The Wail

The other day my son and I and two of his friends were playing “three flies up” when I made a ruling Rio didn’t like. He expressed his dismay by kicking the ball away angrily, and, after I warned him to take it easy, talking back and then swinging a frustrated arm in my direction. Then Papa Bear laid it down: Rio inside; neighborhood kids home.

“What you decided wasn’t fair!” he kept insisting as I ushered him into his room. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my ruling on the field or my decision to end the game. I did my best not to talk back and get in a war of words with a seven-year-old. He slammed his door and fumed in his room, and then his shouts of frustration turned to cries of dismay. “Where are my friends?” he screamed. Annie and I went in and calmly told our extroverted son they had gone home. His crying turned into heavy sobs.

One of Rio’s assets, and challenges, is his intensity. On the soccer field, when he’s dribbling toward the goal, it’s a gift. When he’s staring at the world map beside his bed determined to figure out which way is faster from the U.S. to the Philippines, east or west, it’s an asset. But when he runs up against an obstacle that another kid might shrug off — “unfair” rule, say — his fire is an albatross.

Living a stone’s throw from a river, Rio and I do a lot of swimming and tubing, and Annie and I have used the Haw as a metaphor to help him when he’s only seeing red. “Don’t get caught on the rocks,” we sometimes tell him. “Flow like the river.” But words do little when he’s overcome with emotion. He can’t float when he’s flying down the rapids.

“Your ruling just wasn’t fair,” Rio kept repeating through tears and shoulder heaves. “And it’s not right that my friends went home!”

“Maybe, but it’s never OK for you to respond to something you don’t like by being a bad sport or by using your body in an aggressive way,” I responded. “We could have talked about it. But you just lost your mind.”

As Rio shed more tears, I saw that he was crying not because he was mad at me, but because he understood that his intensity had cost him time with friends. He was colliding with his own self and its jagged merging with the world. It hurts to be in these bodies and bang up against reality! I’ve always thought of Walt Whitman’s concept of the “barbaric yawp” as an empowered shout to the universe  — This is me, World! — but on this evening, as I watched my son sob, I understood that our yawp may also be a wail.

“Sometimes I don’t like how I am,” Rio managed to tell us. I understood. When I was young, I had plenty of moments when I felt in opposition to the world; in my case, it was often a feeling of being underappreciated and unseen. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when my sister walked me to my first-grade classroom and then moved on to her fourth-grade one (what more could she have done?); I remember too the time my mom left me with a babysitter and I cried for three hours straight because she didn’t say goodbye to me right. I was a shy kid most comfortable hiding behind my mother’s skirt. The world asked me to be bolder and I demurred. As an adult, I feel this less, and in fact relate more to Rio: there are times I’ve spoken up only to feel myself ostracized; times when I’ve stood up only to be told to sit back down. There are occasions when I can tell from the expression of the person I’m talking to that I’ve gone too far, that I’ve broken open a conventional unspeakable, and I’m left feeling exposed and alone. And so I’ve sat on both sides of this spectrum — sometimes too little for the world; other times too much.

It’s hard to know what parts of us are immutable and which can change. There is an inherent tension between stretching toward what we could be and accepting who we are. If we reach too far we might disregard our true nature and tear a proverbial muscle, or risk living in masquerade. If, on the other hand, we simply resign ourselves to our usual tendencies, then we stymie any chances of transformation. A friend recently told me that she was disappointed that she was struggling with so much jealousy in a relationship. “I want to be the person who can overcome it,” she said, “but if I’m really honest I have to admit I can only bend so far.” Meanwhile, her partner was frustrated by what he saw as her possessiveness, and he said he truly needed more freedom. Could she stretch to accommodate him? Could he stretch to accommodate her? In this case, no: she honored her cautionary voice and he honored his quest for a wider horizon. Perhaps their truest selves could not fully tango.

And so I ask: when is the voice of “this is me” limiting, and when is it a truth we need to hold? I suppose my own journey from timid (and all of its pros and cons) to bold (and all of its pros and cons) suggests that it is possible to change, that in fact there are layers to who we are that are ripe for the unpeeling. What a choreography, though, to navigate self-acceptance and self-growth, finding compassion both for the times we play it too safe and the times we stretch too far.

