Thursday, March 28, 2013

Defriending My Kids

This is a post I do not want to write, but I can no longer avoid it because the alienation I feel from two of my children is eating a hole in my heart. Only in writing about it can I possibly make sense of it.

Why trumpet my failings as a parent using a popular yet much criticised social network?  I can already hear the jeers from those naysayers who believe social networks and the virtual reality of the internet is either a passing fad or a serious threat to the capability of humans for interacting with their "real" environment.

Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson calls this "digital dualism," and argues in a provocative internet post, "The IRL Fetish," that, "It is wrong to say 'IRL' to mean offline: Facebook is real life." Jurgenson argues that,
our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. 
So my choice of using Facebook to declare my separation from the children who no longer acknowledge and respect me as their father is in keeping with this new understanding of "augmented reality."  My life today is infused with the digital reality of computers, tablets and smart phones which enhance my knowledge and appreciation of the tangible world around me.  I cannot tell the story of my life without recourse to these devices.

For now, I am unable to give complete details of the story of my separation from these two children.  Suffice it to say that I am responsible for the breakup of my marriage to their mother over 15 years ago.  By then our daughter was 20 and our son 15.  Until the end, we had been a happy family, the one others point to when arguing that marriages can succeed, the ideal couple with their beautiful and talented children.  In my first marriage I had been an absent and irresponsible father, and my two older sons suffered for my sins.  The youngest became an alcoholic and died from this disease several years ago.  The older became a successful workaholic who swore off having any children himself.  His mother and I were poor role models for him. But with my second family I took great pains to correct the deficiencies of my past.  I was there for my son and daughter, right up until I unwillingly moved out.

When my second wife asked me to leave our home, the children took her side. Although my daughter was then on her own, she maintained a room there where her brother was living.  Not long after I moved out, she accused me of wanting to take the house away from her mother.  That was never my plan.  We had purchased the house with a large downpayment from an inheritance she received, financed it with my credit, and as a condition of the divorce I sold her my share for half the increased value of the property.  She had a new boyfriend within two months of my leaving and they were married a year after the divorce was final.

The closest relationship my ex-wife had experienced had been with her mother who had died of cancer when our daughter was only a year old.  She set about recreating this closeness with her own daughter.  Often I felt like the intruder.  My father had been a disciplinarian and I saw my role in the family like his, correcting mistakes and offering guidance.  My daughter, with whom I had felt close until she entered puberty, strongly resisted any critical suggestions I made that she clean her room, or the kitchen after a cooking expedition.  My wife, who believed that children should only be loved and then allowed to do whatever they wished, became an adversary, supporting any resistance to my fathering techniques.  I felt increasingly marginalized in the family.  During much of their childhood I was studying at the university and I tried to share my love of learning with my daughter and son. But they just saw it as another attempt to discipline them so they would get better grades in school.

I thought my son seemed neglected by his mother who devoted greater effort to cementing the idealistic bond with her daughter.  I encouraged his participation in T-ball and soccer and enthusiastically attended all his games.  But he seemed as disinterested in sport as I had been as a child.  Any interest shown in music on the part of my children was a delight and I did my best to fan the flames.  Our daughter has an incredible voice and sang and acted in numerous community theater productions.  We performed together in "Fame" when I played the music teacher.  As an adult she's sung solo and with various singing groups.  In high school she decided to drop the double-barrelled name we'd give her and take the surname of her maternal grandmother.  That hurt me, but I remained silent. Our son showed a curiosity about hip hop and electronic music and I got him a synthesizer/sampler one Christmas that was the beginning of a long journey into his passion that last year culminated in several trips to Europe as the drummer for Hanni El Khateb.  He's a talented multi-instrumentalist and has recorded songs, beats and commercials.  Some day I hope my children will be able to see that I was at least partially responsible for their love of music.

What happened?  After the divorce I tried to stay in touch with my children and cultivate an intimate relationship with them, but there always seemed to be barriers in the way.  Our son moved to an apartment in San Francisco we helped him rent and embarked on a career in retail clothing with music on the side.  Our daughter was living the free and unfettered life of a California hippie, surrounded by friends with little visible means of support.  She painted faces at fairs with her mother's family business and cleaned dope in Humboldt which allowed her to travel to Brazil, Europe and Bali.  She sang and she designed clothes.  While I remained in California, within a short distance of either my son or daughter, it always seemed difficult to make a date or even to keep in touch.

