Last summer my family took a week-long holiday to Seattle, Washington. Our dear old friend, Holly, lives there. Holly is always happy to host us, even when she lives in a 150 square foot studio (disclaimer: that was before we had kids). Holly's housemate was set to go out of town for a while, so we were even going to enjoy a bedroom, but she wasn't schedule to leave until two days after we arrived. So we planned a trip to the San Juan Islands for the first leg of our Pacific Northwest trip - in order to find a spot for ourselves for a few days, and to satisfy a long-standing desire to see that area of the world.
We arrived in Seattle at the outset of an incredible heatwave. It was in the upper 90's, at least, every day. Overall, that was a fun way to experience Seattle - certainly much different than the coldest winters we spend every summer in San Francisco. And people in Seattle really know how to party when the weather is good.
The heat, however, provided an extreme backdrop for what turned out to be a really shitty few days. The first portend of doom was our rental car. I can't even remember the details of what made it so ridiculously difficult to get the car, but I have visions of the four of us, sweating, walking through miles upon miles of parking garage only to arrive at a car that was not particularly family friendly. Eventually, we got to Holly's (through rush-hour traffic), took care of business (food and a much needed drink and smoke), and then hit the road and headed north.
Before we left home we'd had little to no time to really plan anything for our San Juan Islands trip - I'd found a room in Anacortes, Washington that seemed neither ridiculously expensive nor totally skanky and that was about it. No guidebook, no plan, no time. A fun approach when traveling through, say, Amsterdam. Less reliable with two young kids and a heat wave.
Our room and spot within Anacortes was pretty nice, although it was immediately clear that in order to fully appreciate the wonderfulness of the San Juans you should really get off the beaten path. We never did.
The next day (our only full day in the area) was a complete disaster. Totally, fully, and completely. The continental breakfast served at our motel was shockingly, confusingly putrid. We drove into town to find a decent cup of coffee and everything was just weird and deserted and nothing tasted good. We eventually settled on taking a ferry to Friday Harbor, the only landing spot on the ferry line through the Islands that seemed to deposit us actually in a town. I was determined not to go through the hassle of taking a car on the ferry, having been traumatized by once waiting for TEN HOURS in the car-ferry line going to Martha's Vineyard, Massachussetts. That was the reason we stayed in Anacortes - we could drive there and I was damned if I was going to spend my two days in the San Juans waiting for ferries.
When we docked at Friday Harbor, hot and hungry, we got off the boat with about 95 senior citizens and quickly found ourselves in the kind of tourist experience we usually avoid at all costs.
It was after lunch time proper, and we searched for a decent restaurant amidst all of the overpriced selections of fried food and settled on Mexican. Even when it is not that good, Mexican food is usually OK, right? Not right. Not only was the food gross, but for some reason - God frowning down upon us or something - the waitress and the kitchen completely forgot about our existence. This was really weird, given that we kept asking about our food and our kids were loudly losing their shit. Seriously, we waited for almost two hours for our food.
After we left the restaurant we discovered that we'd just missed the ferry off the island and we had to wait almost four hours for the next one. What did we do? Got ice cream. Walked for a few blocks. Stood talking. Walked for a few more blocks. Found a toy store. Fought with the children who wanted to buy anything and everything inside (their version of binge drinking). Tried desperately to find a playground, and finally found one that was small, smelly, and mostly visited by what seemed to be meth dealers. And it was really, really hot out.
About an hour before the ferry left, we went into the local whale museum to look around. Ken and Holly didn't feel like paying admission, so I went in with the kids. The museum was actually kind of fun, albeit overpriced. There was that one five-minute period when my daughter screamed in terror because of the life-size model of an Orca scared the hell out of her. But other than that it was fine - the space was lightly air conditioned and being there helped us pass the time.
On the way out of the museum I noticed a bus schedule - turns out that every half-hour throughout the day we could have caught a free bus to the other, less-populated side of the island where people live, eat seasonally, and pods of Orcas are frequently spotted. That bit of information was merely insult to injury.
Hot, exhausted, irritable, dehydrated, we caught the ferry back to Anacortes, hoping to forget the day ever happened.
