Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tribute to Kiss

The Pinewood Derby car I entered in the family category of my son's Cub Scout competition. Just about the only part of Scouting I like. At times immaturity can be a good thing.

Friday, March 28, 2014


My son Eli is a Cub Scout. He doesn't like Scouts, but he won't quit. Of course he likes to get together with his friends; the portion of each meeting that includes unstructured play is a blast. But when the Scouting program starts, he often shuts down. He has anxiety. He doesn't like to participate in group discussions, sporting activities, anywhere he can be objectively judged. He gets excited about the sleep-away summer camp, but he ends up being stressed the entire time he is there. Still, he won't quit.

Our Scout pack is very small, so most of the parents are required to be in leadership roles to make the pack run. I'm an assistant den leader, Susan is on the pack committee. We help plan the meetings and events. We are two of the core adults of the group. But we don't like Scouts either. For us it is mostly about managing Eli's anxiety.

Susan comes from a conservative family. They operate very much in black and white, good and bad. Good people go to church, bad people get tattoos, that sort of thing. Her parents and siblings tend to focus on what they should do as opposed to what they want to do. Perhaps these are the same thing for them, but they think everyone else should share the same beliefs. One of those 'shoulds' is Scouts. Eli's three male cousins are Scouts. He is the youngest of the four, and for as long as he can remember he has heard how important it is to be a Scout. The best people are Scouts (or Scouts are the best people). He hears this from his aunts and uncles and especially his grandfather. His oldest cousin has been planning his path to becoming an Eagle Scout since he was six, his parents standing right behind him with a map.

Because Eli has not shown a lot of interest in extracurricular activities, Susan & I decided to support his desire to be a Scouts. It wasn't an easy sell. Scouts requires an affirmation in the belief of God, and (at the time) a requirement to be heterosexual. For us to support an organization that does not accept all people is against our beliefs. But since Eli was six years old at the time, his belief in God and sexual orientation were pretty much irrelevant. We decided to just go with the flow, see how things went. It's been rough.

Not only is our Scout pack small, but it is slack. It is very much for the casual Scouting family. Sort of "Cub Scouts Lite". The dens meet once a month and pack meetings a bit less often. This is a very small time commitment, and seemingly as much as the boys and parents want. Scouting for the non-committed. Some of the parents are very much into Scouting. They seem to share the sentiment of Susan's family: to be the best, you need to be a Scout. But they also see the need to balance Scouting with other activities. So our pack has worked well for them too.

And this casualness has apparently been our downfall. Our inconsistent nature has let families slip away. Our pack is folding – dwindled from thirty kids to ten in about a year. This seems like a fantastic opportunity to sneak away from Scouts altogether, but suddenly Eli is getting a lot out of it. At the last few pack and den meetings, he has been much more participatory. Raising his hand in group discussions, even participating in sporty-type things. The very reason we joined Scouts seems to be coming to fruition.

With the closure of our Scout pack, we as a group have evaluated other area packs to see if any would be a good fit. One of our families has two moms. And while Scouting has relaxed its prohibition against gay Scouts, not so against gay leaders. Gay and lesbian parents are not permitted to participate in any volunteer role. It is a tricky and hostile navigation for this family, and because we hope to stay together as a unit, tricky for our group as well. We want to go somewhere that is welcoming to this family. Susan and I want to go somewhere that is welcoming to everyone, including non-Christians like us.

Each Scout troop is required to have a sponsoring organization, and in our town, these organizations are all churches. We worry that Scouting's requirement to affirm God will become twisted into a requirement to affirm Jesus. For many Christians, this is the same thing. I respect their belief, but I also recognize that in an environment like our town, many are unlikely to respect our beliefs. This is ground-zero in the "war on Christmas" backlash. Folks around here just cannot seem to understand that non-Christians do not want to celebrate Christ.