In Rio’s case, he clearly was feeling deep pain that he was a kid who reacted so strongly to his perceptions of fair play and things going his way that he lost the very thing he cherished: communion with friends. As he cried his hard wet tears, Annie whispered, “Rio, I know it’s hard, but look how much the world loves you. Can you feel it?” As she said this, I looked down to see that our dog Stella had jumped up onto the bed during the meltdown and that Rio literally had two hands and one paw touching him at the same time.

Rescues

Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.

Wrists

I never would have described myself as someone who worked with his hands until last month when I could barely write due to pain in my wrists.

What happened was: I took a day off from work and did not rest; I worked in the yard doing in one day all the tasks I’d been wanting to do for weeks. I loaded and hauled off yard waste. I weed-whacked. I dug out a bed around the oak tree in our yard and covered it with mulch. I shoveled new gravel onto our driveway. I was manic homeowner determined to get as much done as I could before the sprouting dandelion came home from school.

A week later I woke up with my left forearm and wrist swollen and sore. I didn’t connect it to the day of labor; instead I thought its occurrence was random, mysterious, perhaps the onset of some kind of more serious disorder. What is my body doing? I wondered. Google didn’t help; within minutes of typing in “sore wrist” and “symptoms” I was enmeshed in descriptions of carpal-tunnel syndrome at best and rheumatoid arthritis at worst. The next day I tried to help Rio cast a fishing line into a lake and had to stop because my wrists were burning so bad. I slipped away into the boat house and sat quietly in the dark, shaking my head, rubbing my aching arms.

In a strange and melodramatic way, I wanted a diagnosis — not to earn pity points but rather because otherwise the condition would be deemed lifestyle-related and the remedy would be a long series of small adjustments. Anything but that. I wanted a name for the pain so that I could find a prescription to kill it.

Panicked, I went to my doctor, and she asked me to detail what I’d been doing with my hands and arms recently. I told her of the day in the yard, of the months tapping feverishly at the keyboard. She did a few tests and declared my wrists and arms overworked. Her prescription? A month of wearing wrist braces and keeping yard work and computer use to a minimum.

I am still young, but the burning in my wrists was telling me I could no longer bang my body around and not notice the bruises. I’d had older friends warn me that a day would come when soreness and stiffness would show up like a stray dog at the door and never really leave the yard, despite my foot-stomping and screams to scram. Damn, that fateful day had arrived, I realized, and I had to fight off the feeling that it was all downhill from here.

But I refused to go lightly down that stream. I focused on changing what I could, which in this case was, first off, swearing off the weed-whacker, which from first purchase had felt all wrong; something about its tiny vibrations made my body feel like a tuning fork struck hard against a piano. Who cares if my grandmother whacked her edges without incident until she was 90? That invention and I were not simpatico. Next I took a good look at my work station from an ergonomic perspective and found that I was basically doing the exact opposite of everything I should. Because I had never had any wrist problems before, I had simply never noticed how I sat, how I typed, how I beheld the magic screen. Now: new chair; new keyboard; new monitor height and placement; new keyboard tray. More breaks. More time in chair by window, reading. More editing standing up. Wrists much happier. Have yet to swear off typing and surfing machine though tempted.

To be sure my condition wouldn’t linger, I paid a visit to a physical therapist in town. She asked a lot of questions, took a mess of notes. She told me to take off my shirt and walk around, lift up my arms, twirl about. It felt odd to be so scrutinized, but comforting too; just trust that this person can help you, I kept thinking to myself as she uttered another “hhmm.”  Her diagnosis? That I was farming out too much labor to my wrists and ankles (low-grade soreness) because of problems in my “core.”

“You are not weak,” she said, “You just need more balance.”

Ah, so my metaphysical struggles find their brethren on the physical plain! Evil little creature, existence!

“Well, I’d like to be balanced,” I said, dead scared, knowing that to change I would have to let my entrenched physical patterns die ignoble little deaths. Adios, status quo. It would mean doing daily exercises with balls and rubber straps and working on tiny forgotten muscles who surely would have preferred their slacker existence.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve doing her exercises, unsure of the science but certain of my faith. It helps to remember my old high-school football coach, Mr. Hirsch, one of those elderly gentlemen with enough “core” to knock your seventeen-year-old ass right on the floor. He’d scream at us to hit the blocking sleds and, if we did that with insufficient vigor, he’d order us to “drop and give me fifty!” I’d  just put my head down and do what I was told. Obedience to authority has its place. So when my physical therapist sweetly but firmly tells me to sit on a huge inflatable ball in front of my computer, I’ll do it, even though it violates in all ways my sense of sleek. Pain, in this case, has been the alarm clock that awoke the slumbering man, reminding him to sit up in his chair and pay attention, to not neglect the gifts that help him live out his purpose.

