Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars, anyone?

Tonight I go just a little crazy and sit down in an annual tradition, to watch the Oscars. I am not that enamored of stars and their personal lives-in-a-bubble and troubles, but I do love great movies! The best movies capture amazing human moments and are as satisfying as a great work of literature. They are amazing works of art, and to watch gifted actors at their craft is just a joy. The movies aren't elitest; they are available to everyone, regardless of literacy level. They are something our entire family enjoys together.

So here we sit. Perhaps you have noticed I am blogging while the Oscars are playing, and guess what? The boys are on their computers, while watching it on TV. This is emblematic of modern life. You have to be plugged in to not just one, but a variety of devices. And while I write this, "Social Network" is winning the best adapted screenplay award. I didn't like that movie, by the way. A bunch of youngsters making terrible choices and acting really crappy toward one another, all at super high speed, living in a world I didn't recognize and would never want to inhabit. Don't care much for Facebook either. But it's true that the historic unrest in the Middle East has been at least facilitated, if not caused outright, by social media that allow masses of people to communicate almost instantly.

Speaking of modern technology ... our family was sold on these little armbands called "ibalance" at the Home and Garden show. Dwaine tried the on-site balance test and was a lot more balanced with the armband on. The guy who sold them to us said that all the little electronic devices we carry around cause us an imbalance of ions (too much negative?) and this device, which has magnets and magnesium or something, recharges your positive ion balance. Leading, of course, to all kinds of delightful results ... better oxygen flow, better balance (the signature result that can actually be measured immediately upon slipping the band on), more restful sleep, more energy, better digestion, better sex (well, that wasn't actually stated but it would certainly follow, wouldn't it?). I could use a good dose of all of the above right now. Frankly, I don't care if it really does all these things or if it is a placebo effect, which still works. All that for $20? What a deal! But I'd be embarrassed to have to explain why I'm wearing this little armband at work. Maybe no one will notice. (Note to self: long sleeves. Every day.) 'Cause really, doesn't it just sound like the biggest scam? But I must confess, today I felt great! Went and worked out, the first time in a week.

This show is called the "Home & Garden Show" but lately when we go, we buy these personal well-being items. Things like little shoe inserts Dwaine got to prevent plantar fascitis, a painful inflammation of a muscle in the foot. Hey, they worked! We got a nightlight that melts scented chips, too. Now they have several vendors who sell beer and wine, as well as lots of foodie items. They even have a pet section and one of the vendors sells pet urns to preserve their ashes. Home? Garden? Hmm.

Is that Anne Hathaway singing? She looks fab in that tux.

OK, "The Fighter" just won both best supporting actor Oscars and I've never heard of it. That means nothing, though. I have not been going to the movies and keeping up with all that. Used to be, when Dwaine and I first married, we went to a first-run movie at a movie theater every weekend. So we were well-versed in the movies of the late '80s extending into the early '90s, maybe.

I have previously blogged about making our kids get some culture, if only the pop kind, by watching "great" movies on Netflix. Including, recently, "The Shining" and "Throw Momma from the Train." Just to show that your idea of great might be a hair different than what I'm talkin' about. But then we also have seen some classics (getting through the whining about sitting through them) like "Casablanca," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Birds," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "High Noon." Then there are movies we own, "Holiday Inn" and "It's a Wonderful Life" (of course) and "Saving Private Ryan."

Some good funny movies we have watched include "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles," and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

The movies are a part of our family life and part of our shared history together. They have enriched my life, that's for sure.

Signing off because the suspense of who will win for best sound editing is just about to kill me!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A story about my sons

I have so many things I want to write about, things that will pop into my head throughout the day. But I realize I write very little about my two sons here, so I wanted to tell a story that may describe some small part of who they are. Not a really important story, just an everyday happening.

It was the night before Valentine's Day, and we were listening to Austin make plans to be with his girlfriend (of one year, bleah, but that's another story). He wanted to take her out, but one problem -- no money. He gets weekly allowance plus extras for other things, but he seems to have holes in his pockets because a few days later, it's always gone.

He came up with the idea of wining and dining her (without the wine part) here at home. One potential problem with that was my husband and I had a date of our own, at a restaurant in San Antonio, and so would not be present to supervise. However, his younger brother, Andrew, would be coming home after school with Austin. We gave it our blessing, after some thought about it. I felt confident that Austin would not do anything hugely inappropriate having to do with Katy with his brother around, though you might feel inclined to challenge my thoughts on that, given that Austin is a 16-year-old boy. But I just felt OK with it, gut level.