One of Cub Scout's annual themes even focuses on faith. Over the past three years, Susan and I have been on the edge of discomfort with this topic. Assignments have been set for the boys to talk about how they participate at their church. No recognition that non-Christians typically do not go to church. The assumption here is that everyone is Christian. This isn't a fight I want to start. I have no interest in making an issue about the definitions of God and faith. I just want Eli to have an environment where he can participate and hopefully gain some confidence. As we redefine the annual faith assignment to fit our family, no one has called us on it.

But as we evaluate other area Scout packs, many of these issues are resurfacing for me. I feel that in our Scout pack, everyone is respected. We all have developed comfort with one another. The other kids and leaders accept Eli's hesitation to participate, our non-Christian status, another boy's two moms. We all have our quirks, our issues. Moving to another pack, we are starting over. Setting boundaries, drawing lines in the sand. What is acceptable, what is off-limits. We will be the outsiders, and therefore likely to be viewed with skepticism or disdain. We will be expected to get with the program – their program, without a bunch of fuss, without rocking the boat.

And what is their program? I saw their published pack schedule for the last 2 months. Weekly den meetings, monthly pack meetings, a few other scheduled outings and service projects. And three weekend trips over the two-month period. Lots of father/son time, but I have a wife and daughter, too. This is going to be one of our lines in the sand. Even if we could make that sort of time commitment for Scouts, we wouldn't. We enjoy spending time together as a family. It centers us. Susan and I have taken jobs, selected hobbies that minimally disrupt family time, that don't take us away for full days, for overnight trips. It seems counter-intuitive for a family oriented activity like Scouts to cause so much separation of families. Male-bonding at the expense of everything else.

I don't know where we are going with this decision. The rest of our group has been moving towards joining the new pack. But for two months, Susan and I have been hedging. Not committing and not closing the door, either. We seem to be waiting for a decision to be made for us. Maybe Eli will realize that he doesn't actually like Scouts. Possibly he will find a new activity – Running? Drums? Karate? These are all activities he is drawn towards. Possibly his interest in Scouting will drift away. But this is unlikely to happen, and in the next few weeks, we will be forced to decide.

On a side note, my favorite part of Scouting is the Pinewood Derby competition. Eli attacks this with enthusiasm reserved for almost nothing else. And Sophie and I make cars for the family competition. Below are the two 'cars' I've made. Not the fastest, but possibly the most creative.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tyson's Corner

This is my background, my heritage. Middle-class, middle-class-plus, somewhere in there. We grew up in Rockville, Maryland, on the edge of Bethesda, the land of the wealthy. Nationally ranked zip code. I spent my early teen years riding my bike to White Flint Mall and Montgomery Mall to hang out, ride skateboards, try to meet girls, get inside on a hot day. Browsing bookstores, Spencer's Gifts, Brookstone.  

Recently, my family made a pilgrimage to Tyson's Corner Mall(s). Not exactly the Mall of America, but to a small-town family like ours, it might as well be. Sophie wanted an American Girl Doll for Christmas and offered to pay for half. I viewed the trip as a cultural event and looked forward to it. Plus, I know from a previous Tyson's Corner visit a few years ago that Grill Kabob in the food court makes a boneless chicken kabob that rivals any restaurant meal available in my town. Susan seemed game for the trip as well. I didn't think to ask her about her motivation. She did mention that she thought Christmas shopping there was futile – the stores would be too expensive, out of our reach.

Growing up, I never thought of my family's financial status compared to those around me. My friends and I all lived in the same neighborhood, so I figured that we were all on the same playing field. I either overlooked or didn't recognize signs that others had more – and I suppose less. Clothing from Sears, a black and white TV deep into the seventies, unimpressive cars. This isn't about poverty or self-pity. My family was comfortable. Our cars worked, we had winter coats, we went on vacation. This is about comparisons. My dad was a civil servant, my mother a church secretary. My friend's fathers were engineers, lawyers, insurance salesmen, doctors. We were a frugal family in a wealthy neighborhood.

