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  • The Search for Equilibrium

    As winter slowly, agonizingly morphed toward spring and Daylight Savings Time came along yet again last weekend to mess with our minds and bodies, things have seemed somewhat off in the collective universe. One look at events in our polarized nation tells you that, but it’s also true on a personal level.

    I’ve always written to process, and whether anyone out there reads this or not, it’s what I’m doing here. Recently my thoughts have been in a variety of places, thanks to a convergence of thorny and complicated events involving family members, acquaintances, movies, and our nation’s fitful — if still mostly lacking and buried — attention to mental health issues.

    Being the parents of a young adult and four teens (yep, Jeremiah counts after living with us for a year) presents a host of challenges, especially now as we embark on a series of significant life transitions and landmarks. I turned 50 in January and Jill hits the mark later this month. 2015 marks 20 years we’ve been together and 10 years since Jill’s mom died.

    By June, Nicholas will finish college and Kate high school. Among our 2016 graduates, Ben remains on tour with Newsies while Emma and Jeremiah plan college visits and summer dance intensives.

    All this results in a collective holding of our breath, with each person wondering, “What’s next?” And the only way we’ll know the answer is to see it play out one step at a time.

    ••••••

    I’ve always said the kids were so close in age that we’ve developmentally belched our way through life, and that’s largely true. As parents, however, we’ve worked hard to help each find their singular path, even when we would have taken another tack or direction.

    Until you experience parenting, you don’t realize how hard that is to pull off, as preconceived notions of what your kids will be become realized, dashed, or expanded upon exponentially. And somewhere along the line, parents realize that their power to alter their kids’ path is anything but omniscient. You just hope it’s not compromised along the way.

    Some time ago, I realized this: You can talk to, influence, help, offer, beg, plead, hope and pray, but you cannot "prevent" someone from making a bad decision. That’s true no matter how hard you try, and believe me, we’ve tried.

    Or, as a friend said on Facebook this week: “Free will. God’s best/worst invention.”

    ••••••

    Part of this long ponder started, as it often does, with movies. Given that we had not seen any of the top nominees for the Academy Awards, Jill and I started playing catch up last month. And we found an interesting theme while watching three Best Picture nominees — “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” and “Whiplash.” 

    Any casual observer with a remote interest in movies can point to those titles and recite the basic plot in one or two sentences. If you’ve seen the films, you can point to the broader themes of anger, frustration, hate, and love. All three also have an underlying current that pulses through them, the unrelenting push to be the best and the toll that it takes on the protagonists, their families, and friends.

    Say what you will about their artistic and entertainment merits, but the spectre of mental illness underlies each movie. “Whiplash” and “Birdman” are fever dreams, films relentless in their pace, obsession, and pursuit of tragedy. Tragedy of another kind — war and its devastating effects on soldiers and their families — courses through “American Sniper,” with the horrifying ending of the protagonist making it home safely and being killed by a soldier with mental illness of his own.

    As parents of a child with a diagnosed mental illness, Jill and I watched all three movies through that prism. We felt the sweat and blood of “Whiplash,” saw the tighty-whitey walk through Times Square in “Birdman,” and sat with dread waiting for the end of “American Sniper.” At small points, I felt the filmmakers had witnessed pieces of our lives.

    What people don’t seem to understand is that mental illness is chronic, not cured. It’s only suppressed and/or managed to the best of an individual’s ability. As a parent, it’s a never-ending waltz — 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 — that becomes a loop of expectations and hopes vs. realities.

    Mental illness is not something you necessarily see, except through actions and reactions you are forced to deal with. It’s most effective when it eats away at a person silently and slowly. That’s because outbursts create awareness that something is wrong, and mental illness gets its power from its ability to mask and deceive.

    Our situation as parents is not unique. Chances are more likely than not that others you know deal with this, too. What we’ve got to do is talk about the sad state of mental health care in this country, and do something about it.

    ••••••

    This was made abundantly clear last month when Jill and I attended a benefit for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization she has worked with in her role with the American School Counselor Association. The benefit, which helped bring attention to the rising number of suicides and veterans, was timely. It was held two nights after the Oscars, and as the trial of the American Sniper killer came to a close.

    Speakers included Major Gen. Mark Graham, who with his wife Carol is the subject of a new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in An Era of Endless War. The book tells the story of the Grahams, who lost one son (Kevin) to suicide and another (Jeff) in combat eight months later.

