Social Distancing from an Expert

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It is that brief interval of time at 4:37 AM, between laconically tossing a peanut butter pretzel in my mouth and the first satisfying, ultimately ephemeral crunch, the mysteries of the world unfold themselves to me.  Sadly (for purposes of my own enlightenment), this reflectory period lasts but an instant before I nosh the pretzel into the verisimilitude of mastication and metaphor.

I wrote yesterday about my partner, my wife, an extrovert in exile during this period of revelatory self-distancing.  It is with great patience, a master’s degree in early childhood development and developmental risks, two years of teaching early childhood special ed, five years of teaching elementary ed, and two years of being at home raising the munchkin, that Anna finally reached the point of taking a razor blade to her bumper and the sticker that said “My child is an positive citizen.”  I cannot say that I blame her.

Children, on the whole, are enigmas.  Take for example, my firstborn.  Although I graduated from college, law school, and a post-doctorate program with pomp and circumstance, this little imp is smarter, by measure, then I ever was.  If and when he discovers nuclear fission, I pray that he uses it for good and not to get back at the three-year-old girl who dared to challenge his story that he discovered gold in North Carolina.

Our mayor has issued a conditional lockdown order, that those who could work from home must work from home.  Eager to initiate my obedient, pajama-clad workdays, I was soon informed by the Man that, much to my disappointment, I was not “dispensable” to the team.  Given my history with law firm politics, the fact that I am indispensable  should give me the ultimate reassurance.  Nevertheless, I found myself seeking out the hypochondriacal assistant who works at the other end of the office, in order that I might expectorate (with some gusto and propinquity to her) the post-nasal drip that has developed from all of this damn oak pollen.  Sadly, she had heeded the order, and was working from home.  My throat is tickly, and my spirit is spurred to action—which action, I might add, inevitably culminates (in my mind) victoriously, whilst I am in my pajamas.

Never one to be considered in apparatchik, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation.  On the one hand, I want to continue at work until the City shuts the power off (a threat that the Jacksonville Mayor actually voiced).  Yet, on the other hand, which hand I have carefully and diligently weighed, I want a good, long, peaceful nap.  I am not sure whether I am better served to try to sleep under the hollow in my desk at work, or in the loft at home.  Something, well, two things (children) really, tell me that the hollow was good enough for Mr. Toad and is good enough for me.

I hope everyone here in America and across the pond is doing well and are happy and healthy, albeit malcontent and ever so slightly disgruntled.  (For my Yorkshire readers, I am not quite sure of the kind antonym for “well chuffed,” but I imagine that is where you are right now.)

Good luck, Godspeed, and if you need lessons on social distancing, I am offering a master class tomorrow evening with a concentration on using biting sarcasm to establish a safe personal distance between you and your antagonist.  Attendance, as you may imagine, is severely limited.

The Extrovert in Exile

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I saw a funny Facebook post the other day about how self-quarantining and social distancing was, for introverts, the culmination of their life’s work.  I saw one today that said, “Check on your extrovert friends; we are not OK.”

For a self-described hermit, who has been practicing social distancing since at least the age of twelve, I have a lot of extroverted friends.  It’s not my fault.  I am like a magnet for social people.  I have tried valiantly to wear my scorn and antipathy on my sleeve, but they all brush it of as bluster and introverted bravado and then want to talk about how funny it is that I pretend that I am a hermit.  An hour later, when they are done talking at me, I have already crawled into my mental hole, and they tell me what a good listener I am…a vicious cycle, indeed.

I even happened to marry one – a kind, beautiful, chatty-Cathy of an extrovert.  Before amiable-Anna stayed home with the munchkin, she had been a professional extrovert, paid to talk to little people and to teach them how to become social butterflies, themselves.  She was an elementary school teacher.  If you sit down and think about it for a minute (any longer and the already impish introvert in you will get really steamed), elementary school is a not-so-subtle indoctrination into extroversion and general gregariousness.  The few of us who resist, and resist with some steadfast conviction, make it out relatively unscathed…only to be substantially scathed by middle school…

So, it comes to pass that my dearest, chatty-Cathy wife was thrust back into the teaching fray in the midst of the pandemic.  She is home, stir-crazy, with the munchkin and the minion, the dog, two cats (one of which is delightfully antisocial and crotchety and a bit of a spirit animal of mine, though I won’t readily admit it), and 17 goldfish.  Interestingly, the term “stir-crazy” likely originated as a slang term for “Start-crazy,” referring to the notorious 19th century British prison of Start Newgate in London where prisoners were isolated as a form of punishment.

