I knew that you loved me since I knew what love was. You always took great care of me, showed interest, were available, warm, firm and encouraging. And I could tell that you were great parents as soon as I got to the age that my peers started complaining about their parents. I rarely had anything to add to those conversations. I loved you and respected you too, but I was of course ignorant of just how lopsided our relationship was.

Two months ago,  when Margo was born, this deep, strong glow of love and devotion gripped me, and I thought, “Oh my God, Mom and Dad felt like this about me!” It’s been a major shock to and reorganization of my emotional system, that all this time you have had this in your hearts for me. It’s been on my mind during every interaction with you since then.

It’s a sad, almost tragic, part of human life that children have to be ignorant of the intensity of their parent’s love. I suppose it might be too much to bear for us as children, especially if it came along with the knowledge of how much it takes to provide that safe and safe-feeling life. But we stay ignorant into adulthood until we have children of our own, long after we could handle that knowledge, long after we need it, really, to understand who we are and where we come from.

So almost forty-five years of ignorance precedes this letter.  Sorry about that! But mostly, thank you. I learned how to love from you, since the day I was born. Thanks for how deeply and effortlessly I love my daughter!

Nathen

Fam of 3

Dad, Mom & me, 1971. Photo by Stan Zarakov

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Me & Margo, 2016. Photo by Reanna Alder

Day One

Dear Baby,

You don’t have a name yet but it’s looking like you will be Margo. Your mama has been liking Margo best for a couple of months now, though mostly calling you Hepsibah when you kicked from inside, or had hiccoughs. Your grandpa Papap likes Michelle (maybe he’ll sing you the Beatles song some day) and your cousin Oliver wants Rose, and actually called you Rose today a couple of times until his mama told him to stop. “But she’s so pretty and Rose is such a pretty name!’

It seems strange to name you. I know I’ll get used to calling you Margo, or whatever we name you, and that you will come to define that name for me in time, but right now, you are just you. It’s simple. And it makes me think that we become limited by our names. I think it takes a lot of work to get back to being simply you, the organism that lives and breathes, eats and shits, smiles and cries.

You are tiny and have a lot of black hair, for a baby. You are so cute that I cry whenever you smile and a lot of the rest of the time, too. I’ve seen it a bunch of times so I know it’s true, but it’s hard to believe that you will get even cuter as you chub up and develop more agency and social awareness.

You are calm and sleep a lot, so far. I’ve been carrying you almost all day in a skin-to-skin sling and you’ve been awake maybe 30 minutes. You wore your mama out last night, nursing and cuddling. She’s pretty beat up from giving birth to you, all sore and achy and tired. Wounded.

Being around you is letting me have new experiences of things I’ve become so used to, like gravity, the slightly out of tune sound of my piano, the sound of the mockingbird outside, the lines and colors of this new little house your mama made, the feeling of a breeze, the sound of wind. Beautiful.

Day Five

Dear Baby,

You are lying asleep on your Nana Honey’s chest in her living room. I am typing on the couch next to her as we talk about your name. It’s your middle and last names that are the hardest. Maybe your generation will have figured this stuff out by the time you have kids. Luckily, your mama is in charge of naming you, since you’re a girl. That was our deal.

This is your first real separation from your mama. She’s at the hospital right now, getting some help. We’re all hoping that she’s home soon, maybe before you wake up.

You are doing great, healthy, beautiful, strong. And very well loved. You met your uncle Cory this morning, and his girlfriend, Emma. They held you for the first time, and so did your uncle Sam and his girlfriend, Aly. Your grandma Nana Honey is holding you for the first time right now, for the last hour. They all love you like crazy. Me too. I love you like crazy.

Day Seven

Dear Margo,

I wish I’d had more time to write. So many precious moments with you and your mama that now I won’t remember and so you’ll never hear about them.

Your mama is having a tough time. She’s been in a lot of pain from some complications. She went to the doctor again yesterday.

So you had your first two attachment ruptures, as we call them in my profession, and oh, were they heartbreaking for you and me. Your uncle Ben and auntie Beca work in the ER and hospital and told us it’s crazy to bring a healthy baby in there, just don’t do it. So you stayed home with me both times, and it was rough. The first time was about three hours, and you slept for the first hour and a half, on your nana’s chest. Then you woke and wanted, needed, to nurse. You did swallow some of the pumped breast milk we had but that was not comforting at all. You just cried “Ngaaaaaaaaa, shudder, ngaaaaaaaaaaa!” over and over. I feel so sad thinking about it. We held you and made you as comfortable as possible, but that was not enough. Eventually I put you in our skin-to-skin sling and danced some Charleston and Lindy with you and you fell asleep pretty quick.

