Comfort/Not Comfort

The things we fear will come to pass.

The thing I fear most, is, of course, losing my beautiful children.  May they live long and beautiful lives.  But I will lose them.  My most profound hope is that my children grow up and away – that they grow adventurous and curious about the world around them, and then step out into it.  It is a dark world they’ll venture into.  It is also a world filled with kind hearts and warm light.

I am like Oliver.  I hate change.  My natural impulse is to seek the comfort of familiar things around me.  Oliver has a coat that is so heinously disgustingly stained and frayed and holey that I don’t let him wear it to school.  Anyone who knew me when I was a sophomore in high school would be able to report that I have absolutely no business telling any of my children what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear to school.  But this coat.  For real.  It’s super gross.  Filthy.  

Still, he loves it.  He loves it so much.  It’s like a warm blanket of comfort that wraps him in a familiar hug when he puts it on.  I would never throw that out, but still, I make him not wear it to school.  I do this mostly for the same reason I would not let him go to school with snot running down his face.  It’s just gross.  But a part of me does it also because I want him to learn how to move away from comfort.  I want him to learn how to change gears and pivot to something else.  I don’t know if I can teach him the value of setting comfort aside, but I can require him to wear a different coat to school.  It took a few days, but he gravitated to a different coat, one which is much cleaner, but also one that brings him comfort.  Not the same comfort, but a kind of tolerable comfort.

When my parents lost me, I allowed the part of me that fights comfort to win over.  It was a battle then, and in some ways, it has been since leaving home to become an exchange student when I was 17.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was it for my childhood.  There wasn’t a home to go home to, life didn’t pick up where it left off as I had been expecting.  My parents rented their house out and left for a year abroad a few weeks after I got back.  A few months later I was in college.  I had given up any extra time with the comfort zones of being a kid. 

I have always done this.  I have always battled my internal desire – the true character of the flame that is my heart – to grasp onto comfort.  It’s not something I talk about very much, but it’s a very defining characteristic of what makes me, me.  I’m not sure if everyone experiences this internal battle or not, but I think it’s a common enough human experience to set aside something safe for something that promises adventure, growth, greater reward.  It’s why entrepreneurs take great financial leaps.  It’s why writers publish writing.  It’s why we travel and why we struggle to speak broken French in foreign places.  

It’s why, when I was 17, on exchange in Indonesia, I found myself sitting alongside two fellow teenager exchange students from Germany and Belgium on the worlds smallest commercial flight over the jungle of Borneo.  There were other passengers, I suppose, but the plane maxxed out at a dozen or so, tops.  That plane ride was memorable.  I distinctly remember leaving my stomach perched precariously in the sky behind us at various and sundry altitudes.

On the ground, we staggered into the little hanger, where we collected ourselves.  There was a plan.  Greg, the Belgian, was our de facto leader, as he was the oldest.  Kjell, from Germany, was our junior teammate.  I was somewhere in the middle.  We found and reclaimed our equilibrium and were disembarking when an old man who had apparently been on the flight caught our attention and did the thing that is customary in Indonesia – he asked us where we were going.   This translates the same as ‘how are you?’ in English.  You can either answer truthfully, or just politely say, ‘we’re going places’ the way you might say, ‘I’m fine,’ in the US.  I never once saw Greg do anything other than answer truthfully, and engage.  This drove me crazy.  His excessive friendliness with every Indonesian we met inflamed my anxieties about not knowing things like where we were going to sleep that night.   But it was also endearing – even my 17 year old self could see that.  He was a people person, and loved the innate friendliness of the vast majority of Indonsians.  

Having just reconnected with my innards after the flight, I wasn’t in a place to protest.  “Oh,” said the old man, “you’re going to Derawan islands.”  Yes, we nod and smile.  “Well,” he says, “I’m going there too.  You should stay at my house.”

This might seem a little forward, but was also super common.  Sure, we said, that sounds nice, knowing that this man was probably not going the same way as we were, that he, too, was just being polite.  Eventually we made our way from the airport to the little river-side village.  I don’t remember how we got there – probably a taxi.  In any case, by the afternoon, I distinctly remember walking on the side of the road, my inner comfort-seeking meter going crazy because we still hadn’t figured out where to stay that night.  

There was a plan.  The plan was to get on a boat in the morning.  This boat would take us a few hours down river to the coast of Borneo.  East Kalimantan.  From there, we would hire some local fishermen to take us out to the Derawan islands, at which point there would, no doubt, be some adventures.  We had snorkeling gear.  