So here she finds herself, committed to house arrest for the greater good, in the hacienda de hoosegow, an extrovert in exile, which is, perhaps, the most apt term.  Like Napoleon in Elba, she is so close—yet so far from her social network of moms and coffee dates and general social frivolity.

I cannot understand her angst and longing for social interaction.  Apparently talking to me is not enough for her, even though talking to her is often more than enough for me…  I don’t pretend to understand how the extroverted mind works, but even though I am loath find comfort in a flock (the very root of “gregarious”), I understand that chatty-Cathy, amiable-Anna needs socialization.  Therefore, I arranged a playdate on Saturday with my assistant and paralegal, the only two people I can stand and who, likely, did not have the plague.  This playdate for Anna was a tacit understanding that I understood, and, I dare say, even condoned her socially-accepted, normative, “friendly” tendencies.

She enjoyed herself thoroughly.

It is Tuesday, and I am still recovering and recharging.

So, hug your extrovert in exile.  Let them know that this too shall pass.  And then, gird your loins, because they are going to want to talk about it…

What Fishing Has to Do With Selfishness

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There is a line from the musical Wicked that goes, “Something has changed within me.  Something is not the same.”  I love the musical now, but the first time we saw it up in Richmond, Anna had to drag me to it.

Selfishness is a funny thing, and it is something that I’ve been dealing with in the latter half of my life.

When reflecting on the demise of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West), Glinda (the good witch) wonders, “Are we born wicked, or do we have wickedness thrust upon us?”  I can safely say I wasn’t born selfish, no more than anyone else is born selfish from a purely evolutionary, survival of the fittest standpoint.  I had a generally selfless mien as a child.  I was affable and kind, funny and sweet, too smart for my own good, and generally a good kid.  Then I wasn’t.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment the shift happened, but I can recall episodes where my selflessness was chipped away.  Over indulgences, bad relationships, weight gain, stress, disappointment, guilt, shame, self-loathing—they all chipped away at this rock of selflessness that I had prided myself on possessing until it was nothing more than a pebble.

My mother-in-law wondered where her daughter’s happy-go-lucky spouse went.  My mother, who is never one to beat around the bush, told me on the phone that I had become, in a word, selfish.  I did not receive these observations well at the time, though I now see that they were completely accurate.  My distorted notions of self-preservation and keeping everyone else on the outside of the chaos within drove the selfishness like an engine.  When I began to let myself heal, however, I recognized in some small part the change that had taken place so insidiously.

Even when I emerged from my darker days, before Nora was born, I did not shed every negative habit.  I slept a lot.  I did not want to be “social.”  I hid behind my self-diagnosis of introversion with fierce conviction.  I joked about my general misanthropy.  Once again, I was using humor to defray attention from the insecurities, but this time, I was also using it to distract from my selfishness.

Then, just as quickly as it had come, it left.  No warning.  No lead up.  No working at it in earnest.  I cannot say precisely when it happened, but I can point to the exact moment that I recognized that something was awry (in a good way).  We were in North Carolina, perhaps the second day of our trip, and Kemper wanted to go fishing.  Hit wanted to go fishing the moment we stepped foot on the property, but once again, I was tired, and I promise to take him later.

I was always promising to take him fishing later.  The trouble was that later seldom came.  Finally, I had had enough of his incessant entreaties, and I knuckled under, and we went fishing.  It was cold.  It was raining.  I was grumpy.  And he was having the time of his life.  Something clicked, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, and I just went with the flow.  We fished for about two hours in the rain, because that’s what my dad would’ve done.