    The story is devastating, though not without hope, as the Grahams have turned their attention to the increasing numbers of soldiers who return home with mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder. Graham, a two-star general, stands tall and straight as his talks start, but he tears up when talking about his sons.

    “My sons died fighting different battles,” he said. “When Jeff died in combat, we were told how heroic he was. No one mentioned Kevin. And my wife and I thought, ‘We had two amazing sons, not just one.’”

    As a society, it’s easy to recognize and to forget, to push unpleasant thoughts to the background and out of the way. When times are tough, it’s easy to focus on what’s right in life and not confront the things that are wrong.  When you are dealing with something as difficult as depression or mental illness, you have to find someone to talk to about it. You have to find treatment, no matter what it takes.

    We have amazing children. I have a wonderful family, warts and all. Occasionally I have to remind myself of that fact, but in case I need a reminder, all I have to think about is what the Grahams went through. You can’t help but be thankful, committed, and even more determined than ever.

    Go hug your kids — as often as you can.

  • Read This — No Matter What Others Say

    When I was a kid, I was always intrigued by the things my parents said I could not do. If they told me, “Don't touch the hot light bulb” or “Please don’t run up the stairs,” I did it anyway. And often I found, as in the case of the light bulb, my parents were correct.

    Fortunately, my parents reserved most of their “don’ts” for the stuff that would put me in some type of physical danger. In terms of intellectual pursuits, I was lucky: They never tried to prevent me from reading a book because of its subject matter, or because a character did not match their view of the world.

    In middle school, I read Catch 22, M*A*S*H (the novel), The Shining, and The Stand. In high school, I absorbed — and learned valuable lessons from — Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    All of those books have, at one point or another, been controversial. In some cases they have been banned from community and school libraries in an effort to prevent them from being accessed by young minds.

    That means Tim Federle is in good company. And that’s too bad.

    Tim, a family friend, is the author of one of the best young adult novels I have ever read, Better Nate Than Ever. Nate is a teenager who has the passion and desire to do something extraordinary — audition for a Broadway musical. The book is a wise and hilarious coming-of-age tale, written by a kind, knowing, and witty first-time author who was inspired in part by his own childhood and his experience auditioning kids who were in “Billy Elliot.”

    Deservedly, Nate has received rapturous reviews from major publications, including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Time. (A sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, will be published in January.) But the book also has spawned a backlash, largely due to a subplot that involves “a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.”

    In a blog entry published Monday as part of “National Banned Books Week,” Tim writes about having visits to schools cancelled because Nate’s emerging sexuality is presented in a matter-of-fact — though still chaste — way. Included among the cancellations: the suburban Pittsburgh middle school he attended as a youth.

    “All kinds of people deserve all kinds of stories,” Tim wrote in the blog. “When we support books that feature diverse kids, we're telling those kids that we support them too, that they are, more than anything, OK. The opposite is true when we shut those kinds of books down.”

    Sadly, I’m not surprised this happened, given our nation’s ostrich-like history of avoiding discussions around topics that make us feel uncomfortable (Example: Congress) or challenge our worldview. Having worked in and around schools for most of my life, I also understand why teachers, librarians, and administrators are skittish about raising the wrath of angry parents or community groups.

    But come on, folks. We’re at a point in our nation’s history where attitudes toward bullying, homosexuality, and same sex marriage are finally — if still fitfully — changing. More than 60 percent of people ages 18-34 support same sex marriage, according to a recent Gallup poll, and the number is higher among teens, at least anecdotally.

    What makes Nate’s character so endearing is how this child who feels ostracized finds the guts and guile to chase his dreams and pursue the impossible. It’s a timeless theme in literature, brought up to modern times. And it’s a message kids — especially those who feel like they don’t fit in — should be hearing, seeing, and reading about, even as they play 24/7 on their electronic devices of choice.

    If the notion of reading a book makes me old fashioned, then so be it. Just don’t tell me which books I — and my kids — should or should not read. My parents didn’t, and I’m better for it.

  • Everything Changes

    Sometimes it takes a little while for things to hit me. I usually prefer to keep a respectful distance between my emotions and the rest of my daily life.

    Occasionally, however, I get blindsided at the most unusual times for reasons I rarely understand at the moment. When I do, it feels being hit by the wave you see in the opening credits to “Hawaii Five-O” (original, remake, and Emma’s TV show of the season).

    That happened this past weekend, another you can file under the familial "One to Remember" category. Fracturing the time line, let’s start with Monday afternoon, when I went to the pool near our house.