The first home that Susan and I owned was in Chevy Chase DC, one of the wealthiest areas in the city. A short walk from the Friendship Heights metro station and its high-end shopping strip – Tiffany & Co., Saks 5th Avenue, Neiman Marcus. Our house was furnished from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. In a city environment like Washington, DC, there is a slim chance of developing relationships with people from different economic classes. Friends come from your neighborhood, your work place, church, gym, kid's school, friends of friends. All these people are likely to have a similar financial profile. And like our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, Susan and I were wealthy consumers.

I remember a couple of aha moments from my childhood. Evidence that we were not all living on the same stratum. In 1976, TV coverage of the presidential election relied heavily on red and blue maps as visual aids. A slim section of American families, mine included, was left out. The colors were indistinguishable on our black and white TV. The next day at school, my history teacher brought this up. He and the students in my class were shocked that anyone still watched a black and white set. During a weekend spent with a close friend's family, the discussion turned to the Ford Pinto recall. In the mid-70s, several Pintos caught fire when hit from the rear. It became a big news story. A couple of adults in our gathering suggested that anyone who would drive a Pinto pretty much deserved the risk of probable death. My father drove a Pinto. My friend's family drove Land Rovers and BMWs.

In my town, intermingling of socio-economic groups is common. Community meeting places – churches, schools, gyms, grocery stores – serve everyone. There is far less stratification by class in a small town compared to a city like DC. The poorest and the wealthiest families share services and resources. Because the town is small and incomes are modest, there is also almost no shopping. We have Walmart and a very small outlet plaza. Most people dress the same – Gap, Old Navy, Eddie Bauer. And if you're willing to travel, something from Target or Kohl’s. It is difficult to look at a person to determine his wealth.

Tyson's Corner was culture shock. The mall and its parking area are roughly the same size as a small town, my town (at least the downtown portion). With millions of potential customers, I suppose that hundreds of stores are required as a draw, but to me it just seemed like redundancy. In morning we spent there, we visited a total of 3 stores. A bookstore, American Girl and LL Bean. Each store was an enjoyable experience, but not always for the right reason. Such excess. LL Bean, with its $150 sleds and an indoor water fall. American Girl with its doll hospital and beauty salon – eight stylists to make sure your doll has a cute doo. These stores were over-the-top entertainment, much like reality TV. The only store that didn't make my eyes roll was the book store. When we lived in DC, we would visit a bookstore about every 2 weeks. Usually the Barnes and Nobel in Bethesda. Massive. Comprehensive. Beautiful. Our town doesn't have a bookstore, and the closest Barns and Nobel is 40 miles away. To get books, we use our library, which is large, but less than half the size of the Bethesda B&N. No cafe either.

Our household income is low by national standards, earning less than half the money we did ten years ago in our executive DC careers. Susan, now a massage therapist, makes an amazing hourly wage, but only for about 10-15 hours in a really good week. As a manager at a non-profit community center in a small town, my wage is fair for the area, but shockingly low to my old DC crowd. When I think back to my childhood, our financial status was not much different than it is for my family today. Our vacations are mostly modest – trips to the beach and something fancier when we save enough credit card points to fly for free. We always stay in a house or apartment where we can make our own meals.

Restaurant meals are few and far between, and activities like tubing at the local ski resort are a once per season treat. Purchases are planned, delayed and at times agonized over. Obviously, we're not watching a black and white TV, but the modern equivalent – no smart phones, no gadgets that start with "i", no gaming systems. Like my past, not poor, we're comfortable, just frugal. Unlike my past, my kids seem much more aware of where we stand financially than I ever was. It's the gadgets. What you have, don't have. There weren't any gadgets when I was a kid. Almost nothing to compare. The only status conversation I can recall as a young teen was about the family lawn mower. Seriously. My friend and I cut lawns to make cash. His family had a Toro with front wheel drive. We had a Craftsman, the kind you had to push. Toro was status.

