Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Talk to Me

I know it sounds cliche, but it really is all about communication. This is what they tell us when we are about to marry. Without it, we have no way of expressing our needs and wants, nor can we know others needs and wants. I think that to some degree we all understand the importance of communication. It's vital to marital relationships, relationships at work, and between friends. Its so important we teach sign language to babies. We all know this. Why, oh why, then is it so hard? Despite our knowledge of its importance we still fail to do so - far more than we should. Married couples who were told that the most important thing in a relationship is communication still get divorced. Millions of dollars are spent on counselors whose job is really just a professional communicator.

Now lets think about this. There are professionals out there who have studied how we communicate with each other, and get paid money to either help us communicate with other people or they use communication to help us figure out emotional dysfunctions. People can go to college to study how we communicate. You can go to a university where a knowledgeable professor can teach you all about it. Why is this? Don't we all know how to communicate? We learn how to speak, how to read and write. Doesn't this mean we all know how to communicate? Well, first off I think we often confuse "communication" with "language". And like a lot of things, communication is a skill. The fact that we can go to schools specifically dedicated to teaching people how to hone this skill makes it pretty evident that not only is this something we can develop, but also that its incredibly complex. Emotions skew perceptions, words fail us, body language gets ignored. To demonstrate what I'm talking about, consider this conversation.

"Honey, you feeling okay?"

"(sigh) Yeah, I'm fine."

"Alright. Well, I'm going to go play some golf with the guys. Bye!"

Any couple will tell you that this scenario doesn't end well for either party. Now, I'm not writing this to tell the world what an awesome communicator I am. In fact, my wife will tell you that my skills could use some serious improving. We all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to talking to each other.

My son is pretty stoic and my wife is great at getting him to open up tell her stuff that under normal circumstances he wouldn't talk about. On the other hand my very energetic and emotional daughter responds better to me. There are times (more often than I'd like to admit) when she will be in tears about one thing or another. Often when this happens I will be called in to remedy the situation. After a few moments with me, my formerly inconsolably sad or angry daughter will be right as rain. I usually come out of her room to find my despondent wife. At this point I usually smugly tell her, "I'm magic". She doesn't like this. (I do it anyway)

I was having some one-on-one daddy-daughter time and I was thinking about this. I wanted to know if she was aware of this dynamic so I flat out asked her.

"Who is best at getting you to calm down when you're upset"

"You are."

"Really? Why do you think that is?"

"You know how to talk to me."

This phrase coming out of her struck me, and has been stuck in my head ever since. Her answer was profound to me. She was aware. Not only that, but she had stumbled on to something that I hadn't really thought about. She knows that when she's feeling upset I have a skill set that enables her to emotionally stabilize. Even though she can tell you what I'll do and say to calm her, she still needs me to do it. I know how to talk to her. Suddenly, my role as a parent became that much more important. I may not be great at communicating with most people. There are many skills I have yet to develop. I learned that knowing how to talk to one person doesn't mean that you're good at communicating with other people. That being said, I find it profoundly gratifying that there is at least one person that I really have learned to communicate with. There is at least one person whom I can provide for on an emotional level.

This moment made me consider this as well: do I have someone that knows how to talk to me? Do I know how to talk to my wife, my son? I became more acutely aware of communication as a skill - something you can learn and know. I realized why therapists find their careers so gratifying - they know how to talk to people (some of them at least). How much happier would we all be if we all had the skills to communicate with each other? Would the world be a better place if we all learned how to talk to each other?

Friday, April 19, 2013


In many ways we are alone. We get input from our sensory organs in the form of electricity which is interpreted by our brains. Even if I am in the exact same situation as someone else, experiencing the exact same thing, I have no way of knowing if the other's brain is interpreting that experience in the same way mine is. If I see a green apple and say to you, "look at that green apple", you would look at the same object and agree that indeed it is green, but you would have no way of knowing if what my brain is telling me is "green" is actually "green". It could be that what I have learned to call green actually appears in my brain as, what you would call, red, for example. For all of us, our entire existence is experienced through the filter of our individual brains and in this way we are all alone.

