On wisdom from old words and finding joy (two original poems)

I searched for jewels of joy (J. Andrew, McKee; July, 2014)

I combed my mental beach for years looking for rare shells.

One day, while looking for the witch variety with dark and fiery whorls, I found another – of grooves in the pocket and designs of drumming when I was seven years old, basking in Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.

Where are your shells?

* * *

Pulled by old poems (J. Andrew McKee, July 2014)

The poems of long-dead men and women
call to me magnetically,
well above the din of pomp and responsibility,
washing away the tarnish
from lack-luster tending,
helping prepare for the varnish
that my time has levied
for those deep, often dark arts,
that I stir with one hand,
while reading Adonis and Venus,
twirling with Basho and Rumi,
or raising eyebrows with Tranströmer and Lao-Tzu,
then letting that fiery witch
take the reigns and play
with the Wild Man underneath,

            STOP,

then go on dancing, and that pause,
like the distance –  silence  – between tracks,
uninterrupted though by anticipation –
Kabir limitless wellspring, garden mind-blowing –

 

slow-cooks a resilient confidence
that after years is blooming in spicy,
intermingling aromas at the cusps of my nostrils,
and now flows cocked back like burst olfactory lava,
scorching and laying waste
the gray filmy detritus
that fell unconsciously onto
my way of living.

Scrub away, dear soul, to
see the un-seeable, moving gems
that glimmer just beyond
touching or knowing.

Unearthing anxiety: confessions and tools for reflection and relaxation

The real heavy lifting is with your mind, not your brawn

In school and then while working, I always prided myself on keeping my cool.  But deep down, I probably knew the truth:  I was ridden with anxiety.  To perform, to achieve, to succeed, to out-compete others.  And it all buzzed under some fake manly façade, while underneath my thoughts popped around like ping pong balls in 1980s televised lotteries, jumping into my awareness at random.  I tried to be someone who looked laid back about work, but who secretly worked late nights like a dog whose mind was invaded by humanity’s insanity to run itself in circles instead of knowing when to rest.

Then I found stage fright.  It took me two or three years to overcome when I was performing as a professional saxophonist.  At its worst, I would feel a tightness like a stranglehold around my neck that would leave me unable to inhale deeply enough to play more than two or three measures before I had to come up for air.  And then a friend invited me to join him at a yoga class and I felt embarrassed and humbled upon feeling a searing pain in my hamstrings and lower back when I tried to lean forward and touch my toes.

Over years of slow-motion self-discovery– as tried getting still by meditating regularly, practicing yoga in quiet studios, taking frequent nature walks, and camping at hike-in sites and in the back country – I began to notice the impact of stress on my thoughts and actions:  typing an email to a boss at work, sipping shallow breaths, and soon finding my shoulders rising up towards my ears with tension.  Trying to speak up at a business meeting, again breathing shallow and tense breaths, wondering and dodging at when to jump in, and when I finally said something, feeling like there were cough drops stuck in my throat and everyone was just waiting for me to shut up.  Finding myself daydreaming about the day’s remaining to-do’s and noticing my scalp muscles tingling with discomfort (the occipitofrontalis muscle is involved in raising the eyebrows – ah worry! – among other things).  Hearing that one of my business projects was not well received, that an executive had judged my work harshly, and suddenly feeling pressure and uneasiness in my gut – a mass eruption of butterflies from the anxiety cocoons my wits had been wildly weaving for weeks, perhaps.  Sending an email to a boss who I didn’t enjoy working with, only to see him reply three minutes later with negative feedback – and feeling (or imagining) my heart exporting nervousness to my head and limbs.

With all of these, I forgot about some simple remedies that could have helped, like taking a few joyously deep breaths or putting work down and just walking around.  But with some practice, I had come to learn that these anxious reactions were natural enough– practiced habits, in a sense, for years of my life of being too focused on achievement at the exclusion of other ways of being.  Finally, I had enough self-understanding to say, Hey man, these are natural.  They will pass.

I also noticed over time – and with some feedback from an ergonomics specialist – that I tended to hunch over small laptop screens, or sit with my legs crossed, or stoop over the beckoning rectangular glow of my iPhone.

* * *

In this article I wanted to share some ways that stress has manifested itself physiologically for me and some tools that you can use to become more aware of stress and its effects on your body.

It’s important to accept the mind-body connection – the idea that your state of mind can affect how you feel physically, and vice versa.  If your body is not relaxed, the same is likely for your mind.  For several decades, clinical studies have shown that interventions like relaxation, visualization, and meditation can improve various physical conditions like healing after a heart attack or battling insomnia (review article here).

One surprisingly basic booster for your mental state is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthful foods, and exercising regularly.  I know that when I’m sleep deprived, my back muscles tend to get tight, and the best therapy is a good night’s sleep.