So then Andrew gets all excited about the prospect of creating a cafe, of sorts, for Austin's girlfriend, and possibly even cooking for the two of them. He was getting all into this role and coming up with menu items.

(Interruption from Austin, who wanted to show me his new fastball for baseball.) He uses the side of the garage to throw at, and has a metal backboard propped up so he's not usually hitting the brick wall directly. He was trying to show me the intricacies of when the ball would curve for a curveball, but it wasn't doing what he wanted. Finally, he said, "Just two more [pitches], Mom, then you can go back to your video game." (That's a joke; he knows I don't play video games. But he also doesn't know I am blogging about him right now, heh heh.)

Andrew and Austin were coming up with names for their cafe -- Smitty's Dive, I think would have been a good one. Their favorite was "Drewsky's." By the way, it was and is a huge construction zone around here right now. Before Valentine's, we were getting ready to paint the walls in Andrew's room. So in the living room are several pieces of his furniture and all his clothes drawers, then there's a large pile of books and other miscellaneous debris in the back bedroom, etc. It's impossible to clean up around all the piles, and I haven't been home much, so it's sort of a wreck everywhere. Then after painting, it's on to installing flooring to replace the original carpet that came with the house some 17 years ago. (We refloored Austin's room but did not paint in there yet.)

But that was OK, because the boys had an illusion in their heads of this romantic getaway and really just the dining room had to be presentable, just step around the dresser drawers and don't trip over the bucket of painting supplies on your way there. Chef Andrew would wear an apron and make spaghetti, which was about the only meal he felt competent to prepare. He would put up a sign with the name of the cafe on the door, and possibly draw up a menu. (One item: spaghetti.)

I told Austin that Katy's parents would have to approve, and to make sure to tell them we wouldn't be here. He called them to ask and after about 30 minutes, they called back to say no. I could tell they were apologetic because he kept saying, "That's OK." As a parent, I totally understand why they vetoed the whole idea.

So it ended up as it often does -- we gave Austin some money, and he took Katy to a Thai restaurant in San Antonio, spent wildly, drove her home, and didn't get home himself till almost midnight. (When I called him around 11, they were just getting ready to cruise aimlessly around the big city till I vetoed it and told him to come home immediately. This was on a Monday night!)

Poor Drew was left to celebrate Valentine's on his own, at home, till we redeemed the situation by bringing home pizza. Now, if we had known that Austin would definitely be gone on his own date, we would have taken Andrew with us. But we had a reservation for two, not three, and hadn't built in time to swing home to pick him up. Nor did we want to necessarily encourage Austin to go on a date, which is why it came up the night before.

So, this story illustrates the many dilemmas of having teenage children. How much do you trust them? How much autonomy should they have? What's appropriate, and when?

The greatest pearl of parenting wisdom I ever received was from my friend Karen, who raised three children of her own, and said, "In parenting, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't." Every decision you make is subject to criticism and is probably wrong. Exactly so. When I think of my foolish desire to keep my kids safe (see blog post two entries back), I realize how impossible that is. There are way too many hazards in life, and we can't see them all. Every time they get in the car, they are rolling the dice. But even if they were home, they could accidentally burn the house down! You can never stuff them back into the womb again once they're out.

So, these are my kids, but they are not "mine." I often marvel at them and think how lucky I am to be their mom, and wonder how their lives and mine became so intertwined. We didn't pick one another (though I would have picked them in a heartbeat), but here we are. Andrew has a deeply spiritual side and talents that I think are still largely undiscovered, because he's a very internal person and deep thinker. Austin could be a pop star or Hollywood icon, I think he has so much natural charisma. He always makes me laugh and is a charmer, but is also very smart. Now lately, he's worked very hard on his baseball skills and is the starting second baseman for JV. What a shame that he's stuck to the same girlfriend like glue!!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Managing emotions

We had a situation in church that escalated to the point that someone accused someone else of lying, in a very public and hurtful way. Both of these people are good people, in the estimation of me and my husband, so it was surprising and saddening to see this happen.

I'm trying to keep this generic, but one person, let's say "Sam," had a number of issues with one of the church leaders, "Peter." Sam wanted to meet with Peter and have a mediator present, but Peter refused, so instead Sam went to the committee that oversees the church leaders. In that meeting, Sam accused Peter of lying and trying to make Sam look bad. I think the committee members, for the most part, were a bit stunned about how Sam reached many of these conclusions. However, I was not there, so I really can't say for sure. It seems like Sam was operating from a place of deep hurt, and the origins of that pain were fanned by the interactions between Peter and Sam.

