or blackberry cider if it’s before noon), and turn myself outward and onto paper. It’s generous, yes, but it’s also immensely therapeutic. I feel connected for a time with someone I love who’s physically far away, and when I’m done I have something tangible to show for my labor. To be honest, sometimes I think my Knucklehead is getting the raw end of the deal.

The other requirement for that much correspondence is subject matter, and it’s something I always wrestle with. Some weeks the letters flow, some weeks I’m scratching my head more than I’m writing. The letters needn’t drip pearls of wisdom. One week I gave The Knucklehead a tour of the diner, describing the staff and the clientele. Another week I gave him my thoughts on the two movies I’d seen the day before, Kubo and the Two Strings and Hell or High Water (an odd double feature, but both excellent for their own reasons). But sometimes a letter is wanted with more meat on its bones. For that, it occurred to me that there’s something I want to teach my adult son that every parent wants to teach their grown pups: how to be a mensch.

* * *

Now, pipe down, all of you. You may think that it’s heresy for a recovering Lutheran goy atheist to appropriate the term “mensch,” but I’ve been given permission, by no less than Marjorie Ingall. Not personally, but through her excellent book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. It’s simply one of the best books on parenting I’ve come across, and the fact that it comes from a Jewish mother just shows you how promiscuous I am when it comes to solid ideas. In it, Ingall defines mensch as “Literally ‘man,’ but in general usage, a good human being.” A mensch is someone who is morally good, but not necessarily in the passive, obedient sense we sometimes wish for our kids. Ingall’s menschen have more backbone. They’re standup people, who will come forward to defend the abused and aggrieved, who give solace to those who need it. Who don’t “act like dicks” (I’m telling you, you’ve got to read this book). Being a mensch transcends gender, religion, culture, and age. By Ingall’s accounting, even a twelve-year-old Hindu girl can be a mensch. And should.

So, for his senior year of undergrad, I’m going to occasionally throw into The Knucklehead’s letters mensch lessons. Not necessarily on the grander themes of ethics, though that may come up. But in the smaller, more pedestrian ways we ought to conduct ourselves in grown-up life. The little things that often are the ones that people notice best. The things that count. The stuff you and I handle every day in the real world. And remember what I wrote in “The Lettered Knucklehead.” One of the advantages to putting this in a letter is we can’t see their reactions when they read it. For all we know, they’re not even rolling their eyes.

So my mensch lesson in last week’s letter was this: how to dine out alone.

* * *

Every adult should feel comfortable in her own skin and her own company. I’m going through a period in my life right now in which I live alone, and don’t have a much of a social network at hand. If you think that sounds sad, it isn’t. It’s a fact of my life in 2016, just as it is a fact of all of our lives at some point. To be honest, I’m kind of enjoying the solitude right now. I like my independence, I like the quiet when I want quiet, I like my new-found self-sufficiency. It suits me. It’s comfortable. I sometimes miss having the people I love within reach, but even that missing is like an old blanket that feels good to throw over my shoulders on cold nights.

I’m not worried about The Knucklehead hermitting himself up if he’s on his own. He’s always shown himself more than willing to head out solo when there’s something that interests him (see this old post for an example). Knucks is plenty social, but isn’t afraid to ditch the crowd when something catches his attention – it’s something I always admired in him. So he won’t be afraid to dine out alone if he wants to. But I’ve learned a few tricks that I passed onto him in his last letter:

First of all, decide whether or not you’re open to conversation. If you’re not, if you just want to get out of the house or are hankering for a burger or a pasta dish that some place you know makes just right, then ask for a table (booth is better, they’re off to the side), and bring a book. Or a journal. Or something to occupy your attention, and more importantly, make it look to other people like your attention is occupied.

But if not…

If it’s a bar or pub, sit at the bar. If you’re in a diner, sit at the counter. This is by far the best place to eat at those establishments, whether you’re by yourself, or with a friend. But especially if you’re by yourself.