Two related ways to loosen up are relaxation exercises and journaling about your stress.  The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Matthew McKay, is a great resource for these.  Pairs nicely with a daily journaling or reflection practice, which gives you a chance to trust and honor yourself every day, no matter how you’re feeling (good starts are Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Ira Progoff’s, At a Journal Workshop).

You may also find meditation can help you to become more aware of your inner feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as to calm those feelings.  Though I hesitate to strongly recommend meditation if you are just getting started on the path of self-awareness.  That’s because it can seem overwhelming, in terms of discipline, new mindsets, and self-knowledge that can sometimes be more than you’re ready for.  But like anything that could potentially help you, I’d encourage you to follow your curiosity.  I find Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation very helpful for getting still and peeling away the onion layers of habitual mind reactions.  Before committing to this practice (more to simplify than anything else), I also tried out Zen meditation and predominantly yoga-based approaches like those taught by the Self-Realization Fellowship and in books like Jonathan Novak’s How To Meditate.

What to do when you’re already stressed and just need some quick uppers?  Try these:

  1. Tennis ball massage: take off your shoe and roll a tennis ball slowly up and down the arch.  Use the level of pressure that feels right for you, noticing and focusing in on the tightest areas.  (hat tip, Tignum)
  2. Muscle relaxation exercises (great for bedtime or anytime).  Starting from your head down, pick groups of muscles to contract and hold tense for five or ten seconds, and then relax.  Let the area sag and hang into the floor or your bed – heavy, loose, relaxed – for at least a count to fifteen or twenty.  Repeat in as many groups as you like.  (hat tip, Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook)
  3. Ask someone with ergonomic experience to check out your workplace, or read up online about quick wins (here are two helpful articles from Penn State and Apple).
  4. Give your hands and arms gentle massages.  Just feel around for the tight parts — don’t push super hard at first — and enjoy working out some tension.
  5. Skim a book that elaborates more on strategies for improving how you work, such as Simplify Your Work Life by Elaine St. James.

Readers: let me hear from you (anonymously or not):  in what situations do you tend to get tense, and how does tension manifest?  What insights or practices have been most helpful for you to become more aware of stress or to deal with it?

Our time here, war, and health: an interview on the heavy with Patrick

Mount Tamalpais c.a. 1960, courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Library.

 

A few days ago, while hiking the foothills of Mount Tamalpais – a mountain that rises to 2,571 feet and has so many canyons and vistas that it seems like the trunk of a massive rain forest tree with buttress roots that the wind and rain have dulled and flattened over centuries – I met a 90-year old man I’ll call Patrick, from Lagunitas, CA, who was hiking up the Dipsea Trail. 

He was about six-foot two and was walking with a consistent rhythm – quarter notes, about eighty beats per minute – and breathing calmly, both achievements since we were already fifteen flights of steps above the town.  He told me he planned to hike to the summit and back.  He had alert and warm eyes that welcomed my presence even as he kept to the hike before him.  Silvery hair curled and spilled out from under a dark baseball cap, and the clear tube of a hearing aid wrapped over one helix and into the ear.  He wore the outfit of a serious day hiker – black Nylon wind pants, a backpack with a water bladder and hose, and black athletic shoes with yellow highlights still crisp – along with safety-conscious gear including a blazing neon yellow shirt and a circular black and gray device hanging on a necklace over his sternum that I believe was a MobileHelp neck pendant [overview of medical alert devices here]. 

* * *

God knows I am where I am because I’ve been doing good cardiovascular exercise.  All my life.  I was a track star – won a few major races in San Francisco in my day.  Never did run much on concrete – always on the grass on the inside of the track.  Just a few miles every day; every other day.  You do what you can.  But the key is sticking with it.  You can’t overdo it – I don’t understand all those people running marathons.  Our bodies weren’t made for it.

When I was four, I was out every day playing in the street – never did want to come in for dinner.  My running started early, maybe around then.  I went to bed with a football my arms instead of a teddy bear.  But when I saw what football was really about, I changed and got into track.  My specialties were the quarter-mile and half-mile.  Back before they converted everything to meters.  Nothing I’ve done was so grueling as the last hundred meters or so.  The lactic acid sets in and you just have to pump through it.

I’ve always done mountaineering, too.  The thing with mountaineering was, you have to pace yourself.  You can’t ever push too hard – always needed extra energy in case of an emergency.

Because of his age, and because I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary, The War , I asked him if he served in World War II.

Sure I served in The War.  B-17 pilot [I think he said tours of duty over England and Europe but now I can’t recall].  You didn’t miss much.  That’s something I never want to do again.  Just had to do with when I was born.  I was twenty.  I was drafted, my number came up, and that was it.

There was The War, maybe the Korean War – of course the American Revolution and the Civil War – those were justified wars.  But since the Korean War?   I don’t think so.