This post goes hand-in-hand with my gratitude post of a couple of weeks ago, because gratitude and selflessness go hand in hand.  I took for granted the time with my kids, my wife, my family, and even with Zoe.  When I found Deacon online and read his back story — about how he had been taken for granted, left out on a chain, and neglected — I thought back to Sadie, our rescued Golden retriever I had as a kid, when I wasn’t selfish, and when I didn’t take anyone or anything for granted.  She had been abused and neglected, and she was the sweetest most grateful dog I have ever known.

I know we gave Zoe a good life, and I am comforted by the fact that she was loved, despite my selfishness and ingratitude.  But I wonder what our connection would’ve been like had I had this epiphany earlier.

Anna looked at me on Monday, three days after we headed taken Deacon home, and acknowledged the change.  She didn’t say that I had been less selfish lately, or that I had been a better husband because of it.  She said that she noticed that I had taken Kemper fishing the first time he asked.  I didn’t say it do it later.  I got up from the ground, where I was petting Deacon, and I took him fishing.  Because he enjoyed it, I enjoyed it.  That, I think, is the opposite of selfishness.

 

On Gratitude

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When I write these posts, I often just start typing and what comes, comes.  I thought about this post a fair bit driving into work this morning at 2:45 AM.  I reflected on the days that I spent in North Carolina with my family, and how I would have far preferred to be there to just about anywhere else.  I also thought about how lucky we are to be able to spend that time in the mountains with family that loves us and whom we can tolerate—even enjoy—being with for a week.

Being grateful is one thing, and a good thing, but gratitude is something different.  Gratitude is active.  You can be grateful, but you show gratitude.  I don’t think I ever reflected on the difference, but as I sat down to write this post, I was struck by the distinction.  I was grateful to have been in North Carolina, but did I show gratitude for being there?  I thanked my parents, and David, who graciously allowed us to stay on his property, and, perhaps, this was enough.  Still, I am nagged by the thought that I could have done more.

It is a new year, and in this new year I will make a concerted effort to actively show gratitude for what I have been given.  I have worked incredibly hard for the life I have, but in many ways, I have been blessed with things that I could never have received without a great deal of grace.  I am slowly recognizing this, and I am grateful for all of the blessings in my life.  Gratitude, like faith, without action is nothing.

So, thank you, one and all, for all that I have been given, and all that I am able to give.  As I start this new year, the first of a new decade, I will continue to reflect on these thoughts of gratitude.  Perhaps they will nag at me even in the times where I want to be anything but grateful.  Life is a journey, not a destination, and like this forest path, I will try my heartfelt best to walk it with gratitude.

Wright

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This picture makes me feel like a phony.

Compositionally, the photograph is nearly perfect.  The sight lines of the rocks and the mountain in the back converge on Kemper.  There is strong texture and contrast between the foreground and background.  Kemp forms the apex of a natural triangle, and the rule of thirds has been followed with strict adherence.  He’s looking away from the camera, natural and insouciant.  Hell, the wildflowers are even in bloom.

Yes.  This is technically ideal, and, had I planned it, I could not have executed it much better.  But that is just the thing.  I didn’t plan it.  I snapped the picture of Kemper on a rock in Garrapata State Park because he had come with me on a cold and windy morning, and he found a rock that he wanted to climb, and far be it for me to stop him from doing what brought me such joy when I was his age.

Perhaps there was something in my subconscious that told me to stand exactly where I stood to take this picture, rather than a couple feet to the left or right.  Perhaps it wasn’t happenstance.  I still remember one of my elementary school art teachers looking at a lump of unformed clay with me and saying that we had to take what the clay gave us.  What she meant, I think, was that an artist is not always the creator (if ever), but instead is—to use an archaic, but fitting term—the wright, who makes the best of what is given to them.

Ultimately, I didn’t have to take the photograph.  I didn’t have to make the decisions I did in post-processing, to bring out the contrast between the foreground and the misty background, or to crop it as I did.  But there we are.

This photo is not going to win any prizes or be displayed in a gallery, but it will make the rotation on the slideshow in my office.  When I look up and glance at it for the moment it remains, I will appreciate the happenstance of art a bit more, understanding that as a photographer I am not so much a creator as a wright…and that is OK.

On Surviving…

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We survived the first day.

No call.  No tears.  No arson.

