Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Mid-life (if I'm lucky) crisis

 I'm reluctant to put this admission out in the world, but then again, there probably aren't a half dozen people who read this blog, especially outside of December. 

It's been a hard spring, centered around my birthday back in early April.

In the first place, it's just busy: I work, my wife works, and we've got three kids in school. Our oldest is a seventh grader who's busy with a million things. And I love that. I was the same way, at least by high school. But often she would have a track meet (and track meets are the worst--they just go on and on and you barely see your kid) and then need to be ferried immediately to choir rehearsal. Besides her school choir she's singing in the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus--and I'm so proud of her and grateful that she has this amazing opportunity. But it's a lot. And then there are two other children who need to be picked up at various times. I don't want to belabor it, because it's definitely not the big stressor here.

Our 16-year-old dog Beaker was though. It's been a tough six months or so, going back to just after Thanksgiving when my wife broke her ankle and had to sleep downstairs. We knew before then that Beaker was often having "accidents" overnight, but with her sleeping down there it became clear that she was having them multiple times a night, and instead of ignoring them because we sleep on the third floor, I would have to come and clean them up 2 and 3 times a night. Things got better with the help of a mobile pet vet for a while--some medication to lower inflammation and mildly sedate her, but still she was going downhill rapidly: falling frequently and being unable to get up, sometimes combined--quite literally--with one of her potty accidents. She didn't seem to have any joy or even much comfort left in life, just cycling between really anxious and only a little anxious. 

Finally in early April we made the difficult decision to have her euthanized. This was our first time having to make this choice and it was terrible. Even though we knew it was the right thing to do, it felt like killing my dog. My dog who's been with me for over a third of my life, who predated our children. It was hardcore adulting and it sucked. I will say, that it probably went as well as it could have, thanks to our vet who does house calls. She was able to leave this life in the familiar surroundings of home, held and petted and soothed by the people she loved the most. I'm tearing up just writing about it. 

At the same time, Beaker isn't the only one who's aging and declining. My mom has also taken a sharp downturn that became particularly salient in early April. I handle her finances, and that includes getting her taxes done. In the past, Mom was always very anxious about her taxes, and would usually get them done shortly after all the documents arrived, like in February. Even last year, when I was handling her taxes, she was still pretty involved, asking questions and worried about everything getting done correctly and on time. This year, in early April, I called and asked her if any of the tax documents had come to her, since I was missing a few. She said "I think I might have gotten something last week..." which of course was unlikely, given that it was April. But she was also supremely unconcerned. It would turn up. 

Which, all in all, I guess that's better than remaining her old anxious self and also having huge lapses in memory and cognition, but it just really hit me how much she's lost. 

And then on my birthday I called her, and I know she wouldn't have even known it was my birthday if I hadn't answered her question of "what are you up to?" with "Going out to eat for my birthday." Even so, she didn't actually wish me a happy birthday. I'm not upset with her, of course, I'm just deeply saddened to see my mom slipping away like this. And deeply anxious because she spent the last several years steadfastly denying her mortality and being uncooperative about getting things in place. Now I don't know if it's too late or what I'm going to have to do. 

Two of her sisters visited her recently, and they discovered that she hadn't paid her rent at the assisted living facility in 3 or 4 months. I was pretty surprised that the place never contacted me. Mom said she tried to take her check down to them several times but they were always busy and told her to come back later. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but with her cognitive decline I guess that's getting to be a hard problem for her to solve on her own. 

I turned 45 last month, so it shouldn't be surprising that I have all these adult problems, raising children and taking care of an elderly parent. But I thought I would actually feel like an adult by the time all these things hit me. If anything I feel less sure of myself than I did half my life ago.

But that's life I guess--you're never ready and you have to do it anyway and there's a lot of sadness built into it. A lot of beauty and joy, too, don't get me wrong. I can still see and enjoy all that too, but some days are hard. 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Should vs Is

I had an idea for how my evening was going to go. My wife went to see a show at Playhouse Square with her sister, leaving me with the kids and dogs. I put together a dinner that was acceptable to everyone involved, I did a little work for our upcoming camping trip, and I even left space for spontaneity when the youngest wanted to go for a walk around the block. She got a walk, the dog got a walk, and the other two girls joined in. Such a beautiful day, we were all happy to be out in it.

