Wednesday, August 30, 2017

There are so many things I would like to write about; so many things that are going through my mind. Some keep bobbing up, resurfacing with some insistence, as if to say "start writing us down, Martin." we're not going to wait forever. I keep expecting that the flow of my days will bring me to it. But it seems that without a bit of force, a bit of determination, the writing will not come on its own. Perhaps it's the reasons that I used to have to write that are no longer convincing. Writing was for me a kind of reflection on something that I didn't have an opportunity to dialogue about with another person. When I say "opportunity" I mean an immediate way to express and move deeply into whatever the subject matter is. In the last four and a half years such opportunities have been arising with daily steadiness between my wife and I. The deep pleasure and intimacy of conversations bring us together and sustains us as a couple and in our individual endeavors.

Conversation is a deeply meaningful way of communing with others. It is simultaneously stating of opinion(s), listening, convergence, conversion . . . conversation reveals inversion, not just conversions, it  clarifies aversions  and controversies . . . but more than anything it reveals the infinitely deep layers/versions of ourselves. And as conversation reaches for the other it also brings us close tot he transverse effects that our social brains long for so much.

A good conversation is never a mapped out trip. It is a journey that occurs in the moment and can last for an unspecified amount of time. Having a "topic, "  a "time-frame," a "list of goals" or "talking-points" often stops the conversation before it could really begin. This is why conversations mostly happen when people are present to each other. And this is also why many conversations never occur because many of us don't spend enough time with each other. When that is the case our potential for conversation turns into mere communication; its goal is nothing but the passing on of information.

The British psychoanalyst Neville Symmington points out that our thinking remains "inchoate" unless and until it is expressed to another. That is, it remains in its incipient, embryonic, germination form without ever further unfolding. How many thoughts do you have that remain "inchoate?" One would think the naturally inchoate state would lead us into many conversations. One would think that along with such natural state might come a natural urge to explore in us what lies dormant. But it seems that such urge does not exist or at least can get lost. Instead of having and pursuing conversations many of us seem content communicating messages to the world. These could come via text, e-mail, Facebook, but they also include logos and themes on our t-shirts, mugs, bumper-stickers, etc. Or, rather than being the cause, might these just be symptomatic of our decreasing likelihood to have and seek out conversations?

We are increasingly bound to letting the "written" take over the "spoken." This also means that we are, mostly likely, not present to the exchange we're having. Rather we're in a different country, room or other space, away from the person we're talking to. More and more communications are mediated by "absence" not presence. This, it seems to me, is the biggest blow to conversation. The lack of physical presence in so many of our daily interactions. Our incarnate, bodily presence increases our chances of having a conversation with another person even if those two people are not speaking but writing to each other on a note-pad, computer or phone.

What's strange to me is that many of us, I include myself, experience this move from present to absent, from conversation to communication, as a relief. We seem to experience presence as a burden, something we'd rather avoid, if possible. And so, in spite of our socially wired brains, we tend to choose non-present ways of communicating over conversations. Or, again, is this simply a symptom of something else that's going on with us?

I wonder if the demands of our industrial/post-industrial world have isolated us from each other so much that all that all we're left with to satisfy our social urges is to e-mail, text, Skype, FaceTime. Work as it is, the work that most of us have to do for the vast majority of years we're alive--from pre-school to retirement--is isolating. Even when it is "group-work" most of us will ultimately not see the group but the individuals in the group and their roles/contributions.

Here is another way to look at it: When we say "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" we do mean that there is a qualitative difference between those two states. Simply adding up the parts will not help us understand the Whole. John, Paul, George and Ringo are not the same as The Beatles. That is to say the equation John + Paul + George + Ringo = The Beatles is indeed qualitatively false while quantitatively correct. I remember tripping over this problem in fifth grade when we were introduced to the ideas of Set Theory. "Commutative property," "associative property," "symmetry," "distributive property," "transitive property," . . .  I kept misunderstanding the underlying assumptions of "Mengenlehre" (lit. Science of Quantities) this new math-curriculum at the time: These equations had nothing to do with qualities, only quantities. So, in that world it didn't matter whether you  said (Martin + Stephan) + Calle or Martin + (Stephan + Calle). And yet, in the world of friendships, conversations, closeness, trust those parentheses as well as the position of the names made a huge difference (and over the time of my friendship with these two boys the position of the parentheses changed several times).