Despite the grody circumstances of our day, we maintained relatively good spirits. Relatively. I didn't yell at my husband or my kids. But I was pretty disappointed. I've wanted to visit the San Juan Islands for like 20 years.
At some point in the afternoon - toward the end - I had a revelation that not only saved my sanity on that day, but that has become a bit of guiding principle for me.
That day I realized that at any one time there is some percentage of families and couples travelling - my guess is around 15% - for whom everything is going wrong. We've all had it happen, right? The transportation problems when the kid has a fever. The bad restaurant experience at the gathering the day before the cousin's terrible wedding. The hotel room that is irreversibly cold with cable that doesn't work and you've just had a huge fight about whether to have a second child. Things going wrong in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We all have to take this on some percentage of the time. If at any one time 15% of families are getting the short end of the traveling stick, then about 15% of the time traveling is going to suck.
In my mind I think of that 15% as "doing penance" though we've mostly done nothing for which we need to repent. Except for procreate. Maybe that is enough.
More accurately, however, taking on our 15%, is really just shift work. Like we're all on a commune and someone has to clean the outhouse or wash the cloth diapers. It only makes sense that we'd spread around this crappy aspect of family life as evenly as possible. The rest of the time - the majority of the time - things are not that bad.
I think of this 15% theory when we have those bad times - car rides with whining children and no snacks, being the family at the campground with the screaming toddler, whatever - and it gives me comfort and puts it all in context. Often I am able to let go of the focus on how shitty everything is, and I'm able to get all Zen about it. We're just doing our shift. It will end and then someone else will have to be miserable.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, we had a superbly lovely day the next day. We took a hike in what seemed like it would be some ordinary city park in Anacortes but it was beautiful and woodsy and on the water and just perfect. The kids frolicked and the four of us enjoyed the stupendous company of our old friend. We stretched our legs and breathed the fresh air and came down off of our bad day the day before. We happily fulfilled that day's work - luckily we had the Orca-watching-and-laughing-a-lot shift.
From the time my son was about one and a half until he was about three, my husband and I rented a room in our house to a friend, Danny. The prospect of having a housemate after so many years of living alone as a couple (and even more years of learning to have a functional housemate relationship with each other) was daunting, to say the least. As luck would have it, Danny was a very compatible housemate for us - collectively and individually. It didn't hurt that he and our son loved each other lots.
It wasn't effortless to integrate a new adult into our home life. It never is effortless to live with anyone, really. Other people are just annoying, even more so when you have to share a kitchen with them. However, the benefits of having Danny in the house far outweighed the challenges. Fundamentally, it was a lot of fun.
We not-so-jokingly referred to Danny as the United Nations. He didn't really help us resolve conflicts. In fact, I can remember a few times when Ken and I fell into the swirling pool of marital combat in Danny's presence and the poor guy just sat there looking traumatized.
But Danny was a peacekeeper. His mere presence in the house (or the possibility of him coming home or out of his room or even just overhearing us) kept us on our better behavior. All of us in a marriage, or a family (that's most of us) understand how each family unit has its own brand of insanity and misconduct. Knowing that there was a witness to our marriage, and to how we treated each other and communicated with each other, inspired us to behave better and communicate more respectfully. What a gift.
I thought about Danny when I read this a few days ago, in the New York Times: same-sex couples are still at risk for discriminatory treatment in health care settings, even in states with domestic partner rights and registries, even with Health Care Directives and Powers of Attorney in place.
So much for my righteous estate planner speech about the value of putting documents in place, especially for same-sex partners! What's the use if people are still going to take liberties to pass judgment on the nature of your family?
Well, of course there is some use in having documents in place, great use even - I still have to believe that stories like the ones in the Times article are more the exception than the norm. Perhaps, in the context of what usually occurs, this story is a bit inflammatory and thus inaccurate. OK - but still, WTF (as they say)??
I usually avoid reading comments to online articles, not because I think doing so is a waste of my time (I know it is), but in these days of the ubernet we all need to be judicious in deciding how to waste our time, we simply cannot waste our time everywhere. I choose to waste my time on food blogs mostly.