That was two days ago. Yesterday went a little better. Your mama was gone almost as long, but I fed you the pumped milk before you got upset, so you ate more. I’m learning your words and understand “hungry” and “going to poop” (which sound like “ngaa” and little grunts, respectively) but it’s quite clear that “hungry” really means “I need milk from my mama’s breast with her skin and heartbeat and loving arms, not a finger to suck on and not milk from a spoon.” You like my skin and heartbeat and loving arms, too, and my singing, and the lullaby I play you on the piano, but not to satisfy “Ngaaaa!” The sling and dancing were helpful, nice and snug against my skin, with Charleston pulse, and you fell asleep a little while before your mama got back.

Despite her pain and those ruptures, you and your mama are bonding great. She loves you so much and cries about it every time she tells me. When she’s in pain and needs help, the thing that helps her the most is remembering a time in Florida, when she was swimming in the ocean with you in her belly and became overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and her love for you. I remember her coming back to our apartment and telling me about it and bursting into tears, saying “This baby is with me, and will stay with me, and we’re going to get to swim in the ocean together and I’m just so happy…”

I’m so in love with you. I love every little wiggle and expression. I see your face when I close my eyes. It is obvious to me that you are the most beautiful thing that has ever happened in this world, even when you look like a tiny and disgruntled fat man with hiccoughs, which you do sometimes. Yesterday I had to go to Walmart for some iodine. I dislike that place intensely. It’s so ugly and depressing. I tried three other places first but no one else had it. But I walked into Walmart, bracing myself for the ugliness, and thought, “I have a baby daughter at home!” and proceeded to find and buy my iodine with a light heart and a spring in my step.

There is so much more to tell you, but I need to make your mama breakfast.

Love,

Papa

Day Nine

Dear Margo,

I’m tired for days and your mama is more tired. We have a lot of help available from our families but I’ve been mostly keeping them away so she doesn’t get worn out by social activity. It’s the people you love the most it’s hardest to send away so you can nap. It looks like she’s going to be OK, though. We’re all sure of that now.

Right now you and your mama are napping. Your grandpa and grandma are helping out in the house, putting up blinds, doing laundry—you generate 2-3 loads of laundry a day, which is mind-boggling. I’m trying to work out how to get that laundry water onto trees instead of into the septic as soon as possible. I’m taking a break right now, down in the cabin which used to be our bedroom and which you will likely remember as your mama’s sewing studio. It’s 102 degrees outside, a real late-spring heat wave.

You can almost roll over already. You can get right on to your side. I think that’s remarkable. I’d like to look up developmental milestones and see.

I’m thinking about how if you ever read this letter, it will be as an adult. If you are my age by the time you read it, I will either be dead or have lost most of my memories. In any case, our relationship will have become at least to some degree, though against my sincere wishes, complicated by life, compromises, confusions, resentments. It’s not that I don’t expect a good, solid, loving relationship with you, but I’ve seen life happen, and it gets complicated.

I want you to know and believe to the bottom of your heart that whatever complications we have developed, that it is not your fault, that you were born purely good, purely lovable. Right now, at least up until your ninth day on earth, that is so clear to me, and my love for you, my care for you, my devotion to you, is complete, easy, and uncomplicated. It is only my own limits and the limits of this place we find ourselves that can mess that up. I wish we could both remember this until we die.

Love,

Papa

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I’ve been watching more TV than usual this year. The recent crop of comic book shows got me, starting with Agents of SHIELD, then Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, and finally The Flash (trying to lighten things up). I loved comic books as a kid, collected Daredevil, Iron Man, The Hulk, Defenders, and some X-titles. I hear people complain about all the big budget superhero stuff, but I love it–so much fun to watch, and they generally do justice to the comic books.

But these TV shows are dark! After one particularly dark Jessica Jones (S1E9), I stopped watching everything to rethink. I realized that watching dark TV shows is the opposite of meditating. With meditation I observe my internal reality, as objectively as possible, in a way that decreases anxiety. When I watch dark TV I’m taking in someone else’s fantasy in a way that increases anxiety. It’s fun, but sometimes so creepy or scary or gross that I’m conflicted about watching the next episode, and when I do I’m sincerely hoping it’s not as f***ed up as the last one.

