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Australia, 20 years later

Harbour bridge from Circular Quay station
Harbour bridge from Circular Quay station

During my first night in a dorm room (in a “college”) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, I was greeted by a thunder storm the likes of which I had never seen before. I was used to occasional thunder storms in the winter but this was completely different. Here, being late summer, it was warm and humid out while the rain fell in sheets and the lightning flashed with a frequency and strength that I had only read about. I remember laying in my bed and being absolutely amazed by the storm. It was a bit scary but also exciting beyond compare, very much how I was feeling about starting my year in Australia.
February, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of my arrival in Sydney, Australia. I went my junior year of college to the University of New South Wales as part of the UC Education Abroad program. I’ve kept a running count of how many years it has been, 5 years, 10 years, etc. The 20th was no different, but it served as a kind of milestone, since that trip was almost half of my lifetime ago. I don’t tend to fixate on past events as much as I used to, but I still can get very nostalgic. Seeing pictures of me and my friends from that time brought up a lot of really good memories and induced a heavy wave of nostalgia.

I started thinking about the nostalgia for that period that I was feeling. The obvious factors were the lifestyle. I was studying seriously, but unlike my time at Berkeley I was going out a lot more, had a close group of friends I spent a lot of time with and even got to do a bunch of traveling with a friend around Australia. There was also the effect of seeing how young I and the friends I am still in touch with looked in those pictures. I also remember how optimistic I was for my future, I wasn’t even worried about a career because it seemed so natural that I would go into academics.

The positive memories were the ones that came up first, but I had to remind myself that I initially had a very hard time. After deciding that the rooms in the college/dorm were too expensive, I decided to look for off-campus housing. I crashed on my friend’s floor for a week while I was searching. I eventually found a room nearby. The house was okay, but one of my flat mates turned out to be rather difficult to be around, and the biggest roaches I had ever seen were waiting for me at night when I had to walk out of the house itself into an enclosed laundry room to reach the toilet. I also was missing home a lot. Being away from California made me appreciate a lot of things I had taken for granted (Mexican food was a huge one).

Besides being homesick and the suboptimal living situation, the main issue affecting me was my, still bewildering, choice to try and keep a relationship with my on/off girlfriend back home. We’d met 6 months before my trip and I insisted that we keep the relationship going. Obviously, trying to maintain the relationship while I was overseas was emotionally taxing and led to unnecessary drama. I also feel that in trying to maintain that relationship, I was much slower in fully become part of my new environment. I think perhaps knowing that I had a relationship back home to attend to kept me preoccupied with home too much. I also missed out on several potential relationships with female classmates. On the upside, I also got to experience a truly dysfunctional relationship with the same girlfriend when I returned home, and was much more appreciative when I met the woman who was to become my wife.

Sydney really only felt like home the second half of my trip. I remember returning from my month long trip around Australia during my winter break. It was night, and coming in over the Harbour Bridge I could see the lights and familiar landmarks. I felt at home, and was surprised to have that sensation. I went on to move in with a much better group of people which made my living situation much more comfortable and fun (and I am still in close contact with one those flatmates). I knew how to get around, had my favorite cafes and restaurants and was more aware of the music scene. I also noticed that more of the Australia students at the university approached me that second semester and I made more friends.

I look back on my time in Australia as a remarkable year. It was a turning point in my life; I learned that there was more to life and college than just studying all the time. I learned to go to my friends for help when I needed it, and to be there for others. It also just exposed me to a very different world for a year. There are so many indelible memories and images I have from that year. A small sampling include walking home one night and having a flying fox drop out of a tree close to my house just as I walked by and then seeing another one silhouetted against the moon as I looked up, the animals(emus, kangaroos, etc) at the nature preserve coming to eat our leftovers as we were leaving during the orientation week, having dingos steal my friend’s shoe while sleeping on a tarp on Fraser Island (and discovering that Sand Flies are a million times worse than mosquitos), my flatmate and I hiding behind a door trying to swat a flying roach and seeing the Crowded House farewell concert outside the Opera house. These images and memories never fail to warm me inside, and opens a deep longing that period of my life.

On my last day in Sydney two very close friends, that I happen to still be in contact with, drove me to the airport. We had some coffee in the café, laughed and joked and reminisced about my year. Then it was time to go. It was odd to find myself feeling that I was leaving rather than going home. I started crying as I hugged them goodbye, and my tears fell like a late summer storm, sheets of warm rain, well after Sydney’s beautiful Harbour and Opera House fell out of view.

Dreams in the new year


I have been thinking about a new job for quite awhile. I would say “looking” but my wife(and the more honest part of me) would quickly point out that I really don’t “look” very much. Let’s say I dream about a new job. The dream itself has been really hazy, but the idea of “something else” has been a constant. A few weeks ago I interviewed for a job with the State. It was all a bit fast, a friend of a friend was the director of the specific department, and I had initially just been curious about what kind of work there might be for someone with my background. Things progressed quickly, and before I knew it I was interviewing, and then a little bit later I was offered the position. The exact work wasn’t quite what I had been “dreaming” about, but I thought it would be interesting enough, and very safe and secure. I then had a bit of a shock when I realized 1) that the initial pay would be significantly lower than what I am making now, and 2) that the earned leave/vacation was less than half of what I get now. More importantly, after about a week of anxiety and feeling torn, I came to realize that although it would have had some great benefits, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I had an emergency session with my therapist/coach, and with some inventive and intuitive exercises, I was able to vocalize what a part of me had kept to keep hidden, that I wanted something with a better fit, that is something more in line with my values and interests.