Today, as the adult in this situation, I'm torn. Probably, I have the exact same feelings my father had forty years ago. We don't need the latest gadgets. The cheaper version works as well as the name-brand. A bit of inconvenience builds character. Delaying purchases is environmentally friendly. Less is more. It's easy to convince myself that consumerism is unnecessary and unhealthy. And because of where we live, it is generally out of sight, out of mind.

But our biennial trip to Tysons has left me thinking. Focused my attention on our financial situation in an uncomfortable way. It pulls me out of our unique small town bubble and lets me see America as it really is – wealthy, spending. This is good. We made a conscious choice to leave city-life behind. Work in fields that were meaningful to us, but not necessarily lucrative. Forgo material wants for achievement. We are clearly happier as a result, but happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. Ten years since our lifestyle change, we still at times feel the lure of "stuff". A quick, pleasurable hit of spending. Our Tysons visits serve as a strong reminder that we have made these changes mindfully. Like most self-improvement, there is often some discomfort associated with growth. I do miss browsing bookstores, acquiring my own copies of the books and magazines that interest me. I miss finding a bike gadget that I think is cool, and just buying it. But for the most part, I get equal satisfaction out of reading week-old news magazines from our library and saving those gadget-buys for my birthday wish-list.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Out of the Closet

Eye rolls and grunting. Occasionally, a feeling hits me; I'm going to vomit. Bent over, retching, dry-heaving, gagging, but I never throw up. “Try to give yourself a break.” I hear this from my wife, Susan, every time I swing negative and start railing on my Tourette's. I get frustrated, angry, and then I get down.

Tourette's Syndrome is a 'childhood disease.' While nothing is correct about this statement – it is not a disease, but a disorder, and it typically shows up in childhood but can be a lifelong challenge – this is what I am told time and again as I try to look for information on the Internet. My doctor tells me to stop looking at "Yahoo Answers" and start reading some serious literature, but the only time I want to research Tourette’s is late at night, after I've had a few drinks, feeling sorry for myself.

This problem, it won't get better. In fact right now, it's getting worse. With me for life. I'm a fixer. When things are broken, I correct them, make them right. This is what has made me successful in my career. And when I can't fix something, it makes me feel helpless, pissed off.

In the two years since my Tourette's was diagnosed, I've been hard on myself, calling myself a freak. Before my Tourette’s diagnosis, I believed that I had a physiological problem with my eyes. Something that can be corrected. The right doctor, the right medicine would do the trick. That I had spent 15 years trying to find that doctor, that medicine didn't matter. It was still something that I could fix. After a family friend suggested Tourette's, I saw a neurologist. He immediately agreed. A diagnosis means a cure, right? Not with Tourette's. There isn't even a test to verify. Just a check-list of symptoms. Very sloppy, very vague.

You would think a diagnosis would at least give me some peace. In truth, it often makes me feel worse. Such a misunderstood condition. Adults my age learned about Tourette's through TV shows like Quincy. Swearing in the movie theater, that sort of thing. That's not my self-image. Not how I want to be known. I know that coming out of the closet, going public, is opening myself up to ridicule and attacks. It is easy to taunt something you don't understand, something different.

I told my brothers. Tourette's is hereditary. I wanted them to be aware in case their kids show any symptoms. My sister in law's reaction: "Oh, right, we know. Our son was diagnosed years ago. We use you as a positive role model for him." My friend Fred, a nurse: "Oh sure, I always assumed you had Tourette's." Grrrr. The whole world knows, but me.

As a kid I had tics. Not a lot of them, and not too disruptive. A low, purring sound in the back of my throat. It would rise in volume and pitch into a quick shriek. I did this at home, not in public. Not around friends, not around strangers. And a side lurch, as if my muscles were sore, needing a quick stretch. Very quick, very jerky. Tics are not controllable. Like holding your breath, like suppressing a sneeze. You can only put them off for so long. The longer you go, the worse it gets.