I’d been wanting to meditate more anyways, but hadn’t been finding time, so I decided to start buying solo TV time with meditation time, 1 for 1. (My wife is not into dark or comic books.) I counted up and I’d watched 27 hours (!) of TV since the first of the year, and meditated 8. So, 19 hours of meditating before any more TV. That was on February 20th.

It’s working out great so far. I’m carving out way more time to meditate, both in small chunks between clients or case notes, and in larger chunks in the mornings and evenings. And I’ve had no problem abstaining from solo TV watching, possibly because of having less time to carve out for it. I have not watched a single minute of solo TV since February 16, even as episodes of Agents of SHIELD began to pile up in iTunes.

I sat down to finish this post today, May 7, recounted, and found I’m up to 27 hours and 34 minutes of meditation so far in 2016. Ten more minutes and I can watch an episode of SHIELD…

One last point, for meditators only: I’d almost always meditated with a timer: set it for 30 or 45 minutes or whatever and sit until it went off. This seemed important because I didn’t want my stopping point determined by my inner state. I didn’t want to stop because I got too uncomfortable, for example, or to stay at it until I’d achieved a certain level of comfort. I was a bit nervous the shift to using a stopwatch would be bad for my meditation. So far, though, it hasn’t been a problem at all. I can meditate and stop meditating without mind games, and just feel glad I took the time.

I get to think and talk about insomnia a lot, because it is such a common symptom in my therapy clients (at least three-quarters of them) and because I’ve had plenty of it myself over the years. (Here is my advice for insomniacs.) Based on my experience, I’d like to propose a pattern of insomnia that I believe is the most common and hardest to overcome kind of insomnia: structural insomnia.

Imagine you were held prisoner for an interrogation. Your captors might try to make you pliable by depriving you of sleep. Maybe they don’t let you lie down, or force you to do some kind of work instead of sleep, or force you to drink caffeine to keep you awake, or use lights, sounds, music, or movement to keep you from sleeping. The lack of sleep you experience would be structural insomnia: lack of sleep created by your waking or sleeping environment, or by bad scheduling.

That would be a pretty cruel way to treat someone else, but when we do it to ourselves it seems pretty normal. Here are some of the most common ways we torture ourselves with structural insomnia:

We create sleeping spaces that are not dark, quiet, still, and/or comfortable.

We use caffeine less than 6 hours before wanting to fall asleep. It takes your liver 6 hours to process caffeine. You have to give it enough time to do it’s job.

We expose ourselves to light right up to when we want to fall asleep. Light tells your brain it’s day, which keeps it from producing the hormone that pressures and allows you to fall asleep.

We work up to the last minute, or stew on something provocative. You have to give yourself some mellow transition time between being on the ball and asleep.

We do not allow ourselves enough time fall asleep and sleep adequately before we have to wake up in the morning. This is a big one! If you need to wake up at 6am, you must be lying down in the dark, doing nothing but trying to fall asleep by 9:30pm in order to get 8 hours of sleep. And that’s if you can fall asleep in 30 minutes. If you know it takes you two hours to fall asleep, you need to schedule ten hours in bed to get your eight.

We wake up at night and shine light in our eyes. Phones, clocks, TV, refrigerator lights, etc.

We set an object right by our head that will randomly light up, play music, buzz, or make other alarm-like sounds. Phones, of course. Turn them off.

If you agree that it would be torture, or at least mistreatment, if you did this stuff to someone else, consider not doing it to yourself!

I’m still investigating bullying and interventions for bullied kids. Most of what I’ve come across is about how to support kids in not fighting back and telling an adult if they are getting bullied. Another take is learning the language of violence to become less of a target. Here are two videos about that.

The first video is a very short one (just watch the first 10 seconds), of a kid getting beaten up in a locker room. The second is a documentary of that same kid getting trained at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. It’s a commercial for the Gracies, but I found it moving to watch them work with this kid, give him some traction in this situation. They show him self defense stuff and, building on that confidence, how to hold himself socially so that he’ll be less likely to need to fight. That’s what I’m most interested in, the reduction in violence.

 

Some folks think that learning to fight is a bad way to reduce violence, and as far as I know it’s still an empirical question, if knowing martial arts reduces the amount of school fighting you will become involved in. What protects them from the instrument fallacy, for example? If your hammer is Jiu-Jitsu, won’t more confrontations look like inevitable fights?