All in all, a good start to the first grade.

Now you may think that I am being a bit melodramatic—after all, Kemp is a good kid—but I am also being realistic after the ups and downs of last year.

No child is perfect, and this is a lesson that we learned the hard way when Kemper came back from Christmas break last year.  He has matured exponentially over the summer, and I knew that he would be in a different place, with a different teacher, who has more experience and, perhaps, more patience with little boys who just want to make you laugh.

The kid has a heart of gold, as I did at his age.  He only wants to please, and I lose sight of this in the moments where he is being obstinate or so literal that it makes you want to pull the three hairs you have left on your head out (personally speaking).  I lost some of that innocence and pureness of spirit in college and law school, but I feel like I am slowly gaining it back—which just goes to show that it does not have to be lost.

I know that I need to foster this uncharacteristic empathy and softness inside of him, and make him understand that despite the sometimes-toxic masculinity that the world presents as the paradigm, it is ok to be sensitive and caring, and it is ok to embrace the empathy that is innate within him.  I hope that he is able to hold onto these characteristics for as long as he can, at least through his formative years, because it is a lot easier to go back to a learned behavior than to start from scratch.

So now we wait for the call.  Maybe it will not come this year.  Maybe he’s bled all of the angst from his system, but I don’t think so.  I see the anxiety in his great big brown eyes, and the concern for things much larger than himself, and in those concerns, I revisit my own childhood and force myself to think of how I can make it easier for him, how I can facilitate finding himself in the morass that is growing up.

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On a New Year…

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To say that it was a quiet weekend would be something of an understatement.  Anna and the kids went down to Disney with a friend, and I was left to fend for myself in utter silence.  In my defense, I had made plans to go fishing with a buddy, but his boat was in the shop, and he ended up going out of town.  My solitude, therefore, was not completely of my own choosing—but I embraced it nonetheless.

Kemper starts school tomorrow—first grade—and to have seen him grow up just this summer has been amazing.  Last year was a learning experience for all involved, and I am not naïve enough to think that the first few weeks of the new schoolyear will be without its ups and downs.  Once he settles in, though, I am hopeful that this year will be even better than the last.

Nora begins a three day-a-week program soon, as well, and she blossomed in her “class” last year.  She is social, but I am terribly curious to see what her new independent, sassy streak will mean to her previously demure behavior.  As they say, history seldom remembers well-behaved women, so her cheekiness will likely serve her well.  It is something that her brother and I can foster with great aplomb.  I knew that she wouldn’t stay the sweet little cherub forever, and I am so enjoying her personality as it comes out more and more each day.

Life is good, and I look forward to seeing how much better it gets this year.

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On Thoughts of Fall in August

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As a consequence of the poison oak debacle that I have chronicled in my earlier posts, I went to the doctor, who prescribed some fairly powerful steroids to hasten my recovery.  One of the side effects, it turns out, is a heightened sensitivity to heat, which in the throes of summer in Florida is about as easy to avoid as sand in a desert.

Long story short, I got very dizzy, and I needed a bit in the artificial permafrost of my office to cool down and recover.  Once regained my bearings, this photograph flashed across the television on my wall that I use to display my photographs.  I took it last fall in North Carolina, and it immediately gave me a feeling of deep longing, and almost regret that I wasn’t there right now–even though summers in the Piedmont of North Carolina are about as miserable as in Florida.

I reflected on this nostalgia, literally an aching for one’s home, and it came to me that during my ten years outside of Florida, first in North Carolina and then in Virginia, I never felt the longing to be back in Florida like I do now longing to be back in Winston-Salem or even Richmond.  I missed my family dearly in Florida, and enjoyed every time that I came back to visit, but there is just something about Carolina and Virginia that make me long to be back there.

Perhaps it is that I loved Wake Forest so much.  I met Anna there, grew up there, and learned more about the world and myself than I had ever done in the eighteen years prior.  But a part of me thinks that it was the fall that draws me back, even today–the crisp mornings that we walked from campus through the grounds of the Reynolda House and through the village, the chilly strolls around campus with a steaming cup of coffee or chai, and the leaves that scudded across the bricks of the upper quad when the October wind picked up and you gathered your jacket that much closer around you.

