Stories and heroes

In a very much heart-rending conversation chat this evening between two of us caregivers, this question I was asked:

And how do we write about this? How do we write when this story is our own and not our own?

I started to answer, but I stopped. One, I was walking laps around the top of the parking deck before leaving for home, and any reply might have been riddled with swipe text errors. Two, I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation. It was important just then to read the messages. But I want to answer it, even if just for myself, as I think it is an important question.

I’ve struggled with this in writing these posts about being caregiver. The stories are a mix of mine, of hers, of ours. I can legitimately only tell the stories from my perspective, save when I ask her to tell her side and to allow me to write that. She is not interested in that. So I write from what I know and observe. It’s a shared story, but from one side.

The more important story is probably hers, as I think is likely true in most patient-caregiver stories. By definition, caregiver is a supporting role. It’s not the leading role.

When my friend asked the question above, my thoughts went to a scene from the Lord of the Rings where Frodo is telling Sam that the great stories never really end, they just continue with new people, new heroes. And that’s the thing, right there. We are all part of one really big unfolding story with lots of side stories.

And lots of heroes.

I’ve said it before, sometimes we may need to be our own heroes. By being our own hero, we set an example for others, especially our children and others close to us. I continue to be amazed at the ability of individuals I see on a regular basis doing things I know are harder, or I suspect are harder, than what many  other people imagine. Just getting to an upright position and moving forward can be an act of courage when the day’s challenges of care (and hopefully some self-care) stretch across the horizon like deep sand. Doing it each day when it seems that the best you can do is grasp at straws of hope, or ignore any thought of hope because it is a distraction, is phenomenal effort. When those of us who’ve been there encounter a kindred spirit in the midst of such life, we experience empathy, terror, and a desire to help. The terror shows up simply because we remember.

Heroes are everywhere. Their stories need to be told. We need to tell our stories to keep in front of us why we are doing what we are doing, why we keep at it, and who we are. The others in the story can tell their story or not because it is their story. Our story is ours and is just as deserving of the telling. Because we are the center of our story, we are worthy of our story. Caregivers tend to subjugate themselves, to lose sight of the fact that they have their own story. We should not forget that we have an existence and story of our own. And we can be our own hero if we need to be, and are willing.

Telling our stories, telling my story, is part of self-care. It reinforces that I exist. And reminds me that I can be more than just a bit player.


Reality as construct

My first wife was batshit crazy. I did not pick up on this until it was far too late. I probably should have though, the clues were there. Both her mother and her were residents of reality that was occasionally not overlapping at all with the reality the rest of us were living in. When they weren’t rationalizing away their behavior, they were just lying outright. They would take a piece of truth and spin it into an outrageous warping of reality that one could almost believe – as long as you stopped thinking critically. They never let physics or workings of the universe get in the way of their version of reality.

It was all quite horrible after the honeymoon. She would do things that made no sense and come up with justifications that would make sense, if they were based on truth. She’d start with truth, but if the first rationalization didn’t succeed, she would lie and try again. Until you believed or gave up arguing. Or just gave up. Which I did too often.

Years later as Melinda and I were dealing with my schizophrenic son, James, that came out of that first marriage (that diagnosis did not come until after he was an adult), I often reflected on my first marriage, her and her family, and what I had noticed elsewhere about rationalization. I came to this conclusion. The habit of over-rationalization causes mental illness. Of course, this was prior to understanding that mental illness is a physical illness, and when I later learned that, I modified my conclusion to: Over-rationalization deepens mental illness. (My opinion only, I don’t know what practitioners think of this.)

I saw over-rationalization a lot while we were married (and afterwards, from a more comfortable distance). Much of it was to make herself the victim or the center of attention, or both. It got to the point where there were times I could not understand what she was talking about because her world did not correspond to mine. When she had a psychotic break during our time in Alaska, I was finally able to try and get some help. Not that the Army had all that much in support available, but we did get her seen by psychiatrists and tested. I was tested too, both as a control and to determine if I was a/the problem. The results were not good. Her, histrionic with borderline personality disorder; me, normal (whew),but passive.

[It makes me physically ill to revisit these memories. Writing about James, as Zach has asked, will be worse.]

A couple years earlier, while at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I had the opportunity to go to the Marksmanship Training Unit for eight weeks to become a sniper. It was like learning how to shoot all over again. It was fun. It was cool. More important than learn to “shoot well and true” as Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead might say, I learned about self-honesty.

There were two instructors at the MTU. Both retired soldiers with experience in Viet Nam. Joe White had retired as a sergeant-major and basically seemed to view the MTU as part of his personal ministry.

When we went to the firing range, Joe would sit along side us with a big-ass spotting scope and watch each round go downrange observing it  impact on the half-inch thick mild steel targets. With each shot we made, he would say two words, “Call it.” Our responsibility was to then sound off with direction that the front sight of the rifle jumped upon firing.

Ideally, the we should have been calling “12 o’clock” meaning that the sight went straight up and straight back down. That indicated that our bodies were in the proper natural alignment with the target and that our breath control and trigger squeeze were properly timed. If we were to call “12 o’clock” when in fact the bullet’s flight path was to two o’clock, Joe would yell out. “Someone’s lying to themselves. Am I right? You’re Goddamn right I am.” Over and over again.

