Tag Archives: families

The Wages of Chronic Distraction

An astute friend of ours is visiting, and over coffee, the conversation turned to the challenges of raising our respective 13-year-olds. Wonderful kids, they are, who give us very little real trouble. But like many kids their age, they are pulled from either end by ambitions toward adulthood and the comforts and habits of childhood. It’s hard to instill, the kind of organization that fosters discipline and would leave them more time to do the things they want, even when you argue convincingly that there will be more goof-off time if only they will put work before play a little more often. Reason alone is not enough with some people, especially young teens, especially when it emanates from the mouth of a parent.

“I can come around the corner into his room,” I lament, “and he’ll be mid-video-game while there’s still science or social studies pending.” Our friend commiserates. My wife adds that even if the gaming interlude was a short jaunt away from work while looking up a legitimate homework question, this extra electronic time adds up. Sleep suffers, ours and his.

It often comes back to the electronics, doesn’t it? My son doesn’t even have a Facebook page, yet he is active on Skype, gaming and chatting with his friends. He is a big looker-up of things on the way to looking up other things, a good sign of a smart kid. I don’t want to restrict access to his computer and iPad in a ham-handed way; I’d rather he slowly build a lasting discipline on his own. Parental pipe dream? Maybe. But taking the blinky things away completely has to be a last resort, to my way of thinking.mommy_texting

Our friend has observed a more serious electronic wedge being driven into child life, though, this one by people who are beyond the disciplinary direction of others. She has seen parents like the one pictured, wheeling a stroller down the street and completely engrossed in the on-screen goings-on of their smartphones. The baby in the stroller is pretty much on her own.

Take away any safety concerns (not watching for cars, etc.) and you still have serious cause for discomfort that perhaps only a mother would divine. Before handheld computers, a Mom walking her child in a stroller would likely be singing a little song, remarking how lovely a day it is, pointing and saying, “See that bird, honey? It’s blue!” In a word, engagement: the basis of language, observation, interest, a mental foothold on the world and the path to enlightened alertness. It’s also a special brand of love.

I wouldn’t suggest that every moment in the presence of a baby needs to be filled with speech. (My wife and I still joke about a friend who had a baby about our son’s age. That little girl learned to talk way early because her mother had a habit of narrating her entire day like a sportscaster on caffeine. By the time she was 14 months, that kid had heard everything.) But the sound of a parent’s voice, the little facts, rhythms, and affections it conveys — these are the bricks and mortar of a well-grounded mind. The fact that parent and child enjoy such interactions makes them all the more precious.

But silently locked into smartphone torpor? It doesn’t work. Of course, the baby doesn’t know enough to be as upset as I am at the thought, the image of a child waiting for interaction, but just sort of…left out there to drift.

We all love the convenience and “neatness” of our smartphones, sure. No harm in that. But moderation in all things, right? Well…except in what’s good for our children.


© 2014 Adam Barr

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Your Eyes in Safety Glasses Drive Me Wild…

It always surprises me — although, after nearly 24 years, less and less often — how little romance has to do with the real nuts and bolts of a marriage. Not that I’m an enemy of romance. Far from it. But the real structural steel and rebar that make a marriage strong are about as far from roses and poetry as…well, structural steel and rebar.

I cannot identify a moment, way back in the late 1980s, when I decided that my wife was the woman for me. I do know there was a day when I could verbalize that idea in my mind, and as I said it to myself, I had the distinct feeling that I had known it for some time. Later on that mind-saying day, I happened to be at my parents’ house. “I’m going to marry Teresa,” I told them matter-of-factly, sort of as if I were saying, “I have a business trip to Toledo next week.” I promised to tell them how the proposal went, whenever I made up my mind to do it. Then I borrowed one of their cars and left.

Not us. There is no stock photography of us. And I can guarantee you that in a minute, these two will be bickering.

Not us. There is no stock photography of us. And I can guarantee you that in a minute, these two will be bickering.