But where to stay the night?  Greg was upbeat, sure something would come along.  I was sick with worry.  Kjell was solid.  I was a year or two younger than Greg, and Kjell was a year or two younger than me.  Even so, that German didn’t seem perturbable.  My desire for comfort and safety always lost, two to one.  

Just then a jeep full of guys pull up.  “Hey white dudes (my translation),” they say, “where are you going?”  Remember, that just means hi.  Unless you’re Greg.  “We’re looking for a place to stay for the night,” he says, jovially.  “No problem,” says the guy in English, then he switches back to Indonesian.  “Come stay at my house.”

No, no, no.  This is not right.  Greg is accepting and Kjell is smiling.  They’re loading into the jeep.  I can either follow them or be left alone in a strange town in a strange village at the edge of the jungle in Borneo.  I follow. 

This is the same year a dozen international workers were taken hostage by separatists in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea. It was all over the news in Jakarta. The government didn’t miss a chance to point out how horrible the separatist rebels were.  The hostages were held for months.  Later, the Indonesian army would “rescue” them.  Two were hacked to pieces by rebels, nine were rescued.  The twelfth was the baby one of the Dutch women was seven months pregnant with.  (Imagine spending your second trimester as a hostage in the jungles of Irian Jaya…)  At the time of our trip, there was no resolution, they were still hostages.  And while Borneo is definitely distinct from Irian Jaya, I was pretty sure we were about to become hostages.  The guy took us to get some street food, then we went back to his cousin’s house.  We sat around and made small talk.  

Then the guy smiles and points to a wire running up the wall and outside.  “Satellite,” he says.  “I take it from my neighbor.”  A little TV is flipped on and a little box is fussed over.  On the TV a movie pops into focus.  It’s Caddyshack.  We’re in a stranger’s house, in a tiny village on the edge of the jungle in Borneo watching Bill Murray blow up a golf course on pirated satellite.  This would not be the most surreal part of the journey.  

Night falls.  We’re shown to a room, that by US standards would be pretty rough, but by Indonesian standards isn’t that weird.  There’s one big mattress on the floor, and it’s for all three of us.  Again, this is perfectly normal.  I once shared a mattress with five or six host cousins.  You grab yourself a little piece of the mattress for your head and that’s about it.  We did.  We slept.  When you sleep this way, you wake up stiff.  There’s no way around it.  But we woke up.  We weren’t killed in the night.  The guy welcomed us to the morning with a big smile, then drove us to the boat.  

Marveling that we weren’t the latest CNN headline, I gratefully took a chair on the top deck of the boat that would take us down river.  There weren’t many other travelers and my memory of this trip was that it was blissfully uneventful.  Red water underneath.  Jungle palms and greenery passed by lazily in the tropical sun.  

Not long into our trip, a voice said, “hello.  Where are you going?”  It was the old man.  Even though we had told him we were going to Derawan islands the day before, he asked again, and we told him again.  “Ah, yes, yes,” he said.  “Derawan,” he said.  “I am going there too.  You should stay at my house.”  

As we were all on the boat headed to the coast, we were less able to dismiss the offer, but we still assumed this was politeness.  “Yes, sure,” we said.  “That’s nice.  Thank you.”  It was the kind of thing that happened.  Indonesians were always making offers and saying yes when they really meant ‘no thank you.’  It was a part of the culture I never did fully get used to.  But even I could tell it was a time for politeness, not making overnight arrangements.  

The boat took us lazily to the coast.  The weather changed.  The ocean breeze felt amazing after the jungle heat.  It was still hot, but the breeze lifted all our spirits.  The old man helped us find a fisherman to take boats out to the main island of the Derawan group.   We split the ride with him, two to a boat.  He said, “I’m going there too, you should stay at my house.”

When we got to the island, the old man said again, “Here, follow me, you should stay at my house.”  So we did.  He didn’t really seem like a stranger at this point.  He took us into the little fishing village on the island, and sure enough, he had a pretty nice house with an extra bedroom that we would end up spending the rest of our trip in.  He was an incredible host, and was something of a head honcho in the village.  

He was actually building an addition to his house that he planned to rent out to tourists.  The other side of the island hosted a very high end resort, the kind of resort that you only get to find out about if you frequent restaurants that don’t have prices on the menus.  The typical way tourists got to this island was to fly into a different coastal city and be transported on giant speed boats with multiple outboard engines.  