And again.

And again.

Retired Sergeant-major Joe White was a no-nonsense kind of guy. About half the class failed to qualify in the end. (Note for clarification: I qualified.] Everyone of those soldiers made excuses and rationalized why they couldn’t sit cross-legged or get quite right in the prone position. It was clear to me that this kind of ruthless self-honesty was at least a partial key to success. It wouldn’t overcome laziness or stupidity, but it would help ensure you recognize when those terms apply to you. It took time to really begin to integrate these principles in my life, but it was an experience I don’t expect to forget.

So, I carry these experiences with me and they define a lot of what I do, for good and ill. For the latter, the efforts toward brutal self-honesty have lead to an overabundance of self-criticism and worse. Yes, I have tendency to take things too far.

For the good, these experiences have defined my understanding and appreciation of the limits of data and data systems. You see, it would be nice to believe that data and their accompanying systems are always objective and free from bias, but they are not. Instead, they are almost always biased toward the majority or toward a specific agenda.

For example, when I got to Virginia, I found that our collection standards prohibited institutions providing data to us from reporting gender as unknown/unreported and race/ethnicity unknown/unreported. Institutions were required to default such values to match the majority of students at the institution. This creates bias in the data. Any reporting done from these data creates an illusion of objective fact that is simply that: illusion. Fortunately, the bias created from these numbers is likely small as eliminating those reporting rules and allowing for unknowns resulted in trivial changes.

The rationale for these rules was ultimately this. IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Ed, did not allow for reporting unknown/unreported in either element. The agency at that time was creating and submitting the annual IPEDS survey data on behalf of the institutions. Thus it made sense to collect the data in a way that maximizes alignment with federal reporting. Sort of. Reporting is just that, reporting, and reporting is a series of decisions about collation, grouping, and aggregation. There is no reason to collect data inaccurately to make it easy to report. Inaccurate collection of data damages its usability for a wide variety of purposes, especially for such things as studying student success.

So, how do these tie together?

It’s about my bias towards clarity of fact and knowing. With my ex-wife, it got to the point that the only things I knew were true were those things I observed myself or that had a verifiable paper trail. In sniper school I learned to know myself better through self-honesty and awareness of when I was not being honest with myself. The story about our data system is about how inaccuracy and, to my mind rationalization (of collection standards), leads to biased systems…and biased thinking. I think while these have been important lessons and structural points in my development, as usual I’ve taken them a bit too far, as I said earlier, I have tendency to do that.

I’ve become far too critical of just about everything, anyone. I find it difficult to trust. This includes trusting basic statements. It becomes too easy, too natural, to start parsing everything someone says. This is especially true in a digital context, like email or messaging. While I am generally comfortable with unknowns, I get very discomforted when things seem to be left out. Or worse, when I can’t reconcile other data directly related to communication, such as digital footprints and timestamps. And then there is the whole self-criticism thing. Not only do I beat myself up for making mistakes, or for lying to myself “Goddammit Tod, stop lying to yourself,” I hear myself say, it’s often followed by the self-critical shouting, “Well, you should have known! You should have seen it coming! Idiot.”

Idiot indeed for treating myself this way. Time to stop. I think now though I have a better understanding of why I do it, which should make it easier to stop. I hope. This self-criticism has (had) just gotten to be far too much and unnecessary. So also has this constant parsing of things said and unsaid. Political speech is one thing that needs to be parsed, but not every other conversation. It is painful and unhelpful and leads to more criticism generally. It needs to stop.

I also hope this makes sense to anyone who has lasted this far, if not, let me know in the comments.



Anger as Lifestyle

Anger has been a potent habit in my life. There were a lot of things in my youth and young adult life that justified anger. Anger, real and synthetic, was prized in the Army to make you fierce. Killing and wounding is easier in a rage or or anger.

Anger stimulates production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These push you higher physically. It can take a toll on you physically in the aftermath, leaving you feeling drained, but the  adrenaline-fueled rush can feel powerful, reinforcing a sense of invulnerability. I think this can be addictive, at least in my case. Being angry or allowing a near-constant presence of anger, allows suppression and numbing of other emotions. It became easy to just let this stuff sit beneath the surface and call on it between one breath and the next.



I’ve had enough. I am running away from my old lifestyle of anger and into a new, more positive lifestyle.

any other addiction it begins to wear thin over time and you need more anger to keep your “high.” This is hardly a problem as there is a lot to be angry about. Even better, you don’t even need a legitimate reason to be angry. You can spend time running conversations in your head with someone who have a minor issue with and give them responses and reasons for their responses that justify being angry at that person. This also allows you to be at least be ready to angry at them in real life when you meet to talk. One can also just create all sorts of justifications to be angry at something in the news even if one is totally ignorant of the subject. You can be angry at the weather. Or you can be angry at the weatherperson for being an hour off on a projection or for your lack of understanding what probability means.

Basically, there are a whole of ways to be angry, real and imagined.

The thing about anger is that it has a spillover effect as it rarely stays contained. This is especially true as anger becomes habit. And not only do you then spend time being angry with people you have no reason to be angry with, especially people you care about, you start becoming angry at yourself. You get angry at yourself for being angry at someone you shouldn’t be, you become self-critical in a way that leads to more anger, whether the criticism is legitimate or not. Ultimately, this leads to self-hate and self-doubt, well beyond imposter syndrome.

