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  • Happy Birthday, Jill!

    Happy birthday to Jill, the person I love with all my heart and soul. Thank you for walking with me on the trail of life's great adventure. We celebrated her birthday today by scheduling the closing of our new house in Old Town Alexandria tomorrow!

    If you’d be interested in our current home, it’s on the market...

  • Fly Away Home

    I stood in the middle of the apartment kitchen and hugged my oldest daughter, consciously choosing not — for once — to say anything. Jill stood by the front door, exhausted after several mostly sleepless nights, holding back tears.

    Finally, after a couple of minutes, Kate and I separated with a series of mutual “I love yous.” And then Jill and I left her behind, climbing into the rental car for the 900-mile drive back to Virginia.

    Our 18-year-old daughter is out on her own, living in Florida and looking for a job.

    And we are waiting to exhale.

    Feeling emotionally bulletproof? Become a parent. That's when a speck of gunpowder suddenly takes on the size and scope of an atomic bomb.

    — From a Facebook post on August 30

    We’ve known this transition was coming for some time. It’s something we started planning for when Kate was 5 years old and entering kindergarten, although reality did not set in until a few short months ago. Kate struggled mightily during her manic teenage bipolar years and there were times we worried whether she would finish high school.

    She did this past June, completing her senior year with the best grades she’s had since elementary school. That was thanks in part to a year-long family treatment program and her acceptance that getting out of school was her only way to get out of Virginia. She also received high marks from her after-school employer and the people she worked with as a nanny during the summer.

    For the past several years, Kate has talked about heading south to get away from the four seasons that I craved while growing up in Texas. Late fall and winter, when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, has always been an unsettled time.

    During her senior year, Kate’s plans shifted as often as the colors of her hair, with plans to move to Florida, to California, to Texas, or even as far away as St. Thomas. She became so focused on getting out and getting away that things at home were unsettled at best, fractious and unstable at worst.

    Finally, a few weeks ago, she circled back to her first choice and zeroed in on the Tampa Bay area.

    Jill and I are the children of educators. We have worked in and around schools for most of our professional lives. So it feels somewhat strange that at least two of our four kids — Kate and Ben — are taking very non-traditional paths into adulthood, paths that likely won’t involve four-year universities, at least in the near term.

    Given their very different life circumstances and interests, it makes sense. But, as any parent learns during this process, making sense of something doesn’t make it easy to accept.

    Over the past several years, I’ve written about our challenges in parenting a child with a mental illness and how each transition had more than its share of bumps. Jill and I are quick to speak out about the need for awareness and better mental health care in this country, and we cringe every time we see yet another tragedy tied to someone with mental health issues in the headlines.

    We are fortunate that, when things are stable, Kate is a kind, gentle spirit with a sweet soul. We also know that the mental health aspect of bipolar disorder, especially the depressive part, has a narcissistic, ugly and vindictive side. Treatment, when available, can prove helpful, but it has to be consistent and persistent.

    Consistent and persistent are not words you typically use with teenagers, except when they want something. And Kate wanted this so badly that we had to let her go.

    Off to parts unknown. Off to college. Leaving the nests. Getting jobs. Watching them move on. Common threads many of my friends and cohorts are going through now. To sum up in a word: Sigh...

    — From a Facebook post on August 22.

    As moving day approached, Jill and I were alternately terrified and thrilled that Kate was leaving. I realize that’s a “normal” parenting reaction, although things are amplified when the spectre of bipolar lingers just below the surface.

    Jill and Kate took off for Tampa last week, then I followed with her car on the auto train. They spent 48 hours together, working on the small apartment Kate has. It was the longest period they have spent together, just the two of them, in several years.

    I arrived with frayed nerves. The last week had been an exhausting challenge, both from a work standpoint and from a familial one. My camera equipment was stolen from our car two days before Jill and Kate left, taking with it a significant portion of my livelihood and — just as important — a chunk of my soul. Jill agreed that I could replace the equipment even before we knew what the insurance settlement would be, but I still lost two full days of work and even more sleep.

