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The Day The Ceiling Fell

June 21, 2011
Fallen living room ceiling

Mr. Malcolm, cleanup crew

Literally a third of the living room ceiling fell to the floor on Father’s Day (see picture). This was my fault. About 12 years ago there was a heavy rainfall while I had the roof open for the addition. The tarp didn’t do its job, or rather I didn’t do my job hanging the tarp, and many gallons of water filtered down into and through cracks in the ceiling. I patched the ceiling in a haphazard way, but the bandages held until new cracks appeared last week. Sunday morning I was idly talking to my son Julian about repair options. He kept asking, “Can’t we just call someone?” I assured him it was an aesthetic problem. (And I never “call someone.” I am the slow-but-free live-in contractor.) Wrong. We were nearby when it all let loose. The noise of three hundred pounds of plaster hitting the hardwood floor was impressive even from the curb. Think thunder. The violence was enough to shake things off the nearby walls and shelves (fortunately not my pictures!).

No one was hurt and surprisingly little was damaged, though the cat might take issue regarding her emotional well-being. I half expected to find her little tabby tail curling out from under a sheet of plaster, a notion I found amusing in the perverse way of A Fish Called Wanda—and yes I do love this cat. The formerly worn-out couch and carpet are now truly worn out. The venerable piano, once rescued from a synagogue dumpster, gained even more character. I learned the good way that closing your laptop when you’re not using it is a good idea.

the sky is falling book

Book found under the debris

The worst injury of all is to my faltering ego. I’m going to make some lemonade from the disaster and build a tray ceiling, improve the lighting, and rough in a ceiling fan; meager recompense for the room blowing up. So now I have a new medium-sized project added to a crowded list with more items delayed than the O’Hare departures in a blizzard. On the upside, school is ending and I can enlist the boys to learn some skills. I have already provided a generous lesson on the long-term price of hack repairs. (Julian just walked by and reminded me, “I was right and you were wrong.” Fine, his workload just doubled. I wonder how much drywall he can handle?)

On the constructive side, today we watched Malcolm graduate from the fifth grade.* It was a bittersweet thing. He’s growing up and, including his brother’s time there, we’ve been involved with that school for ten years. Now that door is closed, and however good or bad a job we did is behind us. In a sense we’re watching the boys build the houses where they’ll live after they leave us; houses that, I hope, will have better ceilings.

Maia—not squished

The more so because of the chaos I grew up in, I regret not providing a stout and orderly childhood home. It’s a rare kid who sees the skeleton of their home laid bare, especially by the folly of their father, and these guys are admirably stoic about it. As a corollary of feeling better, I dwell on this more and I am bringing it around, and with drywall and mud and paint will create the nice boxes I hear normal people like to live in. To be honest, I like problems like these. I understand them. I can fix them. Carpentry is wonderfully concrete. Meanwhile, how the kids will turn out—I don’t know. Raising them is such an inexact and humbling process. But as I described in the last post, I’m trying my best, a much better best than in many years yet maybe 30% of what I can really do. In the meantime I’d really appreciate it if the rest of the damn ceiling would stay where it belongs, securely over our heads.

* With honors, mind you, and just a year after he tried to break it to me gently that “I’m just not an ‘A’ student” in a walk through the park. I demurred … passionately. [Edit 5/2021: he will graduate from college next year. Most likely with honors. I’m enormously happy for him.]

Postscript—as of 6/2013: Dark green ceiling tray with fan, bullnosed soffits, recessed lighting, cherry-stained oak cove mouldings. Pretty easy. Kudos to son Julian for helping cut and frame the metal stud soffits. Turned out nice and concealed every fracture or hole in the ceiling.

Living Room, almost


Herman Has Been Found

April 16, 2015

Max 400 beagleAn email came a few days ago telling me that Herman had been found. That’s great, I thought, but who is Herman? It explained that Herman’s “chip” had been scanned and the serial number matched at an animal shelter in Colorado. So Herman probably wasn’t human. The email was meant for a Douglas Schultzberg (which sounds like but is not his real name).

I replied briefly and set the email aside. Still, I was curious about Herman. My son and I agreed Herman must be a cat, because Herman isn’t a good dog name. Dog’s names have to be something you’re willing to shout out in public without embarrassing yourself or the dog. Herman doesn’t sound right—says the man with a lanky coonhound named Daisy. (Hey, she came to us that way.)

I got a form letter follow-up two days later from the chip people asking if I’d picked up Herman. There was no mention of my email. There was no box to check saying, no, that’s not my pet. So I wrote to the animal shelter. They didn’t respond.