Self-hatred and self-doubt (which is really fear and anger is very often a response to fear, after all it is part of the “fight or flight” response) just fuel a cycle of anger. I think once you are at this point, habit is not only ingrained, it is self-feeding. Cyclical, and the cycle itself is pleasurable because anger is familiar, it’s comfortable. Something unusual happens, anger occurs, “Ahh, I know this feeling, I am on familiar ground. I am comfortable. I’m angry.”

Ultimately this lifestyle is exhausting. The body just can’t handle the constant flood of these stress hormones and the following recovery. High blood pressure, weight issues at either end of the spectrum, and a wide variety of mental health issues, are affected by the anger lifestyle. There are ways and resources to the break the habit, to change the lifestyle, but they all depend on two things (which will be familiar): recognizing the problem and choosing to do something about it.

This is what I have been trying to do to move away from anger as a lifestyle.

First, I have spent a lot time and self-searching to recognize that a lot of my unhappiness is based in the habit of being angry. I mentioned earlier that anger numbs and hides other emotions, allows one to ignore them. Happiness, joy, sadness, sorrow, frustration,  and all the normal emotions of living never really get experienced or processed. By recognizing that I have not truly appreciated and fully experienced positive emotions in a great many years, I’ve learned the real price I have paid for my anger. So, no more. The lifestyle must change.

Second, as evidenced by previous blog posts, I have been wrestling with the fact that vulnerability and weakness are not synonymous and that there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable. According to some, vulnerability  is a necessity for a full life. I have not fully come to turns with this, but I can articulate it and I am beginning, I think, to accept it as truth. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Third, following the advice and modeled behaviors of someone I truly respect, I have been engaging in a great deal of self-care. Complete change of diet, commitment to an hour of exercise each night and achieving 10,000 steps daily when possible (sometimes schedules just don’t allow for a walk at lunch), and simplifying my life to create greater focus. And now that some of these changes have sunken in for 17 weeks, I am tackling sleep and making seven to seven and a half hours per night a priority. Along the way I will also reduce my coffee intake, less than half what I drink now. I have also been talking or writing through things, working to articulate where I have been, why I have been there, and where I want to go – and these have helped greatly.

Fourth, I am practicing kindness. Even towards myself. I have put the inner critic on notice, and am working to silence the external critic. It’s hard. Attitudes and habits of thinking and responding at the age of 55 are hard to change. Especially if they are habits based on sloppy thinking. But I am being more kind and supportive. This also means ending the inner dialogues that have too often become habit when wrestling with difficulties. It is far more successful and productive when I am accepting of people as they present themselves and remove my expectations and pre(mis)conceptions.

Fifth, I’m letting others help. I’ve stopped trying to do it all or to carry it all.  I’m learning to ask for help and allow help. This does worlds of good for reducing resentment that leads to anger. I’m also back to encouraging others, particularly colleagues, to ask for help, to not spin their wheels struggling with a problem for more than a couple hours before saying something. Struggle is good, developing self-sufficiency is good, but there are reasonable limits for that. I’m also encouraging Melinda more and more to be responsible for her own care to take it off of my shoulders.

Sixth, I have reduced input. I have reduced screen time of all kinds. I struggle with this a lot because these pocket computing devices (smart phones) were what I was waiting for much of my life. (And I said the same thing about my Casio  PocketPC.)  Also, where I used to always have the TV on as audiovisual wallpaper for both entertainment and to drown out the tinnitus, I am on my way of making tinnitus my friend. Accepting it. In the last six weeks I have spent more time in silence than I have in the last seven years, excluding outdoor activities. Reducing screen time has helped to starve some of the anger and irritation away, stripping it of its power.

Finally, I am learning to accept that I, Tod, have limits. There is only so much I can do, only so much I can be responsible for, and only so much I can do well. So I must learn not to be angry at when I hit those limits. I must accept there is absolutely no reason for me to be angry if I mishit a silly little white ball in the middle of a manicured pasture. It is a damn stupid thing to get angry about.

Anger can be positive force. There are things we should be angry about, such as injustice. It is all around us. Injustice feeds my anger but I know how to use that anger positively. I have avenues for working for justice and fairness, for equality for all. Anger helps me know when I need to step up my game there. But it shouldn’t stand in the way of living an emotionally engaged life fully connected and intertwined with others.

So not “no more anger” but “no more of anger as a lifestyle.”

Letting go of Invulnerability

I’m still struggling with vulnerability not equating to weakness. Intellectually, I can say, “Okay, fine. I get this.” But accepting it, internalizing it, is a whole other matter. I’m trying to understand why I have equated the two words and not thought about them critically. I think I am going to start by blaming Star Trek (The Original Series, ST:TOS).

From ST:TOS “The Enemy Within” airing October 6, 1966.  (Okay, so I would have been a few months short of five, so I might not have seen or understood the original broadcast. But, I have seen it multiple times since, of course.)