My guess, though, is that it does reduce violence, at least outside of formal sparring. There’s a potential leveling up, developmentally, in learning a martial art. At a certain age, establishing a dominance hierarchy makes developmental sense. Knowing how to handle oneself in violent situations, feeling less helpless and scared, could decrease the chances of a traumatic event slowing your progress out of that dominance-hierarchy stage. At the same time, martial arts usually come along with an ethical code, to use your skills only to defend yourself or someone else, for example. Any sufficiently sophisticated ethical code which is internalized will also help a kid progress out of might-makes-right. It will also likely help other kids around them do the same, just by seeing higher level ethics in action.

I’ve been thinking about bullying a lot lately. My younger clients are often getting bullied at school, so I started looking for videos about how to handle bullying. That genre, it turns out, is both boring and useless. On the way, though, I fell down the strange and compelling rabbit hole of bully-fail videos. Someone is getting picked on, has enough of it, and fights back effectively. The bully thinks they are picking on someone weak, but they turn out to be tough. They make me squirm, just watching people treat each other so badly, but there’s something gripping about them, too.

Here’s an example:

This  next one is a compilation mostly of the same type, but the section that got to me runs from 7:07 to 9:28, and is part of a less common but more moving version: Someone is getting bullied and someone else steps in to protect them.

I’ve watched the section from 7:07 to 9:28 many times now, and my reaction changed over time. The first time I was just really uncomfortable, waiting for Will to protect himself and then oh, so relieved when someone stepped up. After the first time, the painful part is how long it takes for anyone to stick up for him. I suppose they are giving him a chance to fight back, but it’s a really long chance. The other kids want to see a fight. After getting to that point, I started noticing how all these bully-fail videos are really bystander-fail videos. How is it OK, or even funny, that this particular bullying is going on? Where are all the tough but nice kids stepping in to stop bullies? There are no principles at play here except dominance, until someone steps up. And when someone does, it’s a major leveling up for the hero, from might-makes-right to some sense of principled right and wrong. From the standpoint of physical dominance hierarchies, protecting a weak person is taking on a liability to do the right thing. That weak person will be grateful, and might help you finish your math homework, but they will almost never help you out in a fight. And let’s face it – you probably don’t care much about your math homework.

I know those moments are a big deal because it happened to me. In 6th grade there was a kid who’d failed a couple times, much bigger than any of the other kids, who started pushing me around one day on the basketball court. I was small and sensitive and felt completely helpless. Suddenly, another kid knocked the first kid down, probably hit him a few times, and said something like, “If you touch my friend again, I’ll  kick your ass again.” I still feel choked up, thinking about it, more than 30 years later. That’s how it should go.

[I look for this hero every year or so on the internet and he’s never turned up. Terry Quakendal. I’d like to thank him, as an adult, for what he did.]

This last one is not a bully fail video, but quite interesting. An adult calls his childhood bully to talk about what happened:

“I like the brevity of the blog. You can make it quite short. You can just go on as long as you want to go and then just stop. It’s sort of like making a paper airplane…. I used to love to make paper airplanes. I made great paper airplanes.  You throw it out the window, it goes a little ways, turns and curves beautifully and then it’s gone forever. It’s like a blog.”

Roger Angell, at 95, on The New Yorker Radio Hour

Ah, yes, it’s so easy to write a blog post. To the extent that writing anything meaningful is easy, writing a blog post is easy. It’s as low stakes as public writing gets, especially on a small-time blog like mine. Nothing for sale, no sponsors, few readers.

And yet I haven’t been writing, despite all the inspiration and satisfaction I’ve gotten from it over the years. My list of ideas for blog posts has more words in it than I’ve actually posted in the last 10 months. It makes me sad to think about. I miss the way writing clarifies my thinking. I miss the way writing makes some contact with the friends and family members who don’t live next door to me. I’m out of touch with so many of you. And I’ve had too many interesting ideas swim in and back out of my head, unchecked by writing.

I’ve also been noticing how not writing makes my internet presence stagnate. I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts and audio books on my commute, often in intense imaginary conversations in my head with the authors/podcasters. I’d like to be getting in touch with them on Twitter or something, at least to say thanks. When I remember that my last blog post is about the common ants of Joshua Tree, though, I refrain. I love that post, but it’s a funny way to represent myself, especially as the only public observation I’ve made in ten months.

The thing is, I’m working like crazy on getting my license for marriage and family therapy. I talk to clients and write case notes all day, which is not inspiring writing and results in too much time looking at a computer screen. If I have energy after work, I can’t be sitting down writing. I need to go the gym or scramble on some rocks. Or play piano, or rest, or spend time with my wife and family, or get ready for work or bed. It’s a good life, just no blogging for now. I’ll be back.