But here's where the planning came in. At 8, I had definite plans for how the night would go. Our six-year-old is getting to the point where we're pushing her to put herself to bed instead of relying on me (or a me-like substitute). Last night, I had to be with her for a while, but eventually she allowed me to leave and went to sleep with my phone playing music. At 8 pm tonight, one of my favorite bands was having a live stream event. I shelled out $40 for access to this and a show in May (the bonus here is that you can watch it for up to a week, so my wife, who also loves this band, could see it too). Since 8 is also, nominally, the youngest's bedtime, I planned to offer her a choice: we could lay in bed together and watch/listen to the concert, or she could lay by herself and listen to her own choice of music. There are a couple songs by this band that has been in her bedtime playlist off and on, so there was that, too.

She chose to watch the concert with me, which was what I expected. We got off to a good start: she was excited to snuggle up and watch together. But she's six, and she got restless and talkative long before she got sleepy enough to pass out, which was my real hope and expectation. I was getting annoyed at her fidgety-ness, and eventually we agreed that she would try to go to sleep with her music on my phone by herself. 

Of course, we'd been watching the show on the phone. So I closed that window and got the music going, then went upstairs to get the show on my laptop. Unfortunately, my laptop is... temperamental. It's got this thing where--with no relationship to temperature--its fan runs noisily. So it wasn't the best choice for listening to a concert. After a some light tech rage, I decided to try setting it up on the web browser on the xBox. While I was doing that, the 6-year-old started wailing about how she couldn't get to sleep, so just as I got the concert going, I had to go down to try to settle her. And she didn't seem to want to be settled--I had to get her warm milk and snuggle with her, and to be honest, I was feeling very angry and frustrated about the whole situation. I was missing the music I wanted to listen to and feeling very resentful about the music that I was being forced by this situation to listen to. 

Why on earth couldn't she just go to sleep? Neither of our older girls needed us to put them to bed at this age. Why couldn't she have just fallen asleep while watching the concert? Why does she have to make everything so difficult?

But in the midst of this spiral of anger and resentment, something else bubbled up. A will to accept, a will to step back from my expectations and the resentment that came from having those expectations denied and defied. Instead of letting my thoughts and emotions spiral around what I had wanted and was being denied, I resolved to meet the moment as it was, to meet my child as she was in that moment, needy and in her own emotional spiral. I knew that if I let my own state continue circling, it wouldn't make me happy or her asleep. So I focused on what she needed. Rubbing her back, speaking softly to her. 

It didn't make me happy, but it helped me let go of anger and frustration. And then, as I realized that consciously, it also gave me the space to find a little contentment, too. How much better the moment was when I accepted it and used it as a starting point rather than putting all of my energy into some moments that I felt should have been. 

It didn't make her magically go to sleep, and I missed a good 30-45 minutes of the concert putting her to bed. But I can watch it again now. Or any time in the next week. Nothing really lost except for the minutes that I took from myself with anger by not accepting what was. And maybe I'll learn something from this, and spend less time in those negative emotions in the future. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The kind of shopping trip I enjoy

Yesterday, my oldest (12) wanted me to take her to a new-ish Asian bakery. It's about a mile from our house in a quirky little area that I love. Before I knew much of anything about Cleveland, I knew about this area--Coventry--because of its quirky shops, including the famous-but-now-departed Big Fun, which was something like an independent Spencer's Gifts with a lot of retro and kitsch. I grew up about an hour and a half from there, but we would make occasional pilgrimages there in high school. A friend lived in the area after college when I was in grad school down at Kent, and I enjoyed visiting both to see my friend and to browse the various stores. 

Now that we live so close, I mostly go there for one reason--to pick up sushi from our favorite place. But I'm usually alone in playing Door Dash driver for the family, I don't look around much, and with the pandemic I think it's probably been a couple years since we walked up there with the kids for anything

I intentionally parked way down the street from the bakery so we'd have a bit of a walk, and I suggested popping into the independent book store across the street. What a delight! With a mix of used and new, the place has a really homey vibe. I've always been a sucker for bookstores, from the time I was my daughter's age, when the only bookstore I knew was the Waldenbooks in one or the other of the malls that was a half hour from home. My taste in bookstores became more refined by the Kenyon College Bookstore and my obsession with finding used bookstores wherever I went, with New England being particularly fertile ground when I spent summers working a school up there. 