Some time in the weeks that followed, I shopped for a ring at a jeweler whose store was in a locally famous district for jewelry in Pittsburgh. After I made the deal, I passed a law school classmate as we crossed Liberty Avenue in opposite directions. “Only one thing it can mean when a young man is coming out of the Clark Building,” she chimed. I blushed in confirmation.

It was the beginning of a long and lovely season of wedding planning and festivity. But none of the regalia of romance that followed in the next 18 months confirmed for me the wisdom of my choice. No, it was something much more momentous.

My bride and I wallpapered a small bathroom together and emerged alive, still in love, and still married.

Notice I did not say immediately happy with each other. One does not come out of such an experience beaming. Tight quarters (it was a downstairs powder room), literally back to back, a 45-year-old house built with a relaxed approach to straightness and squareness…that’s a formula for disaster. It took a special kind of calculus to match the pattern she had chosen, work it around the corners that were really cosine-crazy curves, and get the paste on the paper instead of ourselves. Calculus indeed — I can understand why Newton never married.

I think we had been married less than a year when we tackled the wallpaper project — married, bought a townhouse, offered a new job, sold the townhouse, moved to Chicago, got into a temporary apartment, then another, found a house, bought it, started studying for the Illinois bar, got a job for me, and on and on. It was a test. It was marvelous and maddening to have each other, to learn each other, to soldier on and to hang on. I remember those early days with wonder and fondness.

“What did we do on Saturday nights when we lived in Chicago?” I sometimes say as we have a glass of wine and watch the moon rise over our back yard. Sometimes I really don’t recall.

“Well, we were downtown just about every other week,” she says. “Restaurants, bars. We loved the city.” And I remember.

“Yeah,” I say. “We did.”

I don’t mind forgetting all that little stuff. I like being reminded, like I’m discovering it all again. The part I never forget, though, is the day-by-day strengthening of that structure. There have been trying times since, and a great many more joyful times, all romance of a kind laid over that solid structure.

Today we drilled holes in cabinets and drawers to install new hardware. Templates. Measuring. Badly machined screws. A trip to Home Depot. Patience. Give. Take.


[The husband who wrote the above column would like to say that he is no stranger to traditional romance, and that those of you who think he would give his wife a new socket wrench set for their anniversary are sorely mistaken. Although she would like it. That is all.]

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Lighthouses, Navigation, and Family Rituals

I grew up inland, but I have spent some time on the water, like many, in everything from canoes to cruise ships. If fear were a liquid in a spray bottle, the unexpected list of a boat would be like a quick shpritz. Most times I can talk myself intellectually out of what my soul fears spiritually. (Other times, such as when I am learning to row an unstable single scull, I just flop into the drink.)

When people who have been around boats all their lives have bad dreams, does the nightmare scenario involve choppy seas, night fog, and an invisible leeward shore? The rocks are there, and you can hear surf…but how far?

rowboatMy unsettled dreams can be like that, even in my thoroughly inland life. During the week, the nightmare metaphor can pop up, laden with symbolism about the uncertainty of what will be, where to go, what to do, when and whom to trust…and on and on.

Where are the lighthouses? One beacon would do the trick, orient us, keep us on course.

Families build lighthouses, day by day and year by year. Without even knowing they are doing it, families raise tall towers that look out over life’s waves and throw a powerful light, a confident Fresnel to whoever might need it.

One of ours: Saturdays, my son and I both have rowing activities. He has on-the-water practice; I have a land workout (weights, stretches, endurance, core work, all with my boat’s crew). After, we come home, where my wife delights in making the best scrambled egg burritos you will ever have. She has a technique, about which she is intentionally vague, that fluffs up the eggs remarkably. Their heat melts the shredded cheese inside the flour tortillas, and we slather on sour cream, medium salsa, and Cholula hot sauce. We top it all off with sliced oranges or fresh strawberries.

And for 20 minutes, we are together, laughing, going over what happened at practice, talking about the week or the weekend. No matter what else Saturday brings, we have that. And we look forward to it all week.