For one thing, you’re going to get better service. Your server is trapped with you; they’re rarely going to be more than ten feet away from you unless someone relieves them to go outside for a smoke break. So they’re going to make damn sure you have no complaints. They can’t do a “dump and run” where they drop off your entrée and then you’re lucky if you can find them with a Geiger counter for the next thirty minutes. But at the bar, or the counter, your server knows she’s hanging out with you while you eat your dinner, so she’s going to make sure she’s not giving you a reason to be in a bad mood. There are exceptions of course, but in general the server’s increased visibility (and accountability) is going to work in your favor.

Also, it’s generally the more outgoing servers that work the counter or the bar, and that can be a lot of fun. If you’re in the mood for a little conversation, ask your server how his day is going (and then establish eye contact so he knows you’re really interested). Let her know if you thought the kitchen did a good job on your patty melt. This is how you become a regular, and regulars get looked after. As in any human interaction, listen a little more than you talk. And don’t bitch, or at least do it rarely. Complaining is one of the most tedious things to listen to, and it makes you come off as tedious. Tell a funny story instead.

But pay attention, as well. Watch your server’s body language to make sure they’re up for some chitchat. See if they’re leaning in or edging away. See if they’re establishing eye contact. And remember that they’re there to work. Allow your story to be interrupted by the attention of a fellow customer. Never monopolize your server.

And don’t hit on them. It’s a general rule of thumb never to hit on someone who doesn’t have an avenue of escape. If they’re interested, trust me, they’ll find a clear way to make that known.

Even if you don’t feel outgoing, there are still advantages to sitting at the bar. If you look at a book or a newspaper, or stare at your phone, they’ll forget about you for minutes at a time. And as the bar or the counter are usually a centralized place in any eating establishment, you’re likely to hear all the good gossip going around. Trust me. Bar gossip is better than Netflix.

But the best reason is that the counter is where all the characters hang out. The old guys with hair in their ears. The barflys, the know-it-alls, the raconteurs. Sometimes it’s the people who are the most full of shit that are the most fun to listen to. The last time I read Moby Dick I pictured Ishmael as loudly holding forth with an ale on his fist. Again, this is a generalization, but the bar is the most social place in the restaurant. Generally, this is the place where it’s OK to engage a stranger in conversation. That goes double if there’s a television with a game on. People more or less expect a little socialization. Some are there to just get their drink on or wait for a table, and you need to be sensitive to that. But sitting at the bar for a meal most often means you’re there for some comradery as well.

And the counter at a diner is essential if you’re a stranger in town. If you’re smart, be polite, ask a few questions and then shut up, and you’ll most likely hear from the staff and customers what’s worth hitting in town and what’s not.

The only drawback to sitting at a bar or counter is that just as the server can’t get away from you, you can’t get away from your server’s attention, either, and that means you’ll feel extra pressure to tip well. Now that’s not really a drawback, more of an opportunity. I would tell The Knucklehead that as a proper mensch, I would expect him to tip (Mr. Pink notwithstanding) at a base rate of 20%. That’s for normal, unremarkable service. I believe it’s permissible to lower that rate to 15% when you’re a student or you’re broke, but you need to make it up later in life.  If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip, and you should just figure that in as an essential. Even if you can’t make 20%, it’s a good habit to get into.

If it helps you to think of your server or bartender as a single mom that needs the cash, or a struggling legal student destined to be the next Notorious RBG, hey, fine. But the fact of the matter is that no one should be required to produce a sob story to make a living wage. Pay the people.

But the 20% is a base rate. If you think you’re going to be a regular, go to at least 25%. That’s not the big deal you think it might be. On a $25 check, 20% is $5. on the same amount, 25% is $6.25. So for an extra buck twenty-five (that’s not that much) you’re establishing yourself as an elite tipper. It’s never a bad idea to be known as an elite tipper at a place you like, especially when it comes so cheap. Be the guy that the servers are fighting over when you walk in.