Afghanistan?  (shakes his head and looks at his feet).  That’s the longest war we’ve ever been in.  [Wikipedia article on length of US participation in major wars and 2010 news story]  And for what?   At least the casualties are way less.  Don’t come close to The War.

I told him how old I was and the roles my grandfathers played in the US Steel industry and Hungarian cavalry during World War II.

Now, I’m ninety years old.  When I was nine, I’d have given anything to get to ten.  Just to get to two digits!  Then I was restless at twelve – couldn’t wait to get to thirteen and become a teenager.  But then, when I got to be thirty-five or so – the train started moving a lot faster.

The train? I asked.

Life.  Time.  It feels like it’s all leaving you so much faster.  Certainly sped up around when I was fifty or sixty.  And then here I am, 90 years old, and life is flying by.  So keep your health, and keep working on you career, and you’ll be fine.

* * *

Readers, let me ask you – what do you think about America’s military activity right now and the ongoing war in Afghanistan?  In terms of time, how has your sense of time in your life evolved?  Do you ever have the sense that it’s passing you by, that there are choices you might have taken but missed?

If so, maybe now is a time to reflect about what you would like to do, and brainstorm out some practical options of getting there.  Maybe talk about it with a supportive friend or loved one.  Or check out a book on the topic like Finding Your Element by Sir Ken Robinson.

For instance, if you always wanted to direct movies, and you have no experience right now, then consider taking a class at a local college.  Start studying and taking notes about your favorite films, the ones that really moved you.  What did they do that was so compelling?  Then you can move on from there – testing your interest further and developing it (maybe it is directing that calls you.  Or maybe it’s not – but cinematography or scoring does.).  You’ll find that as you go more towards what your heart is calling you to do, other opportunities will present themselves, and people will be willing to help you in surprising ways.

And you’ll need these positive experiences to counter the increased chance that you’ll fail at the new thing when you get started.  Simply because it’s new for you – new skills, new wisdom, new experience, new relationships.  So it’s important to set small and achievable goals until you build up a momentum.  The goals can generally be in line with a bigger vision you may have, though not everyone needs a clear vision in order to make changes now.  If instead you set goals that are too wild and high, you may suffer a string of setbacks and even send your dreams into hibernation.  Better to trust yourself that a change is being born from within you.  And even if you fail, it’s helpful to chalk them up as learnings.  The whole idea of calling a series of events and memories a “success” or “failure” is limiting, too.

It’s also important to be wary of the grass-is-greener tendency to imagine that something would be much better than what you’re doing now.  If so, it’s worth testing how it would be different – interview some folks or find a way to pilot the new endeavor for weeks or months.  Though at other times in life, you may just need to act and figure it out later, especially if something feels wrong or really uncomfortable in your current situation.

I’m reminded of a book I heard about last year entitled, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.  It was written by Bronnie Ware, a former palliative nurse who has also worked in a wide variety of other professions.   I haven’t read it yet — only articles about it and interviews of the author.  So I’m regurgitating the list of regrets from this Huffington Post article.  It makes me want to ask you all again:  what regrets are you harboring?  (you can write them down, don’t have to share)  What would it feel like to transform them into self-insight so that you can move on?

Please note, the collection of regrets below may be comprehensive but does not represent a scientific study as far as I can tell.  I searched the scientific literature (aka, Google Scholar) and did not find any studies that appear to interview tens or hundreds of patients, collect their testimonies, and categorize them into the most common themes.  So the list may not be representative.  Not to mention I wish there was a book called, “The Top 5 Things People Feel Great About At The End of Life” – something positive would be refreshing, too.  As always, please teach me something new in the comments if you know of scientific studies that have looked into this topic.

Last point before the list:  it is helpful to think of regret in two ways – there is the nagging and hurtful regret that gets us stuck too much in the past.  But there is also healthy regret.  This kind is when you review how you felt about something, explore why you felt that way, and what impact your actions had on others in the situation.  You can learn a lot about yourself and how to act more skillfully the next time.  Maybe there’s still a chance, for instance, to say you’re sorry or write someone a letter (even if you never send it).

Here’s the list:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Masculinity and meaning as a stay-at-home Dad:  an interview with Bryan Hansen

Editor’s note:  I’m glad to be back (family camping last week!) and I’m also excited to kick off a series of articles about fathers who generally feel good about life.  Yes, they do exist!  We’ll hear how they dance between their long-term relationships, being a parent, working, staying healthy, and other aspects of life.  Bryan is a stay-at-home father in San Francisco.  Today only 1% of husbands in married-couple families stay at home full-time (US Census 2012, Fig. 9).  But many Dads face the same challenges as stay-at-home fathers when it comes to parenting young children, and they are touched on below:  how to renew yourself, reflect, find parenting mentors, deal with social isolation, and find meaning.  When I spoke with him in person, Bryan exuded self-confidence, poise, thoughtfulness, physical and mental strength, and what some psychologists have described as a “mature masculine” focus on nurturing and coaching.  We hope you enjoy this interview.  Please share any comments (anonymously if you wish) – what resonated with you and why?