It’s a beacon. Fortunately, my shoreline is dotted with them.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Families: Aging, Moving, and Moving On

You can layer as much brightness and cheeriness as you want onto the bones of the situation. Big windows, decent carpet, solid furniture. A copious bird cage is nice; pretty finches play inside for the entertainment of the residents and guests.

Surroundings are clean. There are neither acrid nor antiseptic smells. Only a too-loud TV (too loud for guests, at least) disturbs the peace. The staff is upbeat and professional. The grounds are safe.nursing-home-care

But it remains a nursing home. It is a place few choose to go, whatever efforts may be made to assure comfort. Residents in wheelchairs stare at the floor, and you can sense the loneliness and regret like ancient woodsmoke.

I have visited my parents’ nursing home in Pittsburgh for the last time. I helped them pack to move to a new one in Milwaukee, nearer my brother. Now they will be within seven minutes of him instead of both of us being hours away. My brother plans to stay in Wisconsin; I can’t say for sure how long my family will stay in Florida. So Milwaukee it is.

“How did we end up like this?” my mother has moaned, more than once, usually to cap off a gusher of complaints about the food, the staff, something else about the nursing home they are leaving. (She’s right about the food, but not the staff.) Her galloping memory problems unsettle her moment by moment. My Dad, sharp mentally but confined to a wheelchair, desires and frets only for her happiness. Hence this move, expertly orchestrated by my brother. We’re not sure it will be better, but it won’t be worse. The closeness to my brother (and his two grandchildren in Minneapolis) should be reward enough.

My friends and I have reached the age of dealing with parental decline. Even old high school classmates, friends only in the Facebook sense, commiserate with me about the heart-wrenching changes we see, their effect intensified by the real fear that the same may happen to us. What are we doing? Is it right? Shouldn’t we do more? What if we can’t?

But…could you ever do enough? If you tripled the time, the money, the effort…praise God, the patience…would it ever feel like enough? If it did, perhaps there would be a horizon to your love. And that is more fearsome than any other shortcoming.

Quantity of effort is certainly important, but quality more so. In this day and age, did your parents really give you life just to keep accounts? With some generational debt in mind? Not likely. They would fade like a mist, and gladly, if they could be assured that doing so would buy you a fulfilling life.

And so you want to help them all the more. But never keep tabs on yourself. There is no enough, and yet whatever you do is enough. Your heart will report back to you on the purity of your effort. Just keep making it.♦

©2013 Adam Barr

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Aging: Fleeing From the Seven-Chamber Box

My generation has reached the age of aging parents. Nothing gets you thinking about your own impending old age more quickly, or more morosely, than watching your parents age. Even those blessed with healthy, lucky parents must witness the loss of strength, the mental crumbling; even parents in excellent physical condition through habit testify to the deterioration, however slow, of all sorts of faculties.

So we make the best of it, give care where and when we can, and face the future bravely. I have written in this space from time to time about my own parents, ages 89 (Dad) and 86. They live in a nursing home, in rooms across the hall from each other. They know that at this age, they are very fortunate to have each other. They have their share of medical problems. I will not detail them here, except to say that my Dad is in a wheelchair. He is not happy about this, but he is stoic. The combined effects of all their medical problems over the past few years made them unable to care for themselves and look after their own home — first, a house, and then, a condominium apartment. So they are in a nursing home.pillbox

They do not like it. But they never accused my brother or me of forcing them into this situation; they never begged us tearfully to get them out. They know that their cavalier attitude toward exercise and diet in their younger years may have hastened their dotage, but there’s no point talking about that. My Dad has had some bad luck with hip replacements. But his mind is good; my Mom’s too, except for some memory issues. They aren’t sick. They don’t have ominous family histories.

What they have is drugs. Medicines. Pills. Lots of them.

Based on the anecdotal evidence I have been able to gather, my parents’ case is typical. They each take a daily arsenal of pills which, if they really were weapons, would fuel a pretty formidable firefight against any invading malady. Blood pressure, stool softener, painkillers, you name it. They take it. Each has a box about six or seven inches long that is divided into seven lidded sections, M-T-W-TH-F-SA-SU. Every day, so as not to forget anything. Each “day” is packed.