That kind of cred is quickest earned at the counter or at the bar. It’s where they’ll remember you because your server has been around you longer than the servers at the tables, and maybe because you told a good story or listened to your server talk about her day, or her kid, or her brother in jail. They’ll remember you, then remember if you tipped them right.

You’ll establish yourself as if you a mensch. Or a noodge. You choose.

* * *

See? It’s not rocket science. We parents all have ideas about what it means to be a good person, a good citizen, a good neighbor, a stand-up human being. It’s the little stuff in life where our humanity (or lack of) shines through. Share that kind of stuff with your knucklehead. Whether it takes or not is almost secondary. It’s the kind of thing that in the midst of exams and practices and college romances your kid probably won’t absorb. At least not that they’ll notice. But a few letters with this stuff in it, and your knucklehead gets a sense of what matters to you. That may or may not be important to them now, but it sure will be at some point. And when it is, there it will be on a piece of paper, something tangible and non-virtual.

We want our kids to mull over the niceties and ethics of everyday life. Best to let them see us doing that.

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In Memorium of Me

(Reading through some of my orientation material at work last week, I came across something interesting. My work as a hospice nurse is going to have me rubbing elbows daily with mortality, and my reading advised me I’d best get my head wrapped around that. I’m fortunate in that I seem to have found myself part of a solid and supportive team, and talking with my colleagues and my friends is crucial in keeping tabs on how the job is affecting me personally. But I also found some suggestions on exercises I could do myself to confront and sort through my own feelings on the end of life. Like journaling. Or – and this is what really caught my attention – writing my own obituary.

As a writer, that sounded like a lot of fun. As a blogger, it was irresistible. And as a control freak, well, why leave something like that to… whomever? And so, friends and Knucklehead, I give you my own obituary. Run it, boys.)

Here’s the thing about Peter, who’s dead now: He went to schools, worked at jobs, blah, blah, blah, and now he’s gone. He fought in no wars, was elected to no public office, and was absent from the helm of any sort of corporation or public enterprise. For most of the world, if you blinked, you missed him. He never wrote an introduction to a volume of scholarship. He never had a show.

If that’s the stuff you’re interested in, you’ll find it in plenty of other obituaries on this page or on this site. Let’s get to the good stuff: Did he have any regrets? You bet. Plenty of them. Peter came to think of regrets in the same way shortstops think of errors. If you don’t have any, it means you’re not making an effort. You’re not risking the tough hop eating you up.

Almost all of Peter’s regrets involved the way he treated people, especially when he was young and was still learning empathy. Women in particular. If you’re reading this, and you’re a person Peter treated carelessly or selfishly, you should know that it was on his mind. He thought of you in later years more than you probably thought of him. He wishes his younger self wasn’t so clueless. He wishes his older self had worked harder at empathy. If it helps, you should know that not only did he later come to feel your pain, anger, or exasperation but used that experience to behave in a more compassionate manner.

Steven Brinich, you should know that Peter spent a great many years trying to contact you to say he’s sorry.

Peter had a blog, in which he overshared. Go over and look at that if you’re still reading at this point. That’ll help you to get to know who he was, at least from Peter’s point of view.

Peter valued relationships more than he let on. More than anything else, it’s how he measured his life, not in quantity but in quality. He’d heard a line in a movie once (Adaptation; it’s good, you should see it) that it’s who you love that defines you, not who loves you. Peter liked that. If you want to get a real sense of him, talk with his Bride and his Knucklehead. He loved them best, and they knew him best.

He loved a few dogs, too, but they’re a little more inscrutable. Or obvious, take your pick.

As we go to press, we don’t know what killed Peter, though it is hoped he didn’t die of anything serious. If Peter died unexpectedly or suddenly, he’d like you to avoid the use of the word “tragic,” unless of course his fall was from a place of great importance and caused by his own hubris. Otherwise, you’re just being histrionic. If Peter died from something he saw coming, you should know that the thing that irked him most was seeing trailers for movies he knew he’d never get to see. He accepted that life would go on without him, he just didn’t like it thrown in his face.