I think that there were some strong emotions that overtook Sam and perhaps clouded reality. I see this as a microcosmic example of one of the primary causes of global conflicts -- these out-of-control passions that inflame people to violence. There is very good reason for people to have strong emotions in conflict-torn regions, because in many cases, there is a long and extensive history of violence between groups of people. It's like the Hatfields and McCoys, but on a much larger scale -- Israelis and Palestinians, Hutu and Tutsi, and so on. (Note to reader: I do some basic fact-checking when posting; be glad I didn't write about the Hatberrys and McCoys and leave it that way.)

I can't say that I would be have any kind of handle on reality if members of my family had been killed by an opposition group that seemed out to get me, my family, and my entire tribe. It's impossible to know how I would react, and thankfully God has not placed me in that position. But it seems (from my comfy armchair here) that the best testament to a family member who has been killed is to make a solemn vow that the violence ends here and now, and no more lives will be taken, for revenge or any other reason. Yeah, how easy and cheap it is to sit here and blog about it. And yet, something drives me to do just that. To take a stab at looking into this problem -- oops, I shouldn't use that analogy!

My ongoing struggle is how to make the world a better place ... this is a dilemma that makes me feel desperate at times, because I feel so ineffective and so tiny. It is so hard to truly help other people. Really, you could argue that it is impossible to help someone else -- if they cannot reach back when you reach out, or if they are not ready or receptive. It's so easy to fall into traps like being condescending, feeling holier than the other person, or to live under the illusion that you are actually in the role of "helper," not receiving anything of benefit in return. And motive is always questionable when you purposefully set out to "help" someone else. You immediately are up on a pedestal, instead of in an equal position with that person, and that sense of being better is a falsehood. Plus, it adds distance between you, and makes it harder to find common ground.

In contemplating the problems of the world, I see that many are attributable to uncontrolled outbursts of negative emotions. This can be long-term and simmering, like the wish for revenge (some might call it "justice" though revenge is not the same thing at all), or refusing to forgive others. Or it can be an instantaneous episode where someone blows up and does something terrible. I believe that as human beings, we are all capable of being pushed over the edge and doing something quite horrific. I know that but for the grace of God, there were moments where I could have died or killed someone else in my life -- not just once, but a number of times. So we should be aware of this very deep, primitive nature that lurks in us and may urge us to do something that cannot be remedied.

I talk about this as a global problem, but it's also deeply personal. Here is something I can achieve, myself, in my lifetime ... better control over my own negative emotions. I see the fruit of this work in my life everywhere ... how much happier my family seems, how much I enjoy being around other people (nearly everybody!), how the petty conflicts of daily life seem so much more minor in comparison to all the love and beauty out there. I love to listen to the Dalai Lama, which I often do while driving, because he is the living embodiment of the fruits of compassion. Being in his presence, through his spoken words, has an amazing effect on me. It's so uplifting.

My wish is that through the hard work of one person in their own life, the benefits can spread slowly outward, like the ripple of one small pebble tossed in water. However, it seems like our existence in this world is not a calm pond, but more like a tempest-tossed ocean, and this tiny ripple may be swallowed up by the tsunamis out there!

I also wanted to mention something that has helped me. I still feel these turbulent emotions that arise out of nowhere. I have learned that I can stop and say, Oh! Julie is feeling this emotion. It is not a reflection of reality. It's just the feeling of the moment. Let it be, sit with it, and it will pass away. This little mental trick has really worked well. At times at work, I have felt so lonely, just this ache deep in the middle of me (a familiar ache), and I realize that this particular feeling is constructed, made up. Poof! It disappears like a phantom. I have lived with this ache, this sense of complete isolation, my whole life. Funny to find that it isn't real at all.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Moral authority

This is something I often lack in my day-to-day interactions with others. And today I was tested.

Andrew wanted to go spend the night at a friend of a friend's (FOF for short) house, the second night in a row away from home (last night he went to a friend's after returning quite late from soccer, so they could go fishing today). This FOF's place is right on the San Antonio River and the three boys were going to go fishing tonight.

I called the mom to get more information, because I didn't know this family at all. (By the way, I often bypass this step.) As we were talking, she shared with me that her son and Andrew's friend would also likely go hunting for turkeys and wild pigs in the dark tonight, with guns. The father in this family is in law enforcement and this high school freshman boy is, per his mom, very experienced in handling guns. So I said, in lieu of freaking out, I'll have to talk with Andrew about that because he is not very experienced handling guns.Note I didn't say, oh, that sounds just great! But, nor did I question her judgment in any overt way.