    The three of us worked together, assembling furniture and shopping to get Kate set up. Like many parents whose children are leaving the nests, we spent more than we originally budgeted, but we didn’t care.

    And then we had to leave our daughter behind.

    Yesterday, after the 900-mile drive home, I saw an interview on the Today Show with author Brene Brown, a researcher from the University of Houston (ironically my alma mater) who has written a series of books on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her newest book, Rising Strong, was published last week.

    In the interview, Brown described worthiness as the belief that “I am enough. It’s something that takes practice. It’s not an attitude, not a onetime thing. It’s a street fight every day.” She said shame can’t survive if you “douse it with a little empathy.”

    I found myself drawn to what she had to say about vulnerability, because I think in many ways it captures Kate and many of the teens who are making similar transitions now.

    “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Most of us were raised to mitigate risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is weakness. You wake up in the morning, armor up. You get tough. You suck it up. You push through, soldier on.

    “But that armor is really heavy, and it prevents people from knowing us and seeing us, which is our deepest human yearning, to be known and to be seen and to know love and belonging. So I think we’re afraid of it because it means risk and being hurt.”

    Her description of courage also rang true: “Your will to show up and try and let people know that you care about something when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That’s courage.”

    Kate is courageous. I have to give her that. She also is brave, smart, and vulnerable. I hope and pray that she is able to pick herself up when she falls into life’s potholes. I hope and pray she remains brave enough to keep trying.

    That feeling for a parent, any parent, is universal. I just hope and pray we can exhale soon.

  • A Few Words of Thanks

    It's great to hear kind words about my kids and to see the things they are doing/trying to do as they all approach huge next phases in their lives.

    More than 20 years after we first got together, it's also nice to be approaching this time in life with Jill. Over the past couple of years, our friendship and relationship has grown and deepened in ways I could have only hoped when we first met during the days of Friends, Frasier and Northern Exposure.

    All in all, despite my occasional bitching and moaning, I know I'm lucky, and I wouldn't trade this life with them for anything.

    So here's a big thank you to Nicholas, Kate, Emma, Ben, and especially Jiil. I don't know what I would do without you.

  • Transitions, Creation, and Evolution

    As a writer, I pride myself on transitions, leading the reader in the process from one thought to the next. As an editor, there is nothing worse than reading a story where the transitions are the equivalent of shifting from fifth to first without hitting the clutch.

    Transitions are part of life, the chapter breaks in our story. Sometimes they make sense, a natural progression. Others come all too abruptly, with little rhyme or reason.

    For the past month, I have mulled this entry over in my mind, as our family embarks on yet another in a series of never ending transitions. And every time I have sat to write it, the words just don’t seem to come.

    One reason I hesitated in starting this blog was that I didn’t know if I would have enough material to write on a regular basis, knowing full well that the fall of every year brings so much to light that I could chronicle things by the hour without a loss for words.

    There’s something about winter, however, that makes us burrow under. The post-traumatic stress disorder of the holidays is followed by the cold snap — some would say slap — that January and February bring. In our Virginia subdivision, we rarely discover our neighbors until the spring, or so it seems.

    One month ago today, “Ragtime” closed. Instead of pulling up stakes and heading home, we decided to stay with the back-and-forth commute so Ben could finish the school year in New York. It just made sense, although the wear and tear on us has only been exacerbated by work and family demands and a climate shift that has left us buried by record snowfall.

    As I posted to Facebook earlier this week, Mother Nature definitely needs some Depends.

    ••••••

    The little bullets you see above this paragraph are another form of transition. Perhaps I’m taking the easy way out this time, but a random thought crossed my mind that I’ve wanted to write about for some time, so why not do it now?

    Recently I started a blog entry titled “Creation vs. Evolution.” (No, it wasn’t my attempt to wade into that debate, although anyone who knows me — and my politics — would know which side I come down on without giving it too much thought.) But like several entries I’ve started and aborted recently, I just couldn’t get it out.

    “Creation vs. Evolution” was talking about the process of working in an art form. In this case, and this one only, I definitely come down on the creation side. There is something about making something out of nothing that always has fascinated me, whether it’s the process of reporting and writing a story, putting out a magazine, or putting on a show.