As I said, the old man was an incredible host.  He fed us and housed us with a warm and genuine smile.  With giggles and laughter, his daughters and nieces woke us in the early morning to the sounds of karaoke – exclusively sad love ballads.  He commandeered his son to take us around the islands in a little fishing boat.  His son was a quiet and incredible tour guide.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but seemed pleased and content with our meager Indonesian.   

It was amazing.  In every way possible.  We swam with manta rays.  We watched the sun go down over the unfamiliar ocean.  We reeked of sunburn, salt and sand.  Our lives were so very very far away.  Nothing made sense for those couple of days.  One night we slept under the stars on the hull of the boat parked at an island where the four inhabitants’ job was to collect turtle eggs.  

When we pulled up to the island, we were surprised to see a cadre of guys walking around the beach past us carrying very large rifles.  Most were shirtless and all were wearing camo fatigues.  Our guide hopped off the boat and went ashore.  He chatted with them for a minute or two before the lead guy in fatigues smiled and waved at us.  We waved stupidly back.  

Needless to say, the sight of this group passing by was alarming and when our guide got back to the boat we looked to him for answers.  He looked out at the guys on the beach, who were headed around to the little hut where the turtle egg collectors lived.  Then he looked back at us and said the only word of English we would hear him speak during our entire trip:  “Pirates.”  

He didn’t laugh about it.  He wasn’t pulling our leg.  He wasn’t being dramatic.  He said it for informational purposes only.  “What?!” was our united response.  “Yes,” he said, “they are here to steal turtle eggs.  They are in the army.”  Okay, part-time army, part-time pirates.  We watched them go up to the house.  Then we watched them leave clutching large bags and continue around the island in the other direction.   

I couldn’t take it.  The part of me that screams for comfort, that begs for the familiar, the part of me that understands what Oliver feels when he sneaks his disgusting coat to school, that part of me took over.  No more going with the flow.  No more.  No more.  I got down off the boat and waded to the shore.  My companions followed at first, but I stalked off around the beach the other direction.  I wouldn’t be able to stay at this island if the pirates were camped out on the other side of the island.  I had to figure out if they were leaving after they had gotten their booty.  If they were staying, we were leaving.  There would be no vote.

I didn’t think it through.  I simply didn’t think.  I just walked in the other direction.  Walking leisurely, you could circumnavigate this island in five minutes.  Two and half minutes later I found myself walking around a bend and right into the group of pirates.  Nowhere to go.  No sneaking around in the vegetation, just oops, right up to them.  The lead pirate walks up to me, gun on shoulder.  “Hi,” he says, “where are you from?”  This is the same greeting I’ve met a thousand thousand times.  It’s the second most common greeting in Indonesia.  “Jakarta,” I say.  “Oh,” he says, “you speak Indonesian?” “Yes,” I say, “a little.”  His gun glints in the afternoon sunlight.  It’s hard not to just stare at it.  The fellow doesn’t seem to notice.  He’s smiling expectantly.  “I’m living in Jakarta,” I say, “but I’m from America.”  These seem to be magic words.  “Aaahh,” he says brightly and knowingly.  He leans on the hard ‘K’ sound and rolls the ‘R’ like he’s never said the letter before, “Amerrrika.”  I nod and smile.  He tries on his best English.  “New York,” he says.  “Yes, I say, that’s right, New York.”  All Americans come from either New York or Los Angeles.  Behind me, one of his lieutenants shoots a sea bird.  My conversation partner doesn’t seem to notice.  “Where are you going?” I say.  This is me being polite, but I really, really want to know.  “Ooh,” he says with a polite dismissal, “just here and there.”  “By boat?” I manage.  Also well within the realm of politeness to ask about mode of transport.  “Eiyah,” he says, “by boat.”  An awkward silent  moment passes between us.  Then he smiles and says goodbye.  Then he and his crew pile into a little boat that takes them out to a bigger boat.  Then the bigger boat pulls away.  I watch it until I can’t see it any longer.  I am relieved in a way I can’t remember ever having been before or since.

I walk back around the island the way I came.  Greg and Kjell run up to me when they see me and hug me and they are pale and look like they might throw up.  When they heard the shot, they imagined me on the receiving end of it.  They were in the throes of horrible imaginings when I walked up safe and sound.  I told them about the bird, and about the men leaving.  We could stay at the island after all.