I don't remember these tics going away, but by late high school, they were gone. And forgotten. My tics weren't really a problem as a kid. Because they were mostly confined to my home, they didn't impact my relationships and stature in school and in the neighborhood. When they returned as an adult, they were much more disruptive.

In my early-thirties, I had a bad bicycle accident. Lots of injuries, serious head trauma. A long recovery, a couple of seizures, PTSD, depression. About a year later, my eyes began to bother me. They felt swollen. The only thing that would relieve the pressure was quick, straining, eye rolling movements. Not much fun to watch. Few people commented, but many were uncomfortable. It's hard not to stare at oddity so we all try to look away. And when it is someone's eyes, it creates distance. It's difficult to be close to someone without eye contact. And my relationships began to suffer. I began to feel isolated.

Dozens of ophthalmologist appointments, tests and treatments, medications for dry-eyes, even a biopsy of my eyeball. Nothing conclusive, nothing worked. A few years ago, I realized that when I was alone, reading late at night, out on a run or a bike ride, in my office, I would grunt. A deep, quick trill in the back of my throat, at the base of my sinuses. I mentioned it to Susan, she mentioned it to a friend. And that friend said Tourette's. 49 years old, and I got my diagnosis.

I'm not sure why it took so long to figure this out. The signs and symptoms were apparent for most of my life. I feel let down by the doctors I visited. Treating symptoms, not looking for a cause. But recently, my opinion of myself – myself with Tourette's – is evolving. I'm becoming more comfortable with the diagnosis. There's no cure, but I'm not helpless. Tics can be reduced with lifestyle changes. With lower stress; with therapy intervention; with less caffeine (maybe, no clear data to support this, but it seems that way to me).

Possibly my comfort is simply relief that my tics have changed. My eye-rolling has subsided greatly. But my grunting has increased dramatically. It is a welcome switch. The dry-heave thing is pretty annoying, but it isn't that frequent, and almost always when I'm alone. I'm growing closer to friends, making new friends. Is it the lack of eye-tics, improved self-esteem? Make no mistake; I'm a twitchy dude, constantly punching at my thighs, scraping my teeth together, clicking pens, coughing during concerts. Each of these, like an itch I need to scratch.

For a few months, I've been toying with the notion of coming out of the closet. Telling my world about Tourette's. Because I live in a small-town, everyone who knows me will eventually hear about it. When people gossip, I lose control of the message. Myths and misconceptions will perpetuate. Some will make jokes, some of the jokes will be mean. Many people won't care, given my prior experiences, some will already know.

Part of me thinks I have a responsibility to share this information. Let people see that folks with Tourette's are normal people. I’m tired of keeping a secret from my friends. But part of me wonders why I need to tell anyone at all. I’ve had an elevated bilirubin count (Gilbert's Syndrome) my whole life and I never talk about that either. What makes Tourette's any different. But Tourette's is different – at least for me. It has an impact on my actions and interactions, it colors my personality. It is part of who I am.

Everyone has their “thing”. Insecurity, addictions, depression, anger, tumors, weight problems, the list is potentially endless. Tourette’s is my thing – at least one of them. When I look at my problems in comparison to others’, I sometimes feel that I’m getting off easy. Now, I have to hold onto that feeling. Especially if or when I let the world know.

Friday, March 7, 2014


My co-worker Sue and I have the same conversation every few weeks. She makes a reference to a TV show or a commercial, and I stare at her with a blank expression. When she tries to draw me into the conversation, I gently remind her that I don't watch TV, ever. No sports, no news, no sit-coms, no reality shows. This goes for my family as well. My kids do get screen time, as do Susan and I (to a much lesser degree), but through Netflix and DVDs borrowed from the library.