However, for some lucky reason I did read a few of the many comments posted to this article, and one really hit it. This commenter wondered whether if she was traveling with a friend - not a spouse, not a partner, not a lover, but a friend - why on earth would it make any sense to kick her out of the hospital room? Why shouldn't she get visiting privileges?
Of course, there is much yadda yadda to say in response, about rights and responsibilities, about the liability of medical professionals and the difficulties they face dealing with competing interests of others in their patients, about privacy of medical information. All important things to say, I'm sure.
But what I keep thinking about, as my mind floats back to the anecdotes I read described in that article, and to the comment about the traveler-friend, is how we - as a society, as health care providers, and even as lawyers - see families in isolation, as islands with distinct borders surrounded by a sea of that which is distinctly not family.
The reality is different. Many people, couples, and families have broad and complex relationships with those who are not family in a legal sense, but who are critically important and sustaining forces. In other words, people who are family in a practical sense. Historically, this has been particularly true for the LGBT community, as many have been mistreated, misunderstood and totally dissed by their families of origin, and they've created what they've needed by way of family elsewhere.
Obviously, when there is a disagreement, when a consensus cannot be reached, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Without powers of attorney and other documents in which we each grant decision-making authority to our chosen person, and in which we express our wishes about care, or whatnot, how do we draw the line? As the Times article makes clear, we do not want just any old health care professional to have unfettered discretion in deciding who or what counts. Legal familial relationships draw the line clearly. At least when we can all agree on what constitutes family.
Where I think we're coming at it ass-backwards is in where we start. We need to see families in a community context and assume that families are interconnected, changing organisms with hazy borders and far-reaching tentacles. We should expect that everyone is welcome, that inclusiveness is a given, and whittle away from there if necessary.
As a practical approach, I'm sure there are many difficulties that we'd face, especially us professionals bound by risk-oriented codes of conduct. But, let me just say this: individuals and families mostly benefit when forced to open up to outsiders. People are often healthiest, mentally and otherwise, when their worlds can see and know each other.
As our experience living with Danny demonstrated, a family can benefit from politely letting others in, even for the most intimate family experiences, and from behaving accordingly.
The other day, I looked around at the world, its problems and crises and progress, and realized that this is the world in which I'm living my adult life. This is it. All I do to create my own reality, to grow and evolve, all of it is happening in this context, which is a defining force on me and my life. Some people were Russian Jews who birthed their babies during the pogroms, and some people were lucky enough to be in their early 20's in the late 60's and they had a lot of fun and casual sex and maybe had gotten to see Jimi Hendrix live, or at least see the Talking Heads in a small venue a few years later. Some people were born into the dust bowl, or the Chinese cultural revolution.
Turns out when I hit my stride as an adult and was raising young kids, this just happened to be what the world was like. When I say this, I mean all of this - an economic crisis, the first black president, gay marriage as one of the more polarizing issues, invasive burmese pythons in the Everglades, climate change, and things still unknown and unknowable. All this influences my work, whether and how I can save money to pass along to my children, and the development of my psyche (which, itself, influences what my children will discuss in therapy.)
Why was all of this such a revelation? Well, for one, it was just a moment of awareness - profound in its mere occurrence. When I was really young, 5 or 6, I had these existential moments where I would think to myself, "I am me." It blew my mind. I had to work really hard to get my brain to be that self-conscious, and I remember, vividly, that feeling of effort expended to step aside from my consciousness, and to separate it from my identity. I like to think of myself as spiritually precocious.
Another reason, I think, that my realization about the world kinda floored me, is that the world in which I am living, and in which I am trying to make a living, is fundamentally not what I expected or envisioned when I was growing up and thought about being an adult. Some of that difference between expectation and reality is inevitable, since the future, and adulthood, are so unknowable from way back in the past.
But the specific difference between this world, and the one I somehow expected (though maybe never articulated) lies in the existence of limitations and in the lack of a linear progress toward goodness and things being better than they'd been before.