I have made a concerted effort to take better care of myself in the hopes that I can stay mobile and sentient as long as possible. Already I’m doing things at 52 that my Dad had long since given up by that age. But what I fear most about aging is not the aches, pains, and deterioration. That ship has left the dock, and some time ago; arthritis is something I have to control through movement and attitude. No, what sobers me most is the idea that like so many elder Americans, I could become a human Dumpster for a daily handful of prescription drugs.

When did this particular boat tip over its keel? When did the therapeutic use of drugs to mend small but chronic problems morph into wall-to-wall Rx madness? And madness it seems, from this angle: before all these drugs, as recently as, say, 1950….how did anyone make it past age 60? And I have seen more than enough seniors moving through their remaining days in a chemical haze, a sight newly heartbreaking every time I have to look at it. Is swallowing a daily dose of medicine — So. Much. Medicine. — necessary to continue a happy, pain-free life?

It strains credulity to believe so. It’s popular to blame the prevalence of prescription drug use (one study says as many as 70 percent of all Americans take at least one; half take two or more) on the economic power of the pharmaceutical companies and their chumminess with doctors. Likely there is some truth in this. But the same companies also make products that are truly needed, that keep people alive.

Case in point: like my parents, I have mild high blood pressure. After much work to get it down naturally, I had to agree with my very conservative physician that I should take a drug to control it. I now take 10 mg per day of Benazepril, and it works. No side effects.

But it was a fight, a huge mental fight, for me to accept this. To me, it looked like the rim of a slippery slope. I once started Lipitor and got so scared that this was the beginning of a rest-of-my-life pillapalooza that I just quit, threw the pills out, started watching my diet and exercising…and the damned cholesterol came down. The blood pressure is another matter. Although it would be nice to quit the pills, I don’t have my hopes up.

But will that pill be the only one? Can I unslip the slope? That remains to be seen. Medical sense said I had to let one pill in. Overall sense still tells me to resist the next and find the natural way. If I can help it, I will not be trapped in the seven-chamber box.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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Inner Life: The Need for Touch

I don’t remember where I read it, but some time after John Lennon’s death, I saw a reminiscence by Paul McCartney. Sir Paul was recalling his last meeting with John. It was years after they had forgiven each other for the disagreements that led to the breakup of the Beatles and the bitterness of the first few years after that. When they met, the story goes, John gave Paul a big hug and said, “Touching is good.” A warm conversation about family followed.

There are so many accounts of that last meeting, and potential dates, that this particular story may well be apocryphal. (McCartney has done little to clear things up.) But that’s not the point. John was right. Touching is good. But there seems to be a dearth of it these days; touching seems to have fallen into some disrepute. And when has the world needed its tender benefits more?

Of course, willingness and responsiveness to touch vary by family, and more deeply, by person. Touch is the fundamental contact, the one we recall most viscerally from our earliest, precognitive days on Earth. It can be an invitation, an intervention, or an invasion, depending on who, when, where and how. Touch can be lighthearted or infused with meaning; friendly or sexual, loving or brutal. It can be welcomed or misinterpreted, with a whole spectrum of possibilities in between.

When the student is ready, the fuzzy teacher will appear. Angus, part-time Zen master and full-time dog.

When the student is ready, the fuzzy teacher will appear. Angus, part-time Zen master and full-time dog.

But the touch of comfort, of intimacy appropriate to the relationship…did you ever turn around and wonder where it went? Growing up, I was not part of a particularly demonstrative family — but if I felt a want of touch, I never knew it at the time. It was not withheld when I was a child. Now, in my own family, we are much more tactile than I remember being when I was growing up. This includes my 12-year-old son, which surprises me. The boy still likes to give hugs to his Dad, and certainly to his Mom. I dread the day when that becomes uncool, just as I rued the day about eight years ago when I reached down to tousle his curly hair and felt, for the first time, that it was no longer baby-soft.