In fact, it turned out that the reason we weren’t robbed or worse was that our guide was the son of the old man who was friends with the commanding officer of the pirates.  They recognized him immediately, and we were never in any danger.  That old man.

The rest of that night was all kinds of incredible.  We built a large fire on the beach.  We visited the super nice guys in the house who are apparently used to being robbed of their livelihood.  We saw an actual wild komodo dragon visiting the trash pile behind the house.  That night we quietly watched turtle mamas climb out of the sea and deposit their eggs in the sand.  We looked to the stars and imagined the same stars above our homes and families a million miles away.  We rolled up t-shirts for pillows and slept on the gently rocking boat.

I don’t hope my son has occasion to run into actual pirates.  But I do hope he finds adventure, and a little bit of good trouble.  I hope he has occasion to look at the stars and marvel how the same stars that rise above the places he calls home rise over strange and beautiful foreign lands.  Most importantly, I hope he meets light filled people – there are so many more out there than we can know.  I hope he becomes one of them.  

I hope that when I lose him, finally, it’s because he’s out there finding himself.

My fellow travelers Greg (in back) & Kjell (in front).
Turtle tracks.
Shy komodo.
This was our guide around Derawan. He was an exceptional human.
We spent many long hours on the open ocean on this little craft. It was magical.

Found in Translation

I’m a lover of poetry and work hard to include it in my life. The algorithms over at Evil Corp know this about me. When my insta account makes suggestions for me, alongside clips of old Friends episodes and, randomly, snippets of Family Guy – which I’ve never watched before – I am inundated by many various and beautiful pages dedicated to poetry. It almost makes me dislike our evil techno-overlords just a little less. Most of these pages are variants of Mary Oliveresque poetry. My favorite, by far, which I have actually started actively following and interacting with is an account called, ‘Mary Oliver’s Drunk Cousin.’ Here’s a selection from that account:

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This

When I go to sleep at night
I count all of the Nicholas Cage movies
I can name by heart
I count the ideal number of
Chocolate chips in a cookie (9)

I count the times I said no;
Prioritizing my boundaries over politeness
And the times I said yes;
Prioritizing hope over the unknown
I count the number of freckles on your shoulder
And all the days since I first started counting them
I count every time I laughed
And then, as a bonus, I add in the times
I made my own self laugh

I tally up all of my wins
So I can beat the
Part of my brain that holds
The sum of my losses
At its own game

~Lyndsay Rush

I love the combinations of beauty and irreverence in this person’s poems and selections. There’s something humanizing about that tonal mixture.

In this time, in this season, I think it’s incredibly important to find these moments of poetry. I’ve linked to before, and I’ll do it again here, just as an aside. If you ever feel out of touch with what’s good in the world, Maria Popova will lead you back to the safe harbor of poetic history and the aesthetic mind.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about found poetry – little snippets of beauty written in the ways we write now. I have started thinking about my Wordle attempts as little haiku-like poems. The novelty of winning has given way to attempts to build the most interesting sets of five-letter words. I love the way my imagination, vocabulary, and the rules of the game come together to create these little poems. Here’s a recent one:


By far, my most favorite found poetry comes from an old friend, who happens to be Japanese. I follow her on Instagram, and she writes her posts in Japanese script, which, even in the digital form, I find to be as beautiful as it is unfamiliar to me. Like the rest of us, she has a tendency to post about the same three things – kids, food, and her personal hobby, which is a kind of body-building that I’m not familiar with.

Sometimes I can tell that she’s posting about something beyond just what’s happening in a day. I use the “translate” feature and have Instagram remake her posts in English. It’s always remarkable. Her translated writing hovers just beyond the horizon of understanding, but lands squarely in the continent of meaning. This is the province of poetry. Here’s a recent selection (line spacing is by me):

My son is in first grade and is using surface.
His homework is drop to the cloud
And make a power pole with the sound function.
We, the Showa generation,
Are thrown away by the rocks when we feel crisis.