* * *

Where did you grow up and what were some of the highlights of your career before you became a stay-at-home father?

I’m forty-three years old.  I grew up in Kansas.  Then we moved and I went to high school in Danville [East of Oakland].  I went to college at the University of Arizona, and then my first job was with ABC Sports.  Loved it, worked as a production assistant on college football games.  But after a while, the novelty wore off – and the schedule was grueling, lots of travel, working holidays, and was making under $30K but living in New York City.  Then I heard about my buddies from college who had moved to the Bay Area, had good jobs, and said, “I have to get myself out there.”

I worked in wireless – Nextel – sales were taking off.  Worked another ten years or so.  My wife and I got married in 2005.  In 2007 we had our first son, and at the time, Sprint had bought Nextel and I didn’t like how my job was after the merger.  I started looking for other jobs, then decided to quit.

How did you decide to become a stay-at-home Dad?  What’s your family situation now?

Around then, my wife’s maternity leave ended – she’s also in sales for [a local technology company] – it’s criminal how short family leaves are in this country.  A woman has a baby, then has to go back to the office within months.  And it’s not paid, or barely paid.  That is a critical bonding time with the baby.  You can look at other countries, like the Scandinavian ones at an extreme – they provide au pairs, there’s pad time off for the dad.

We had already decided that one of us would stay at home.  Felt it was that important to our children’s development.  I guess I never thought that it’d be me staying home.  And with what I’ve done, the first six months are so important.  After a while, it was going well with me at home.  And we could afford to live off her salary; not easy, this is an expensive city.

Now, we have two boys, ages four and six.  I do almost all the chores, except the bills.  My wife also on a usual day takes over after dinner.  That’s my veg-out time, watch a game or go online for a while.  I do the cleaning, cooking, errands during the day.  All the social planning, the school involvement.  If a parent needs to bake muffins and bring them to school?  That’s me.

How do you feel about being a man?  About your father’s parenting?

Well, you have to deal with this, if you were a second breadwinner.  But what job is so important that it’s worth doing – if you can afford not to – instead of raising your kids?

My dad was the same as yours – what I’d call a “1950s Dad” – or maybe we can coin a new word for that way of being a Dad? – the guy makes the money, provides for your family.  My Dad was often gone; tons of travel.  When he was home, it was newspaper, wide open [gestures as if obscuring his face and chest].  I’d be like, [mimes peering around the newspaper] “Uh Dad, I’m here!”

Now I’m teaching my kids how to throw a ball.  With me, the boys went from balance bikes to pedals – both before they turned four.  We went on a kindergarten Dad’s camping trip – my Dad never showed me how to pitch a tent.

I’ve been showing them things that my father never showed me, that I wish he had.  Throwing a baseball, batting, swimming, how to ride bikes.  Or when I was older, what a mortgage – personal finance – was all about.

I sometimes wonder, why on earth would he not teach me these things?  What was he doing that was so important that he couldn’t teach me?  I don’t want to knock him – he was coming from a perspective, providing for his family.  He had a successful career – excelled at what he did.  I’m not going to beat him up over it.

You seem to have a confident approach to discipline.  How did that come about?

Discipline is important.  By that I mean teaching them routines and a sense of right and wrong.  When they do something wrong, how you discipline.  For instance, when I’m at the park, I see some nannies taking care of the kids.  The kid does something bad and I see them grab the kids arm, hard like this.  You don’t know what their family background is, their temper.  I’ve seen some nannies even shake the kids they’re taking care of.  So for spanking and punishments like that, I’ve always been a believer there’s never a reason to raise your voice or hit a kid.  I do a lot of hand on the shoulder, get down on the ground, and talk in mellow voice.

I learned a lot from playing high school basketball, and then as a manager for the University of Arizona team.  You learn the manners, and learn from great coaches who teach the right and wrong ways to talk to somebody.  Especially with star players, the egos.

But I’ve also failed – also lost my cool.  I know how awful that made me feel.  Like, “Oh my God, why did I raise my voice when this happened?  I should have handled this differently.”  So what I try to do in difficult situations is: take a breath, talk to the kids, at their level, look them in the eye.  Show them respect.  I say “sir” to them all the time.  Some grownups think that’s funny but I think that’s really the attitude you have to have.

How do you reflect and renew?

I talk almost every night with my wife.  She and I have a very solid relationship.  She’s my sounding board.  We have a date night two Saturdays a month.