KIRK: Yes, I’ll make an announcement to the entire crew, tell them what happened. It’s a good crew. They deserve to know.
SPOCK: Captain, no disrespect intended, but you must surely realise you can’t announce the full truth to the crew. You’re the Captain of this ship. You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.
KIRK: Yes, I do know that, Mister Spock. What I don’t know is why I forgot that just now. Mister Spock, if you see me slipping again, your orders, your orders are to tell me.
SPOCK: Understood, Captain.

So, all of us growing up holding Captain James T. Kirk as our masculine model got kind of screwed. Of course, this is not news. Kirk was hardly the best role model. He played fast and loose with the rules, he was cute too often where seriousness was expected, and was always putting himself and the ship at risk by being part of the landing party. WTF? When do ship captains do the dirty work? Why are all the senior officers leaving the damn ship all the time? One of the Jesuits I worked with Saint Louis University would rant about these issues whenever you gave him opening. He had a point. He also had the same gripes about Star Trek: The Next Generation but was generally most irate about ST:TOS. (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 he was happy with.) While there is an argument that a leader should be out in front, setting the example, if you study American military leadership, only the lowest level leaders, Infantry team leaders and occasionally squad leaders are in the lead. Personally, I like the idea of the leader being hands-on and first to danger, but that doesn’t make it the most rational choice.

Anyhow. Some might notice some similarities in behaviour between me and Kirk. All I can say is that it wasn’t intentional. Consider also this from Casablanca:

Rick: I don’t want to shoot you…but I will if you take one more step.
Renault: Under the circumstances, I will sit down.
Rick:  Keep your hands on the table.
Renault:I wonder if you realize what this means.
Rick: I do. We’ve got time to discuss that later.
Renault:Call off your watchdogs, you said.
Rick: Just the same, call the airport and let me hear you tell them.
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

In both places, “vulnerable” really does seem to mean weakness. One might argue that Captain Renault is saying his heart is not “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm” (see this definition, which lists “weak” as a synonym) but at pointblank range with no body armor, that is demonstrably false. Of course, he’s really saying he is not emotionally vulnerable and therefore not physically vulnerable if his heart is the target. He is quite capable heartlessness as is demonstrated earlier in the movie as he preys on young women in search of exit visas to leave Casablanca. It’s a nice, casual throw-away line to reinforce an image of invulnerability.

But Shakespeare is more clear in  “Macbeth”:

“Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.”

I get this. To be vulnerable is to be unprotected. And therein lies the rub, to be unprotected just seems, well, weak. Isn’t that the mythos of the American West and modern open-carry laws? “God didn’t make men equal, Colonel Colt did.” To be armed is to be strong, to be invulnerable, not weak, to replace weakness with a weapon.

Springsteen creates the image of youthful invulnerability in “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel it’s heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said “Don’t that man look pretty”
The cripple on the corner cried out “Nickels for your pity”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city

The hell of it is that at I times I still feel this way. I’m too old and ungainly, but I feel it. There are times I am just walking and I feel it. I feel strong, upright and unbent by life, feeling the movement of my body and relishing in its ease and comfort. Especially now as I am lighter and growing more fit again. It’s a powerful feeling. I feel good and these lyrics are too often there I as I walk. I feel good. Strong. Invulnerable.

The exact opposite of what I am trying to accomplish. Sigh.

I keep trying to find a mindset that encompasses vulnerability that also allows me to feel good. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this is a bit of a challenge for me. I don’t particularly like even the idea of feeling vulnerable, let alone being vulnerable.

I found this blog post that is based on the TED talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability that I have referenced before.  The author has extracted five points from Brown’s talk that make sense: be real; act with no guarantees; ask for help;  get rejected; and embrace negative emotions. I’m not very good with any of these. Depending on the context, being real is not always a problem, but in many circumstances, I’m too often playing a role and withholding some part of myself. For work, this is probably generally appropriate. At home and in the community, probably not. Asking for help is not particularly easy, especially since I enjoy problem-solving, but mostly I don’t like admitting I can’t do something, that I don’t know something and can’t find it, or that, worst of all, I actually need help (shudder).

The good thing is that I have found that when I actually ask for help, and then accept it, things actually get better. A big thank you to Laura Gogia who pushed me on this regarding an upcoming chapter being published this spring where she became my incredibly talented co-author. While I have noted improvement and it has gotten easier to ask for help, it is a challenge to change years of behavior. It is also uncomfortable to move away from the comfort of the illusion of invulnerability.

Embracing negative emotions is also a bloody challenge. Actually, embracing emotions at all is my challenge. Ignoring them, granting them  only passing acknowledgement, or processing them as anger, has been too much of my life. It’s hard, but I am trying to open myself to the moment and the emotions that are part of each moment.  Each day I  am trying a little more to let go of invulnerability.
















One Success

This past weekend we moved our youngest son to Massachusetts to be with the woman with whom he has fallen in love. She has a good job, life, and her family there, and Zach felt free enough, root-less enough, to go there to a start a life with her. When he announced his pending move on Facebook he said, “After living in VA for 17 years I never felt like this was truly home for me. As hard as it may be at times to move so far from my parents I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life with you Kristen. In just a few short days I’ll be moving to Massachusetts for a fresh start with the woman I love and an opportunity to create a place with her that I can call ‘home’.