As far as wakes or memorial services, Peter didn’t leave a whole lot of instructions, because he understood that such things are not for the corpse, but for the bereaved.* Honestly, there’s no way he could follow up on this anyway, so what’s the point? Peter had a healthy and natural distaste for religion, theism, and churches, but understands that if that’s something meaningful to other people, have at it. You do what you need to do. Having said that, you should know that The Knucklehead has been instructed to reply to any statements like, “This is all part of God’s plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason!” with a smile and a firm “Go fuck yourself.” His inheritance actually depends on it. Seriously, it’s in the will.

Peter likes to imagine beers being hoisted in his memory, and stories and jokes being told in a few pubs across North America. If that’s the case, Peter would love it if someone would grab his iPod and leave it on shuffle. That will also give you a sense of who Peter was. Plus, he really likes the idea of every so often, people stopping in mid-conversation and asking, “What the hell are we listening to?”

Cremation or burial? Cremation, definitely. As far as scattering the ashes, somewhere where it’s quiet and people wouldn’t bother him. The sea floor, for example. Peter always was something of an introvert. Honestly, though, since Peter is dead, it really makes no difference. Knucks, if you’re still living in the northeast, maybe you’d like to keep some ashes in the trunk of your car for when your car gets stuck in snow/ice. Your dad would like you to know that he’s here to help.

Peter, at times, could be goddam hilarious.

Peter spent part of his working life as a hospice nurse, so he was comfortable with the idea of death being a natural and defining part of a human life. Liberating, even. Nevertheless, he’d like to leave you with this exchange between two characters from one of his two favorite books, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

[Mrs. Scheisskopf:] “Be thankful you’re healthy.”

[Yossarian:] “Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”

“Be glad you’re even alive.”

“Be furious you’re going to die.”

_____________________

*”The bereaved.” As if.

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Apprehensions of a Newly-Hatched Hospice Nurse

I began writing this blog – a blog primarily about parenthood – as The Knucklehead began his college career. I think it’s a better blog because of that. By writing in retrospect, instead of in the trenches, I was able to recognize the moments that really turned out to be important to me. It’s a perspective you don’t always get in the blogosphere, and one I’m more suited to anyway.

For similar reasons, I’m not going to be writing much about my work, not now. After twenty years in nursing, I just finished my first week in home hospice nursing, and lots of it was spent in system-wide orientation classrooms. Right now I don’t even know what I don’t know.

But I do have an opportunity at this moment to document a few feelings and observations while they’re fresh, and that might be worth looking back on in the years ahead. It might be worth reading to you, too, Knucks. People make a big deal out of graduating high school or college as The Big New Beginning in your life, but my experience is that life is really filled with a several Big New Beginnings, and a lot more smaller ones. Some of the apprehensions, expectations, hopes, and fears that come with each fresh start never go away. They visit you like old friends, and if you listen, they’ll have a lot to tell you.

* * *

At this point, I don’t even have an easy answer to people who ask me why I want to do this. The implication is that hospice work is depressing, but I don’t find that to be true at all. I find the work to be refreshingly direct.

It’s not as if this is the only part of nursing that deals with dying patients. Especially if you’re working in a hospital or other inpatient facility, you’re going to be working with people who are dying or facing the possibility of their illness being terminal. We just don’t like to talk about it. There’s an unspoken rule that patients must always hold onto hope, no matter what their situation, and that we medical professionals have to keep the patient focused on the certainty of recovery. Often that’s absolutely appropriate. Hope is great. How can hope be a bad thing?

The difficulty is that this approach discourages patients (and their caregivers) from asking questions like, “What if I can’t beat this? If I don’t beat the odds, what will my progression toward death be like? How can I prepare for this? How can my family prepare for this?” For me, the discomfort has never been in talking about this, or listening to a patient talk about their fears. The discomfort has been in avoiding the conversation entirely, because I’m supposed to stay lasered in on hope. One of the greatest heartbreaks I’ve experienced in nursing is seeing a patient in deep psychological and spiritual pain because they want to talk about the possibility of dying but feel like they’re being treasonous to their treatment team to do so. Or because they don’t want to make their loved ones feel uncomfortable, or find themselves chastised for not having enough hope.