We also do “high-low” with the boys:  I ask them to tell me something they liked today, and then something they didn’t.  We also review the day – what we did, where, and that sometimes gives us ideas for high-low.  We might say, “We went to school, then lunch, then the park.  Oh yeah, my high was going to the park, my low was whatever.”  And so when I review the day, I might catch something like, “Oh remember when I raised my voice at you, when you spilled your drink?”  And then I apologize to the kids for that.

When I became a father, it felt like, all of a sudden I’m in this role that my Dad didn’t do, I had no prep for it.  There’s the isolation, feeling lonely, being with kids who are mono-syllabic all day long.  You’ve taken on this job and you can’t – it’s hard to express – I used to be extremely tired each day when the boys were in diapers.  As a man, I don’t think you really know how to communicate that you’re extremely tired or unfulfilled.  Or that you have spit up all over your clothing, haven’t’ showered in a while.

Now that they’re older I have a good routine.  I like to swim, three days a week.  On two of those mornings, we have a sitter so I can go to the gym.  They drive them to school, watch them.  There’s a crew of guys that I swim with, we go to the JCC [Jewish Community Center], swim 3,000 or 3,500 yards, then get coffee afterwards.  It’s guys’ time, and it’s invaluable.  Most of them are recovering triathletes like me.

I love the benefits of swimming.  On the days that I do swim, I’m much more casual with my sons, in a much better place.  Probably more relaxed, and fall on the side of humor rather than escalating my temper.

I also ride my bike on Saturday mornings, with another group of guys.  So I find it’s really important to do something regular, and that adds a social dimension.  Many of them are Dads also.

Have you ever joined a mother’s group or father’s group?

No.  We’ve gone it alone.  I’ve always seen the mother’s groups at the parks.  Went to some early on.  The first time, I’d feel welcome – you know, Bryan’s the stay-at -home Dad.  But the second time you go, all they wanted to do was gossip, kvetch.  I’m sorry but that’s what it was like.

So I stopped going to those.  We don’t have any support network, in a traditional sense.  There is the Golden Gate Mothers Group, and it’s huge.  But it’s been a zero resource for me.  Whereas many moms, they find a playmate for their kids, meet and get drinks together.  I’ve been self-sufficient.  I’d love to go to a Dad’s group.

What other family values or priorities do you have as a parent?

Doing the right thing.  Teaching the boys how to be nice to other people.  To think of other people’s feelings.  To think of how you’d want to be treated – empathy!

Some parents get so caught up in what their kids are eating, getting their shoes on to get out the door – daily grind, backpack and jacket – you know, you can lose sight of what’s important.  And as a stay at home Dad, you catch those teachable moments.  You can be there as an advisor when problems arise.

Where did you learn parenting?  Role models or guiding north stars? 

Learned from my wife – we overlapped when she was still on maternity leave, I was at home, too.  Found a great book on sleeping and routines (Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, by Weissbluth), and another on child development (It’s a Boy, by Thompson and Barker).  Sleeping is not something we learn; it has to be taught.  The best gift you can give a kid is – not a natural diaper wipe or the organic baby food – how to teach them to sleep correctly.  Time and time again, it’s been looked at and studies find that kids that do well in college had good sleep habits.  This book taught us a lot about rhythms.  It’s also gives you a good introduction to a topic quickly, so you don’t have to read tons.  You meet people who say, “Our kids, they stay up until nine o’clock; they’re fine.”  Or friends we know, their kids are always sleeping in the stroller.  I say, “Oh really, they’re doing that great?  No, you’re kids are sleep-deprived.”

I don’t have a religious framework.  I take from a lot of different places – other guys that have children, like some of my close buddies, I like how they model their home lives, their relationships with their sons.  Couple of the guys I swim with are just outstanding human beings.  One’s a lawyer, couldn’t be more ethical, polite.

Lute Olson, he was the head coach at Arizona when I was there.  Very admirable.  We had an assistant coach, too – we went to the Final Four my senior year, so I really saw the progression of teamwork, won 30 games in one year.

In college basketball teams, it’s a family – ten players, four or five managers, four or five coaches.  Very small compared to football.  Since you went to Duke, I can compare Lute Olson and Jim Rosborough to Coach K [Krzyzewski].  Great men of high integrity.  They don’t need to pay the players.  During college recruiting, Coach K walks into the player’s living room at home, tells the mom, “I’m going to take care of your son.  He’s going to graduate.”  Coach K will tell them what a Mom wants to hear, what kind of man he’s going to be when he graduates.  He’ll have a degree, with no debt.  Then he looks at the Dad, and says, “Your son is going to be one of the best D1 players in the country.  We’re going to get him ready for the NBA.”  That’s how they get these kids – they care for the college players as people.  Care about how they hold themselves, their education, their career.  So I look at high-integrity people like that.

How have you changed since becoming a father? 

I used to be a completely selfish single person.  I did triathlons.  I was totally into myself.  There’s so much training involved.  I love that now I’m focused on family first, focused on these boys – I’m not self-centered.  It’s really opened up the idea of family for me.  How wonderful and important it is to teach the boys things.  How lucky I am to be doing this.

