Once Upon a Time Again

Neither of my parents finished the tenth grade. Both of them grew up in rural North Georgia in the U.S. where back-breaking hard work was more valued than education. Both of their families viewed education as an impediment to valuable work that could be done instead, so my parents meandered through the school system barely making it until they could quit, and they did.

Today, such an action would be viewed as a tragedy, a failure of the system, but back then, it was regarded as de rigueur, especially in the South, which has always lagged behind other areas in the U.S. by most measures of socioeconomic success. Nevertheless, no one batted an eye when my mom stayed home to help her mother tend to her unreasonably large brood and my dad started a low-paying job that required no skills beyond youthful energy and strength. Neither of them thought much of the consequences that would await them in the future. Very few people around them thought long-term. When you’re struggling to make it day-by-day, the future is a fantasy best left to movies.

By the time I arrived on the scene, my dad had managed to land a decent job. It was still a hard-labor job on the assembly line at a Ford plant, but for someone with no discernible skills even in the 1970s U.S. economy, it was a godsend. My parents finally had some sense of stability, enough for them to consider having kids. For most people in that era, a steady, good-paying job with health benefits almost ensured that they’d join the middle class and enjoy all of the accouterments that come with that status, but as any economic student knows, the auto industry in the 1970s was anything but stable.

Long before I understood macroeconomics, disruption, or geopolitics, I experienced it first hand in the late 1970s. Of course, I was too young to understand it then. I only have the memories of how my parents endured the brunt of it, as is usually the case for those near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, but those memories were traumatic enough to give me something akin to PTSD. You can imagine how the current economic upheaval has me circling the wagons in my brain.

In 1979, my dad was laid off as a result of the economic disruption caused by the oil embargo and the subsequent failure of the lumbering auto giants to adapt to the emergence of new, innovative players in the market. What followed for us was four years of absolute hell as dad bounced between unemployment and low-paying, menial jobs trying to sustain our family. With nothing to fall back on like savings or marketable skills, he was ill-prepared for such a challenge and primarily relied on luck or happenstance to make it, and his luck was almost always bad.

As a young kid, watching your parents crumble in the face of adversity is one of the hardest and most gut-wrenching things to ever see. I’m glad my brothers were too young to witness it. Today, they probably don’t understand why I am terminally pragmatic and detached, but that point in our lives seared the core of who I am today. Everything about me points back to that period in my life. Even as young as I was then, I swore to myself that I’d never let myself fall victim to circumstances like that, and in times of stress, I revisit that promise like a cornered, feral dog.

Fast forward to today where we are experiencing probably the greatest economic disruption in almost 100 years. Unlike my parents, my wife and I are more prepared, and both of us have valuable skills that are marketable should either or both of us find ourselves without a job, but the thought of going through such a disruption at my age puts me on edge. Say what you want about legal protections, but companies do not value middle-aged or older people. I wake up with risk scenarios running through my brain. I worry about the kids. I know they’re beyond the impressionable preteen years, but I don’t want to leave them with scars that they’ll carry around for the rest of their lives because I know what that’s like.

Uninspired

It’s been difficult to write much of late. I’ve mostly stared at blank pages on my laptop wondering what to write next. I’ve dibbled and dabbled with scenes, blog posts, and general musings with very little to show for it. I have a list of ideas that I keep, but nothing gets me fired up or excited. In the moments when I’m not stressing over work or contingency plans, I find I’d rather sleep than spend time writing. This past weekend, I took more naps than I normally do. The dreary weather on Sunday didn’t help.

My general mood calls my dad to mind. It will soon be five years since he passed. His picture hangs on my office wall, so I look at him every morning, frozen in a serious pose just before the cancer crippled him. I wonder what he’d think about what’s happening now. I wonder what he’d say. Would we still talk about baseball as we’d normally do at this time of year or would we muse about the chaotic state of things instead? Like most people alive today, I doubt he’d have any experience to draw on. He was 15 during the 1957 epidemic, but it was nothing on the scale of what we are seeing today.

Had Dad survived pancreatic cancer, he would have turned 78 this year, which would have put him right in the demographic with the most at risk in the face of the Coronavirus, but one thing Dad was good at was self-isolation. He practically spent his entire adult life in isolation. He retired from his job in 1999 and rarely left the house until he passed in 2015. My brothers and I managed to get him out of the house on a few occasions (e.g. weddings, births, etc.), but for the most part, he holed up in his house like some entrenched war veteran who still thought some imaginary war was raging.

In many ways, it was a war. Thinking back over the years, I can clearly see it. Dad suffered from a life-long battle with depression. Men in his generation didn’t cop to feelings or vulnerabilities. Instead, they found other ways to cope. Dad’s coping involved sleeping pills or pain killers. For most of my childhood, Dad hid away in his bedroom sleeping away his worries. When things got scary, he disappeared.

When my brothers and I recall moments in our collective childhood, we often talk about Dad and his endless naps. He routinely took the first two weeks of July off work every year, but we never went anywhere on vacation. Instead, Dad spent most of that time napping. Our mom would shoo us outside so we wouldn’t wake him, and since he slept so much, we practically lived in the woods behind our house.