Think of it this way; imagine trying to communicate to some one who has been completely deaf their whole life what its like to hear. You could use sign language to explain how the ear uses specialized organs to pick up differences in atmospheric pressure which are then changed to an electrical impulse which is then "decoded" by the brain. You could teach this deaf person everything there is to know about sound and hearing. They could earn a PhD on the subject, yet they could never understand the actual experience of hearing. And so it is with parenting.

I clearly remember people trying to tell me what being a parent is like and in my hubris I believed that I actually understood. As soon as I became a parent it was clear that I had no idea. It was like a deaf person hearing for the first time. I have been thinking about this a bit lately. I see parents with their kids and all the various problems that they face individually, and I have to realize that though I know of what the various situations may be, I have no way of knowing what it is like to experience them. 

I'd like to introduce Carmen to you. Carmen is one of my son's best friends, and sadly has been battling a rare form of cancer. She's a tough little girl and I'm always amazed to see her smiling from ear to ear despite what she's going through (as the photo of her above suggests). Surgeries, chemo-therapy, weight loss, fevers, feeding tubes and living at a hospital have unfairly become part of this sweet little girl's norm. It's heartbreaking and, as someone with kids of my own, I feel for this family - I really do. But that is about as much as I can do. Sure we attend fundraisers and buy/donate what we can, but as much as we do that for them, I think in some misguided subconscious way we do it for ourselves even more; unintentionally believing that if we give enough perhaps through some cosmic, karmic way our kids might be spared the same ordeal - which, of course, is total bullshit. Supporting someone financially or otherwise is part of feeling for someone. So I feel for them, but I can't feel with them. This is the part that troubles me because I don't want to. I know what would have to take place for that to happen and I feel guilty for it.

My brother Jared's oldest child is autistic and although this child's life is not in immediate danger his situation poses life-long challenges. Jared's youngest suffers from severe Crohn's Disease which is life threatening and life-long as well. When I think of Jared and his wife's ordeals my reaction is the same as my feelings toward  Carmen and her family; I can sympathize, but cannot, nor do I want to, empathize. This creates guilt.

The guilt isn't because I don't want my kids to suffer. Don't think for a moment that I think good parenting requires an ill child. Kids not getting cancer is a good thing. No, my guilt comes from the fact that I'm not willing to experience the trauma in order to be a better friend or brother - so that they wouldn't have to be so alone. I'm like a deaf person refusing to hear with my friends because I fear it will be too loud. My solace is that we are alone in our heads. Though its nice to have someone around that has had similar experiences, I'm not convinced that its a prerequisite for being comforted, because what we experience is internal. It exists uniquely in our own brains. So I will continue feeling for people, not necessarily with them, because really, that's all any of us can do.

-Brother Brett

Friday, March 15, 2013


Van Gogh remains on of my all time favorite painters. I'm not the only one, too. Many art aficionados consider him, if not the greatest artist of all time, certainly one of the greatest painters that ever lived. He was able to see things differently, I think, which enabled him to produce such moving works. However miraculous his art is, his life was lonely and sad, and ultimately cut short. He was socially inept, which probably lead to his alcoholism. He was virtually an unknown in the art world. Never garnered any praise or even money from his art. He was at best mentally unstable and at worst insane. Eventually, he would commit suicide, alone and penniless.

What amazes me is the fact that he kept painting. No one at the time liked his work. Yet without any praise or compensation he kept on painting. He created over 2000 works of art in 10 years! Could you honestly say you'd do the same? Could you spend your life doing something even if you never got so much as a "good job" for doing it? And the tragedy is he would die never knowing the impact he made - not just in painting or art in general, but also on those who would recognize a little of the emotion that he poured out in those paintings. How could he have known that when he painted a simple pot of 15 sunflowers eventually someone would be willing to spend 40 million dollars for it?

