explorations of mindful fatherhood


Back from the Dead

hand-zombie-grave-e1325617835981It has been 47 days since my last post, and I have to ask myself, what the hell happened? In the year and a half since starting this blog, this is my longest hiatus to date. What happened? Life. Shitty life.

The past couple of months have been filled with obligation. Just lots of work. I had to chair a math night at my son’s elementary school, write an article for work, and take care of innumerable work projects. When all this hits the fan, I find myself exhausted on a regular basis, and any alone-time I carve out is either consumed by work projects or by worry about these projects.

During these dark days, some of the important things in my life begin slipping off the radar. I abandon my mediation practice. I stop doing my back exercises (and my inner Will-Farrell-hot-tub-lounging-professor emerges). And most of all, I stop writing. I easily resort to the mantra, “I don’t have time.” And when I do have the time, I’m either too consumed by thoughts/worries/frustrations about everything else going on in my life, or I think to myself, “I deserve some downtime.”

To me, downtime usually means vegging out: watching TV, movies, sleeping, or reading crap. It’s basically mindless garbage. I start feeling as though my mind is so consumed by things I kind of resent (i.e., work), that it deserves just to shut down. In the moment, any of those things that are meaningful or helpful fly out the window. But why? I think it’s likely that those things feel like they require energy and thought, and I’m typically left with none.

That’s why writing is a good barometer for me, as I’m sure it is for others.  When I haven’t written in a long time, I realize that I’ve been simply too exhausted to pour my thoughts into words. I’ve been consumed by work, obligations, and other demands that overwhelm. It’s a sign that I haven’t had time to strike a balance. A neglected blog (like a neglected journal or diary) is a sign that I haven’t saved some of my energy for the things that are important, like reflecting on my experiences, focusing on my family, and learning from my own mistakes. That’s what my blog is supposed to be about. So if I haven’t attended it for a while, it’s a sign that I haven’t reserved any of my time or energy for things that are important for me and my own growth.

In short, I’m happy to be back writing. I hope to keep in mind that me-time does not have to equal mindless-time, because it leaves me feeling sapped and empty.


Back from the Dead (and Everything’s Changed)

paranorman_tv4_1080_20120802193814I’d like to see a zombie movie in which the living dead are cognizant of the world around them, and are stunned by just how much the world they’ve woken to has changed.  ParaNorman took that spin on things when its zombie Puritans run screaming from Main Street at the sight of TVs and neon lights.  I’d imagine these culture-shocked zombies might be so taken aback by what they see, they lose their appetites.  The best analogy I can conjure up is returning to your favorite restaurant after a long vacation, only to realize that they’ve changed the decor and the waitstaff so much that you’re too distracted to eat.

That’s what the last month of summer felt like to me.  So much was changing in a short span of time, that I was too distracted to write it down.  I’d like to say I took a planned break from blogging so that I could jump back into the fray in September, recharged.  But this wasn’t the case.  In fact, I even had several ideas for posts swarm inside my brain-case now and again, but none of them got me to sit down in front of the computer and tap them out.  In fact, one blog idea that kept returning to me time and again was my reaction to watching my son cast a fishing rod this summer.  I think that image floored me.  Now, in retrospect, I can see that the thought of him being such a big kid, and entering the second grade, swept my writing legs out from under me. Here’s what happened.

My wife’s family was spending a couple of weeks in Cape Cod, and were gracious enough to invite us to stay with them for part of that time. Our work schedules are a little crazy, so we went up one weekend, and my wife and I came back home mid-week to go back to work, leaving our son with his cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandparents.  I was away from everyone the longest, and when I returned to the Cape that Friday, my son raved about being taught by his grandfather how to fish.  He was dying to show me, and we all headed down to the water that day.  Now, these weren’t the piddly little poles that I grew up fishing with in the Midwest, but the big sea-faring poles, with the exposed reel that you have to manipulate with your fingers when you cast.  Definitely not child’s play.  After being baited up, my son held the base of the pole between his legs, set up the reel, pulled the line taught with his finger, hauled back, and released a perfect cast out into the water.

It doesn’t sound like much.  Just a 7 year-old casting a fishing pole.  But I was floored.  He executed the maneuver with grace and ease, and without a single reminder or tip from an adult.  I kept cheering loudly (like a bad fisherman) for him to “Do it again! Do it again!”  I couldn’t believe that this kid, who just a few years ago was learning to walk, was now handling his own on a dock with a seven foot long fishing pole.

That’s the image that stopped me cold.  The image that prevented me from writing a single word.  Perhaps not the image itself, but what it signified.  My son had grown.  Grown quicker than I expected, and now we were about to head into another year of work and school.  Not only had he grown, but he was old enough to be away from his parents, in another state, on vacation.  He was getting so big.

Another thing that stopped me in my tracks was that he was now learning things, out there in the world, that had nothing to do with his parents.  That sounds weird, as though I expect everything he knows to be taught by us, which certainly isn’t the case.  Of course he has to learn things out there in the world beyond us.  I think it was the fact that most everything he’s learned, from academics, to sports, to arts, were all facilitated by his mom or me.  We helped him get to school or find a class or camp.  In the case of fishing, he had been on his own in the world, decided he wanted to learn to fish, convinced his grandfather to teach him, and practiced on his own.  What the hell!  He’s no baby anymore.