It’s not that hospice goes where other fields of medicine don’t. It’s just that we get to deal directly with a reality that’s already there. And for patients who have run through all the treatment options they care to, the decision to treat only their discomfort can make the quality of life at the end infinitely better than it would have been otherwise. Ironically, it can even make life longer; studies have shown that patients on palliative care (care directed at comfort rather than cure) often live just as long or longer than patients aggressively treating fatal disease.

* * *

Hospice nursing isn’t flashy or sexy. It doesn’t make good television. It’s not where the action is. Where most of nursing is task-oriented, hospice is all about the process. It’s why I got into nursing in the first place.

As a patient, have you ever felt rushed at your doctor’s office? When you’ve been in the hospital, have you ever wished that people would spend more time with you? When you visit a friend in a nursing home, do you feel like the staff can’t take the time to sit and really listen to your loved one? Here’s something that might surprise you: We in health care feel that frustration even more acutely than you do. We feel it every hour of every working day. We became nurses or aides or PAs or doctors or physical therapists because we wanted to help people, and instead we’re being pulled in a hundred different directions because there’s not enough of us and we’re being tasked with caring for more and sicker people than we’re sometimes able to handle. We want more than anything to slow it down and spend the time with our patients that they deserve. In hospice, we get to do that. When I visit a patient at home, all my attention is focused there. My job is to listen. My job is to get a patient to tell me exactly what goals he has for the last months of his life, and to work with my team to reach the goals my patient – not his treatment team – has set. I’m encouraged to get to the bottom of a patient’s pain the way other nurses might go after an infection or low blood pressure. My boss isn’t a hospital administrator. My boss is my patient.

That doesn’t sound so depressing, does it?

I read an interesting analogy in the book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Hospice nursing is like midwifery, just at the other end of life. Our work is helping facilitate the passage. Leaving this life is as natural and beautiful and necessary as beginning it, and it’s an honor to be allowed to help a human being with that journey.

* * *

So, I don’t have an easy answer yet for “Why hospice?” It’s all of the above wrapped together. It’s the part of me that’s a sucker for the underdog; I want to help the people nobody else seems to want to be around. It’s the part of me that wants to learn what it’s like to experience the end of life, even if only so I can pass something onto my next patient, or friend, or family member going through this.

I’ve always felt nervous when taking on a new job in nursing, and this is certainly no exception. I don’t know yet how this job will affect me, and I’m going to need the counsel of the people who love me to tell me how I’m holding up. I’m humbled in the face of this work – it seems to me audacious to even imagine I’m up to it. After a career protecting people from death, I feel like facing it with them is the most important work I’ve ever attempted. I’m terrified of not rising to the defining moment of a human life.

And mixed in with all of that is a comfort that I’ve found the work I truly want to do. Driving home from my first day with patients, I dared to think that I might someday be exactly the person someone would want at their side in their final hours. It was an interesting commute: Fear, pride, elation, humility, terror, dedication, relief, and hope were roiling together inside me; I’ve never felt anything quite like it. It was a good feeling.

* * *

You’re probably not going to hear anything from me about my work for quite a while. Hospice isn’t something I can write about with authority, and that won’t be the case for quite a few years. But I’m a believer in beginnings, and I’m more of an authority on taking the first step now than I ever will be. And so, Future Self, this was what was going through your head when you set out on this path. Maybe if you’re reading this now, it’s because you need it, so I hope this helps.

And Knucks, if you’re not starting out a new job at any stage of your life a little bit scared and a little bit bewildered and a little bit hopeful, then you’re not challenging yourself. It’s not such a bad thing to feel uncomfortable in life. It means you’re doing something right.

And it makes you a much more interesting human being. There’s little more tedious in life than someone who always know what they’re doing.

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