His mother was a bit upset about this. I pointed out the number of times that we have moved, that this is the third state we have lived in, and that we have moved at least twice in each state. His time in Virginia includes college and living on his own in a couple of places. Settled is not something he has been. Thus, making the decision to move 700 miles away was not such a big deal for him.

Zach is just about everything I hoped he would be growing up, save that he’s not much of a rebel against authority. He practices a bit of rebellion every day, but it is rebellion against the mundane trivia of laziness and incompetence that he encounters. He doesn’t tolerate stupid very well either. Given these things, he is a loud, confrontational rebel against unqualified authority, which exists in great quantity today. Maybe this is really what I wanted.

He got far less attention as young child than he deserved or probably needed. He could self-manage from a young age and so we let him. His older brother consumed our time and our lives. Zach is a bit embittered by that experience and still carries a lot of the anger he developed, Melinda suffers from PTSD, and the scars I have run deep. Someday I may write about that experience, but it won’t be easy to do nor pleasant to read. Raising schizophrenic child rarely has a happy ending.  Despite the family dynamics of chaos and stress, Zach is very much a success.


Zach, 9, at Dinosaur National Monument

The trip to Massachusetts was anything but uneventful. Just about an hour into the trip we had to flip the kayaks (13 foot long plastic sails) that were mounted on the top of Zach’s jeep. With tops facing outward, they were catching way too much wind. Shortly after lunch, Zach led us on a wrong turn that put us on a two-lane road up a snowy, icy mountain – not the ideal route for the 4,000lb U-Haul  rolling brick I was towing for him. Just hours later in Pennsylvania we came upon traffic at a dead stop on the highway. Zach took the adjacent exit and Kristen texted “Got off.” We stayed on the highway, not knowing she meant “get”  until later. It was just as well, as they had a pretty crazy route that was wicked enough for them and not suited for a car towing a rolling brick. Eventually we got rolling again, passing the two crashed semis, and then our driver-side wiper blade broke. Time lost finding a replacement, getting further behind them.

About 82 miles from his new home, his beloved Jeep broke down. He stopped, called me, we talked, he started checking spark plug wiring, and called our mechanic friend. Ten o’clock on a Friday night, temps in the low teens, and winds blowing around 40 miles an hour. He’s told he can probably limp on in if he takes it easy, listening to only five of six cylinders firing. Sometime after midnight he makes it, a little over an hour ahead of us.

Zach was stressed. He told me later, “Kristen got to see all of me that night. The entire range of who I am. From relaxed to the most intense I get.” He tends to function well under pressure, but the stress can eat at him for awhile. But he was ready. We’ve done so many road trips, we are at home on the road. Melinda I talked about our move to Oregon in ’94. We rented a U-Haul truck and auto trailer for my little pick-up and she drove her Nissan. James rode with her and Zach road with me in  “that big noisy truck.” We had adventures on that trip. Zach loved riding in that truck and it is probably why he loves trucks so much now. As he thinks about perhaps replacing his Jeep, he has noticed a used Ford F250 with a snowplow at a little dealer near his new home. “Dad, it is just about perfect. I think the backseat might be cramped, but it will be big enough for a carseat or two.” He’s thinking ahead and comfortable with the future.

The picture above is from a trip the summer before we moved to Oregon. A three thousand mile loop from Keizer, OR to Joplin, MO. We visited Crater Lake, Dinosaur National Monument,  the Cottonwood Pass,  Santa Fe, St. Louis, the Field of Dreams (Iowa), Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Coulee, Multnomah Falls. And a bunch of places with unfamiliar names. It was a glorious trip for the three of us, camping in some beautiful places. Nine year-old Zach loved that trip. Camping at Devil’s Tower under a full moon was pretty cool.

Camping. Zach and I have done a lot of that. Between Scouts and our personal trips, we have almost a year of camping, since his first camping trip at the age of two. Road trips two and from the camping sites (or fishing or hunting) where invariably Zach would spend the return passed out in the passenger seat. I have lots of pictures like the one below of him sleeping spanning eight or nine years. I included them in a photo album I made for him and Kristen at Christmas.


Zach is my son, my golf partner, fishing buddy, and an all-around good guy to have around. I’m going to miss him terribly, but I am so damn happy for him. And so very proud.

Even with memories like this:

Me: A colleague in DC is telling people, including the Governor and our Secretary of Ed that I am a “National Treasure.”

Zach: (without missing a beat) “Why, because you are old as dirt and hard to find?”

Yep. I’m gonna miss him.

Finding my inner fascist of self-care

On December 2, 2016 I began making some decisions about changing my life. For a number of reasons, it was quite an extraordinary day, but I am going to focus initially on one aspect – deciding to engage in a complete lifestyle nutrition change.

The years of being a caregiver and working full-time had gotten me to a pretty dark place. My weight had started to spiral out of control again last year. I wasn’t walking enough, save to play golf. I had given up hiking and backpacking because they made my wife nervous (me, out in the woods alone where something bad could happen) and because I couldn’t be away from her and out of touch all day, let alone multiple days. I quit trying to run again after brain surgery because any exertion triggers coughing and for a few years it was uncontrollable. I kind of gave up on being healthy.

Truthfully, this was not just the outcomes of the medical events of 2010. Nor of the buildup to surgery as my running and weight-training up through 2005 began to fall off, likely due, in part, to the compressing of my brainstem by the tumor. It was a pattern of my life that was reproduced far too many times. Finding relative fitness, slacking, decline, with a variance in weight of quite literally a hundred pounds.