It had been hard for me to allow that thought that I want “something better” to be there because I always fear that I am asking for too much. Here was a job close to home, with life time security, and probably interesting work. I was crazy to pass it up! Who was I to think that I deserved, let alone could find a better option? With the exercises I did in my session, I was able to not judge that feeling, and let it come up. I realized that my vacations are incredibly important to me; it’s the few times a year when I get to be with the family and not deal with the stress of school and work. We can be together and have fun. I also realized that the kids are getting older and we can start doing new activities as a family and also that they won’t be wanting to spend that much time with us pretty soon, so I should take advantage of it while I can.

It was an incredibly hard decision to turn down the offer, and I almost threw up after letting the person who interviewed me know. I sent a heartfelt letter expressing my appreciation for the time and effort to bring me in and my reasons for turning down the job. It’s very possible I will regret this decision down the line(I still do from time to time), but I feel I have to really try to find what I want this time around, rather than just take whatever falls into my lap. Despite the incredible benefits, I know I don’t want to stay where I am. The work itself is okay, but I am too isolated and the limited interactions with my advisor aren’t that fulfilling. I also feel that if I tried to stay in academics I would keep falling in the same rut as I have the past 11 years. The State job would have been fine, and I’m sure I would have done pretty well, but despite the security, working in the same job for over 20 years, in order to make the pension make sense, it seemed constraining.

The exercise with my coach was very interesting. Using purely intuition, I laid out 3 potential paths, represented by scarves of 3 different colors, and selected photos at random that belonged to each path. The 3 paths were, 1)take the state job, 2)try to stay where I am, and 3)the unknown, or to follow my dream. Each path had it’s own theme and scenarios along that journey. The unknown path is what I choose. We constructed a story from the photos. To summarize, my vision is hazy but it will come into focus. There will be tough periods ahead, but if I keep moving forward with determination there will be joy and peace at the end of that journey. It was scary to choose that, but on some level deep down it was I knew I was feeling, I just needed the safe space and process to allow that choice to be made.

As this process has been unfolding I was bombarded by the word “Dream” everywhere I turned. From Dizzee Rascal’s “Dream” on the radio, in which he tells of becoming a successful musician.

The song’s chorus is:
“I like the talky talky happy talk
Talk about things you like to do
(Talk about things you like to do)
You got to have a dream if you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

To quotes involving dreams in my daughter’s mindfulness coloring book such as “Dreams are illustrations.. from the book your soul is writing about you” to the idea of dreaming of new potentials in the book Who moved my cheese? that I found at my in-laws house during vacation.

I’m scared. I have moments, especially after some of my job search training exercises where I think what I am looking for, decent vacation time, interesting work and team, and a good location are a pipe dream and then kind of freak out. I have to remind myself that I have time still to keep searching and stay on the path I want. I also try to remember that I want to show my girls that it’s okay to reach for your dreams, that even if you go through tough times, you can lead a much richer life. So I’ll keep bringing that dream into focus, and keep pursuing it. I still fear that I am asking for too much, but for once I’m letting myself dream a bigger reality for myself than I have for a very long time.

A work in progress, or scattered musings


It seems that work and career is where my ongoing issues and fears most manifest themselves in my life. It’s been an ongoing issue for over 10 years now, and a reliable trigger for my wife and I to fall into our cycle. I’ve been reflecting back over the past couple of months and having an impossible time organizing my thoughts in a coherent standard format despite a week of attempts, so I’ve decided to make a list.

Concerns or fears about looking for job

  1. I don’t know what I want to do
  2. I can’t stay where I am now indefinitely, and even if I wanted to I haven’t performed in the manner that would be necessary to make it work
  3. I’m scared to take on role where I wouldn’t have much training or experience
    Despite knowing that most positions are landed by contacts or networking, I’m scared to work for someone who knows me for fear that I will end up disappointing them(kind of happened with my current boss)
  4. Lack of energy and motivation in the search, possibly because job option in the works(like last time), so hard to motivate and put myself out there to find even more options

Things that have made me feel good in past few weeks

  1. Meeting up with former colleagues who I feel know and respect me, personal interest in me
  2. Feeling like I was part of a group and able to contribute following a presentation I gave at a small workshop for work
  3. Getting positive feedback from my supervisor following presentation

I have come to believe that I could work happily in almost any field, as long as I had the right environment, which would consist of:

  1. Being part of a collaborative and supportive team
  2. Feeling that I was able to contribute and felt appreciated
  3. Having a supervisor that also acted as a mentor, that could help me grow professionally

I’ve wrestled with these issues before, and I have an internal debate going on. One side says that I’ve done alright, but I really haven’t thrived due to missing key factors in my environment. The darker side says that I am not trying enough and have passed on countless opportunities to take projects and run with them. They both seem true, and perhaps are not mutually exclusive.

