Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Wherever You Are, Be There"

Don't Call Me and Tell Me You're Going to be there in 5 Minutes. 

This time of year four years ago I was about to start a 16 week marathon training program for the 2012 Twin Cities Marathon.  It would be my second foray into such idiocy after barely finishing one back in 2005 and promptly swearing I would never again attempt one.  The urge to give it another go came after watching one of my good buddies complete the course in 2011.  There were also a few notable milestones at play, as we were expecting our second child at the end of 2012, and 2013 would be bringing a noteworthy birthday my way.  I figured if I ever wanted to try and redeem my admittedly lackluster performance from seven years previous, this was going to be my last viable chance.  Given these circumstances I was also successfully able to goad a small cadre of my closest compatriots into attempting it with me - including a few who would probably not classify themselves as "runners" - then or now.

In effort to avoid a repeat of the dramatics from my inaugural marathon^, I made a concerted effort to train with considerably more dedication this time around.  If you've ever done something so stupid as train for and run a marathon, you're likely aware that the necessary prep work can be time-consuming.  While I had zero chance of winning, or probably even finishing in the top half of the 10,000 runner pack, I still found myself getting up at 5am on weekday mornings to get runs in before work.  My weekends were relinquished to a multiple hour long run and all subsequent recovery that followed.  Training basically became a part-time job that didn't pay and made you spend more on groceries because you were perpetually "rungry".

Toward the end of the training, likely on one of those long runs that provide an excessive amount of "thinking time", I remember telling myself that after this marathon nonsense was over, I was really going to focus on being a dad.  Put the selfish stupid ideas, like running marathons, playing in rock and roll bands, and attempting to climb the career ladder, on hold and focus the little people in my life that depended on me, or mostly their mother, and occasionally me.  I remember how absurd this notion seemed to me at the time, and how I still find it challenging to grasp now.  But I get the feeling it's not an uncommon one for a lot of parents trying to balance multiple responsibilities - work, family, bar league softball, etc.

One of my former bosses (she was actually the boss of the boss of my boss's boss*) once told me that finding balance can really be a misnomer, especially when it comes to trying to balance work and family life.  She commented that at times your work may be more consuming and leave you feeling as though you are neglecting your family, or the other parts of your life that aren't your work.  But the opposite is also true, that at times your family will demand or deserve more of your time, and your work might take the appropriate backseat.  The key, she advised, is recognizing that this is (hopefully) temporary, and the better we are at recognizing when those situations arise, the better we can manage the relationship between those aspects of our life.  It was a refreshing and realistic piece of advice, given how often we have the unrealistic expectation that we can balance everything in our life.

A few weeks ago, we had the privilege of attending my sister-in-law's college graduation from South Dakota State University.  The title of this post was actually a line I lifted from the student speaker's address to the graduating class.  "Wherever you are, be there."  It was a simple, but powerful suggestion, that in our frenetic, hyper-connected world, where technology can more or less put us anywhere we want to be at any given time, we often overlook.  Whether you are a working-parent or a stay-at-home parent, or not even a parent at all.  When we try to be multiple places at once, or do multiple things at once, we never tend to either of them very well - like texting and driving for example.  I've commented before that being a stay-at-home parent of multiple kids becomes more or less a gigantic multi-task in attempt to survive (see earlier post).

When I was working I often felt a necessity (typically falsely perceived) that I needed to answer emails or take work calls if they came in after hours.  Even since my retirement, and my comittments to things outside of parenting have drastically decreased, I still need the daily reminder to "be there".  I've done my fair share of trolling social media while also "supervising" bathtime and justifying a "need" to rock Gus to sleep as an excuse to check the most recent news headlines on my smartphone`.  Beyond our all-consuming technology, I've plowed through countless kids books without recalling a single word I've just read because my mind was preoccupied on what I was going to make for dinner that night or how I was going to persuasively convince my wife that I should be allowed to go out drinking with the guys that coming weekend.  Fortunately I do get called out from time to time, like just the other day when, after checking the afternoon forecast on my phone before mindlessly flipping to my Facebook feed, I put my phone down after realizing I had wasted the last 5 minutes (likely more) of my life.  At that point, Havi, our three year-old, looked at me and said (verbatim), "It's so good to have you back, Dad."

Considering that being a stay-at-home parent doesn't typically require an excessive amount of high-level critical thinking (until it instantaneously does of course) and given the propensity of my mind wander to somewhat bizarre places, it can be easy for me to go through the motions.  As Isla, our oldest, has finished up her last year of preschool today, the idea of being wherever you are has been particularly poignant to me these last few months.  This fall, she'll start kindergarten and Havi will start a few days a week of preschool, which will have a noticeable impact on the daily level of craziness in our house.  As nice as this will be, especially after the chaos of summer that will surely ensue with all of three being home all of the time, it has helped me to be mindful of not wishing that time away, no matter how frustrating it can become.  It has allowed me to better embrace those moments when I am at wits end, a fraction of a second from throwing large objects across the house, when all three are simultaneously acting like, to borrow a term from Karen Alpert, "little a-holes".

Before Gus came along, and I was home with just the girls for a few months, there were a few rare occasions when I was able to get both Isla and Havi to take an afternoon  nap, typically after reading a good 25+ books.  When this happened, it was my golden opportunity to either try to get the things I thought I needed to get done around the house in relative peace and with much more efficiency, or just have a little "Jon time" - blogging, watching 90s music videos, reading the comments sections of online newspapers.  Every once in a while though I would just lay with the girls.  While this wasn't probably the most effective use of my time, I knew that those moments wouldn't always be present, and sometimes it's just nice to try and hold on to them before they pass.  And before attempting to nap with your kids becomes just plain creepy.  These were also likely the times when I was just really tired and needed a nap too.

About a year ago, I had a chance to chat with a parent of one of my former student employees.  In discussing my experiences so far as a stay-at-home dad, he made a comment that I don't think sums up parenting much better, whether you stay at home or not.  "The days can get long, but the years will go by fast."  As much as we try, we can't always be "on" as parents.  We need the other aspects of our lives; our relationships with our spouses and friends, our interests and hobbies, our work or vocation, to help make us who we are as individuals.  At times we may have to focus on one area more than another, and we may feel guilty for shortchanging those other parts or people.  But that is life, making a series of trade-offs that help us keep things in perspective.  If we're attentive to those moments and fully take them in, we'll feel them long after they are through.        
Thanks to these guys, I was at least able to stand up
following my second marathon attempt.

^Which included throwing up on the grounds of a church just as the 11am service was letting out, and getting the maximum use out of my registration fee by visiting the med tent for an IV and wheelchair transport post race.

*This means she was either a really big deal, or I was really not a big deal - I think both are equally true.

`I've always found the term "smartphone" a little ironic, considering a vast majority of what we do on them - watch cat videos, determine our Elf name, play Candy Crush, etc. are likely diminishing our intellectual capacity.

Subtitle of this post is a paraphrase of  David Fricke from the Sam Jones' Wilco documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart".

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