Sometimes I feel like I understand Van Gogh at least in a very little way. As at-home dads we work with little to no reward. There certainly isn't any money involved. We generally don't get much recognition and when we do its usually in the form of backhanded compliments ("I could never do what you do!"). Now speaking for myself here, I don't really even care. I will admit that at the beginning it was rough. As men we're conditioned to want to provide and our success is measured by money and/or status. So when I began this whole "dad thing" getting used to the idea that my success could not measured in these metrics was hard. I understand Van Gogh now. He didn't paint for the reward it would garner. Painting was the reward. My kids are my Sunflowers. I'm still in the process of "painting" them and it'll be a few years before this "series" is finished. I won't get any money from this. My social status is if anything lower than it used to be and that's okay. I do it because I believe in it; because I know I am doing what I need to do, for my kids and for myself.

One of the compelling things about Van Gogh's sunflowers is that they are all unique. Each flower has blemishes and flaws. They are not uniform and they are in varying states of health. Van Gogh saw their beauty despite all this, and maybe because of this painted each with the same care as the others. My job is the same - to care for each of my children as individuals to bring out their best in spite of any flaws. In years to come no one (I hope) is going to pay 40 million dollars for my "Sunflowers". My reward will be when others will recognize in them the same beauty I see in them today.

-Brother Brett

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Everyone Hates Raymond

 Dads are incompetent. Its a fact. I mean, you don't actually think they can parent as well as a mother can, do you? There is loads of evidence that suggests that fathers are at best curmudgeons and at worst imbecilic buffoons. Lets look at this evidence... and by evidence, I mean TV.

My 6 year old daughter has taken to watching reruns of the TV classic Leave it to Beaver. I couldn't help notice the plot of many of the episodes have to do with the well meaning dad (Ward) bungling up some situation. Well, that was the late 50's / early 60's. Surely the media's perception of fathers has evolved since then. Sadly, I feel its gotten worse.

Lets look at some TV dads. Well, there are the dads from the world of popular TV animation: Fred Flintstone (The Flintstones), Homer Simpson (The Simpsons), Peter Griffin (Family Guy). Now what characteristics do these guys have in common? Incompetent? Check. Lazy? Check. Slobs? Check. Leave the parenting up to the wives? Check. See, I told ya. This proves it. Dads are morons.

Those are all cartoons, you say? Well, okay then. Lets look at some other popular TV shows with dads. All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Everyone Loves Raymond, Married... With Children, Modern Family, Family Ties, the list goes on. In fact, almost every american sitcom family is headed by a well intention-ed, but seemingly, witless father.

 Well, those are all comedies. They're there because its funny - right? Well lets look at some popular dramas with dads - like, perhaps, The Sopranos? Well he's a murdering mob boss. I know! What about Don Draper from Mad Men - you know, the alcoholic guy that's absent from his family and cheats on his wife. There's Breaking Bad. A show about a father who loves his family so much that he's willing to become a drug dealer in order to insure his families financial well being. Perhaps Dexter, the title character of which is a psychopath who's father instructed him the it was okay to kill other people as long as they were bad, instead of getting him psychiatric help. Heck, even look at reality shows. American Chopper, Jon and Kate Plus 8 anyone? Shall I go on?

Its no wonder that we men aren't trusted to be alone in the same room as our kids. Look at what TV has taught us about the competency of fathers. Now, I'm not saying that these shows are bad, or that you shouldn't watch them. Oafs make people laugh and men making bad decisions can make for compelling drama. I get it. I just find it a shame that this stereotype exists and that it is so pervasively reinforced by the media. Or is it that the stereotype exists because of the media and people in general reinforce it. Regardless, I have made it a goal of mine that if anyone were actually to film my family life it would be the most unfunny, undramatic show in the history of TV.