I love how my friend’s heartfelt tone comes through in the translations. These are messages about the challenges and triumphs of mid-life: of being a mother, a wife, of wrestling with the gifts and restraints of growing up with a particular kind of heritage. They are humane and intimate. I sometimes wish I could participate in the original meaning. It’s kind of like looking at Plato’s shadows projected on the cave wall, or maybe it’s more like looking through a vaseline smeared camera lens. The true meaning of her words is softened, beautifully distorted. Here’s another:

Say no to can’t.
As a parent, you never want to be raised that failure is not acceptable.
Hoping but not expecting,
That’s the way to raise them.
I’ve been doing a lot of terrible things that I can’t even write on Instagram,
Not just martial arts.
I really just can’t say.
I walk naked all over the city is the first word.
Ever found out you’re trying to lie to a guy you like and make him fall.
It also caused a massive damage to the company.
(I can’t say this is about level 1 so I still have level 100 lol)
But I’m alive.
I regret nothing of it.
That’s why everyone should do it more.
Trying is challenging,
So I believe it’s justice even if I don’t break my tongue.
Aftermath ↓
Today I had a model interview for my son’s internal development.
I was not a cute kid who was fine and dignified because of gymnastics,
but my son is a man who doesn’t care about the world or anything.
What do you want to be when you become a middle school student?
“Are you shopping?”
Do you want to study hard?
I don’t think I’ll be able to do my best because I’m so tired of a son
Who can say this is amazing lol
I didn’t even think I said, “You’re amazing.”
As expected, I was told that I’d do better with my duties,
But I’m not feeling well in Shitomachi today,”
And my mother was depressed.
Everybody is different,
Can’t even say it

It’s time to talk about Station 11 – book or TV series. They are both lyrically beautiful epic poems dedicated to the part of us that reaches – grasping – for some kind of knowing what the heck it means to be alive. In these stories, the phrase, scrawled on a car, turned wagon, transporting a caravan of post-apocalyptic actors and musicians: ‘survival is insufficient.’

Things don’t have to be apocalyptic to need these moments. I am so grateful for these little quanta of meaning. They battle, like small slivers of light, kicking and slashing through the dense obfuscations of our drives to work, social media rabbit holes, in-law relationships, red-tape navigations, robocall deceptions, weekend working sessions, crowded Costco checkout lanes, hot water heater malfunctions, after school transportation schedules, popcorn in the couch excavations, identity thefts, construction season stops, and on and on. There has to be balance. We cannot exist merely to pay bills. Survival is insufficient.

Mixed Fractions

My youngest is sitting at the table, weeping.  He’s shaking with what I imagine is frustration, overwhelm, with a side of anguish.  His body convulses slightly.  Big silky tears are smudging a math worksheet dense with pencil lines, eraser scuffings, and mixed fractions. 

To be fair, multiplying mixed fractions is a super pain in the ass.  First, you have to convert the mixed fraction to an improper fraction, like this:  2 1/2  X 7 2/5 = 5/2 X 37/5.  Then you have to multiply across both the numerator and denominator.  5/2 X 37/5  = 185/10.  Then you have to convert it back into a mixed fraction 185/10 = 18 5/10, then you have to reduce, if possible – 18 5/10 = 18 ½.  It’s a long, grueling process if you’re new to fractions.  I might have given a class of fifth graders four or five problems for homework, but he’s looking at twelve.  Hence the anguish and overwhelm.

And, of course, the day is compressed.  I have promised we’d watch a particular movie this week and the only time we have available is this evening.  My youngest almost never has homework.  It is a problem of unlikely convergences.  My oldest needed driving to play practice in Whitefish, and well, this is how these things happen.  Now we’re crunched for time if we’re going to get homework, dinner, and a movie all packed into the evening before a reasonable bedtime.  

I’m trying to reason with him.  “Just start,” I say.  He knows how.  We’ve demonstrated that he knows how.  He’s just not.  In my mind I’m imagining every job I’ve ever had which features an endless line of unpleasant work that just has to be mustered through.  The driveway which feels like it’s the size of a football field, but never-the-less has to be cleared of snow one shovelful at a time.  The edge tiles that must each be cut and laid one at a time.  The endless lines of drip-irrigation that must be unrolled one at a time, each dripper hole punched, each hole filled with a dripper.  This is an important moment for him.  Slogging through work that is doable, but seems insurmountably endless is one of the features of life. 

“I caaaaan’t,” he wails.  “You can,” I reply robustly.  “You’ve got this.”  “They’re so long, and there’s too many of them!”  He replies.  “OK,” I say, “I’ll send your teacher an email and say you just weren’t able to do the problems.  But we’re not watching that movie tonight if you don’t do this work.”  “Nooooo!” He cries, “I don’t want thaaat!” 