I actually went to see my old psychiatrist last week because I feel so stuck when it comes to career searching. He suggested a limited course(~6 months) of low dose of wellbutrin and adding exercise and diet changes to give me enough energy to overcome the activation energy peak, or at least to act as the catalyst (I forget what grade I learned this in, but that image has stuck). I was reminded that regular exercise is a very effective way of dealing with depression. He also said that my going into defeated or hopeless states of inactivity is my way of dealing with stress or anxiety. Other people, like my wife, deal with stress or anxiety by going into a hyperactive mode. I don’t think I’ve had my reactions described in that light and found it very helpful, it gave me a context in which to view my reactions. Rather than thinking “I’m just messed up”, I can use the framework to address the problem of stress and how I deal with it.

My original plan was to try to the regular exercise and other behavioral changes, and if needed start up the anti-depressants. However, like trying to search for a job, starting an exercise routine kind of never happens for me. In couples therapy we realized that while my inability to act was making me depressed and even more inactive, it was making my wife even more agitated. After some discussion, I have decided to start a short term course of low-dose wellbutrin to hopefully give me enough energy to organize some sort of exercise practice for myself and to also devote more energy to networking and finding a career, I just have to go pick up the prescription. I have resisted going back on anti-depressants for a long time because coming off Zoloft last time was a year-long nightmare of insomnia(had to give up roasting regular coffee and can only roast and drink decaf now), digestive and heartburn issues and flashes that felt either like electrical currents going down the back of my head or that would rev my mind up so much that I couldn’t lay still. But I’ve been stuck for too long in a rut, I need to make some change happen, and wellbutrin is supposed to be one of the easier anti-depressants to come off.

We’ll see in about 6 months how I’m doing. Hopefully I’ll have landed a better fitting job, in which I get to work with a collaborative and supportive team that will allow me to feel useful and will have a boss that I can connect with. Having the flexibility to exercise regularly would be great , and not going through horrific withdrawl symptoms would wrap up this dream scenario nicely!

Riding it out


We recently got back from our usual summer vacation down to Southern California. I got to rest, catch up on some movies, spend time with the family, and watch the kids swim and play with their cousins. My daughters are starting to seem so much more grown up all of a sudden given the new activities they can do. My older daughter has been riding a bike for a couple of years now, but usually is very nervous and scared to go fast. On this trip she was riding much faster and confidently than usual. My younger daughter has improved a lot in swimming, up to where she can kind of float on her back, and can go underwater and is also doing much better on the bike with training wheels.

As part of this growing up my eldest has begun to start listing all the things she wants and begins to get unhappy that she doesn’t have them. Some of these things are typical kid things like certain clothes or toys, but others include the desire for us to own a house in Berkeley (rather then rent in Oaklnd)and for us to buy a car with a 3rd row so “mommy” can drive her and a bunch of friends around. It’s humorous, but I think also illuminating. It helped me realize how I deal with my desires can affect my mood.

On my trips down south, I try to go for an early morning surf session as often as I can. The conditions are more consistent down there, and I have more time to go than at home. I find that these sessions serve as the fuel for my day and also helps me keep my surfing ability up. Spending time in the water gives me a chance to slow down and ponder my life and run across new ideas and insights. This time around if felt different. I was able to enjoy my surroundings, but the surfing itself didn’t give me energy, moreover it left me feeling frustrated. This went on for almost 2 weeks.

Analyzing it a bit I have come to believe that, like my daughter, I was letting my desire for something bring me down. In my case, I wanted to be a better surfer. I felt horribly limited by, what I found to be diminished, abilities. I wanted to pick better waves, be more aware of what the wave was doing and respond in an appropriate fashion. I wanted to be able to go across the wave rather than just make the drop then find myself surrounded by white water. I wanted to be in better shape and not get winded so easily. So many wants!

All this wanting left me frustrated and very unfulfilled. This in turn started a downwards spiral in which I felt that since I would never have enough access to the ocean to improve my skills then I would always be stuck and frustrated. Therefore, I should consider giving up surfing. Then I got knocked underwater and found that my ability to hold my breath seemed much reduced relative to even a few months ago, and then I started beating myself about getting so out of shape. My ongoing back issues(and a new sprain after surfing) just added to the misery. It sounds ridiculous reading it now as I write it, but at the time the thoughts felt very real and strong.

One of the tenets of Buddhism that I ran across in my reading up on mindfulness a few years ago is that attachment is often the root of suffering. It turns out upon further investigation that it is one of the three poisons of Buddhism. It often gets mistranslated as desire is the root of suffering, but I think it helps to keep the two clear. To me, attachment is fixating on a particular desire. I can want to be a better surfer; if I can acknowledge that thought,and let it pass, then it doesn’t affect me too much. However, if I fixate on that thought,and keep coming back to it, I can get very depressed.