I figured it wasn’t my problem. Then I pictured little Herman in a cage on death row. I imagined his whiskers sticking out through the bars, nose quavering, forlorn eyes gazing out. You know, like in those tearful save-our-furry-friends ads. I worried that maybe the chip people had no way to contact the owner, if they even cared.

So I grumbled and stalked Mr. Schultzberg on Google. I found someone on Twitter with a profile pic of a balding man sitting on bleachers next to someone wearing a Cubs T-shirt. I skimmed through his many sports-oriented tweets. This Schultzberg is a fan of the Bears and a Missouri college basketball team. That seemed questionable for Colorado but I sent a tweet. I got no response and didn’t really expect one. The tweet date stamps were pretty stale. LinkedIn had a loose match for a systems engineer in Colorado, but there was no contact information and I couldn’t find a website for the company.

At this point I realized that old tech might be the best tech. What I needed was his damn phone number. At I found a Schultzberg in a town near the shelter. I gave the number a shot, not realizing it was an Illinois area code.

An older woman picked up. I said, “Hello? I’m looking for a Douglas Schultzberg with a pet named Herman.”

Long silence.

“Hello?” I asked.

The woman on the line seemed confused. “There’s no one here by that name. He lives in Colorado. What do you want?” She was pleasant about it but had no idea what I was saying.

So I explained. Laboriously, I convinced her I was legit. She gave me his cell and landline numbers. I called the cell number and got voicemail. On the landline, I got another confused person. After a little bit he said, “Oh, I picked up Herman yesterday.” Jackpot. The “actual” Mr. Schultzberg. (The nice lady in Illinois is his mother.)

Turns out Herman is a beagle who keeps his nose to the ground and doesn’t watch where he’s going. So Douglas explained. He explained a lot of other things, such as that Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois in a small town near where Douglas grew up. I learned a bunch of trivia about Colorado, local history, and the alleged superiority of Apple products.

I wasn’t forced to listen to all this. I played along while I figured out what was going on. I told him some things about myself, like that I’d stayed in his town some years ago and explored the area. I told him where I lived and he asked about the cherry blossoms. It was one of those conversations you have with an older person where you have to be careful to wait for silence before you say anything. Interrupt and you’ll throw the train off the track.

I realized Douglas was lonely. He had three strokes last year, mild ones he said, but with that and some lumbar spine issues he’d been forced to retire from his job as a Windows software specialist. I noticed that he’s having a bit of cognitive trouble—sometimes it was hard for him to express himself. Nonetheless at 62 he isn’t ready to give up.

So the wayward dog wasn’t the only one who benefitted from human attention. Frankly, I didn’t mind getting some myself. After a fairly long series of random non-Herman topics that left my eavesdropping son wondering who the heck I was talking to, I volunteered, “I should let you go.”

He said, “Well, thank you for calling. I guess I made a new friend.”

And I said, “Yes, you did.” I’ll check on Herman sometime soon.

The Plight and Slight of Twice Exceptional Kids

March 24, 2014

Andrew at school board meeting <div class=

I was speaker #22 (video here) last week at our county school board meeting regarding next year’s budget. I was there to object to plans to eliminate the twice exceptional (2e) program. The program was a modest budget item and amounted to one counselor at one of our four high schools, but some viewed it as unnecessary.

The 2e kids are an unusual group, both learning disabled and high aptitude. The program amounted to one counselor trained in both areas, versus the usual special education into which he was shunted that focused on basic life skills like “food that we eat with our hands.” My son, a senior with attention deficit disorder, benefitted enormously from this program and doubts he would have been graduated at all without it. (After further effort, he is now an honors student at a selective college.)

The 2e kids may at first blush seem like an unsympathetic group, even lazy because they are smart but underperforming. In my son’s case, his nearly perfect SAT scores clashed with his alphabet soup of grades. Of course he struggled to grow up like any teen, but he also struggles with a disability that doesn’t get much respect and is even ridiculed. This is a devastating ignorance. ADD kids struggle simply to put pen to paper, and they often fail. They risk disciplinary action, depression, and suicide. Ironically their “gifts” become poisons as they fail expectations.

Read more…

In Praise of a Failed Mother

May 12, 2013

Sinner or saint?

It’s difficult to describe my mother’s character. She could be good or bad, both or neither. Every state was equally true of her. Like the illnesses that bedeviled her, the shifting highs, lows, and inbetweens were tempestuous and unpredictable. Only recently have I realized there was a constant beneath the storm, so firm that I took it for granted, one that made all the difference: I never doubted that she loved me.