So I didn't immediately freak out, but I did tell Dwaine about it and he asked, what kind of guns? Well, I have no idea, really. To me, a gun is a gun. But, a beebee gun is really different than a handgun. I get that.

Dwaine sort of laughed at the idea of three teenage boys, unsupervised, going fishing at nighttime, oh, and hunting too. Probably this is something he did as a boy, along with running away from the cops on his dirt bike with his buddies. Does it mean my boys should have the same full range of experience?

Well, something kept nagging at me. I don't know quite what it was, but ... perhaps the voice of reason? Really, five other adults (the other two boys' parents and my husband) apparently were not hearing this little voice nagging at them, but I was. It was getting louder and louder, actually. Then it dawned on me that I simply could not allow my son to be in this risky situation. Period.

I'm not a strict parent, and I try not to worry. In fact, I bend over backwards to not worry, because my natural tendency is to be anxious about EVERYTHING, and it is not healthy or normal, and I recognize that. So, I tend to quash those feelings when they occur, as they do daily. Why did I have to have two boys, oh why?

Just fortunately in this case, there was this tiny little voice in my head that would not shut up or go away. Not even if it was the only voice like that in the whole, wide, world ... which is how it often feels when we are in a moral predicament, and the other "responsible adults" are looking the other way.

It's almost like God was testing me in this really dramatic, obvious way to assert my moral authority with my teenage boy, and to be unafraid of the result. (This interpretation is just my way of seeing things through the eyes of my faith.) My son's reaction was, worse than anger, deep hurt and disappointment. I had already been wavering on whether to let him go spend the night, and then I said yes, and then I said no. So that was tough on him. I think Andrew feels he will be less of a man in the eyes of his so-called friends now. Well, if that's how they measure him, are they really friends at all?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Life (not wife) swap

Does anyone want to swap lives with me, ha ha? I was driving by the Quarry movie theater this afternoon around 6 pm, and there were people coming out of the movies. Not employees, just average people. Which could mean only one thing ... that they had been in the movie theater, watching a movie, while I was at work. I had a visceral reaction where I briefly became them. I smelled the popcorn, heard the surround-sound, imagined the leisure time and the feeling of relaxation, then the imagined conversation -- "What should we do now?" "I don't know, dear, you decide" -- as the loving couple strolled together to the car for the next merry outing. It was a moment of intense longing.

This stream of thought was quickly followed by wondering why these people would have time to go see a movie on a weekday afternoon. Perhaps they were simply retired or had a day off -- on a random Tuesday. Or maybe they had to work weekends, or they had the night shift somewhere (both of which, I think, would be worse than a regular full-time job). There are also plenty of sinister reasons to have leisure time, which mostly involve things like poor health, unemployment, and impending death (yours or a loved one's). So that thought was like the cooler of Gatorade dumped on the head of the Superbowl-winning coach, in that it sort of woke me up from my fantasy, momentarily.

It could be that people who have too much leisure time have as many problems, or more, as people who are overscheduled.

What I think would solve the problem of wishing and longing would be to do a "life swap." You find someone who has a life that is totally opposite yours. If you have kids and spend 24/7 dealing with them, find someone with no or grown kids who spends their time doing something different, for example. I guess I'd find someone with lots of leisure time, no kids or pets.

Then you swap lives with them. I suppose this would need to be very short-term. Say, a week. I bet at the end of it, in most cases both people would be begging to have their old lives, and people big or little, back again. (Unless they had the aforementioned terminal illness or some *real* problem going on.)

There are plenty of people out there who I wouldn't want to do a life swap with. For example, my dear friend Carol with her four kids, or is it five? I honestly have to think about it. Yeah, five! (Sorry, Joel/Jules.) Almost too many to count, much less to raise!

Or, the CPA at work (one of many people out there) who puts in endless hours and often works all weekend.

Anyhow, I just got back from a lovely weekend retreat with my friend Karen. Being hosted by her and her husband Bill at their house in the evenings was so enjoyable, like staying at a hotel but with social interactions, Australian sheepdogs, and homemade breakfast -- the best of everything! It was truly a retreat from my life and all its baggage. Amazingly, my kids survived the weekend though I spent not one minute worrying about them! (I'll have to try that more often.)

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