The example of the Beatles is not meant to distract us toward wondering about outward success. Rather it is meant to help us get closer to the main-trait of being (a) Whole: work that feels intrinsically playful and therefore gives us happiness, even when it's hard. This, interestingly, seems to be the main reason of why video-gamers can become so deeply immersed in their play. Gaming is hard work, often frustrating, but it also remains playful. Conversations are such wholesome, wholistic, whole-based work. They can be frustrating yet revealing, playful yet serious. Conversations are never just shallow (though they may use "shallowness" to reveal depth). They're never boring (though they may purposely induce "boredom" as a way of inducing curiosity).

I often shy away from using the term "work." It is used far too often to emphasize to our children, ourselves, our friends how important it is to accept the "down-side" of life: we all have to work.  It also is a way of saying "I'm good" because good people work, hard. Still, here I would like to suggest a different understanding of "work" one that gets at the potential for wholesomeness in work. In English and German this word can describe the tedium  and monotony of our daily/school/professional lives, but it can also, as a noun, be used to describe our creative and artistic efforts. It is in this latter sense that I favor the word "work." And it is that understanding of "work" I also apply to what I believe a conversation is about: a conversation is work; it is a work of art. But, different from a written work of art--a poem, novel or short-story--this work is an installation, i.e., a temporary work of art only briefly visible or audible before it re-immerses itself in the maelstrom of thought and feeling, of life.

So, what is it that I want to write about? I don't know. What I do know is that I am blessed to be part of many conversations every day. Every conversation triggers more ideas and reflections. Like hungry baby birds in their nest, these ideas are begging for food (i.e., a conversation). They themselves will re-produce and beget more conversations.

And what about quiet times?

Sunday, January 08, 2017


One of the most difficult developments about fathering from the beginning is the threat that it may pose to your marriage. I have found this to be true in my own relationship which has, off an on, gone through dark times in which either I or my spouse felt we were being undermined, competed with or the object of jealousy by the other. I have to continually remind myself that this is not so, that the purpose of father involvment is not and will never be to put a mother out of her job. It is pretty clear from the available research, about the mental health of our off-spring, that growing up healthy means that both mother and father stay involved throughout their children's growing up period.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What are the chances . . .

. . . I wonder, that one of my sons would be enthusiastic enough about a man like Donald Trump to actually cast his vote for him? It would be easy, I think, to look back at the many conversations we have had about the world, the people living in the world, about stereotypes, about love, grief, hunger, acceptance. . . you name it . . . it would be easy to look at all of them and say "i'm confident my sons would not cast such a vote. But how can I be sure? The fact that 40% of the voting population in the US is ready and willing to cast their vote for a man who is quite obviously mentally ill does not mean that all of those 40% are mentally ill as well. Adolf Hitler was clearly mentally ill. But that was not the problem. The problem is that he, a greatly delusional man with a grandiosity and inferiority complex and a virtually absent lack of empathy could capture the imagination of so many Germans. Hitler, it turns out, was the drug Germans needed when he appeared on the scene. Mr. Trump apparently is the drug Americans need today.

So what should I tell my sons about their home-country where a man is attempting to rise to power who, in many ways, resembles Adolf Hitler?

What are the potent ingredients of this drug? "Potent" actually is the right word as it is a derivative of the Latin word for "power"--potentia. Mr. Trump promises power to US citizens, greatness even. He underscores this with rhetorical strategies and examples of brazenness from his own life--some delivered intentionally (like his comments about his daughter's body) some delivered unintentionally (like the recently aired video tapes of his conversation with Billy Bush). Other examples about financial coups, tax evasion, etc. all speak of the same: When I want something I get it, no matter what the cost for others. Don't we all want to be strong like that? Listen carefully inside before you say "no."

So what should I say to my sons about their home-country where everyone is a drug-addict of sorts? 

It is quite unfortunate that US citizens tend to get caught up in questions about character, often related to revelations of a sexual nature. Whether it was Clarence Thomas' issue with someone's "pubic hair" or Bill Clinton's affairs or, now, Mr. Trump's repeated statements about women--we are "disgusted" or "enticed." What we never seem to be able to do is move away from either disgust or voyeuristic enticement and see that these examples (and so many others) are always about power. In them we hear the words "I can . . . because I'm in power". This, of course, echoes in quite uncanny ways, Mr. Obama's slogan from his initial run for office "Yes, we can!" It is so very hard not to be carried away by the trance of power once we believe we have it.