And so I’m back to writing it all down, twisted up inside by the mixture of pride and anguish that comes with parenthood.  I hope to stay put and keep up my appetite for writing, in spite of (or maybe because of) how much my world is changing.


The Governor: undead dad

In AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, The Governor of Woodbury adopts a much more subtle psychopathy than that of his comic counterpart.  Having organized a group of survivors to clean out, border, and protect the small town of Woodbury, The Governor takes every step necessary to protect his enclave–and his own power–from forces outside the town’s gates, whether they be living or dead.  To this end, The Governor kills the surviving solider of helicopter crash, massacres the soldier’s encamped men, and orders Michonne’s murder in the forests surrounding Woodbury.

20121128-walkingdead7-x306-1354142185David Morrissey’s role diverges from the comic again when we learn that he was married, and discover that he has a daughter, Penny, who is now a walker.  The Governor secretly stows Penny away in his private quarters.  In one scene we find him brushing Penny’s hair when a clump of scalp detaches from her head, sending her into a fit.  The Governor holds her tightly, whispering to ease her struggle, as a father might with a tantrumming child.  The scene injects The Governor’s character with a compassion otherwise hidden behind his ruthless acts as the town’s leader.

The scene and the character exemplify a recurring theme in The Walking Dead, and one that I believe pervades the entire zombie genre: the constant struggle to wake up to the reality of the world.  Zombies are an enduring allegory.  Zombies themselves are often employed as the carnal representations of deadening forces within culture and society.  In Night of the Living Dead they represented the mindless scare over nuclear fallout, in Dawn of the Dead they were stand-ins for ruthless consumerism, and in Shaun of the Dead they might have been personifications of mid-twenties directionlessness.  But on the flip side, survivors of zombie plagues could be interpreted as embodying mindfulness: those who have received a jolting wake-up to the reality of the world and its faults.  Survivors are never allowed to put down their guard.  They must always be vigilant about their surroundings, their escape paths, and bumps in the night.  Survivors are challenged with facing head-on the apathy and soulessness of contemporary culture by bearing witness to, and fending off, their undead friends and neighbors.  In The Walking Dead, it is this constant witness-bearing that slowly drives Rick’s band of survivors mad.  Our beloved characters are constantly smacked face by the ruthless nature of humanity, which turns them into a sentient version of the walking dead.

When characters delude themselves by refusing to accept the reality of the zombie plague, they are actively fighting the mindfulness the current moment demands.  For these characters, it is more comforting to believe in a hope of the return to the old ways, to an old humanity.  This was Hershel’s struggle when he kept walkers in the barn, hoping a cure might revive his wife and neighbors.  The Governor holds a similar delusion, but his act of keeping Penny tied up is even more striking, given his otherwise brutal character.  Hershel is a man whose faith and allegiance to family motivated him to hold onto the notion that his loved ones might one day be cured.  The Governor, on the other hand, is a man who, in all other regards, has fully accepted the ruthless nature of man that the zombie plague has forced humanity to confront.  The Governor has become a merciless leader, cunningly killing any survivor who threatens his position of power.  The Governor’s temporary suspension of reality by keeping and tending to his zombified daughter, shows just how powerful the lure of turning away from reality can be.  Even the most conscious and opportunistic can shy away from reality when it becomes too overwhelming.

This is why zombism is a great metaphor for mindfulness.  When confronted with the deadening forces of society, we’re forced to wake up to reality and mindfully engage with the world around us.  This is a constant struggle for fathers and other parents as we’re bombarded with the demands of everyday life.  For some of us, the consequence of this bombardment is a real disconnect from the ones we love, our family members.  When faced with the disconnect, rather than dealing with it, we have a tendency to sink deeper into the stresses of the world as a welcome distraction from our disconnect.  Especially when our reality involves loss.

I’ve experienced this type of retreat myself.  A big loss that I’ve dealt with is my own father’s withdrawal.  My father is still alive, mind you, but I have not talked to him in the past three years.  He pulled away from me for undisclosed reasons, and in spite of my attempts to open up conversations, he hasn’t responded to any of my invitations.  Yet he and I go through a ritual each year of suspending belief in the reality of our failed relationship when he sends me a Christmas gift.  Typically, his gift is a box of meat (oddly consistent with the zombie theme).   My dad was a big hunter and a true midwestern steak lover, and so each year a refrigerated box of steaks, fillets, and sausages gets sent to my door.  I’ve received his gift even during my vegetarian years.

Excuse this rather gross sentence, but: my accepting the meat box is akin to The Governor brushing a dead girl’s hair.  My father and I delude ourselves about just how bad our relationship has gotten.  It’s easier for him to send a gift and for me to receive it (and in some ways, expect it), than it is for either of us to be confronted with the reality of our situation.  For the holidays it’s easier to forget about my family strife and sit down to an Omaha steak.

At times, we as fathers can retreat to a fantasy, or to the doldrums of a busy life, because it’s easier than facing the disconnections in our lives.  This is our undead dad nature.  We retreat to a busy lifestyle because, in some ways, it’s easier than facing and investing in the challenges of making our relationships work.  It is incredibly difficult to extract ourselves from the mindless cycle of work.  Sometimes, just like the survivors of a zombie plague, we need a slap in the face to wake up to the reality of a clump of dead girl’s hair or a box of meat.