I generally don't make a big deal about my lack of TV viewership. It isn't about high standards, morals or any other lofty ideal. Spending time watching TV, especially the commercial breaks, just annoys me. But I find the statement "I don't watch TV" to be equally annoying, so I generally try to keep it to myself. In truth, I've always thought that people who don't watch TV are odd. Purposefully separating themselves from the rest of society in an effort to appear high-brow. Now, as a member of that group, I realize that my motivation is much simpler, more honest. I can't find anything I want to watch. I'd rather read a book.

For the past two weeks, the TV has been on every night. It’s the winter Olympics. And because this is "history," I feel compelled to let my kids watch. For the first few nights, I found watching the events enjoyable. The commercials were entertaining, and even the sappy human-interest vignettes, mercifully less frequent this year, were engaging as well. This feeling didn't last. After a few days of viewership, my kids had started competing to see who could first name the product being advertised in each commercial. Two days later, they were talking along with the commercials’ actors. I've learned my lesson, the Olympics isn't about sports, it is about ads.

Every night, after homework, dinner, activities, we as a family settle down and read. Me with a glass of wine; Susan with a cup of tea; Sophie and Eli with their dessert. It is proof to me that we are doing something right. Susan and I have been doing this for years. Sophie joined us a couple of years ago. And now Eli is in the mix as well, ever since he became a skilled enough reader to enjoy a book on his own. This quiet time has become an important decompression period for all of us. But throughout the Olympics this time of the evening has been completely shaken up.

Bed times have slipped as well. As an event starts to wind down, NBC will flash up a teaser showing the next event that will start in 5 or 6 minutes. Eli likes the sledding events. Sophie likes the skating events. They both like anything "cross" and anything in a half-pipe. And they love the commercials (I mentioned that right). It is impossible to peel them away from the TV. "Awww, skating is about to start. But, I haven’t seen any skeleton yet tonight. After this commercial. Oh wait and this commercial, too." The little voice inside of me is saying "once every four years – let it go."
When my kids were babies, pediatricians and baby books repeated a phrase – sleep begets sleep. The idea is that the more a baby sleeps, the more it wants to sleep. Well, the past two weeks have taught me that this is true for TV as well. An extra hour (or two) of TV each night has conditioned my kids to want to watch even more TV at other times. We usually let them decompress with about forty minutes of Netflix afterschool – this is typically their only screen-time during the school week. A few days after the start of the Olympics, this afternoon session expanded. Previously, they had been pretty good at self-monitoring. Now they were sneaking in extra time. And not just staring at a TV. Other screens as well. Anything for their fix - games on their Kindles, checking weather on a laptop. Eli will even watch, over and over, the videos and photos that happen to be in our digital camera.

Because we don't typically watch sports, and my kids' activities so far have been solitary or non-competitive (gymnastics, running, scouts, choir, etc), the concept of rooting for a team is alien to us. Or was. By day two of the Olympics, Eli had picked up the U-S-A chant. And it has been a constant in our house ever since. Instilling national pride in children is probably a good thing, but that chant bugs the crap out of me. It strikes me as showy, even bullying. Rather than letting our scores and achievements speak for themselves, Americans need to shout everyone else down. Like we find it necessary to remind the world that we have the most – or at least had the most until a decade ago. That chant reminds me of suburban cookouts in Cary, North Carolina. Of the many commercials airing during the Olympics that imply a successful life is about owning an opulent car. Of our national ego getting bruised by our president suggesting that America might not be that 'exceptional' a country.
For me, the Olympics is about sports. I don't care if the US wins. I enjoy it when the favored athlete tanks and an underdog takes gold. I like seeing the Netherlands sweep the podium. This is an opportunity for new athletes to shine. For smaller nations to get some recognition. For my kids to learn a bit about the world. In two years, we will watch the summer Olympics – three weeks for that. Once again, I'll be enduring obnoxious commercials, expanding bedtimes, flag-waving jingoism. The up-side is that I vastly prefer watching the sports like soccer, track and volleyball to anything done in the snow.