So what should I say to my sons about their home-country where everyone is claiming to be powerful and nobody is willing to admit they're weak?

And speaking of sex and things sexual: It is unfortunate how riddled this country is with guilt and shame about sex, and how, at the same time, it is bursting its seams with sexual-erotic energy. How will we ever not end up paralyzed between these so diametrically opposed ways of looking at sex. And, to be sure, both sides live in all of us.

So what should I say to my sons about their home-country where being a sexual person can never be said without also feeling and expressing shame and guilt; a country where the mentioning of a pubic hair or the sexual satisfaction that stems from a vasectomy (Kenneth Bone) would make it very unlikely a person could ever be considered for political office? What should I say to them?

But what would it be like to move away from these statements, prurient revelations about our politicians' sex-lives and to focus strictly on politics. What would (have) happen(ed), I wonder, if Mrs. Clinton simply said let's forget about all the offensive things Mr. Trump has said (and will be saying) and focus instead on politics, real politics. Let's debate questions like "What should we do about global warming, how should we address the racial crisis in our country, how should we deal with the growing hunger-crisis in the US and the world, what role should we play in the crises of other nations, how about moving away from fossil-fuels, etc.?" We are surrounded by complex and difficult issues. There is so much to discuss, to lay out and understand every candidate's position. But unfortunately, we don't do it. Worse even, if Mrs. Clinton said something to dismiss Mr. Trump's comments, she would likely lose many of her female supporters. To whom is not clear, but she would lose them.

So what should I say to my sons about their home-country in which a disciplined and substantive discussion of political issues is virtually impossible and where their fellow-citizens continue to make "character and sex" the central topic of every debate?

I intentionally choose to say "Americans" rather than continue with "40% of Americans." It is unhelpful, I believe, for someone like myself (who in his first federal election since becoming a US citizen will not vote for Mr. Trump) to make this into and 'I-and-you' or 'Us-and-Them' issue. Thankfully, with Bernie Sanders, we were able to witness a second mass-appeal phenomenon appear on the political stage. Mr. Sanders, not unlike Mr. Trump, also gave voice to the largely unheard or marginalized voices of so many US citizens. Taken together the Trump and Sanders camps make up a rather large part of the US voting population. The difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders is obvious--aside from their political differences--Mr. Sanders, unlike Mr. Trump, is not hungry for power. Mr. Sanders is not mentally ill.

It is easy to be angry at Mr. Trump. Such anger fuels his impulsive, often crude and aggressive remarks. What Mr. Trump needs is our compassion. It's a compassion that recognizes that all of us want power, want to be able to respond as quickly (and unthinkingly) to challenges as he does. It's a compassion with someone who has a pathological need to be seen and heard because we all share in this need. It's a a compassion for a man who can only think of one way to appeal to women, through coercion and demonstrations of power (through money and big words with no content). Because all straight men fear not being seen by a beautiful woman and think of quick ways to get their attention. It's compassion for a man whose fear of strangers is so great he can only think of building a wall to keep them out. Being afraid of people whose culture and language we don't know is residually present in all of us, no matter how enlightened we are. It's compassion for a man whose greed is familiar to all of us.

So, in a way, what I want to say to my sons is that Donald Trump is a person like all persons, a man like all men. Mr. Trump is like us. Except he is ill. And it is his illness that makes him lose all filters, all modesty, all respect for those who disagree with him. And without those filters he becomes dangerous, predatory even. I would direct my sons to this web-page, part of the Mayo-Clinic web-site:

I would encourage my sons to be open about both their rejection and attraction to Mr. Trump. Only such openness and honesty can bring about the healing criticism that will keep us on a path away from the kind of disaster Germany experienced in the first half of the 20th century.

I would explain to my sons that narcissism is a healthy and normal aspect of a person's ego-structure. But it can get out of hand. It has for Mr. Trump.

I would remind my sons that Mr. Trump, like all of us, once was a baby, a newborn. What, I would ask them, might have turned this baby into a man who can no longer truly love? When did it happen? When he was a toddler, a boy, pre-teen . . .?

And for those of you who wonder why I chose to write about politics in this blog, a blog that is devoted to fathering and raising children, I want to say to you that I thought about it for a long time. But the evidence that even pre-school and K/1 children are already affected by what's going on in this country comes to my home every day. We cannot turn that around. We do have to figure and discuss the way(s) in which we want to address these things with our children. No matter what their age is.