On some level I was aware of this, and was able to prevent the negative thoughts from taking a complete hold. I kept telling myself that these were just negative thoughts and that the feeling would pass. It kept happening, but I kept going out when my back would allow it. Towards the end of the trip, I went out on a smaller day and actually managed to have a good time. I think I wasn’t too worked up about making the most of the waves, since they didn’t look as good as the previous days, my expectations were lowered and I was able to have more fun rather than beat myself up for not having caught that last gorgeous wave.

On our return, it kind of hit me what a great trip we’d had as a family. We spent a lot of time together, survived the drive there and back (a first), had a great time in Catalina, where my older daughter overcame her fear of the ocean and went snorkeling with me. We got to see a bunch of the famous Garibaldi and various other fishes. I arrived much more energized at work, eager to follow up on projects and get things done. Even if the surfing hadn’t provided the usual energy, the time with the family certainly did.

I was reading the latest issue of the excellent magazine,Surfer’s Journal (my neighbor gave me a subscription for my birthday),and ran across a column in which the author expressed the view that surfing doesn’t have to be about finding the “perfect” wave or having the perfect ride. At its core, surfing should be about catching a wave and having fun. During this trip it seems that I forgot to enjoy the basics, and got caught up in the things I couldn’t do well. I still would like to improve my surfing skills. I’m not sure where the time for that is going to come from, and how exactly that will happen, but I will try to focus on finding the basic joys in life in the meantime. I’d like to teach that lesson to my daughter somehow. There are so many things that she will want in life and not get, I’d like for her to be able to not let those desires overwhelm her. Rather, I’d like for her to focus on the joys right in front of her, even if it’s something small like racing as fast as she can on her bike.

Hearing my fear


Driving in to work the other day, Pete Docter, the director of the new Disney/Pixar film “Inside-out” was being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. I had seen ads for the movie, but hadn’t paid much attention. The basic premise is that we see a young girl’s emotions as characters inside a girl’s mind, and how they drive the girl’s actions and feelings after moving to a new city and leaving her friends behind. The segment that most moved me was the director recounting a letter he had received from the father of a boy who had attended a screening the movie. The boy was in a swim class, but for the entire session he had been too scared to jump off the diving board. The day after seeing the movie, the boy finally jumped off the diving board. People congratulated him, and his father asked what had happened that had allowed him to take the jump. The boy replied with “I saw that fear was driving, and I asked it to step aside for a bit”.

It seems that the universe has been trying to send me a message. Everywhere I turn, I run across some mention of fear. From the radio to couples therapy to T-shirts and many places in between, the message coming through is that I need to pay more attention to my fear, and the role that it plays in my life.

The first time that topic of fear came up was in couples therapy a couple of months ago. For a few weeks in a row, I had come into the session feeling okay, and invariably at some point in session I would get triggered and I would emotionally shut myself off. Seeing as how this normally happened when I had to deal with voicing strong emotions or feelings, our therapist suggested that FEAR had a large role in my ongoing depression. My coach had presented this idea a long time back, so I didn’t find it a novel idea, but it served as a reminder that I had to pay attention to that.

Soon after that while reading Refuse to Choose, a book about personality types like mine who don’t seem to be able to limit themselves to one interest or pursuit in life (Scanners or renaissance souls), I found myself face to face with another mention of fear. In this case, it was demonstrating how fear can kick in too strongly and when not necessary. To paraphrase, it’s good to experience some fear when considering a life-threatening scenario, but being paralyzed when contemplating singing in front of other people(or in my case dancing) is fear overreacting. A little bit later in the book it laid out some examples of where fear can stop someone from starting on a new route or idea because rather than start small, people often look at the whole thing and get overwhelmed. I felt it described me perfectly.

Then, perhaps the coolest of all, a couple of days later I saw a T-shirt which read “Fear is the Mind Killer” The fact that fear was on the shirt drew me in, but the phrase seemed familiar and I eventually found it was the beginning to the Litany Against Fear from the book Dune by Frank Herbert. The full text is as follows:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye to see its path
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain.

Here’s a link to a scene from David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune that incorporated the use of the Litany Against Fear

That’s some heavy stuff there, and I don’t normally have the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit holding a gom jabbar to my neck while I try to resist the primal urge to pull my hand out of a painful situation. However, I think it speaks to how if one let’s fear take over, then you lose control. My experience with a potential drowning while surfing made that very clear. Also, thanks to my experiences with mindfulness, the idea of facing your fear and letting it pass rather than try to fight seems very true. I also like how this is very visual representation of the concept that the fear or idea of what he is experiencing is much worse than the reality of the situation, his mind is telling him that his hand is burning and being ripped open, but his hand is fine when he looks at it. I think of it as an amped-up version of how my fear often kicks in to tell me that a certain task at work, or a certain conversion with my wife, will be much worse than it actually turns out to be.