    Memorial Day is the ceremonial start of summer in Northern Virginia, the time when the various suburban HOAs decide it’s finally time to open the community pools. Freezing cold or scorching hot, families flock with their towels and sunscreen and stake claims to the lawn chairs. Some, like us, you will rarely see; others won’t leave until Labor Day.

    I took a book — one of several I’ve been trying to read unsuccessfully for the past several months — and a seat next to Jill while Kate played with some friends.

    The title — Everything Changes.

    ••••••

    The pool and book were a nice way to end a weekend that at times felt more like Groundhog Day (the movie) than Memorial Day (the holiday). On a 900-mile roundtrip that lasted just over 48 hours, I watched as my oldest graduated from high school and my wife and brother-in-law took care of their ailing father.

    It was an explicit reminder that we officially are part of the Sandwich Generation, even if our hoagie feels open faced/ended and overwhelmed by condiments. (And that was before I managed to rekindle old ties in the most unlikely of places…)

    Because he is the family’s oldest child (and grandchild), Nicholas’ graduation is huge in varying degrees for everyone involved. His transition to adult life turns a large page for him (obviously), as well as both of his families.

    The weekend’s activities were an opportunity to bask in nostalgia, to show how proud we are of him, and to take some time remembering what has happened in getting to this point.

    But first, we traveled to Boone to see Jill’s dad, who marked his 80th birthday this month by landing in the hospital with a broken arm and a cancer diagnosis. It was not exactly the way you want to start the ninth decade of your life, but Bob was happy to see his grandchildren, and to get some time away from the rehab facility where he currently resides.

    Jill and her brother have an up-and-down history with their dad, but both are committed to ensuring that he has comfort, and above all else, dignity. They saw his desire to return to his house and are working to fulfill it as they can, even though we live 7 hours away and Jill’s brother is 3 hours from Boone.

    Putting aside past wounds is tough, but admirable, especially in what will continue to be uncertain times ahead.

    ••••••

    Two additional truisms/clichés were reinforced this past weekend: Irony is alive and well, and the world is a very small place. Both came courtesy of our newly coined high school graduate and two of his closest friends.

    One disadvantage of Nicholas’ living in North Carolina and us living here is that we don’t know his friends and their families. On Saturday night, the McFarlands and Cooks had a chance to meet the first girl with whom he shares a his-and-her Facebook status. Ironically, she is working as an intern this summer with the person who encouraged Jill to try musical theatre when she was a child.

    On Sunday, after graduation, we finally met Nicholas’ prom date — a longtime friend from middle and high school — and her parents. Except, as I discovered, we sort of already knew each other.

    As it turns out, her dad and I met more than 15 years ago in Reidsville, N.C., where he opened and owned a local Subway and I worked for the newspaper. Our paths crossed on a number of occasions, and as people tend to do, we talked about our families — his little girl and my little boy.

    They’re not so little any more.

    ••••••

    When it comes to escaping your past, you’d have a better chance of swimming to shore from Alcatraz than shedding the vestiges of a small town. That’s doubly true if you’ve lived in Texas or North Carolina.

    Despite what I may have thought when I left, I have no desire to escape the places that brought me to this point, or wipe them from my memory. My heart always will always have a special place for Reidsville — a place I’ve written about before — and I know I can’t fully leave it behind.

    I think about this often, and was reminded of it again while reading Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe, a comic novel about a man who returns to the small town where he grew up and realizes that everyone hates him, just because he had written a bestselling, thinly veiled piece of fiction about his miserable high school experience.

    Tropper’s self-deprecating, faintly absurdist style appeals to me — I truly wish I could write like that — and I have been slowly making my way through his other books, of which Everything Changes is one.

    Sitting at the pool yesterday afternoon, I looked around at others in the crowd and felt somewhat nostalgic. I remember when the pool opened, and what a big deal it was for our fledgling subdivision. I remembered the lifeguard getting on Ben’s case for running, and hearing him say, “I’m not running, I’m skipping.”

    Then, as I went to get something out of my car, I heard a slightly deep — though distinctly teenage — voice say hello. I turned and saw a young boy/man whom I barely recognized. He asked about Ben and politely reintroduced himself, and I realized he was part of a set of twins who we met when we first got here in 2001. All four kids, plus Kate, started in daycare together and now are teenagers.

    That’s when the emotions hit me.

    I told the young man goodbye and walked to my car, asking myself vaguely existential questions: Where did the time go? What happened to the last 10 years? Why did the time fly by in a blink?

    There’s no easy answer to the last question, or a decent explanation for all the emotions attached. I’m still processing that one.