Good Morning, Fear

I don’t know if it’s some twisted application of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words or if it’s simply human nature, but I spend a lot of time in fear of fear itself. Unless I encounter something like a snake on a trail or a swerving car hurtling toward me, I don’t really interact much with my own fear, even though I have lots of it. My practice is to treat it as an unwelcome houseguest I hope will go away if I just close my eyes long enough. And yet fear exerts a huge influence on my psyche; it’s almost as if it gains power the more I pretend it’s not there.

I experienced this phenomenon over the weekend. Rio and a kid he knows had a run-in, and for some reason, this incident triggered a lot of painful feelings in me, most of which were faces of fear. Are Annie and I parenting right? Will Rio be rejected? Will I be rejected? Why are there so many loose, imperfect ends in my life? Why am I doing only A through G on my list of improvements for self, family, and house instead of A to Z? And why the fuck do we have so many things in storage?

I say this now, but on Saturday, I couldn’t have listed these fears because I was too busy shielding my eyes from them. I’m very good at knowing what I feel, but not so good at knowing what I fear. It’s as if I recoil the moment fear makes its presence known, retreating to my insulated chamber where I wait for the world to go away. I didn’t reach out to anyone most of the weekend and instead played a favorite game of mine called Numb It.

The problem is that fear is hungry and doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It came back with a dagger, striking at 4 a.m. when I bolted awake with a morbid sense of rupture between me and Rio, between Rio and that kid, between our house and theirs. It’s as if fear hired a horror-film director and cast a montage of worst-case scenarios on my mind’s wall. In short, spurned fear returned as anxiety, which afflicted me all weekend long.

The other form unmet fear takes for me is anger. Recently Annie and I had a disagreement. I had been building resentment, which I’d been hiding so expertly I didn’t even see it myself. But then Annie committed some small infraction that triggered the “I’ve got her” response, and I pointed a long finger in her direction and made sweeping generalizations that hurt. I raised my voice so loud my vocal chords felt strained the whole day; I even threw my jacket to the kitchen floor with a flourish, an act so silly I wish I’d caught it on camera so I could get some kicks later watching my own folly.

Finally I settled down, and as we kept talking we reached a tender place. And then I admitted, “I’m scared.” I listed everything I was afraid of, in terms of our marriage, our family, our future, and she said, “I wish you had just started there. I can meet you there. We can work from there.”

I don’t have a magic bullet for interacting with fear; I just know avoiding it causes me more harm than good.  I want to see fear as an opening to walk through, not a steel-jawed trap to run from.

My friend Jason told me a story years ago that I like to keep in mind. A man is sitting in his house and he hears a scary monster outside. It (whatever it is we don’t want to face) is walking around the house, trying all the doors and windows, trying to get in. The man imagines a ghoulish monster with long claws dripping in blood. He retreats to a back room. The monster starts to knock. When no one comes, the monster knocks louder and says, “I know you’re in there!” The man finally musters up the courage to answer the door, and he looks out to find a tiny smiling creature standing on the mat. “What took you so long?” the creature asks, and walks in.

That Night

The man had sins to confess. We in the room told him we would listen. He had written what he wanted to say. He talked about what happened when he was young. How his glass got shattered.

He then said what he had done. All the lies, secrets, sins he’d thought he’d be buried with. That he was already buried under.

The paper was shaking in his hands. He had a hard time looking up. He wasn’t a criminal but felt like one. He had deceived many, hurt some. He had cut a hole into himself down which he had disappeared. Now he was crawling back out.

He finished. He looked up, trembling.

What he’d said sat in the middle of the room. We stared at it, marveled at the twisted trunk of truth.

“You just unloaded something awful heavy,” someone said. “When you leave tonight, you don’t need to take it with you.”

The man winced as though struck suddenly with a stick. Then his eyes softened and he wept. Not all the pain was gone but some, somehow shouldered by others who noticed less its weight. We each took a piece and put it on the shelf beside our own fractured bits and left the room.