My stance towards money at home has changed.  I had been working for so long, getting a paycheck.  Now it suddenly feels like, “Hey can I buy this?”  Former breadwinner, but now not getting a paycheck – that’s an interesting thing.  In marriage you already have a lot of give and take going on.  Then you bring two kids into the equation.  Spending money becomes different – I rationalize things like, “Maybe I don’t need a new pair of shoes.”  That’s a big change for a stay-home Dad, not getting a paycheck.

Any other advice you would give men with young kids?

For getting through the early years – a lot of it is on-the-job training.  It’s stressful – you don’t know what you’re doing.  I try to use a lot of humor – like, “Oh my god, I just completely [messed] that up.” [smiles].  If I made a mistake – try to see it as a riot.  Don’t beat yourself up.   But the mistake is on me.  I can’t deny it.

You know, some guys I know will purposely [mess] up changing a diaper, so the woman has to change it.  She gives up and stops asking him.  I think that’s ridiculous.  But the balance is changing towards guys doing more.

One thing I love about my wife, she’s great about communicating.  I’m a typical cave man guy – I always joke, I love to bottle it up and learn to hate you.  So the advice I’d give is to talk about it – how you’re feeling.  I still have to work at it.  But the last thing you want is some smoldering disagreement.

It’s important to think of [at-home] parenting as a job.  I have buddies who say, “What do they do all day, the stay-at-home mothers?”  I feel like you should never say that unless you actually know what they do.  I say, “Dude, let your wife go away for a week, do everything yourself.  Don’t talk about it unless you really see what the job entails.”  I also hear men say the opposite:  “I’d love to do your job.  It must be easy – surf the web, ride your bike a ton.”

School at the boys’ ages lasts only three hours – Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  That’s barely enough time to cook or get groceries or take a shower.  I feel a bit bitter that people don’t appreciate the work enough.  We’ve lost the big community of people to help you with it.

When we grew up, you had the church down the street, aunts and uncles down the street.  Doors were open all the time.  Moms and Dads and PTAs.  My mom had a built-in support group to work with.

But now, and especially in a city like this, there are so many professionals, and transplants here, so we’ve moved away from traditional system.  A lot of people in search of careers here.  They get married late, have kids late, and don’t have that community of support.

Editor’s Note:  This interview was edited for clarity.  If you enjoyed this interview, you may like this report about American stay-at-home fathers, as well as several others in the New Dad series by researchers primarily based at the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

Why we need more life mentors

Robin Williams as John Keating, Dead Poets Society (1989) © Touchstone Pictures

When I hear working professionals talk about mentors, I worry that we’ve mixed up our priorities.  What we need are more life mentors – people who cultivate a long-term interest in your development across a range of domains of our lives.  Instead, I usually hear folks talking about mentors in terms of people in your field who advise you on a next career move (i.e., a career adviser) or those who give you a leg up for promotions or new job opportunities (i.e., an organizational sponsor).  These two roles are helpful and often necessary for finding a job that you would like.  But considering these roles as “mentors” can obscure the deeper and longer-term value a true mentor can have.

The people who have helped me the most are generally older, longtime friends.  Usually, after our friendship had developed for several years, I asked them if they would become a mentor.  That generally means staying in touch once every few months and speaking as needed when a big issue comes up.  In return, in addition to our friendship, they get to share the energy that many coaches, teachers, and parents enjoy – of sharing kindness and wisdom to someone from a younger generation as they struggle to find their way.  This is what reminded me of the teacher John Keating (Robin Williams picture above) in the film Dead Poets Society.  In the film, Keating’s priority is to awaken his young students’ minds to alternative and empowering ways of seeing and acting in their world.

To give you a sense of life mentoring, I wanted to share a few examples of how life mentors have helped me.  Nine years ago, when I struggled to make a career leap from my medical and scientific training into other possible fields, one mentor told me, “Look, you can keeping analyzing all these paths.  But I bet, in your heart, you really know what you want to do.”  He encouraged me to have faith in my intuition.  To practice trusting myself in a deeper way than only using my analytical faculties would allow.  This led me to take a big leap and work for a consulting company that exposed me to the business side of health care, as well as giving me the chance to work in other sectors of the economy.  I learned many new skills and knowledge about business that have helped me since.

For years, I have tried to dance between two main working activities:  creating artwork that was meaningful to me (with no clear path of how to make a living from it that would support me and my family) and working in health care and business, which generally pays well and aims to help people, but can easily swallow up all your energy and free time.