Coming back to the boy on the diving board, this is where I am aiming to get with my fear. It’s been working so hard to keep me safe, but in the end I am not really living my life as richly as I would like. I still am held back in a lot ways by my fear, but I’m trying to work with it. Being aware of it is the first step. I’ve found myself more engaged at home recently, more patient and the voice telling me how horrible I am has decreased in volume, and I can usually gently answer back to it. Hopefully by continuing a dialog with my fear it will eventually relax enough to step aside for a bit, and finally let me take the plunge into really living.

More life lessons (and possibly death ones too) from surfing

surfpanic-1When I’m in more depressed states, I often feel that things would be easier if I were dead. I haven’t really thought about killing myself for many years, but the idea of escape sounds comforting from time to time. However, while surfing during my break last month, I actually came much closer to dying than normal, and I had a very different reaction.

The ocean can kill. I’m always well aware of that, and never take the waves or water for granted. Up here in Northern California, several abalone divers were killed earlier this month due to rough and changing conditions. I tend to stay out of the water when the waves look too big, but on this last trip I got caught by surprise. I was down in Southern California for spring break and went down to the beach on my first full day there. I haven’t been surfing much at home because of weather and water conditions(Oh San Francisco! You fickle surf temptress) and our hectic schedule, so I’m also not in the greatest shape either. I went to a section of Newport Beach with various rock jetties, since the waves tend to be bigger than at the pier which is where you normally find the longboarders, and I don’t have a longboard down south to use.

I paddled out without any issues, but then kind of drifted around for the next hour without any success. I found that either the waves were closing out, or that someone else was closer to the peak and would get the wave. I had started at one end of the beach and eventually found myself on the other end, with a jetty in front of me and to my left if I faced towards the shore. Suddenly a set of what seemed like HUGE waves started coming in. I was sitting in too close to shore for these waves, so I was not able to paddle out past impact zone. The first wave tore the board out of my hands as I tried to dive under it, and for good measure it pushed me around underwater for a bit. At this point I wasn’t too worried. However, the waves kept coming. I would come up, get some air and then try to dive for the bottom to get out of the roiling water, but the waves must have been breaking hard because it didn’t seem to help, and I kept getting pushed and turned around underwater. This was scary, but I had experienced something similar in San Francisco, so I knew I could wait it out since the set wouldn’t last forever. What really scared me was that the Jetty was getting uncomfortably closer with each wave.

As the last wave approached I mentally readied myself to be bashed against the rocks and tried to roll up into a ball with my head protected. I took a big breath and the wave hit. I was pushed fast and hard underwater and I kept expecting the impact. It never came. By some stroke of fortune I had been pushed across the front of the jetty and ended up on the other side, so it was on my right when I surfaced. My surfboard had come along as well. The water was much calmer when I came up and I was able to swim in to shore. I was extremely tired and winded so I sat on the beach for about 10 minutes recovering, then walked back to the car and went home. I told the story to everyone at the house, but despite everything, it really didn’t impact me in the way I would have imagined. The next day I went to the pier to surf the smaller waves.

I was telling this story to my coach and she asked me to think about what I did that allowed me to not drown in that situation. My first answer was “luck”. All bets were off if I had hit the jetty at full speed. But I was urged to look a bit deeper. It’s always hard for me to say positive things about myself, but I can say the one thing I did correctly was the first piece of advice imparted by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I did not panic. The second piece of advice imparted by that book is to know where your towel is and have it with you, so I guess I somewhat followed that bit as well. If I had panicked I would have used up my energy and probably not have been able to hold my breath underwater. I feel like I should come up with more things, but that is really the key, to not panic. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I was still able to plan my moves. Everything I’ve been taught during SCUBA diving and everything I’ve read about surfing stresses the importance of not panicking. Even Jaimal Yogis, in Saltwater Buddha(which I’ve written about before), recounts a similar experience while surfing at Rockaway beach in NY(but he got trapped under the rocks of the jetty). It was keeping calm that let him find a way back up to the surface. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t function well, and bad things tend to happen.

It’s an important lesson, which I’m trying to figure out how to apply in the rest of my life. I’m just coming out of a persistent low-ish level depression. During this time, so many interactions with my children and with my wife, as well as thoughts about how little movement I’ve made on my career issues have triggered waves of despair or overwhelm to crash over me. That’s when the thoughts of how things would be so much better if I were dead start. I need to work on ways of not panicking so much when these emotional waves come up. Despite the thoughts, I really don’t want to die yet. I think there are too many good waves left in life for that, maybe it’s just a matter of going one beach over, or waiting for the next day.

Aging in both directions

pink teddy bear

I turned 40 last month. 40! My wife organized a wonderful party for me which ended with me, my sister and some close friends I have known since high school around a firepit at 2:00 in the morning, feeling full from paella, beer, s’mores and friendship. My wife kept texting my sister to tell her we were being too loud. 40. I’ve probably lived more than half of my life already. 40. Aren’t I supposed to have figured out my life by now?