When I was 23, my parents moved from California to North Carolina, and then to retirement in Florida, leaving me behind on my own.  When snail mail was in fashion, we exchanged cards and letters, and when I lived on the east coast I would occasionally visit.  I also tried to call on a regular basis.  They rarely called me and my father once said they didn't want to "intrude" on my life.  It was their feeling that it was the child's responsibility to stay in touch with the parent.  Once my mother called me by accident when she was trying to reach my brother and I realized that he had an entirely different relationship with them.  With this model in mind, I expected my children to make the first moves after we began living apart.  But it was not to be.  Their mother was an inveterate caller and would track them down daily by phone, while I waited for it to ring.  My son was explicit: it's the parent's responsibility to stay in touch with the child.

When I moved permanently to Thailand, I believed the augmented reality of the virtual world made it possible to easily keep in touch despite the distance.  Certainly that was true for a number of close friends back in California.  We used Facebook and email to exchange information.  Facebook made it possible for me to resurrect friendships from way back.  A couple of years ago my children came to see me in Bangkok.  My son paid his own way but his sister wanted a round-trip ticket from Bali where she was visiting.  I soon learned that one of her purposes was to get some cheap dental work done, and I felt a bit used.  She required her own room which I rented near by while my son stayed in my apartment.  I bought tickets for an excursion up the river to Ayutthaya but she declined.  On the last day at Koh Samed she went running over the rocks and broke her foot.  I put her on the plane with crutches.  Besides my children, a number of friends from California have come to visit.  I have a great time showing them around the city I've come to love and they respond with email and blog reports of their visit.

Which brings me to the conclusion and point of this post, the defriending of my kids.  Since their visit to Thailand, it's been increasingly difficult to learn about their lives.  Part of the reason for this blog was the hope that I could share my life with my kids as well as my friends and the few strangers that pass by.  Neither used Facebook much, and although I know they are articulate and can write at length, their emails in response to mine have been few and far between.  At one point I even asked their mother to mediate and keep me informed about their life.  When my son was touring with Hanni, I was able to see photos and videos and read reports online from others about his activities, and I proudly relayed information to my friends on Facebook.

Last September I wrote a long chatty email to my son about my life in Thailand.  His response was shattering.  He was very critical of my two-and-a-half year marriage to Nan and what he referred to as "my lifestyle," implying that living with a much younger woman was a perversion.  He said he would always be closer to his mother than to me.  And as for my constant requests for information, "The more impatient you are, the more repellant you become."  

He implied that his sister agreed with his condemnation of my lifestyle, but my problems with her went further.  Before I left for Thailand five and a half years ago, she asked me to co-sign a student loan for her.  I was only too happy to do so and asked few questions.  It was for a course of study at some New Age institution in California and I didn't even realize the amount until much later.  Her mother tellingly had refused.  All my requests for information about school were ignored.  Eventually I learned that she had used the $20,000 to live on and probably had not gone to any classes at all.  Then a couple of years ago she made some late payments and one of my credit cards cancelled its line of credit to amount owed, a threat to my financial future.  This happened twice.  I believe student loan companies can even attach my Social Security income.  Although she was quick to resume payments, she's never apologized for misleading me.  After my son's email, I defriended them both.

Finally, she sent me an email on Christmas in which she told me that my defriending had hurt her.  But this was prelude to the story of a psychic, "who had been incredibly accurate with some friends of mine," who told her that I had molested her as a child.  Previously, she had spoken of a dim recollection of being molested when she was four by a pre-school teacher in Connecticut, although her mother and I at the time never noticed anything unusual about her behavior.  Now she was imagining, with the help of a "psychic," that it was me who had abused her.  I wrote back and said my answer was no, I had never done that.  And I suggested she get some real psychological help for these false memories, for her misuse of my loan co-signature, for her inability to hold down a steady job, for rejecting my name, and for the depression she says has plagued her for years.  I should add that she has always been extremely popular with a wide international circle of friends.  But then, I don't really know her now, nor, it seems, her brother.

There is much about this tale that must remain unsaid.  I'm not yet ready for a complete autopsy of my life while still living it.  My past deeds have had some awful consequences. I remain in loose contact, through Facebook mainly, with my oldest son.  He once remarked that I didn't start visiting him regularly until the divorce, but that seems more explanation than reason for criticism.  We play Words for Friends online and he consistently beats me.  Those who know me and my family might remark that I am also estranged from my only sibling, a younger brother, although we remain Facebook friends.  He's a lawyer with a penchant for argumentation which disturbed me, and the fights we had after our mother's death made intimacy impossible.  The last time I heard from my first wife she asked for money for our son's cremation, and promised to send me something from his belongings to help remember him by.  It never came.  I defriended my second wife along with our kids when it seemed there was nothing more to say to her.  The breaking point was my children's non-acceptance of my marriage and my life today here in Thailand with Nan.  This great gift that I have received late in life has come with heavy consequences.