So five years ago, I was at another fork in the road.  I had a chance to focus more on business leadership experience (ultimate path = executive at a life sciences company) or on my writing skills while keeping things status quo at my day job (ultimate path = writer, teacher, entrepreneur, who knows?).  I met with a second mentor about career moves I was considering, including for relatively senior positions in a few Bay Area startups.  If I wanted to become CEO of something one day, these were possible breaks for me.  I’d been getting really fired up about these opportunities and what might lay down the road after them for me.  You know – “COO now, CEO in two years” – up, up, and away kind of stuff.  And my friend said, “Look Andrew, these opportunities sound great.  But – if you’re working like a dog for some intense startup, how are you ever going to have time for your music?  Your writing?  Your wife and…maybe a future family?”  These words hit me hard in the good warm spot in my chest, and I couldn’t say much beyond, “Uh, I don’t know.”  Because of his advice, I really had to think in a new way about what was important to me.  To be clear, I’m not criticizing the startup path or a lifestyle that can work some families and employees – that’s just what he said, and pertained to the situation for me then.  Up until then, I had gotten myself worked up too mentally about options or a particular “story” of my career and how it was developing.

Two years ago, with two young kids at home, I was struggling with how to juggle it all, and particularly make sure my wife and I had enough time for each other.  For those of you who don’t have kids, basically the time you used to find so easily for going out or just talking with your spouse or partner gets crowded out by a ton of child-rearing and administrative tasks, at least for the first several years.

I asked a third mentor friend what he had found worked for him.  He has been happily married for over two decades to his wife and together they have raised three kids.  He said, “Look it hasn’t always been hunky-dory.  We’ve had some major disagreements.  We needed counseling at one point.  Then other times, something boiled over and we’d take a weekend trip – leave the kids with the grandparents – and have time just for us.  It wouldn’t be all wine and roses, you know – not all romantic shit – sometimes we had to just talk stuff out.  It’s not always pretty but you have to negotiate these things.  Otherwise nothing changes.”  He helped me see how to embrace the new challenges that parenting had presented for my relationship, and deal with it in a constructive way that prioritized trust, love, communication, and pragmatism.  I also felt relieved to hear a wise older man affirm the stresses of raising a family and share some practical ideas that worked for him.

Advice like the above changed how I made career choices or reframed stressful situations at home.  These mentors are friends who I happened to meet mostly by chance, and have kept in touch with over the years (well mostly, except for when we started our family!).  Their role as mentors has been to cultivate a friendship and give me advice when I need it.  Their scope of advice can include life’s milestones – such as marriage, birth, major illness, injury, or death – as well as finding a fulfilling balance between job, relationships, family, community, and so on.

Unfortunately, that kind of advice doesn’t usually come from a senior person at work.  What got me thinking of this post was when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s discussion of finding a mentor at work in Lean In (2013).  Of course occasionally you may meet someone who happens to work in your organization and who cares deeply about you as a person, and about your development and finding your way in the world.  But it seems like the odds are too low of finding a fit with a life mentor at work.  By looking outside a single organization, you increase your chances of finding a compatible match and avoid the bias that relates to them working where you work.  Without this bias, the mentor won’t tie your development as a human being to achieving a higher rank or supporting their political power in an organization.  Now, you might work for a mentor someday and that could be great.  It would especially work for you if you have already decided on your field and love it.  For instance, if you love computer programming, then by all means go out and find an older mentor who has thrived in computer science.  But you may also benefit from someone who understands more than just your field or line of work.  They can help broaden your perspective – having seen similar problems in other walks of life – or challenge your thinking about your career and problems (“Have you ever thought about field X or job role Y?”, or, “It sounds like you’re too worried about Z; you’re losing the big picture.”).

Many of us need to think about how we can become mentors.  There’s no hard and fast age at which you can start mentoring.  But I would say it’s important to think about it especially if you are thirty or older.  The American poet and culture commentator Robert Bly said in the PBS series by Bill Moyers, A Gathering of Men, “That’s what the young men are missing.  [the idea of a male mentor, but let’s generalize to male and female mentors]” and then, quoting the psychologist Robert Moore, “’If you’re a young man, and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.’” (Watch starting at 0:58).  The whole documentary is fascinating and I strongly recommend checking it out.  Bly suggests that before someone is truly ready for a mentor, he or she has to develop in how they view their parents.  This kicks off a whole range of other ideas that I’ll save for another time.  Watch the video for starters.

If you’re under thirty and have doubts about why you’d need a mentor, there are few reasons to consider.  One is that many aspects of life never get old – challenges like dealing with a rival at work, or a tough boss, or a unfulfilling job, or death of a loved one.  Sure an older person may not be as versed as you in social media or gadgets or sports or youth fashion, but they have been around the block many more times.  In a cultural and living-life sense, they are technologically more advanced than you are, and so you can be humbled and strengthened by accepting their perspectives and kindness.

Readers:  let me hear your thoughts.  Do you agree we need more life mentors?  Can you share a time when your life was changed by a mentor?  (note – anonymize yourself and/or your mentor if you wish).  And if you’re lucky enough to have a life mentor, how did you find him or her?