40… One part of me finds it very scary, and I start worrying that career-wise I have wasted a lot of my life pursuing something that is not a good fit for me. On the other hand, other than the aches and pains that are more common than a few years ago, I don’t feel all the different. In the months leading up to my birthday, I had several people, mostly in their 60s it seems, independently tell me that 40 was young, and a lot of people they knew hit their stride in their 40s. My hope is to use that fear of having wasted a lot of my life and the optimism that I have more to come, in order to change my life and career. I want to not only find more meaningful work, or at least my make my current work more meaningful, but also be able to step back from the stress and annoyances and appreciate my family and life more fully. Tall order, but if this my mid-life crisis, I want to do something useful with it.

My eldest daughter has taught me something about aging as well. She’s about to turn 8. Behavior-wise, it has been a particularly rough few months, It’s been hard for both me and my wife. My daughter has been increasingly oppositional, has had issues with feeling bullied at school, and in turn has taken some of that out on her younger sister. With me, almost anything I say is greeted with eye rolls, or looks of extreme disgust and hate or just plain screaming in irritation. In addition, the slightest request is greeted with “You are sooo MEAN!” which often devolves into saying how much she hates me. I can usually let it roll off my back, but experiencing it over and over and over again allows that antagonism to sink in. With all of this behavior, I tend to think of her more as a teenager, and often forget that she is really so young.

It was in the midst of this, that I ran across a new teddy bear she had made at the mall laying on the floor of her room. It’s extremely pink, and she spent her own money to buy it a little dress. I found it so girly and young, that I was suddenly yanked out of the past few months and was able to see my daughter as the really young girl that she is. I could see her behavior as a coping mechanism for the discomforts she is going through in life. My wife had been telling me this for sometime, but it wasn’t until the teddy bear that it finally clicked. I also remembered the observation made by our couple’s therapist (our daughter’s behavior has been a major stressor in my marriage) that I am usually the only one who can get her to fall asleep(she has chronic insomnia). It doesn’t make the behavior any better, but it gives me something to hold onto when she is telling me how much she doesn’t like me. Being the only one to get her to fall asleep can be inconvenient, but I know in a few years time I will look back wistfully at our youthful 40 and 8 years of age, when I could lay next to her, scratch her back and watch my daughter fall asleep.

Notes from the past

September 1993, found on my dorm room door.
September 1993, found on my dorm room door.

My parents are selling the house. As I wrote before, my parents’ marriage is over. My dad moved into an apartment close to his work several months ago(we just moved the bunkbeds over there) and my mom moved in with her boyfriend last month. My sister was the was last one in the house, and she moved out last weekend to a studio apartment in another city. There had been some talk of renting it out, but in the end it looked like it was going to be too much work and they are preparing it to put up for sale.

I was in Australia as part of the UC exchange program when my parents moved from my childhood home in Davis. I was glad to miss that move, and am even more glad that they weren’t still living there when this all happened. I tend to form strong emotional connection to places and I think it would have been too hard to say goodbye to that house, especially if it had been because my parents were divorcing.

Despite not being my childhood home, I have grown attached to the newer house in Livermore. It was the place my wife first met my family on her way back to Southern California after college. It was the last place my grandparents saw us in the United States. We’ve spent our winter holiday’s there for almost 20 years, and for the kids it has always been their grandparents’ house. Despite the fondness, clearing out of the house hasn’t been as bad as I had imagined. Perhaps that is because it has not been the sanctuary it used to be for several years now. We actually hadn’t gone as a family(with my wife and kids) in over a year, because the comfort and joy that it used to offer disappeared along with my parents’ marriage.

Despite the fact that both my parents have moved out there, this is still a lot of stuff in the house. Oh god do they have a lot of stuff to get rid of! I went by the other weekend to collect some of my remaining possessions (mostly books and the like). I ran across the briefcase that my grandfather gave me as a high school graduation present.It holds even more sentimental value now. Among the Magic eye 3D-eye puzzles that used to run in the Sunday newspaper’s comics pages, and many of which I collected for some reason, and student loan documents inside the briefcaes, I ran across a note that someone had left on my dorm room door my freshman year. I didn’t know I had it, so it was a bit of a surprise.

I actually hadn’t thought of my neighbors, Ari and Michael, in the dorms for some time. I do remember Maryam, she was a high school friend of Ari’s roommate, Michael. Ari and Michael were something else. I guess they knew each other from High School and Synagogue. Ari apparently did not approve of Michael’s partying and started reporting back to his parents who in turn contacted Michael’s parents, and then they started checking in with Michael. Michael obviously did not take this well. For the last couple of months they shared that room, there were sheets hung across the room so they wouldn’t have to see each other. As for Maryam, I remember her as outgoing and assertive. The primary memory I have of her is a voice message she had left for Michael on the answering machine(this was before everyone had cell phones). I was walking by while he was listening to his answering machine and had to stop and listen. I had never heard anyone sound so hoarse and tired. I didn’t recognize the voice as hers, as it sounded so different. I asked if she was sick and Michael said, “No, that’s just her morning voice.” I remembering teasing her about it later.