Sure, Florida has fall, but its not the same.  Even the oak trees that were skeletons by November in Richmond balk at the coming winter in Florida.  There is no thought of jumping in the car and driving the half-hour to Pilot Mountain to see the leaves changing before your very eyes.  Fall, as we knew it in North Carolina, does not exist this far south.  But I am happy here.  I have an incredible job, and an incredible family that is only minutes away, and my roots are growing into the sandy soil slowly but surely.

Still, I feel that pang of remorse that comes over me when I remember the falls I spent at Wake Forest, and I know someday I will return in some capacity.  Until that time, as James Taylor said, “I’m going to Carolina in my mind.”

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On Miniature Versions of Yourself

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Although I have written a fair amount about Kemper and his travels with me, I have not given Nora her due credit.  The munchkin was a trooper on the trails, much better in fact than the minion was at his age.  For anyone who knows me, you can see from Nora’s face and general baby-bulbousness, the apple did not fall far from the tree.  There is, as I am wont to say, no denying that this one belongs to me.

She is a mellow little thing, until something lights her red hair on fire, and then she can throw a tantrum with the best of them.  Yes, she gets this from me, too.  She adores Kemper, and if she had her druthers, she would just follow around him the whole day keeping him company and playing with whatever toys he didn’t requisition from her (with force) because they were too small, and she might choke on them.

Because her mind is curious and wanders, she is great for candids (as this shot attests), and I look forward to using her as a subject as she grows up around me with speed that I didn’t think was possible, even though I have seen it firsthand with Kemper.

 

On the Path Less Traveled By

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As an English major and a writer, I find metaphors in just about everything I do.  Just as I referenced the metaphor of Kemper on the path in yesterday’s post, this photograph of divergent paths struck me when I came upon it during a solo hike in Garrapata.  Kemper had decided that three days of strenuous hiking in a row was enough daddy-son time, and he sat that morning out—with the express condition that I bring a cinnamon (pronounced “cimminum”) roll for him on my way back through the village.

I love this photograph, not for the intrinsic compositional value of it, but because it is the literal embodiment of Frost’s poem (sans the yellow wood).  I took the one less traveled by, and indeed it did make all the difference.  It has, quite probably, scarred me for life.  Not exactly the effect that it had on Frost, but this is reality and Frost’s poem was a metaphor.

You can see in the bottom right corner, if you zoom in on the photograph, the incipient bunch of tripartite leaves of what, it turns out, is poison oak.  It was so prevalent along the paths, that certainly no one in their right mind would have traipsed through virulent shrubbery, and so I paid it no further thought until a few days post-hike.  Further, I am used to poison ivy, which grows on a vine rather than a bush of regret and sadness.  Sadly, some of the evils of the West Coast are disguised as hedgerows.

The path was, at the time, a fun little adventure.  It meandered closer to the edge of the cliffs’ edges, while keeping a respectful distance from the precipice in most spots.  There was a dodgy stretch, but some travelers, as disinclined to stride along a hare’s-breath of path juxtaposed against a sixty-foot plummet, had cut a secondary looping jaunt (through the damnable undergrowth) that avoided the cliff’s edge and certain death.  This was acceptable to me, and quite lovely, on account of the omnipresent, verdant, and then-innocuous shrub of despair.

When Anna, Nora, Kemper and I came to Garrapata later that day, I took Kemper on a small section of the secondary trail.  He was reticent to follow, but, ultimately, he did.  I told him only “big kids” could come on the path, and this was enough to carry the day.  Luckily it was chilly, and he was wearing jeans and a jacket – fully armored against the chaparral of anguish.

By Kemper’s age (6.5 years) I had already broken both of my wrists, sliced my thumb to the bone with a utility knife, and cracked a few toes; but he has, heretofore, not suffered any major bodily injuries.  He is cautious of the unbeaten paths, for which I am grateful.  In Frost’s poem, the narrator does not rush headlong down the path less traveled by.  Instead, “long I stood / and looked down one as far as I could / to where it bent in the undergrowth.”  As impulsive as he can be, this is Kemper’s general approach to life choices.  It will serve him well.