My daughter seemed just as entranced I was, though I exercised considerable restraint in buying just one book for each of us. Side note: I need to do a better job of holding my daughter accountable to doing chores and managing money, but asking for a book just hit me in a vulnerable spot--how can I say no to books?

We also went to a quirky little bullshit and fashion boutique--a place that smells like patchouli and sells everything from college fashions to new age quackery. It was delightful, and my daughter was particularly interested in the "crystals" they had there, which I found much easier to say no to even though they were cheaper than books. 

And finally we got to our destination. The bakery was delightful, but as it was almost supper time, they were sold out of a lot of things. We each got a different flavor of boba tea and we both loved them, but the pork rolls that were at the center of our quest were pretty underwhelming. Maybe fresh they would have been better, but microwaved at home the pork was hard and the bun kind of mediocre. I'd definitely go back for the boba and their desserts looked amazing.

All in all, it was a delightful way to spend an hour or so with my oldest, and I hope trips like that become a big part of our relationship through the years. But also, my 9-year-old wants to take her own trip to Coventry, so there's that to look forward to. 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Offal Chili

 I'm posting this for myself as much as for anyone else--I cobbled it together from a couple different recipes and it turned out pretty well so...

1) Take a beef heart, put it on a trivet in the Instant Pot with 1 cup water, cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. When it's done, take it out, slice it, and then run it through the food processor.

2) Dice up a couple onions plus any other veggies you want--peppers would probably be nice but I didn't put any in, just onions. Clean out Instant Pot, add some oil and saute the onions. 

3) Take a pound or so of raw liver and run it through the food processor. Add liver and 2 # of ground beef to the instant pot. Add a bunch of salt and pepper and cook, stirring every so often, until it's more or less cooked. 

4) Add about a half cup of brewed coffee, 25 oz diced tomatoes, 1 c. beef or chicken broth, 4 T. chili powder, 1 1/2 T cumin, 1 tsp dried coriander, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1-2 T. maple syrup, and 2 T. apple cider vinegar. 

5) Cook on high pressure for... an hour I think I did? 

See? I'm already forgetting and it's only been 24 hours. That's why I need to write this stuff down. 

I got lucky with this, I offered it to my 12-year-old without telling her that it had liver and heart in it, because it would have grossed her out. She thought it was really good. I probably couldn't have gotten away with this with my wife, who's super-sensitive to tastes, but as far as hiding offal in chili, this is about as good as it gets. 

Side note, the dogs really liked the discarded water from cooking the heart. I added it to dry food and they gobbled it up with relish. 

Friday, December 17, 2021


 My wife and I did 23 & Me DNA tests, and I ended up connecting with a 2nd cousin, which got me talking about genealogy. In the process of that, I was googling and came across a branch of the family that I wasn’t aware of, a line of ancestry back through my great-great grandmother that’s been traced back way into the 1600s in Germany, which was kind of cool. I’ve known for years about the ancestors that carry my surname back into the the 1500s or 1600s. And there were a few other lines of the family tree that have been traced back a decent way. It was neat to see this other line going back into the early colonial days. 

But it got me thinking. Getting back to these ancestors who came to North America in the early 1700s-ish is about 10 generations. That’s relatively recent, and it’s history that we’ve been over and over as students, which also makes it seem like not that long ago. 

But doing the math, it occurred to me that I have something like 1000 ancestors alive 10 generations back. There were 1024 people alive at the same time whose genes would ultimately combined into me. Even though I only have a few of their names and basic information about them, their genes live on in me and have some influence on me. The way they patented their children shaped then into the people who would parent their children down through the generations to finally result in my parents raising me. Their temperaments, their ideas, have likewise come down in sims indirect, fragmentary, recombined way, just as their genes have. It’s kind of amazing to contemplate and impossible to totally wrap your mind around. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

TIL: Chinese words

Okay, I didn't learn the actual Chinese words and I'm way too lazy to look them up.  