I don’t actually remember getting the note, but I’m pretty sure of how I responded. I’m fairly certain I spoke with her on the phone and said something to the effect that I didn’t know how to play chess and left it at that. Maybe it’s my imagination, but part of me can hear her disappointment and annoyance. So 21 years ago I totally missed a literal sign that someone was expressing interest in me. It’s hard for me to remember what I was thinking at the time, but the fact that I kept the note says that I found it important. I’m not sure if I took the note literally or if I realized what she was saying and was too scared to take her up on the invite. Either way, I passed up the opportunity.

Regardless as to whether anything might have come of it, I’m struck by how I passed up an invitation to connect and get to know someone. If I had run across this note, say 15 years ago I would have been beating myself up for passing up opportunity to get to know a girl, and added it to my list of romantic failures and all-around-hopelessness when it came to dating in high school and college. At this stage in my life I’m glad to report that it’s not that I’m upset about missing out on the opportunity to get know a girl, it’s just that I passed up an opportunity to connect. Someone took a chance on me, and I totally blew it off. I’m relieved to know that at this stage in my life I am able to recognize it for what it was and if I knew what I know now I would have handled it differently but damn, how many invitations like that I have I turned down in my life either out of fear or ignorance?

More generally, how many invitations has life sent my way that I have totally missed? Relationship-wise, I lucked out and met the woman who eventually became my wife. In other areas though, especially career-wise, I think I still hold back out of fear. My life coach had me see the movie Yes Man last year. The basic premise is that the main character(Jim Carrey) starts saying “Yes” to everything, and as a result, all sorts of wonderful changes occur in his life. Perhaps 2015 will be the year I start saying “Yes”, at the least to messages left on my life’s front door.

Adíos Tata

Me and my grandfather, 1978
Me and my grandfather, 1978

My grandfather(we called him Tata) passed away in Novemeber, at the age of 93. The last time I saw him in December of 2013 he was enjoying watered down Scotch. However, the drinks I will always associate him with are two Chilean cocktails, the Vaina*(recipe below) and the Pichuncho. As both drinks require sweet vermouth, we’ve gone through a couple of bottles in the past week in his memory. I am glad that I got to see him last year during our trip to Chile. Even at that point, though he was lucid, he seemed a shell of the man he had once been. It was tough to see him so frail and slow. He had always been such an imposing figure, full of life and energy, even if his hearing and patience were getting worse over the years.

It makes me emotional to look back over the pictures of my grandfather and to realize I’ll never see him again. I think I knew it back last December when I broke down crying as we left his house after Christmas. I’m glad that we made the trip, and that I got to see my grandfather one last time, and that he got to see my kids. I also am glad that I got to see the house(my grandmother will probably move in with my aunt in a different city). That house was where my mom grew up, and where we would always come to at some point during our trips to Chile when I was growing up. Since most of that generation is gone, their house was the last remnant of the locales that used to be a home of sorts to me in Chile. I was glad to be able to consciously experience it, to see the various rooms and decorations and have them remind me of my past, to take pictures, to breathe in it’s smell one last time. It’s comforting to know that my grandfather passed away in his beloved house with at least some of his family there.

My grandfather could be a very difficult person at times. I grew up hearing stories about how he had been very strict and even abusive towards his kids. He got into the stupidest fights with his children and my cousins. I saw him demeaning my grandmother on many occasions. Even with my sister and me when we were in our teens, he would often try to pick fights, making racist comments, criticizing our music, or just being purposefully annoying. He also had all kinds of affairs, and even into his old age was trying to seduce the household help. He professed so much love for my grandmother, yet he often made her life a living hell, by being rude, dismssive, or berating her in front of other people.

Despite his mean side, he could be very sweet and charming. On one of my trips to Chile, during the winter break of my last year of college( Dec 1997), I went to see him and my grandmother after staying in Santiago with my aunt and cousins. I awoke to the sound of hammering, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I went into the huge pantry, and he was cutting corn cobs to prepare humitas (a Chilean variant of a sweet corn tamale) as a treat for me. I remember him and the way he could play cute and coquettish, especially when there were girls around. My wife and I were reflecting back on my grandfather and she remembered during out first trip to Chile in 1999, how he kept playfully flirting and smiling at her the whole stay, and how he insisted on speaking English to her, although his hearing wasn’t very good and he couldn’t really understand her responses. To me he would always recount the story of when I was about 2 or 3, and he had taken me for a walk on his shoulders and I kept saying hello to passerby’s and asking their name. He would light up with glee every time he told that story. I still remember when he came along with my family to visit me at college, and how a friend found him so cute because he was wearing vans along with his regular outfit. Growing up, him and my grandmother came out many times, and we did many trips, including one to the Grand Canyon(6 of us in a car for 5!).

He was also very good with his hands. He had been an engineer by training, and had even worked and lived in Sewell for many years when my mom was young. I have memories of him splicing in thumb switches into electrical cords, securing a ladder to my loft bed in high school, all sorts of little engineering and tinkering projects around the house. Maybe that’s where I got my interest in fixing things. His desire to fix things led him to have his house fixed after the chilean earthquake of 2010. I didn’t see the house, but everyone was urging him to move out and to sell the land. He absolutely refused and made it very clear that he expected to die living in his house. His stubbornness paid off well, he got his wish, and he also left my grandmother with the house to sell or rent so that she can be taken care of.