I hope I don't seem to be blaming my kids for their judgements of me.  They're old enough to make their own decisions.  The consequence of their non-acceptance of me, a culmination of what I feel is a long history of rejection, is that I must end this charade and move on with my life.  Defriending is the new way to accomplish this in the augmented digital reality in which most of us now live.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sorry For Your Loss

Oh death, oh death 
Can't you spare me over till another year 
Trad., recorded by Kaleidoscope

In the last week, I've received several of the same messages on Facebook: "Sorry for your loss."  This is because I posted photo memorials for two of my long-time friends who died.  The word "loss" threw me.  It didn't seem appropriate.  Hearing of their deaths triggered a flood of memories, all of them good.  Neither death was unexpected. Ernie, my friend from high school, had lived in a wheel chair with ALS for over ten years. Gene, a fellow dissident Catholic, was nearing 90 and had entered a hospice.  This is how I responded on Facebook:
You know, at this time in my life, it feels like a series of celebrations rather than losses.  I've had such wonderful people in my life!
When you get to my age (73), death is a constant companion.  As the only animal that can anticipate its demise, life sometimes feels like a series of scenarios that all end badly.  One reason I enjoy the company of my fellow geriatrics is that we can joke about death without getting depressed. Of course tales of strange symptoms and visits to the doctor can quickly get boring.  Modern life is marked by the banishment of death to the basements of mortuaries and the silence of cemeteries.  We talk about the departed in hushes tones.  At least my friends in Santa Cruz had better ideas.  When Betsy died of breast cancer, they put her in a homemade coffin and took her to the beach where they propped her up facing the sea and surrounded her with music and dancing.

Ernie Smith was always big in size and heart. We met in high school were he was a football player and member of the "clubbies" while my friends and I were considered juvenile delinquents.  Three of us decided that they had the better-looking girls and converted to their side, but we did our best to corrupt them.  Easter Week in our senior year we rented a motel in Laguna Beach and partied for a week.  Big Ern looked 21 and bought our supplies at a nearby liquor store.  He got a football scholarship to Eastern Washington University but lost it when he put his arm through a glass window at the gas station where he worked.  My dad, who loved Ernie like a son, visited him in the hospital and took him a jar of chocolate-covered grasshoppers.  The day nurse put them in the refrigerator and when the night nurse found them she screamed and dropped them on the floor.  Ernie married his nurse, but I'm not sure which one it was.  He always assumed all his friends shared his enthusiasms and dragged me to a barbershop singing concert but I ended up appreciating the harmonies.  We shared a love for 50's rhythm and blues, and the bawdy songs of Oscar Brand. Ernie raised his two kids in Los Banos and Salinas selling chemicals to the farmers, sang in prize-winning barbershop quartets, was a scout leader, helped found Monterey Dixieland which has an annual festival that attracts huge crowds, and was an usher in his Presbyterian Church.  He came to see me at my lowest point, gave comfort, and spoke of a problem with his muscles that turned out to be ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Ever positive, he got the best wheel chair for his 200-plus body and outfitted a van he could drive.  He took part in several clinical studies and was an organizer and fundraiser for the local ALS support chapter.  And he outlived two wives.  I last saw Ernie two years ago when this picture was taken. We met at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz and he presented me with a generous wedding present that he and our close friend Mark (who died last year) had put together for Nan and I.  You can read more about Big Ern here.  I'm sorry that we didn't get together more regularly on Skype and I shall miss his living presence at the other end of email and Facebook, but I'm very grateful to have known him.

Gene Donatelli was a member of a men's group our friend Ted asked me to join, and for several years a half-dozen or so of us each month gathered at one of our homes to share a potluck and talk about our lives. Most of us were dissident Catholics with various grievances against the hierarchy that seemed determined to thwart our spiritual aspirations.  I was a newcomer, a Thomas Merton convert who thought he could ignore basic Catholic dogma out of a love for the social justice work of liberation theology in Latin America.  Gene on the other hand was an archetypal Catholic.  He and Mary had raised eight children in the church, participated in all the auxiliary movements and had priests as good friends.  But when Mary began to drift away with Alzheimer's, Gene grew bitter.  Both stopped going to mass.  I think he was basically mad at God and the church took the brunt of his anger over losing Mary. When I lived in Santa Cruz, Gene's house was nearby and I would often ride my bike up to have coffee with him in the morning and discuss the news headlines while looking out at his bounteous garden.  Mary could still remember me then.  All of the men's group attended his 80th birthday party which was a joyous celebration of multiple generations.  I'll still remember being with Gene that day.  We visited for the last time two years ago and Mary could no longer remember me (she died last year).  He never got the hang of the digital devices and I had to rely on friends to give me his news.  Gene had one cancer or the other (Does it matter?  They all do the dirty work.) and his kids put him in a hospice where he died last week.  I remember that Gene always made the best cookies when our meetings were held at his house.  He had a warm and gentle soul. I will never forget out times together, Gene.