What does he want?  Aside from not having to do the work.  It’s made clear to him that he must do the work.  He has all the tools.  He’s capable.  “If you had started working diligently, you’d be done by now,” I point out, which has to be the least helpful thing to say ever.  “Here, let me help you . . .”  But he pushes me away.  “Nooo!  Dad!  Go away!” he screams.  He doesn’t want my help.  But he wants my help.  “But kiddo . . .” I try again.  “GO AWAY!” he stamps his feet and bangs the table as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.

Yelling at me like this provokes the kind of incredulous anger I always regret losing control of later.  “Listen to me, young man,” I say with my seething teeth clenched.  “You will not speak to your father this way.”  Fuck me, I’m speaking in the third person.  At least I have learned enough by now to walk away for a moment.

I look back and am defeated.  My beautiful child is hunched at the table, sobbing.  I sit down next to him.  I take a deep breath.  “Kiddo,” I say, summoning all the cruel times in my own life I’ve ever had to do something repetitive and awful for the sake of just getting it done.  “Don’t look at how far away the mountain is.  Just put your head down and take one step at a time.”  This is my version of the Taoist chestnut, ‘The journey of ten thousand steps begins with the first one.’

Through tears, his voice choking and hiccuping, he says, “Dad – you’re the mountain.

Oof.  A vice clamps on my heart and now I’m ten.  I’m at my grandparent’s house.  I’m hiding from my grandfather because, well, he just seems scary.  I don’t remember any specific incident, but I’ve polled my cousins, and they all concur that when we were young, he definitely radiated an ‘I’m in charge, better not cross me’ vibe.  By the time I came to be a young adult, he was one of my most trusted confidants, a wealth of advice and wisdom, and also kindness and gentleness.  I don’t know if he changed or if I changed.  It’s a great mystery of my childhood.  

Trapped in my memory are also night-before-due evenings when my own father would review my highschool English Lit essays.  I remember struggling with wanting to be done, knowing that if I let my father in on the process, we’d be working and reworking it a mind-numbing, frustrating number of times. Also knowing that if my father edited my work, I’d get a much better grade.  That man could spot a grammar error from twenty thousand leagues.  So I know the feeling he’s experiencing – just wanting to be done, come what may.  But now I also know the feeling that compelled my fastidious father – if I don’t teach this child how to work, he’ll struggle later.  

The trade-off is always, at what cost?  I can’t just let these things skate, what’s my job as a parent if not to teach my child how to take care of things that need doing?  Watching my child puddle into his chair and onto the floor, I’m torn.  

“Dad – you’re the mountain.”

I’m both deeply proud and deeply ashamed.  I’m proud because here is a child who, with alarmingly brisk readiness, has expressed a pretty complex emotion.  I try to raise children who are both willing and able to talk about how they feel.  But there’s shame too.  It’s complicated because I’m a human being, with human failings.  And this is the child that tallies and remembers all the failings. He’s also the child with whom I’m the most likely to lose my shit.  And I’m a big guy and can be scary when I’m mad.  Though I can say with some degree of humility, it’s not often, but every time I’ve ever lost my temper with this beautiful child I’ve regretted it, and count those moments as my life’s biggest mistakes.  And I’ve made some doozies.

I try to teach my kids by example what to do when a mistake is made, which isn’t as easy as our society would have us believe.  If you ask someone what to do when they make a mistake, they’ll probably come up with one or two actions – say sorry, or try to fix it.  But making a mistake is a much larger, richer, process that requires a great deal of thought and humility.  Here’s what I teach my kids, and how I try to live, when a mistake is made: 

1.  Acknowledge a mistake has been made.   2.  Own your part in making the mistake.  3.  Acknowledge the damage done to the aggrieved party without minimization or rationalization.  4. Express genuine regret via an authentic and unconditional apology.  5. Do whatever can be done to make it right.  6.  Explore all the lessons making that mistake has to offer.  7.  Work to ensure that the mistake doesn’t happen again.  8.  Work to forgive yourself for making the mistake and move on.  

That’s a lot of stuff to do after fucking up.  

I teach my kids that not every step on the list can be undertaken.  Some mistakes can’t be made right.  Sometimes an apology will make it worse.  Some wounds we will always carry.  I can confirm this through hard-won experience.  Sometimes the best we can do is work towards healing.  To greater or lesser degrees, we all come out of childhood scarred, and I am aware that in a small way, this essay is part of me acknowledging the failings I’ve accumulated – a tiny chunk of atonement.  

