Dreaming of Solitude

A “Dear Prudence” letter from Slate.com.

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?

—Dreaming of Solitude (DoS)

Here’s my prediction on most people’s gut reaction to reading this, “What a whiny, self-centered, loser. She’s symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the U.S. today!” I read it differently and not just because I’m a huge fan of solitude. I feel for DoS because her dilemma highlights a central challenge in any long-term committed relationship.

For peace to prevail over time, you have to do two things. First, you have to consciously ignore most of the low-level aggravating things your partner does on a daily basis. For example, The Good Wife has to try to accept the fact that I selfishly turn off the bedroom light at night whenever I’m ready to sleep whether she’s mid-paragraph in her book or not. She has to try to accept the fact that right at that moment I’m thinking more about my running partners waiting outside for me in seven hours than I am her. And she has to do that type of thing every day in myriad ways because I’m a selfish pig.

Second, you have to continuously shake off a steady stream of low-level irritants without allowing so much resentment to build that it eventually bubbles over in grand gestures to have separate bedrooms (where I can be in control of the lighting my own damn self) or to live three thousand miles apart. That balance, having decent enough communication to talk about and work through low-level resentments (The Good Wife, “In the future, could you please ask me if you can turn out the light so I can at least finish my sentence?”) is an exceedingly delicate balancing act that’s easier to get wrong than right.

In my reading of DoS’s letter, the key phrase is this, “. . . furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want.” Three annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t amount to much or even if taken together for a short period of time probably wouldn’t amount to much. But the longer they’re not talked about in the light of day, they metastasize and drive a wedge between otherwise intimate people.

Imagine if DoS had come clean with her husband about her feelings years earlier. Three separate dinner discussions. The first. “For a long, long time, I haven’t felt enough freedom to decorate differently.” The second, “For far too long, I haven’t felt nearly free enough to be more messy.” The third, “For as long as I can remember I haven’t felt sufficient freedom to eat whatever I want at whatever time I want.” If the husband is as good a guy as he seems to be, he’d be sympathetic and try to be much more understanding of her need for those particular freedoms.

There’s no guarantee those conversations would go so well that the resentment would dissipate to the point where moving across the country wouldn’t be necessary, but not having them is a larger risk. By not having them the husband is in for a major surprise, one he doesn’t deserve if she’s said too little for too long.

Postscript: I thought I had turned the comments back on awhile ago, but learned today I had not. They’re back on. So comment away on Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Ms. Dreaming of Solitude, or whatever you want to get off your chest about those you’re most intimate.

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

Stream of Semi-consciousness

• Skin cancer surgery last week. Fun stuff. It had been 2.5 years so I was overdo. The surgeon said I can’t swim for three weeks. I’ll give the scars two. I need a new doc, one who cares about my swim fitness.

• Olympia’s Spring Break meaning the running posse and wife have scattered to Oregon, California, and Mexico. Leaving the Labradude and me.

• Hope he likes the Masters.

• Why is the NBA obsessing about this year’s Most Valuable Player when basketball is a team sport?

• Today’s 38 mile solo training ride, 5 on, 5 off, Boston Harbor, Fishtrap, Lilly, Farmers Market, Cap Lake. 18.2mph w/ 1,400′ of el. I need more miles and more el.

• Why couldn’t baseball wait until the day after Easter to start the season?

• Why did Stacy Lewis hit such a poor chip on the 75th hole of the [Corporate Name Deleted] Major Championship? The world’s #2 player HAS to get that up and down 95% of the time.

• Take my daughter to work day. That’s the only way she can get a lift to the airport for her return flight to her college. Look for her in the PLU library. A young TSwift.

• I’m looking forward to listening to the NCAA championship game in the car to and from the airport. The more experienced Badgers wlll cut down the nets.

• Special Easter Dinner for the college sophomore, mac-n-cheese with ham in it. Peas on the side.

• To bad she won’t be on campus next Monday to heckle me when I give a lecture to students who’ve been admitted titled, “The High School to College Transition”.

