Monthly Archives: March 2013

Merry-Go-Rounds and (my) Marriage

May 18th marks 28 years of marriage for my wife and me – although we’re doing a combo-celebration this week in San Antonio, where my wife is attending an advanced practice nursing conference.

If I were to rephrase a famous line of Charles Dickens’ as I look back on 28 years it might read, “It’s been the best of times, it’s sometimes been the most difficult of times.”

Like parenting, there’s no foolproof and surefire way to remain married or committed to the one you started out loving (or to the one you grow to love via an arranged marriage).

What follows is a common sense idea, which evidently is uncommonly observed by too many couples, yet one that has helped our marriage.

Years ago I came across an author’s use of centrifugal and centripetal forces in the context of marriage, which stuck with me, and thus, my appropriation of the merry-go-round analogy.

MGR

It’s a simple axiom:

A marriage/relationship – like a person riding a merry-go-round – will only hold together if inward pulling forces (centripetal) match or exceed outward pulling ones (centrifugal).

We’ve all experienced or seen what happens on merry-go-rounds when a combination of speed and duration of spinning combine – bodies fall or fly off.

fallingMGR

I could list any number of centrifugal and centripetal forces that work for or against a marriage, but for this blog, I’ll illustrate with a few of my own.

For almost three years, mid-2010 to the present, my family has been in a re-acclimate-back-to-USA-from-years-in-South Africa mode.

I chose to resign from a non-profit, HIV/AIDS children’s psychosocial research and training job in a country and among people we loved, and relocate back to Texas in order to be nearer an aging and ailing parent. An agreed upon condition of our choiceso that our three school age girls didn’t become latchkey kids – was that I would assume primary “home management” duties, while my wife accepted and enrolled in a three-year graduate nursing program at UT-Austin.

I jokingly share that you know roles have reversed when you wake up in the morning and one of the first thoughts on your mind is: What do I need to take out of the freezer for dinner tonight?

Actually, there’s been a lot of role reversals with my new family responsibility, including: taking the girls to medical appointments; washing/drying and folding laundry, including women’s slips, brassieres, panties and camisoles; mopping up on my hands and knees bedside and bathroom vomit; all the while doing any and everything else necessary to keep our family functionally (versus dysfunctional) operational while my wife gives total focus and effort to full-time studies, plus off-setting financial need by working PRN at Hospice Austin.

Upon our return from South Africa we could have done what we see too many American couples doing – burning life’s candles at both ends.

Both of us either working or studying full-time, plus accommodating every which child’s academic and extra-curricular activities – all for the purpose of either making necessary ends meet, or more commonly it seems, maintaining an accustomed lifestyle.

Upon our arrival in Texas, one of the first – yet constant – outward pulling forces we felt personally was economic, or the proverbially, “keeping up with the Jones'”.

Returning with no job prospect, no medical insurance, and certain future graduate study debt of $30k+, we knew our already too meagre retirement savings would take a huge wallop for at least a 2 to 5 year period.

Seeing and sharing life alongside so many friends, acquaintances, and family, many of whom live in near million-dollar homes, have 2nd (even 3rd) vacation homes, drive near-new vehicles and possess recreational vehicles, take once or twice-yearly family vacations, frequently eat out, give generous allowances and newest tech accessories to their kids, cover multiple summer camp/trip costs, et cetera, took its toll on our family – as parents, as kids, as a family, and on me as traditional “provider.”

It’s made us frequently wonder to ourselves now – somewhat shamefully (since we didn’t often give thought to the feelings of those who weren’t privileged with the means to enjoy such pleasures) – what our many African friends and acquaintances must have felt each time they entered our home, or heard I was going on a week-long hiking trip, or that we were traveling to the coast or the Drakensberg mountains for a family vacation.

Of necessity we’ve had many mini-family conferences since relocating to Austin, during which we speak plainly with each another, helping counter the outward pulling-away-from happiness forces, verbalizing what we (should) most value in and from life – life, health, relationships, et cetera (the centripetal forces).

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Such candid talks and times together help counter our many individually felt Berstein Bears’ jealous “Green-Eyed Monsters,” and put into perspective, say, why we’re living within our means for an undetermined period of time with donated 15-year-old and discounted 10-year-old sedans.

A final example.

The Atlantic‘s July/August, 2010 cover story was titled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control of Everything.” For me, it marked the first in many articles chronicling present-day changing work and relational dynamics between the sexes, and specifically, identity and relational adjustments many men are confronted with these days.

That’s where my wife and I find ourselves, today.

Despite our choice of resigning and returning to the States. Despite my choice to assume temporary home management duties while my wife studies, it’s simply and presently a gnarly period of life (gnarly = difficult; a first-time usage I heard last night from one of my wife’s nursing colleagues).

Outward, pulling-away-from marital commitment feelings occur semi-regularly these days. Most of them, I suppose, associated with a reconfiguration of my traditional and culturally sculpted male identity.

How can my wife and I be close when we no longer share work relationships, commonalities and experiences? What will I do with the very real possibility that she’ll out-earn, “out-prestige” me for all future years?

Plus, as an advanced practice nurse the sky’s the limit for her, while each day at home and not “working” I feel like a white, male endangered species, this despite my postgraduate degree and overseas work credentials. The fearful and unknown future “what ifs” of life and their possible effects on marriage and primary relationships are sometimes near overwhelming.

Despite it all, here I sit at a Starbucks in San Antonio celebrating and enjoying time away with my wife. Despite the many centrifugal forces pulling outward and against family and marriage, we’ve managed to keep a proportionately higher balance of inward-pulling forces to outward-pulling ones. For this, we’re grateful to God and hopeful for the future. I wish the same for you and yours.

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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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