    To me, creating is the fun part; I’ve always said that rehearsal is much more fun than performance. Once the paper is put to bed, or the show is up and running, it’s time to move on to the next challenge/project/ thing.

    For the first 13 or 14 years of my career, I never stayed in one job more than 36 months. I went into each new position determined to learn as much as I could, knowing I would give it everything I could. (It’s one reason I call myself a workaholic in a 12-step program.)

    Once I mastered the task or the job, it was on to the next. For me, boredom was (and still is to large degree) the equivalent of a slow death. It represents a life without fun and interesting challenges.

    When I left newspapers in 1996, I changed careers and went into communications. It was time for a change, and the 4½ years I spent in that job definitely set me up for the position I’m in now. 

    I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we moved to Northern Virginia in 2001. I certainly didn’t think I would be at the same company almost nine years later.

    But fate, combined with some fortuitous timing, intervened. And over time, I’ve been lucky enough to move from one position to the next to the next, each one presenting me with enough challenges to keep that dreaded boredom at bay.

    Also, as I’ve gotten older, patience has slowly come to be a word I use without rolling my eyes.  Mature, I know, but I prefer to think of it as appreciating the nuance of evolution. Over time, I’ve learned that if you’re patient enough, you can watch the arc of your personal or professional life extend beyond the immediate gratification we all desire.

    As much as I love theater, I never understood how some actors could go to work and do the same thing day after day after day. It wasn’t until I saw “Ragtime” over a period of months that I realized the actors’ performances were slowly, subtly evolving into something far deeper and more satisfying. It’s a shame that the evolution can’t continue.

    ••••••

    So here we are in a state of transition again, not just for the purposes of this entry but as a family. Sadly, we won’t get to see Nicholas this weekend due to the weather that has buried the Mid-Atlantic region, making the roads treacherous from here to there and points beyond.

    Things do seem to come full circle in our little world, however. Nicholas is trying out for “South Pacific” this weekend at his school; ironically, Ben went to see his good friend in the show here in New York tonight. (See the Musical Obsessions and Circle Backs entry I wrote on this for more instances of irony.)

    And, thanks to a break in New York City’s school schedule, we do get to spend the weekend and all of next week together as a family in Virginia. I have a new employee coming into work next week, and it’s less than a month from now that Ben starts rehearsals on a show at The Kennedy Center. (Another circle back.) Things are evolving amid our transitions.

    Now that my writer’s block has ended, I pledge to return to this space more often as well. Creating a blog, I’ve discovered, was fun. The challenge, I’m learning, is how it will evolve over time.

    Stay tuned…

  • Growing Up "Normal"

    I stood on the corner of 8th Avenue and 48th Street in Manhattan this week and my son said goodbye.

    “See ya, Dad,” Ben said, his backpack filled with school supplies. “Gotta go. I’m good.”

    The “I’m good” was 7th grade code for “You don’t need to walk me to the front door of school anymore” — a transitional moment that makes me vaguely uncomfortable as a parent and proud at the same time.

    The day before, in Virginia, Jill saw Kate and Emma off on their respective buses — they’re going to different middle schools — and said she felt the same set of conflicting emotions.

    This is “normal,” I guess. A normal moment in what feels like, at times, an abnormal life.

    As a child, I went to the same elementary school for five years, the same middle school for three, and the same high school for four. I was raised in the same house that my parents lived in until my father died.

    Today, I’m a parent with four kids in four schools in three states. Nicholas is a senior — gulp — driving himself to school in North Carolina. Kate and Emma are in 8th and 7th grade, respectively, still jumping on the bus. And then there’s Ben.

    Last year at this time, he was our “Little Boy,” having moved to New York to play that role in “Ragtime.” This year, he’s “Tall Boy” in “Billy Elliott,” having booked his second Broadway show in just nine months.

    While he’s still small for his age, the image of me standing on that street corner watching him walk the last 100 yards to school is a vivid reminder that he is growing up.

    And fortunately for us, when he says “I’m good,” I know what he means.

  • 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.