There are people who prefer not to be touched, and that is their right. I feel sorry for them, but I do not second-guess them. Their reasons may be very deep and difficult to overcome. Even I can be a bit jumpy when touched, although I don’t dislike it; I just have a longer get-to-know period than some people. And in certain cultures, it’s just not done publicly or familiarly, except within a small, intimate circle: when I am in Japan, the personal space barrier may well be closer, but unannounced, informal touching is not allowed. History matters too. There is evidence that in western European cultures, and even American life, in the 19th century, it was not considered unusual for male friends to walk arm in arm or shoulder to shoulder.

If people touch each other less now, it may be because we tend to be in a hurry more often. Few people would deny that a welcome touch is comforting, soothing, sometimes exciting, perhaps longed for. But you have to take time to feel it; the magic of a touch cannot be rushed.

I was reminded of this the other day by our resident Zen master, also known as Angus, our Goldendoodle dog. As with many a flop-eared breed, the humid weather and playing by the pool causes moisture to collect around his ears, and one or the other can get a smelly infection from time to time. The treatment is ear drops; he has to be kept calm for a few minutes after I put them in so that he doesn’t shake his head and expel the medicine.

I accomplish this by laying him on his side, putting the drops in, closing his ear flap, and then stroking his fur at least 100 times as I lay facing him. Only takes a few minutes. But Angus blisses out immediately, relaxing and savoring every motion of my hand, undistracted by spreadsheets, schedules, or schemes. He looks me in the eye, gratefully. When it is over, he plants a lick on my nose. We both leave the floor happier, more serene.

As usual, it takes an unpretentious creature such as a dog, or a child, to reinforce a simple but potent lesson. Time for touch is time well spent.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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Travel: Being Adult About Children

Nearly every flight to Orlando, where I live, is full. Disney and other destinations attract families by the thousands. And when you put children in an aluminum tube for hours with nothing much to do, there is going to be noise.

The voices of children can be very sweet and encouraging. But I don’t think anyone really enjoys the sound of a yowling child or irritated baby at close quarters. It is not inhuman or mean to admit this. (I always figured that annoyed children, who are generally more forthright than guarded adults, are simply saying something about the experience of commercial air travel that all of us are thinking.)

Oh sweetie, I know. I didn't get an upgrade either.

Oh sweetie, I know. I didn’t get an upgrade either.

What is inhuman, and mean, is to react to a noisy child on an airplane or in an airport. Sure, there are bad parents out there, those whose idea of supervision is to make sure the child stays within the same state most of the time. There are other parents who are tired, outnumbered, or unlucky. But face it: kids can be hard to control. Allowances need to be made.

I get angry with passengers who glare at crying babies and their parents. The baby doesn’t understand that the funny (maybe painful) sensation in their head is their ears popping. The parents saved a bottle to get the child sucking as the plane descends (a well-known cure for ear-popping), but wouldn’t you know, little Caleb refuses to eat. Back in 34E, Jessica, age 5, has just plain had enough of planes, and she is going to TELL DADDY THIS MANY TIMES, LOUDLY SO HE WILL UNDERSTAND AND WHEN WILL I SEE MICKEEEEYYYYYY!!!

I get angry because despite the wisdom of the old book/cover dichotomy, one thing I know for sure: every person on this plane was a child. Every such person had no filter, got cranky, misbehaved, spilled juice, said no to be obstinate, beat their sister with her own Barbie, and said “Fart!” 671 times in a row.

So back off, huh?

I’ve been flying into and out of Orlando so long that I can essentially tune out the unpleasant noises some children may sometimes make. I get annoyed sometimes, but I never react. Once a child kicked me as I was walking down the concourse (I wasn’t even wearing a Steelers jersey); his parents fell all over themselves apologizing. I was unhurt, so of course I didn’t make a big thing about it. I have seen other aggrieved adults launch into long lectures on parenting over such events, further terrorizing the hapless parents into wishing the earth would swallow them up.

I know, not everyone likes children. I do. They’re people, I’ve found. Delightful ones. Oh, they have their moments. We all do. So when a traveling child, any child, annoys you, take a breath. Set an example. Be an adult.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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