What I can do is talk openly with my beautiful child about losing my cool.  In quiet moments, usually at bedtime, he will ask me about it, and he tells me how afraid of me it makes him.  I sink into owning my error, acknowledging the hurt and fear that are a result.  I ask how he feels.  I listen.  I walk through the steps.  I apologize with a sincerity that burns like magnesium in water.  What I can do to make it right is only to ensure that the memory of dark moments see the light, to make sure there are bright moments for comparison and context.  I get better, over time, at having a softer response to the mind-shaking disrespectfulness he is able to conjure.  The tween years are legitimately trying.

Step eight – forgiving yourself – is the hardest.

I fear an imagined future where he withdraws from me entirely, a memory full of hard words spoken over tear-damp math worksheets – the long, loving bed-time make up sessions inadequate to the task of fending off the fear of future hardness.  I shudder, imagining a cold, empty gulf growing between us, mirroring the vast emptiness between his mother and I.  It happens all the time.  You see it all the time.  I crouch behind this fear.  I name it in the darkness where it lives.  I pull it to the sunlight.  Unlike so many of my fears, this one doesn’t diminish easily.  It lurks behind every decision I make that impacts my children, which is basically all of them.

I let him work on his own, and he buckles down to do some real work.  I’m proud of him and tell him so.  It kills me that he won’t get a perfect score on the worksheet and I know it, and I know he knows it too, but I refrain from hovering, or requiring endless corrections.  His effort is significant.  He eats his salad.  Tears begin to dry on the now nearly indecipherable worksheet.  I offer him an ice-cream bar for dessert.  We turn on the movie.  We snuggle.  I hope it is enough.  


Ahhh, the warm glow of a fire . . . and Disney+.

Where to start?  My instinct is to start this next thought with a Brene Brown quote or a Rumi quote, or even better, a Mary Oliver quote.  This is where my brain goes.  Somewhere on website is the perfect quote.  We’ll get there in a minute, but I think, instead, I should start with Disney+.  

[Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 or the Disney+ show Loki, and you might want to some day, you’ve been warned.  And if you don’t know that Iron Man was recently killed, the rest of the essay won’t make a lick of sense, and you should probably stop here…]

Like many thinking, rational humans, I am somewhat ambivalent about the fact that this one, megalithic company has so much power to influence not just society at large, but my children specifically.  And if I’m being honest, this company has enormous power over me and my emotions and how I experience the world, too.  One of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen, or hope to see, is at the end of Toy Story 3 when the group of toys you’ve come to love and cherish are headed toward certain destruction.  Woody is doing the thing he always does and is frantically trying to come up with a last minute plan to save everyone when he and the rest all realize that there isn’t a last ditch plan, that they’re going to be destroyed.  They all reach for one another and hold hands to face their end the same way they’ve spent their lives: together.  I’m crying right now while I write this.  It gets me every time.  It pulls and tugs my heart strings even knowing they’re saved in the end by a funny and apropos deus ex machina moment.  Fucking Disney.

I’m going to start with Disney+ anyway – specifically the show Loki.   (Side note: this essay is the direct result of a very, very interesting texting conversation I had about this with my eldest child.  Proper props to him for effectively explaining what was going on.  Turns out you have to be 14 to understand the vagaries of the Multiverse…)  I wasn’t ready to really understand this show until very, very recently.  Now, if you know me at all, you will know that I came out of the womb ready for time-traveling, interdimensional, kung-fu fighting hijinks.  What I’m talking about here specifically is the romance in the show between Loki, and the alternate reality version of himself, Sylvie.  

There’s a whole bunch that could be written about the potential weirdness of a situation where a person falls in love with another version of themselves from another dimension.  I mean a lot.  Because it’s weird.  But for a moment, for the sake of this essay, I’m going to treat Loki and his variant, Sylvie, as consenting adults who are neither genetically nor phenotypically related.  I mean, if you put up with Game of Thrones, this is an easy pill to swallow.

Another side note:  How nice is it that there’s a love story between two main characters in which their apparent relative age on screen and in real life is approximately the same.  The male character isn’t ninety three and the female character isn’t twenty one.  (Hack, cough, cough Sean Connery, cough, cough Harrison Ford, hack, cough.)  In real life Tom Hiddleston is 41 and Sophia De Martino is 38.  This is one of the things that makes hating Disney hard.  I digress.