Of course now, I am middle-aged white male, so that doesn’t really matter. It is kind of expected at certain levels.

What was missing each time was a commitment to ongoing self-care and engaging the self-discipline to do so. Then again, I don’t think ever actually decided to engage in self-care. I think my decisions were along the lines of “I will do this thing and take it as far as I can, and do the basics I need to support it.” For example, when I was running, or more accurately attempting to run, marathons and ultramarathons, I did not engage in enough of the solid background work necessary to to sustain the effort. I also didn’t do anything to change my diet or fundamentally change my approach to health, or even get enough sleep. I simply tried to put the hours and miles into my existing life without changing much else. This is not a recipe for success.

I did finish both marathons I entered, with respectable times for my size and level of training, and finished four ultramarathons, but the latter were with some terribly slow times. And it was never easy, nor quite as enjoyable as it might have been.

Going back to last December. My wife had nagged me to got a weight-loss clinic she was working with and was giving her some success. I had managed a set of changes in the spring to lose twenty pounds and kept that off, but I was stuck. So I gave in, figuring that maybe the behavioral modification coaching and accountability would succeed where I had not done so by myself. I am trying hard not to be overly self-critical in relaying all this, it is simply what was. I made the choices I made even though I knew most were suboptimal. I was practicing invulnerability to all things. Brené Brown talks about the price of invulnerability here, and yes, I paid that price, several times over.

During intake we talked about lifestyle, diet, and my weight goal. I was told my goal might be too extreme as I would end up “really skinny.” Well, no. That had been my normal weight for a few years at least and I was not skinny then . The only time I was really skinny past the age of 18 was at the end of basic training and that was thirty pounds less than my goal.  We also discussed coffee at length. Or at least they tried to do so.

When asked how much coffee and soda I consumed, I told them. In explicit detail. I could have answered “four or five cups” and been completely truthful as to the nature of the containers. The number of ounces (40 to 48) they found somewhat disturbing. And then there was the (diet) soda. Add two or three 20 oz bottles.

“Could you cut down to say two eight ounce cups of coffee and a soda only every other day?”

“I probably could, but I am not interested in doing so. How about I just drop soda and we don’t talk about my love of coffee ever again? I’m serious about this.”

That day I went cold turkey on a lifelong soda habit. I also gave up putting any milk or cream in my coffee, and booze.  I gave up all manner of alcoholic beverages. And butter. And a host of other things. I’ve changed what I eat, how I eat, and how I think about eating (albeit to a lesser degree than the other changes). As important (and successful) as these changes have been, fifteen weeks later, they are not the most important changes. What they are is a result of making prioritization of self-care a lifestyle choice.

Choosing to truly engage in self-care is the hardest thing I have done and that is, quite honestly, saying a lot. I’ve done a lot of hard things, some I never wish to do again nor wish that anyone else should ever experience. (Raising a schizophrenic child is a miserably devastating experience.) But making the decision to self-care after years of being a caregiver seems not only remarkably selfish, but scary. I know how to take care of others, but myself? Not so much. File this effort under “responsible selfishness.”

Some weeks ago I wrote about Fascism and the Caregiver. It turns out that for me, at least, I had to find and engage that inner fascist of mine and charge him with my own care. I needed to learn to practice that type of control over my own behavior, my own needs, without beating myself up. I had to redefine my environment to enact that control to make change a little easier. I also had to let that inner fascist also control my inner critic. I had to let my physical, emotional, and mental wellness take primacy in my life for the first time in decades.

It’s working. Slowly, it’s working. I’m losing weight at an appropriate pace, although I am admittedly impatient, but I have already had to replace most of my daily wardrobe. I’m feeling better; and I think I am also generally kinder and gentler on a daily basis than I was before, but that would not take much. Each day I think about the self-care I am engaged in, I study a bit on self-care, I meditate some, and I try let each new change happen when I am ready.

Self-care can be tough. Silencing the inner critic who seems to think I have better things to do, like be productive and not be still, or better yet, not spend an hour or more on the exercise bike trying to beat Super Mario Kart 8 (actually ends being a fantastic workout). I can selfishly set aside time to do these things. It is the responsible thing to do.  The inner critic is wrong. These are the things that need to be done and the inner fascist has permission to commence beatings on the critic until morale improves.



adequacy and its opposite

The truth is that you make me feel inadequate. All of you who read this blog and that I interact with regularly on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s a bit like graduate school all over again with my split high school experience and experience in an almost-open enrollment state college education. I spent the first two years of high school in Purcellville, VA preparing for the vocational program in printing. While I took the regular curriculum, I also took lots of shop, as in each and every semester, and at least one time, twice in a semester. Because this was a rural high school in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains, there was an entire vocational agriculture focused sequence in shop classes.

When my mother and stepfather divorced during my sophomore year, I made the decision to move to Missouri to live with my father and stepmother. Vo-tech was pretty much taken off the table and I was enrolled into the college prep track. Fortunately, I wasn’t actually behind in terms of classes and experiences. But I also hadn’t really been intellectually challenged and my reading list was on the non-classical side. Dad and Teresa had thoughtfully provided me a reading list, in the form of a shelf of carefully selected books. Unfortunately, I only read about half the shelf and most of what I left unread were the Western Civilization canon. This may be a good thing in that I am not overly-steeped in just one sliver of the world’s thought and philosophy.