When I was younger, death gave me the creeps.  That was before the death of my best friend Peter from prostate cancer in 2004 (seen here with his favorite pot plant).  Mostly we try to ignore the finality of it.  A high school friend died in a skiing accident in the socks that I'd loaned him for the trip.  My maternal grandfather slid into senility and died in a "home."  My favorite uncle Ted, gay twin of my father, suffered from emphysema and took an overdose of pills.  Then there was Allen who worked at my university.  We shared a love for the banjo music of Derroll Adams (he was the only other person I knew who had met him), and had other friends in common.  First he had a heart attack, then he was diagnosed with liver cancer.  Two days before he died, a friend and I went to visit him.  His skin was the color of ash, and he talked hopefully of alternative healing remedies.  Peter's death was different.  We both had prostate cancer but his was much more advanced.  Still, he lasted over five years, had a big party when he retired as general manager of KUSP, and we watched the Superbowl together before I left for my first trip to India.  When I returned, he was in a hospital bed in the living room and could no longer talk.  I became an overnight care-giver, gave him massages and changed his diaper.  A week later he was dead, his wife and my ex-wife at his side.  When I got to the house I went straight to the cold body and kissed him (Peter, a semi-closeted bisexual, loved kissing his male friends on the lips).  His skin was hard.  Peter had left the room, and family and friends gathered to honor his memory.  It was then that I realized my fear of death had also fled.

Since then, people close to me have died, not a few, although I don't keep a tally.  Both my father and mother left this world before Peter.  Dad died after a couple of heart attacks and late-onset emphysema in 1992 and Mom slipped away after she broke her hip ten years later. My tears for both were brief, which I long saw as a personal failing on my part.  I think now that I was just prepared for them to go.  Life has to end some time.  Why not now.  With my son Luke, it was different.  He was only 42, but his life had been severely damaged by an addiction to booze and pills.  It destroyed a promising career as a manager of location shooting for TV commercials, and it drove him from home and friends in California to a small room in Boston where he tried and failed to outrun his demons.  I sat by his side in several hospitals fearing he would not survive, and I told him of the pain I felt watching him commit suicide in slow motion.  When he was sober, Luke and I were extremely close.  Our failings generally kept us from judging each other.  But one morning he failed to wake up in his girlfriend's bed.  I sent his mother $1,000 as my share of cremation costs.  She promised to send me something from his cluttered apartment to help me remember him, but the momento never came.  His ashes have never been distributed though he was a lover of the sea.  I have not finished grieving, and maybe never will.

I've tried to believe in something other for years, but it's never worked.  I don't think anything of Luke or Peter, or now Ernie and Gene, survived the decay of their bodies.  We are our bodies.  I don't believe in the existence of any disembodied entities, either gods or ghosts.  Which makes it difficult for me to partake of the Thai world view which imagines invisible forces, for good and ill, everywhere.  I want to understand that the language we use to talk about the meaning of death and the importance of our relations with the dead has some intrinsic usefulness.  We know by the artifacts found that humans have believed from the beginning that death is not the end of the individual, that something survives.  For me this can only mean that our cherished dead live on in our memories, and perhaps in words, photos and videos (now with the internet, nothing is ever erased).

Jerry tells me that when someone dies a violent death, say in a motorcycle accident, the people in his Khmer village in Surin sit with the body for a week to make sure the soul leaves and does not stick around to trouble villagers.  Lately they've taken to putting up red shirts on hangers in the trees around their houses to encourage evil spirits to stay away.  No one knows where that custom began but it's fairly new.  Thai spirituality is largely a transaction with the unseen, using candles, flowers and incense to propitiate good spirits and encourage bad ones to stay away.  I can't imagine what it's like to think these thoughts or hold these beliefs.  For me, the dead are dead, and I cannot stay in contact.  However, Ernie's Facebook page is still up (actually, he has two for unknown reasons), and Luke's remained until I finally persuaded the authorities that he was gone. While I cannot shed my rationalist, materialist skin, I do think that our inability to live in an enchanted world, as do the Thais and most non-western peoples, leaves us diminished and, well, thirsty.

Maybe the poets can tell us how to leave the prisons of our bodies and our minds.  I'll leave the last world to Dylan Thomas.