What’s great about this series is that you can’t really watch it on a surface level.  In a lot of Marvel movies, the psychological machinations of the main characters is either so cartoonish as to be uninteresting, or essentially irrelevant to the plot.  And a lot of those plots are pretty basic.  There are bad guys who are messed up and try to take over the world.  The good guys kick enough ass and make your garden variety superhero sacrifices and the world is saved.  I was way more moved by the plot device where Woody and Buzz and the gang were going to get destroyed than I was about losing Iron Man.  Again, I digress. 

In the show Loki, to understand what’s happening with the nature of the timeline, you have to know what’s going on in the hearts of the main characters.  Owen Wilson plays Mobius (super obvious metaphor), who, in the name of helping him to understand the other Loki variant (it gets weird) essentially provides ongoing therapy for Loki throughout the entire series.  The point of these sequences where Mobius is asking Loki why he does what he does – to uncover the roots, the genesis of his pain, the neglect and the desire for external validation is the same as the point of therapy:  self-awareness.  Loki is a character who has spent his whole life hiding from self-awareness.  He doesn’t trust anyone and is so reliably untrustworthy that characters around him just assume he’s always lying to them.  The consequences of avoiding self-awareness are dire and multifaceted.  This is a reality that I have only recently begun to understand about my own life . . . 

But back to Loki.  It’s extra potent that Disney chooses to follow the story arc of these two specifically middle-aged characters.  I don’t think it would work with young glamor stars. Someone over there is listening – really listening – to Brene Brown (yes it’s Brene Brown quote time), who says:

… we all grew up and experienced to varying degrees, trauma, disappointment – hard stuff.  And we armored up.  And at some point that armor no longer serves us.  And so, how is not talking about this serving you?   It’s not serving you anymore.  And now the weight of the armor is too heavy and it’s not protecting you.  It’s keeping you from being seen and loved by others. This is the developmental milestone of midlife.  From late thirties until probably your sixties, this is the question.  This is when the universe comes down and puts her hands on your shoulders and pulls you close and whispers in your ear – I’m not fucking around.  You’re halfway to dead.  The armor is keeping you from growing into the gifts I’ve given you and that’s not without penalty.  Time is up.  It’s not a crisis.  It’s a slow, brutal unraveling.  

I’m pretty familiar with this kind of unraveling . . .  

But back to Loki.  Loki’s untrustworthiness is a kind of self-loathing.  He can’t care about anyone else because he doesn’t care about himself.  It’s a shortened, carefully choreographed, tidily packaged, Marvel kind of revelation, but there it is.  Loki can’t fall in love with Sylvie – or anyone for that matter – until he figures his own shit out.  Not only that, he won’t even be able to have real friendships. There will be no late summer nights drinking wine, jumping in lakes for him.

And if, in season two, they are to have a real shot at a relationship, Sylvie’s going to have to jump on the self-awareness bandwagon, and Disney is going to need to create a character who can provide her with some therapy.  Her childhood has some pretty heavy trauma, and her relationship with Loki is going to be a messed up attachment train wreck unless she faces and comes to terms with the trauma she grew up with.  Which, like many kids of course, was having to hide in time from agents of the Time Variant Authority in the moments right before complete apocalypses, always on the run with no parenting or meaningful connections in her life, so . . . yeah. Her choice to free the multiverse and betray Loki at the end of season one only makes sense if she’s choking on emotional armor scrambling for any kind of foothold outside herself.  

Questions I have for season two:  Is the multiverse inherently chaotic?  Can you have free will if your timeline is deterministic?  If you do liberate the multiverse in favor of free will, can it behave harmoniously, or will it inevitably lead to war and chaos between alternate timelines?  Can humanity be happy under the thumb of an unseen, yet oppressive force who never-the-less provides order?  But most of all, I’m interested in whether Disney is going to do the emotional heavy lifting and let Sylvie come to terms with her own emotional armor?  There isn’t a chance in hell for a healthy relationship with Loki otherwise.  My guess is that Loki, the character we’ve invested several movies and much more time with, will get the benefits of surviving with his self-awareness intact, and Sylvie will end up sacrificing herself to rectify mistakes she’s made before achieving, albeit too late, the kind of self-awareness she’d need to be in a healthily attached relationship with Loki.  Such are the dreams Disney+ is made of.