• Is it hypocritical of me to a give a lecture when I don’t like lectures? The answer to that is probably. Depends how much time I use to lecture and how much for questions.

• Still missing moms.

Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

I Miss My Mom

My mom passed away yesterday. The world seems less kind as a result. Here’s a draft of the obit. Co-authored with my daughter.

Carol J. Byrnes (11.17.30 – 3.15.15)

Carol J. Byrnes liked few things more than the sun. So it was fitting she fell asleep in the sun in Tampa Florida, and didn’t wake up.

Born in Glendive, Montana, Carol enriched the lives of four children, eight grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and extended family and friends.

Carol grew up poor in Eastern Montana, but instead of complaining about life’s challenges, she overcame them with gutty resilience.

Caring and non-judgmental, Carol never forgot her roots. She had an active social conscience and was continually making friends with people different than herself. She liked fancy things, but not fancy people. She enjoyed giving time and money to Tampa’s Women’s Centre.

Carol was kind, warm, affectionate, and fun. She loved fashion magazines and the Los Angeles Lakers. This past December her conversation was peppered with frustrated commentary about Kobe’s lack of playing time, despite his injuries.

Although Carol never felt smart because she mistakenly thought intelligence required formal academic degrees, in truth, she was whip smart. In her teens, she knew that Donald Joseph, her beloved husband of 47 years, was destined for success and they made a great team. She was people- and common-sense smart, and curious about a lot of things including the nickel defense. She embraced grand jury service because she found the legal issues so fascinating. A brilliant speller, an excellent secretary, and a lover of newspapers, she was reading right up to her final sundrenched nap.

We grieve her loss, but honor her memory whenever we treat people with dignity and are generous with our time and money.

Why You’ll Buy an iWatch

Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.

The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.

I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.

What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.

The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.

What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.

There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.

When You Are Adopted. . .

says Aaron Levi, Wilt Chamberlain’s 50 year old son, “rejection is woven into your DNA.”

My family’s version of Manifest Destiny concluded on December 31st, 1973 when we arrived, via a car caravan from Ohio, at a West LA hotel. Immediately after checking in, my demented older brothers decided we had to finish our journey by driving the last few miles to the Pacific Ocean. And then become one with the ocean on probably the coldest day of the year. Running from the Pacific Coast Highway to the water, we looked north towards Pacific Palisades and saw our first SoCal celeb, Wilt the Stilt, playing beach volleyball.

At that exact moment, you could count on one hand the number of people who knew Wilt had a 9 year old son named Aaron, living in Oregon, with his adopted family, the Levi’s. Read or watch the whole moving story here.

The story is interesting on several levels. For instance, Ben Carson, long shot Republican candidate for President, is popular among social conservatives. Carson is certain homosexuality is a choice. Ben, please read paragraph six of Pomerantz’s story and then explain how Aaron Levi decided to be gay before he was 9. Maybe Carson will reason Levi asked for Mary Poppins because he didn’t have a strong father figure. Complete bullshit.

On NPR recently, I listened to a segment on why we doubt scientific findings. One guest explained how some people’s identities and worldviews determine how they interpret scientific findings. For example, individuals who reject evolution and climate change don’t do so based on objective considerations of evidence, they do so because accepting those findings would require too fundamental a change in identity and worldview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when reading how Chamberlain’s remaining sibs have refused to meet Levi. Why the flat-out rejection? Because meeting him would require them to rethink what they believe to be true about their deceased brother. His sanitized image is an integral part of their self image. Put differently, Levi doesn’t fit into their worldview.

Levi deserves a lot better. The Chamberlains should follow the lead of one of my elderly relatives who was shocked recently when he was contacted by his deceased sibling’s secret daughter, now Aaron Levi’s exact age. They met, shared histories, and now she’s a cherished member of the family.

It’s not that hard if you put adoptees’ needs to know their history before your need to maintain a fictitious public image.

Postscript—Time will probably tell, but what’s the over-under on Levi’s half brothers and sisters?