I was talking to my daughters on the way home from school today, and they're all studying at least some Chinese. And my oldest was telling me the different words for siblings based on where they are in birth order. Just an interesting little linguistic / cultural note. It seems to imply a more rigid, hierarchical view of family life, doesn't it?

But they also have better words for the numbers 11, 12, and 13. Like, in English, we have these words that don't make any sense, while they basically say "ten-one, ten-two, ten-three," like we would for 20s, 30s, etc. We kind of do that with the rest of the teens, but even there it's backward from the way the rest of the numbers go. 

I know the metric system is a bridge too far for most of us, but how about a little tweak to our number naming system? 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Intense Concert Moment

I went to a really intimate concert Friday night, to hear a singer/songwriter I've been following for 15+ years. It was supposed to be me and my wife, but... broken ankle. I'd put out a call on Facebook for someone to go with me, and finally a friend who lives 2 hours away stepped up, even though he'd never heard of the performer. 

Being super fans, we'd bought special VIP tickets that got us in for a meet-and-greet plus mini-concert and Q&A. One of the songs that was requested during the VIP session was an older song, and during the Q&A he commented that the song he'd just played was one of the few of his earlier songs that he still performs, because he's in such a different place than he was 20+ years ago. Songs with lyrics like "you bring the cup and I'll bring the moonshine" just don't resonate for a mid-40s singer with 4 kids. He commented that early in his career, he wanted to be a rock star, to be in front of a big crowd, "HELLO CLEVELAND!!" And now what he wants is for his music to be something that someone in his audience needed to hear, music for the soul. It reminded me sharply of John Keats, the 19th-century poet who left training for a medical career to devote himself to poetry, a decision which he viewed as going from trying to heal the body to writing to heal the soul. 

So the concert was not a bunch of hits, not a bunch of feel-good music, it was mostly sad songs, about family dysfunction and struggle, but underlaid by threads of compassion and redemption and hope. And there were lighter moments too, mostly in the banter between songs. But the songs were pretty serious. And the audience was small, by design. There's basically one more row outside the frame, plus several more of the high-top tables with 2-4 seats around them:

Anyway, that's all preamble to probably the most intense minute or so I've ever experienced at a concert. 

He's up there singing this song about a dysfunctional family and he just stops and looks at these four guys sitting in the back corner "You guys are f***ing killing me here." And he spends the next 60-90 seconds calling them out for sitting there talking through the show and laughing while he's up there singing serious songs. It was dead silent as he just went off and finally he's like "I don't even know how to recover from this." But he picked up the song more or less where he left off and finished it.

And after the song, a security guy came over to the four guys, presumably to escort them out, and the singer is like "No, you don't need to do that" and he's basically apologizing for calling them out and tells his tour manager to send a round of beers over to them. I tell you what, it felt a lot like where I was in this post on road rage. First, he was absolutely right. These guys were talking through the whole show, and in a small venue with an audience who was mostly hanging on every note and word, they really stood out in a bad way. They weren't ruining the experience for me, but I was aware of them. And he responds with this righteous anger, but there's also something embarrassing about flipping out like that, even when you're basically right. Maybe that's even worse, because you want to apologize but you also know that you weren't wrong, that on some level it's the other party that should be apologizing, but there you are feeling like a dick and not at all comfortable with it. 

And at the same time, those dudes needed to be called out. First, for the sake of the rest of the audience who was on the same page with the singer. And in a sense these guys needed to be called out for their own sake, to be told that they were behaving badly, behaving disrespectfully. Considering that they didn't stick around through the next song to get those beers, I'm guessing they didn't learn that lesson, but then again 4 guys can definitely stick together as a group but still have entirely different feelings about what they've just done / experienced. And while being on the receiving end of an angry outburst like this may trigger defensiveness, saying nothing just allows obliviousness to continue. 

I don't know. There's no good answer. I've been a performer, and for instance as a high school teacher, your audience is not always the attentive or appreciative, and their behavior can sometimes be pretty lousy. And I know I've felt caught in that dilemma, do you pause to acknowledge and try to correct it or just do your best to go on with the show and ignore it? I think he was right to call them out, but I also understand if he himself was ultimately ambivalent about it. Either way, it was an intensely real moment, that's for sure.