In the 70's, when I was a child, people were getting all equal on each other, and the brainwashing was heavy: I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, just as long as I didn't hurt anyone. Society was evolving and soon these truths would not only be self-evident, but also universal. I then came into adulthood in the 90's, when the egalitarian dreams of our parents were realized, somewhat, in the internet and in Bill Clinton (who at least didn't go to Yale for undergrad), and prosperity became the norm.
There was this expectation that things would continue to grow and get better, and, more importantly, my efforts alone could determine so much about my own life. The subtext of course, has so much to do with class and race, but wasn't that one of those good ones we figured out back in the 70's?
Progress continues to be made, but there is also some serious tower of babel action happening right now. The weaknesses in our society and in our whole global system are revealing themselves, and things have contract and move backward in many ways. Toward something simpler, community-centered and without so much packaging. Like the olden days.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing - I'm happily making sauerkraut and preserving fruit like other urban homesteaders, trying to minimize that which is disposable. However, as the scale shifts, other areas of our disposable culture are under scrutiny - I have less disposable income, my own time is more consumed with supporting myself (even if it is just a result of my dedication to pickling and preserving everything from my garden), and I, at least, can no longer easily ignore the enormous resources that world travel requires.
Again, I really do think all of this is good, but I did not expect the world, or my world, to shrink it the way it is shrinking. Until now, the sky not only seemed the limit but the goal. Now, many of us are staying closer to the ground, or at least seeing the wisdom in trying. Even when you throw the internet and communication devices into the mix, many of us are responding to the glut of global awareness by connecting with neighbors, discovering community (physically, not virtual) and getting our hands dirty. Literally.
As I gained my composure after the duh-piphany that my life is, in fact, heavily influenced by the external, global circumstances of my time here on the planet, it occurred to me that human history can in some ways be seen like a never-ending saga of birth order. Like my son (the first born) sees things in terms of what has been taken away, and my daughter (the second born) sees things in terms of what she did not receive, each of us being shaped by having been born after the prior generation, or having been born before the ones that we must raise. My great-grandparents were immigrants, caught between two cultures; my grandparents were obsessed with assimilation and conformity. My parents' generation broke the chains of the 50's and told the Joneses to go fuck themselves, the race was off; my generation is rediscovering manners and is realizing that the Joneses are part of the fabric of our community, like it or not, so we should at least be polite.
My son, Huck, was just over 3 and a half when my daughter, Trudy, was born. One day, when Trudy was a few months old - I believe I was still home on maternity leave - I realized the sum total of everything I needed to know about birth order, at least for my own narcissistic purposes. Trudy was on her changing table and I was across the room. On the phone. Poor child was totally left to roll over to her death and I was blabbering away about clothes or something. Honestly, I had probably forgotten about her existence completely for 10 or 30 seconds - a phenomenon I experienced exclusively with my second child.
In a moment, I caught sight of her and a wave of guilt washed over me: Poor baby! How could I be so careless? This precious little thing was getting nothing from me - no playing or singing names of body parts or attention of any sort. I was being so totally, totally lame.
Humiliated and remorseful, I hung up the phone and rushed to her side, only to discover that she was emphatically happy. She was staring at the black and white pictures I'd put up next to the changing table (probably the ones that were actually stuck to the changing table and had been there since her brother was a baby). She was engaged and stimulated. She was just hanging out.
Then the second wave of guilt washed over me: Poor Huck! I never just left him alone to do his own thing.
I've told this story many times. It sums up, entirely, my experience of having two kids. Until today, however, I'd not really looked at this little story from my kids' perspectives. Without entertaining myself and anyone else by describing the particular ways my children have been traumatized by the differences in the ways I've treated them, I'll simply note that they have been treated differently. They were each born into a unique reality in that respect, and the external forces - my level of relaxation (or, neglect), the presence, or not, of a sibling and all that gives and takes away, parents who were 35 instead of 31 - influence so much of who they are.
My story about being a parent of two may not provide the definitive analysis of birth order, and the related syndromes, but it really does say it all. How we are all fucked, and how lucky we all are not to be as fucked as our younger or older sibling, 'cause they are really fucked. Or, more generously, how little we can do about the circumstances of our births, how those circumstances define and shape us, and how, knowing this, perhaps we can confront the future without expectation.