How to Excavate Your Emotions: In Defense of Men

Shot to the heart?  No problem; I’m a guy.  © Canal + D.A.  © Momentum Pictures.

Shot to the heart? No problem; I’m a guy. © Canal + D.A. © Momentum Pictures.

 

Men often get criticized for not being in touch with their emotions.  “Men live from the neck up,” the American poet Robert Bly said in Bill Moyer’s 1990 PBS series, “A Gathering of Men” (highly recommended; more on Bly and Moyers in a future post).  Or perhaps:  men live from the neck up and the waist down.  For some reason all this reminds me of the bad guy, T-1000, in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).  Near the end of the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character shoots T-1000 in the belly with a shotgun and leaves a gaping, metal-rimmed hole.  Being a man, it’s like that – life’s downers can rip gaping holes in our emotional cores, yet we hardly know the wounds exist.  Let alone how to heal them.

Men seem to have lost a vital part of community.  Gone are the days when men would gather in the afternoons around cars and share stories along with their mechanical expertise.  Now, it seems like most socializing takes place with alcohol and watching sports and commercials on television.  Nothing against having a drink or watching football, but let’s face it – when you’ve got a real problem in your life – shooting the sh*t about a quarterback only takes the edge off for twenty minutes or so.

Yet we don’t move forward with our problems – a major breakup; loss of a loved one; struggling with or failing in your job; suffering from anxiety or depression – no, we grab another beer and hope it will work itself out.  If we don’t practice talking about our feelings – of course I’m generalizing – and if we lacked good male examples of how to be strong but also emotionally mature, then is it surprising that men have little sense of their inner barometers?

If you want to do some emotional weightlifting, there are two pieces:  cultivating your awareness of feelings, and expanding your vocabulary.  First you need to know how you feel.  Then can you practice talking about it.

For cultivating emotional awareness, one approach is mindfulness meditation.  You can set aside some time each day in which you focus on querying yourself in the moment.  During the meditation, you might silently ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”  Or, “I’m feeling a pressure in my belly when I think about my boss’s email.  Where’s that coming from?”  For more on this approach, check out sections on emotional awareness in Gil Fronsdal’s The Issue At Hand, Fronsdal’s recent podcast on the topic here, or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing.  These teachings are accessible, practical, and compatible with any belief system, whether you have one or not.

Another approach is to write every day in a journal.  The important part is to give yourself permission to write about anything.  Having a fixed amount of time (e.g., twenty minutes) or length (e.g., three pages) also helps by giving you enough of a hurdle to get into some emotional grist.  On these pages you can complain, rant, explore, celebrate, or share whatever else you feel energy towards in that moment.  Julia Cameron’s life-affirming book, The Artist’s Way, explains her version of this practice called Morning Pages.

A third approach is contemplative prayer.  If your primary frame of reference is religious, you can use the stillness during prayer to ask yourself questions about your feelings like, “How am I feeling right now?”, or, “Why did I just lose it when my kid starting crying?”  You can ask yourself or God for answers to these questions, and then explore any new directions that result.  A good starting point (from a Christian perspective, but generalizable) is Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer or David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer.

Then there’s talking.  How do you talk about emotions?  You need a vocab.  When I started sorting out my emotions seven or eight years ago, I needed more colors than just the bold primaries of “good” and “sad,” and more specifics than the vague dodges like “okay” and “alright.”  It’s also helpful to have a framework for how to share what you feel, explore why you think you feel that way, ask others how they feel, and then skillfully ask someone to change their behavior, even in tense situations.

A great introduction to such a framework is Marshal Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life.  It’s very clearly written with many examples throughout, and Rosenberg’s credentials are rock-solid as a seasoned conflict resolution expert.  I’ve worked slowly with the ideas of his book over the last six years or so.  Over time it’s helped me be more specific about how I feel so that I can share that with my loved ones and close friends.

The book includes long lists of emotion categories and examples of each.  To help me remember the categories, I created some quirky acronyms:  GRAPE CHI JEEp for the emotions when my needs are being met (Grateful, Refreshed, Affectionate, Peaceful, …).  And, A FATS PADDY CAVE for when they’re not (Afraid, Fatigued, Angry, Tense, …).  For instance, when I don’t know how I’m feeling other than “bad”, I sit down with my acronym and rattle the categories off – am I feeling Afraid?  Fatigued?  Angry?  Etc.  I confess that sometimes it takes me days to pinpoint the emotion.

Readers, let me hear from you:  Have you tried these mindfulness or communication practices?  If yes, how did they work for you?  If you’ve known about them but haven’t tried them, why not?  Are there other resources that you would like to share?

How do you find the words to talk about your feelings with peers?  With your partner or spouse?  With older or younger folks?