A few years ago, I came across the graphic above, and suddenly I understood something about women that I had failed to understand in my forty plus years on the planet. I had been misinterpreting their words all along. I had understood simple words like “fine” and “nothing” in a literal sense and had failed to realize that they had broader, unspoken meanings that could impact my quality of life.

With this newfound knowledge, I felt empowered to listen and ascertain the enormity of any given situation that required my attention. Admittedly, I am generally oblivious and assume that spoken words are to be taken in a literal sense. This works when talking to my male friends, but it’s a minefield of angst when dealing with the opposite sex.

Given the numerical notation, I assumed this was a hierarchy of sorts, like a progressive chart that indicates the level of anxiety I should feel. The thermometer in my car is similar in that it goes from cold to hot, and as it gets closer to hot, the little arm of the gauge crosses into the red. That’s when you really know you’re in for some trouble. Likewise, the bonus word “Wow” in the chart above represents the red area in this gauge of female-to-male communication.

If it were only that simple. Much to my dismay, I soon learned that this is not a progressive chart and that there may be no warning whatsoever when communication crosses “into the red.” It’s the equivalent of cranking the car and having the thermometer gauge go straight to red and the car overheating in that very instant with no time to react.

The randomness of the scale makes it difficult to apply any sort of mathematical formula to predict the probability that any actions or careless words could lead to an overheated situation. Being a simple guy, I instantly decided to reduce the scale to a game since it couldn’t be conquered mathematically. I conducted unauthorized experiments with my wife to see what actions or words elicited which reactions. This soon led me toward an imminent demise, so I stopped the game. I can say, somewhat with pride and maybe a little fear, that I am able to get to “Wow!” pretty fast. It’s a skill I never knew I had.

I wish I could say I had some sage advice for those men out there just now realizing the implications of the chart above, but I have difficulty retaining knowledge gained from experience, even that gained from near-death experiences. All I can say is that it’s not a game and the logic and progression cannot be discerned. Consider yourself warned.

When Ideas Strike Again

I admit that I’m a deliberate person. It’s both good and bad – good in the sense that I usually think things out and bad in the sense that I often over-think things. Whether or not something is a positive attribute is a matter of perspective, but nevertheless, it is likely a double-edge sword as are most things in life. I try to be self-aware, but habit is a comfortable chair with a nice warm blanket on a chilly day. It’s hard to resist.

Nowhere is my deliberateness more evident than in how I approach my story ideas. Oftentimes, an idea will strike and I’ll jot down the necessary details and walk away. I like for the idea to marinate a while to see if it has any merit. Occasionally, I’ll hastily write the first chapter just to see how the idea presents itself on paper (some ideas sound great in my head but flounder on the page), but for the most part, the idea sits in my notebook for a while, begging for attention like a pup that just wants a scratch on its head.

Besides the fact that it is my habit to be deliberate, I find this approach allows my mind to run around with the idea for a while. When it comes back to me, it often has new elements that make the idea even better. Sometimes, I let the idea sit so long that my mind will devise whole new concepts around the story while I’m not paying attention. Such is the case this past weekend.

A few years ago (yes, years), I came up with a story idea entitled My Father’s Daughter, which centers around a young woman who is estranged from her father because he left her mother for another woman years ago and subsequently had another daughter, her step-sister, whom she barely knows and dislikes from afar. Her father’s impending death as a result of a heart attack brings her back to him, if only for a few fleeting days, where she faces her inevitable loss and fiery resentment.

While this story has many intriguing elements, as do most family dramas, I hadn’t written anything more than a first chapter, which I posted here a couple of years ago. It simply died on the vine, or at least withered while it waited for me to consider it again. This weekend, while I was on a plane waiting to take off, the story suddenly came back to me, and it had changed. Whether the change is for the better, I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting.

Now the story is about a young woman who discovers that her father has a daughter by another woman who is not her mother in the wake of her mother’s death. This discovery starts a whole chain of events that unfold dramatically over the course of the novel as the woman comes to grips with the realization that her father is not who she thought he was. The story, told from the first-person perspective of the daughter (same as the original idea) explores the depths of the daughter’s relationship with her father and the family that surrounds them.

I find these new elements add more nuance to the story and make it more gripping in the sense that the daughter doesn’t know what is true in the beginning of the story. The revelation sends her reeling as she seeks to find out the truth and what it means to her. I think this approach has more appeal and promise as a novel. Of course, only time will tell if this is the route I take or if this story ever makes it onto the page as a full-blown novel.