During that same trip with the humitas, we sat and talked for awhile one afternoon. After much time and several pinchuchos later, he got a bit tipsy and admitted to me that he had cheated on my grandmother, but that he loved her more than ever. It’s these contradictory sides of him that really make an impression on me. I guess it serves to remind me that everyone has something good in them, something to look for. Yet, also I think that it taught me that it’s not just enough to love your partner, or kids, you really have to make an effort to treat them and with respect for it to really count.

So I say a tearful farewell to my grandfather, thank you for nearly 40 years of memories. I will always keep a bottle of sweet vermouth around to celebrate you.

*his version of a Vaina, as gathered by watching my sister make them:
Enough for 4 people
4 shot glasses of sweet vermouth
approx 1 shot glass or less of creme de cacao (to taste)
1 whole egg
spoonful of condensed milk(to taste)

Add ingredients to blender(can add ice if desired), blend until frothy. Serve in champagne flutes and sprinkle a little cinnamon on top.

Conspiracy Theories


Several years ago I participated in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group to help with my depression. The group didn’t do much for me, but I did gain some insight from it. We had a session where members of the group were talking about different issues. I remember talking about the realization that since we live in the Bay Area, I would never be able to afford a house in an area that I would actually want to live in. Mundane, but at the time upsetting to me since I had grown up believing that since my parents bought a house(while my dad was still in grad school) that I naturally would follow in their footsteps. The most striking shared story was from a young woman who started with a tale about being in a minor car accident, but that quickly morphed into some weird conspiracy theory about the government or some shadowy organization being out to get her and ruin her life. I remember the rest of the group just kind of going quiet and realizing that perhaps this person might be better suited for more specialized help. The facilitator played it cool, but I really hope that he talked to her afterwards. What I took from this was the way in that people can distort reality. Not just this young woman who took a car accident and some random phone calls and assembled the pieces of the story in a highly elaborate conspiracy, but that even I was guilty of it. I think I thought of it as differing levels of reality distortion. I tend to twist or filter reality to push out any positive traits about myself and convince myself that I am a complete and utter failure, worthless and better off dead. Having that realization didn’t make the thoughts go away, those thoughts still float around in the back of my head at times, but they aren’t as powerful or present as they used to be, but it made it easier to see that perhaps I wasn’t viewing things from a completely accurate perspective.

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I started up couples’ therapy earlier in the beginning of the summer. The focus has been on recognizing how we trigger each other and fall into these negative loops. Our therapist specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and recommended a the book ‘Hold me Tight’ . It’s been amazing for me to be reading this book and look back on what we’ve been doing in our sessions. I can see how our patterns of behavior are very commonplace and how many other people react the same way I do to stressful situations with their partners.

Things have been stressful at home with a new schedule for my wife’s work and a new school for the kids, as well my starting a position in a new lab. It came to a sort-of-head the other night when my wife seemed to suddenly get really cold and annoyed with me. I asked what was going on, and she told me that she was really mad at me and had been for several days . She didn’t know completely why(although there are plenty of reasons), but there it was. Normally I would have stormed off and announced thoughts of how our relationship was doomed, and I that couldn’t do anything right.

This time around, those thoughts were still there, but at the same time I was also a bit mad and feeling that she was being unfair. From the reading and our therapy sessions I knew that me withdrawing wasn’t going to help, so I calmed myself down and tried to engage my wife in conversation to see what was going on. She was very resistant to talking about it(I found it interesting that I was the one trying to work out issues this time around), but in the end we did manage to discuss her stress and worries over work and the kids. Nothing was solved, but it felt like a bit of tension was released and were able to do it together.

This episode reminded me of a recent exercise given to me by my coach, I had to come up with a list of reasons that I am a good husband. Painting myself in a positive light of any sort is extremely hard for me, but this exchange with my wife and thinking back on the CBT group has pushed me to go ahead and do it. Here is a subset in no particular order:

  • I respect my wife as a person and individual.
  • I support my wife in times of need as well as in the pursuit of her own dreams and goals.
  • I am committed to bettering myself and constantly working on our relationship
  • I am conscientious of how my being away from the house can impact the family and make an effort to always check before participating in activities that will keep me out later than usual.
  • I take an active role with the children.
  • I am willing to adjust and shift my schedule if she has her own obligations to take care of.
  • I encourage my wife’s independence, but also appreciate shared time and activities.
  • I appreciate how lucky I am to such an amazing woman as my partner in life and try to let her know that.

So that’s it for now. It’s hard for me to look at this list and not want to qualify it or put some sort of disclaimer, but I’m going to let it be. I hope I can keep this perspective during the inevitable stressful periods that I will encounter in the future. I’ll work on reminding myself that difficult children, eye rolls and exasperation from my wife are not necessarily signs of a conspiracy proving that I am a terrible person.