College was no different. Entering as a physics and math double major, and adding a military science minor through ROTC,  I drifted through the English and literature courses the first year, with the required history, doing enough to get by. Usually at the last moment. In other words, quite a number of late nights spent over an electric Smith-Corona typewriter.

When I returned to college after my sabbatical in the Army, I was much more interested in the arts and humanities. And social science. Picking up the required political science and sociology courses would have life-changing had I taken sociology sooner. As it was, I was too deep into learning to paint and craft jewelry to seriously consider changing majors.

So, why do I feel inadequate? Too often I spend time googling stuff I think I should know from philosophy, learning theory, and communication. It reminds of the doctoral program and my fellow students in the public policy program talking about all these damn philosophers that I primarily knew from Monty Python‘s Philosophers Song and a bunch of silly stuff that really didn’t seem relevant to urban development, policy analysis, and all the quantitative stuff we did. It wasn’t silly, but I just didn’t have the time to add all that stuff my to reading pile while being an occasional husband and the father of two young boys with special needs.

I did notice that my fellow students didn’t really seem to know how to do much of anything outside the classroom or library. After three years in the Army and four in the Army Reserve, plus two years running a museum frame shop, I could do stuff. Not to mention all those shop classes in high school. So, I figured I would just learn to do anything and everything of interest, because as much as I liked the intellectual life, the required readings were enough and I can’t always sit still.

Besides, I could always say, “What, you can’t do this? Oh, okay. Go back to talking.” (Not really a nice person focused on building relationships.)

This was the beginning of my life’s journey into counter-dependency, with a focus on the omnipotence aspect. Leastways, it is what I am calling the beginning. It’s not the source, but probably about the time I started weaponizing competence. The Wikipedia entry is pretty horrifying to my mind, but it also represents the extreme or full manifestation:

Counterdependency is the state of refusal of attachment, the denial of personal need and dependency, and may extend to the omnipotence and refusal of dialogue found in destructive narcissism, for example. (Wikipedia)

I mean, I’m not that bad. Unfortunately, I can see who I am in both links, especially the first one with its multiple bullet points:

Then there is the inner world of a counterdependent. With a childhood that often left them to fend for themselves emotional (see causes, below) a counterdependent can have a tumultuous mind, including:

  • being oversensitive to criticism of others even as they often criticise
  • often hard on themselves, hate making mistakes
  • suffer an inner soundtrack of intense self-criticism
  • don’t relax easily
  • can experience shame if they feel needy
  • see vulnerability as weakness
  • secretly suffer feelings of loneliness and emptiness
  • might have difficulty remembering childhood


Yeah, a number of these ring true.  The whole concept of “vulnerability as weakness” uhmm, well, yeah, that’s the just kind of confusing, right? To be vulnerable is to be capable of being wounded and isn’t that a form of weakness? Well, I guess not, at least as far as Merriam-Webster defines weakness, but shucks, it’s the way I always did, or at least one way I did. A friend had shared this link of Brené Brown’s TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability  and I found it quite helpful in understanding what vulnerability means and how it can be a good thing as it allows one to be open and to begin to truly connect with others. It was after listening to that talk that my writing on this blog began to change away from the obscurities of my humor to trying to make a connection with readers. (And by the way, in case it has not occurred to you yet, this post is taking a huge step into the abyss of vulnerability. It will be hard to pull the trigger and publish it.)

Back to inadequacy. I have spent much of my life camouflaging my feelings of inadequacy with super-competence across a range of activities. I have tried to learn to do anything and everything I want. Along the way I learned that there are things I am not particularly good at it, things I don’t think I will ever be good at. On the other hand, when I became an art major my father’s response was “An art major? Tod, you’ve never shown any talent or ability!”  Completely true. Did not stop me at all, nor did it keep me from being successful as an art major (“Outstanding Art Student, 1988”), and I produced some good work.


The Wilderness, Tod Massa, 1989

Along the way I have learned plumbing, cabinetry, furniture-making, general wood frame construction, roofing, welding, electrical work, a dozen programming languages, homebrewing, soapmaking, cheesemaking, golf, flatwater and ocean kayaking, shooting (sport and otherwise), automotive work (something I am not good at, especially major automotive work), lightweight (not quite ultralight) backpacking, sewing, tailoring, hair coloring, luthering (something else I am not good at), banjo, farming, including raising small critters and poultry, and all sorts of things that pull combinations of these skills together (such as building a highly efficient fermentation chamber with heating and refrigeration). You could drop me off in the middle of nowhere and I would probably be just fine because I can even make my own tools.

It’s a bit addictive. One can start filling on the odds and ends of time with doing stuff and learning stuff and keep human engagement to a minimum. It’s kind of pleasant. But I am not supposed to say that as I need to think more positively about human engagement and relationships. It is hard to change a lifetime of thinking.

These days I am shedding. I am taking careful inventory of the stuff I have and the things I want to do and I am working to reduce those to two or three things that I will do regularly. Everything else is being sold, donated, or held to be given to Zach when he has the space.