I like having a lot of ideas in the hopper, and I certainly have plenty. Most will likely never make it past the concept phase, but when ideas strike, I put them in my notebook, and when they strike again, I add more notes and story angles to see which ones will ultimately win out. It seems my mind is always working on story ideas even though I’m not fully aware of it. It just takes something to trigger it, like sitting on an airplane waiting to take off.

One More Time

Nothing prepares you for parenthood. No matter how many books you read or how many parents you talk to, nothing really preps you for what is to come. It’s like being thrown into Lake Michigan in the early spring. Once you get over the initial shock of the icy, cold water, you either sink or swim for your life. The good news is that a lot of what it takes to be a parent comes naturally once you adjust to the fact that you’re responsible for another person’s life, one you happened to create, and the inevitable ups and downs come and go as your child rolls through the phases of childhood.

After having been a father for over 13 years, I’m convinced that the hardest part of being a parent isn’t the long, sleepless, stressful nights of the baby phase or the teetering-on-the-edge of danger toddler years, but the simple act of letting go. I believe this to be true not because it’s one dramatic moment that occurs when you drop your young adult off at college, but because letting go happens much sooner than we all would like to admit, and it happens gradually like the slow drip-drip of Chinese water torture.

Once a child reaches nine or ten years old, your ability to inculcate them with your values and your own voice begins a rapid decline. It is then that they start to form their own view of themselves and start the proverbial search for who they are. By the time they reach the teenage years, they are seemingly in full revolt often trying things that are a direct conflict to your own ideals. This is a natural and necessary phase that often doesn’t go well. My wife and I often say we have to pick our battles with the kids. That’s especially true with teenagers. I just hope we can abide by that maxim.

After all the fretful years of coaxing your kids from utter helplessness to independence, it’s disappointing that they push away just when they become more interesting. Everyone who has been through this tells me that they’ll come back around. In their early 20s. That’s a long time to wander in the desert of parenthood, but time seems to accelerate once you become a parent. I look back over the years since my kids were born, and I wonder how so much time has passed so quickly. One moment I’m holding my newborn daughter, and in the next, she’s a full-grown young woman who is almost as tall as me. What the hell?

To a parent, time is like an avalanche that throttles you down the mountain at hyper-speed. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but you can take your moments. Four years ago I took the kids on individual trips to somewhere they wanted to go. Just the two of us. My daughter wanted to go to California, so we went to L.A. and toured around. My son wanted to go to the desert to look for lizards, so I took him to Arizona. That one-on-one time and those moments together probably meant more to me than they did to them. They had fun for sure, but to spend that time with them, to appreciate them as individuals outside the spotlight of our broader family, that was something special.

Obviously, they are older now. They’d rather spend time texting their friends or playing games with them on Xbox or on their phones than spend any amount of forced time with their parents. Back when they were toddlers, I’d come home from work and they’d run to the door to greet me, hanging onto me like I was Gulliver on Lilliput. No matter how exhausted I was when I returned home from a long day of work, I’d immediately perk up when I saw those smiling faces at the door each night. Today is remarkably different. Forget smiles and giddy excitement. If they’re even around the door when I come home, I’m lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgement. Their noses are likely glued to the assortment of screens that they have. Most likely, they are ensconced in their rooms, doors shut, frittering away their time on homework or whatever strikes their fancy.

Despite the droll, mopey aura that has overtaken my once sweet, little kids, I’m not ready to let them sail off toward adulthood undisturbed. I accept the fact that I have to let go, and I will try to do it gracefully, but there are no promises. While they’d rather spend their summer vacation playing with their friends, I decided a while ago that I want to do the individual trips again. One more time.

In a few short years, they’ll be driving and will have summer jobs, and before that they’ll become so engaged with activities that any free time they have will be consumed by them. Then, there’s the matter of how uncool it is for teenagers to hang out with their parents (I was there once and I remember it well). Before that happens, I want another moment with them, so this summer we’ll head out to a destination of their own choosing. My daughter and I will head to Cedar Point because we discovered that we both love the thrill of roller coasters back on that California trip a few years ago. My son and I will head to New York City because he wants to see it for himself. It’ll be fun, one last hurrah before they scurry off and play with the cool kids.