That was how Dad dealt with things. I wish I had had the courage to ask him why, to get a better understanding of him, but I never did. It’s hard to question those we love without feeling like we’re betraying them. The reality is that we often don’t understand ourselves very well, or at least, we can’t articulate it in a logical way, so it’s doubtful any questions I had would have been answered in a satisfying way. I’m just left to speculate and wonder if he’d react any differently to the current events than he did to anything else in my lifetime with him. Probably not, and that’s okay because I still love and miss him everyday.

 

Strange Times

The way things are going nowadays have me thinking about the apocalyptic themes that ran through movies like A Quiet Place or Birdbox or books like Station Eleven. Of course, I’m being melodramatic, but the world is in a weird place right now. The rapid spread of the Coronavirus has everyone worried and many people panicking. I’m sure the doomsday preppers are laughing in their bunkers right now as they try to chew through the 30-year-old MRE they just opened. Too bad they’ll eventually have to come back to the real world. We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but things may be very different going forward.

Let’s be honest, most of us underestimated the severity of this virus. I certainly did. While it appears that about 80 percent of the cases are mild and similar to the regular flu, the remaining cases can be severe and deadly. Those remaining cases can easily overwhelm the healthcare system leaving doctors and nurses in the unenviable position of choosing who lives and dies because there aren’t enough ventilators or other equipment to save everyone. I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that scenario.

The hardest thing for those of us who want to do the right thing is parsing through all of the information and misinformation that comes our way. In any chaotic scenario, rumors and false conclusions spread like wildfire. It doesn’t help that social media channels are chock full of total bullshit, but before I sound like some old person and bemoan the effects of social media today, I have to remind myself that the same thing happened at every point in history during a crisis. It’s just exponentially amplified now with social media. The good news is that you can eventually get to facts nowadays given the generally free flow of information. Back when I was a kid, many adults around me couldn’t get to facts or didn’t bother with them because it was too hard to get them, so the ill-informed stayed that way.

I don’t doubt that there are harder times ahead for all of us in the short-term, but I do believe that the inimitable human spirit will prevail, that we’ll come out on the other side of this challenge like we have every other great challenge in the course of human history. Adaptation is the prevailing force of evolution, and we will adapt. Let’s remain calm and power through these strange times.

 

A Walk Through the Garden

Hope is

A ripple of fresh earth,

An eye of green.

Sunlight beckons

The eye becomes a yarn.

A sturdy stalk,

Thrusting toward the light.

Rain satiates,

And nourishes,

Until a bud becomes a bloom.

 

The pistil dances above the petals,

Firm and fibrous,

An extravagance of youth.

Warm breezes beget a searing stillness,

The firm wilts,

The fibrous softens.

The ellipsis of decay

Sends one petal afloat,

And then another,

Until only the withered stalk remains.

 

Love and the Things We Miss

I fell instantly and hopelessly in love with my kids when they were born. That moment when I held each of them right after birth still brings me to tears occasionally (yes, I’ve become a sentimental, old man). There’s so much love and hope in that moment that it is simply overwhelming. I had never truly understood how my parents felt about me until I had my own kids. Then, I knew. The love you feel for your kids is a natural force that rivals gravity in its certainty.

While I think the single greatest thing parents can do for their kids is to show them that they are loved no matter what, that love is also blind. We like to think of our kids as better versions of ourselves, but this hope makes us blind to the reality of what it means to be human. Blind to the struggle that is inevitable in life even for the happiest and most well-balanced among us. Blind to the challenges that await them as they try to figure things out. Inherently, I know this. But knowledge and practice often repel each other.

In Train’s melancholy song “Blind”, the chorus pivots on the line “I don’t mind being blind, if you don’t mind doing time.” The song is about how love can lead you to ignore the obvious despite the repercussions. That’s how I feel about parenting. I’m so caught up in helping my kids be the best version of themselves that I’m blind to the struggles that exist right in front of me. I’m not choosing to ignore them, but I’m certainly sweeping those dust bunnies into a corner so that I can say the floor is essentially clean.

Teenagers are hard-wired to escape the orbit of their parents, to become the center of their own universe. They take a few tentative steps away until it becomes a full-fledged dash. They close you off behind that figurative and literal door. You search for small clues that help you understand them. You ask questions that they don’t want to answer or they answer in some rote, robotic way that seems innocuous and banal. The clues are there if you choose to see them, but sometimes, the most difficult thing to see is right in front of you.

More experienced parents will tell you that they’ll come back around one day. That it will all work out if you’re patient. That may be true, but the journey through the parental equivalent of Siberia seems impossible sometimes, and you wonder if you will come out on the other side intact as a family. It’s like any moment in your life where you experience stress; you wonder if it will ever be the same again. It won’t, but it won’t be like this either. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Parents are hard-coded to worry about their children. My dad once told me the worry never goes away even when your kids are grown and have families of their own. That sounds like some sort of life sentence if you ask me, but it’s one I’m willing to bear because I love these two more than they’ll ever know.