See, I don’t feel like there is much I do really well, so I will focus a bit more on the things I continue to do. More importantly, I will focus more on building, strengthening relationships through openness and vulnerability. This will be hard work for me as it is much easier to hide behind doing things. Working with dangerous objects in my hands is a good way to avoid talking in any depth. I will screw up along the way, so please be patient and forgiving. I know that I will screw up because I have made a lifetime’s work of failing at stuff just to keep learning and keep trying, and to justify the ongoing internal self-criticism. (Wow. That just occurred to me. What a self-perpetuating cycle!)

A final thought. When I was thinking through some of these things the other day, I put on my public policy hat and wondered if anyone had thought to view relationships through the lens of Herbert Simon’s theory of “satisficing” which is to accept a non-optimal solution in favor of forgoing the cost and effort of pursuing the optimal solution. Sure enough, the Google Gods return a variety of answers on the first page from Psychology Today article and prior versions of the same that refer back to a 2002 study. The authors makes satisficing sound to be the ideal model for relationships. It’s an interesting line to pursue in another post and it recalls what a co-worker once said, “Employees are like stepchildren – they may not be the children you want, but they are the children you have at the moment.” (Fortunately, that person has not been a co-worker for many years.)

That’s the story of my inadequacy. This is being vulnerable. There’s not actually anything wrong with being able to do lots of things. The problem is when the doing gets in the way of being and gets in the way of relationships. So, I will try to do less, and be more.


expectations and playlists

Actual conversation a few years ago between me and my son. The youngest grandelf was somewhat plaintive about his struggles with his Color Nook.

“Wow, there is nothing quite so pitiful as a seven-year-old complaining that he can’t connect to the wi-fi,” I said.

“Yeah, what did I have at that age, an Etch-a-Sketch? What did you have, a stick? And some dirt to draw in?”

“Yeah, something like that.” 

Technology is like this. It creates expectations, especially when it is meant to be easy to use. We become accustomed to it and then get frustrated when it fail us. Our frustration is not just with its failure, but with the void it leaves in our lives. To a boy of seven whose life often revolves around the content delivered via high-tech tablet, the inability to connect to the network to receive more content, creates a painful emptiness.

That’s the nice thing about just having a stick and a patch of dirt – it’s pretty easy to go find another stick. Or just use your finger. Its when things are special, when they have potential to be all-consuming, that the void becomes seemingly limitless. That void is hungry and wants to be filled. It aches. It screams for attention, like a nameless thing shrieking “Feed me” endlessly into the night.

And then there’s my playlist.

The last few days I have not been listening to satellite radio in the car, but to a collection of what I *thought* was a great collection of songs for driving. Instead, especially when played in alphabetic order, it begins to sound pretty dark. Dark like a bruise full of purple, black, a little bit of green, and streaks of gold. Sad and angry music, even when it’s uptempo. Music that spans decades and a half-dozen genres that I think are generally closely related and overlapping. Break-up songs (No Souvenirs). Songs about moving on. Fighting  (Ballroom Blitz), drinking (I’m Gonna Hire a Wino), and fornicating songs (I was Made for Loving You). Love songs for the pure (If I were a Carpenter) and not-so-pure of heart (Secret), or slightly ironic (Alyson). Or just songs of pure macho assholery (That’s What You Get for Loving Me). I’ve begun to wonder if much of it is all too dark together, creating and reinforcing an inner darkness and sarcasm in what I’m told was once a sunny and cheerful disposition.


Certainly the little boy in this picture did not have a dark and sarcastic interior. But, clearly those girls flanking him did.

But I spent some more time listening to the playlist and looking at it. While I might not be at a one-to-one to ratio of sad/angry songs to happy/peaceful songs, there is a good mix, maybe about four-to-one. Of course, it is a matter of perspective. When Zach was young, he thought Jimmy Buffett’s Come Monday was a horribly sad song but like Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, it always makes me feel good, as do Bob Seger’s Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser and Jackson Brown’s The Naked Ride Home (of course, I know a couple of true stories on that theme). Of course, some songs confuse the hell out of people, like Green Day’s Good Riddance or Rupert Holmes Escape, both of which are more familiarly known by “The Time of Your Life” and “The Pina Colada Song” respectively. Darkly cheerful and upbeat, but breaking up and cheating songs that seem like they belong together. Or darkly upbeat and triumphant like Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone and Bring on the Dancing Horses by Echo & Bunnymen.

I like the dark though. Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt still amazes me.

So, while I was thinking I need to lighten up my music drastically, I’m now thinking it needs only tweaking and better balance. I’m not giving up any Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues), Johnny Cash (Sunday Morning Coming Down), Merle Haggard (Mama Tried),  or Steppenwolf (Snowblind Friend) and certainly not Bat out of Hell.

We’ll see  – it is full speed ahead, because I Can’t Drive 55 and if you ride with me, be prepared for We’re Not Gonna Take It to be followed by Rock Lobster and Pretty in Pink or Picture or Dead Skunk. Or Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Purple Rain.

There’s just no telling other than alphabetically, we’ll end with Ziggy Stardust and if it’s a roadtrip, Born to Run is likely to blasted at least twice.

Yeah, upon further review, I’m fine with all this. It’s good music.