I’ve been rereading some psychology and came across a passage about attachment theory. Attachment describes what might be called “a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Forming at least one healthy attachment to a caregiver is thought to be critical to a child’s development. The caregiver doesn’t have to be to a parent, just a consistently available and caring person in the child’s life. If attachment goes well, the theory goes, it provides a secure base from which the child can reach out and explore life. If it goes poorly—if the child is somehow unreceptive or receives conditional, abusive, or inadequate attention—it increases the risk of a variety of later miseries including depression, personality disorders, and suicide.

Some children adapt to difficult circumstances in creative but personality-distorting ways. The child of an exacting, demanding caregiver might struggle for achievement in order to win approval. The child of an emotionally unavailable caregiver might stifle emotions and focus on neutral topics to curry favor. Obviously these schemes can have very negative consequences. An ego constructed without an inherent sense of self-worth is a hollow tube that may crumple when tested. Victims may be unaware of the problem and mystified why their self-esteem and relationships with others are so unstable. This fragility may also be heritable, by genetic predisposition and by afflicted parents teaching the truths they suppose they have learned.

There are lots of maybes here. A good or bad childhood doesn’t predestine the outcome. Most of us can think of families with great kids except one who rebels and turns out different (sometimes more interesting). While there is nothing one can do to guarantee the perfect child, there are many ways to ruin one. Hit them, abandon them, manipulate them, unlove them, and the risk of a bad outcome multiplies. The pivot thus often seems to be the relationship with the caregiver.

What if the caregiver is abusive but loving? It is possible. Loving people do strange things for strange reasons. Regardless of intention, after a while a hurt is simply a hurt and attachment is shattered. The child may be left feeling unloved, unwanted, or unworthy. Nevertheless, unconditional love is a powerful antidote. It is the light that reveals better things. It can find its way through the smallest cracks into the childhood darkness.

My mother’s failings as a caregiver were many. There were minor insecurities like her being a terrible cook—my childhood involved a lot of canned soup and boil-in-a-bag corn niblets—or her chronic inability to pay the bills on time—I got used to picking up a dead telephone. The much more serious lapses ranged from the ordinary awful, like those fights where all the things you’ve never supposed to say get said, to the more exotic. Once in an altered state she mistook me for a violent ex-boyfriend and attacked me like I was the devil. I understood immediately that it was an accidental hurt—the last thing she wanted to do was hurt me—but that didn’t comfort me as I fled the house in my pajamas. No, I felt rejected and unprotected. Detached and discarded. It sucked. Nor did it help that she spent several days in psych lockup afterwards. Every misadventure raised the prospect of my being taken away from her to live with my kindly Stepford relatives.

green giant corn and soup

It’s what’s for dinner—over and over and over

What was important, however, was not the list of grievances but how I interpreted things. A single good example says more than any number of stories.

One afternoon during the summer after fifth grade (I called it the Summer of Hell), my mother was driving me home when she abruptly pulled over at a bar and said she was going to get a drink. This was bizarre behavior, even by her standards. We didn’t yet know, but this was an example of an epileptic fugue that could come on without warning, a departure where she could go for a stroll or have a conversation without letting on anything was wrong until it became apparent she wasn’t making sense. It might seem like she was a bit drunk, but she was simply gone. She would remember nothing when it was over.

She didn’t come back, although I waited in the car for several hours. I was on one of the many fast four-lane roads in Los Angeles that swirl with the sticky brown dust that coats the city. There were many people around, but in my world there were none. No one seemed to notice the eleven year-old stranded in his mother’s car. I was too shy to ask after her in the womb-like bar with blacked-out windows. (I’m still intimidated by those “adults only” signs.) I ventured out of the car and bought a toy gun that fired spinning plastic disks. That helped pass the time until the street got dark and uncomfortable. I debated whether to leave. I had the keys, so if I left she’d be stranded herself. I finally decided to try getting home on the bus. I don’t think I’d ever ridden a bus by myself. Consulting with several nice drivers on which lines went where and how to use a transfer, I made it home. She wasn’t there, so I watched TV, probably ate some soup, and went to bed.

The next morning she appeared, flustered and upset. She apologized profusely and gave a convoluted explanation that she ended up sleeping on a nice man’s couch somewhere and came home as soon as she woke up. She asked if I was all right about thirty times. My attitude was, of course I was all right. (I didn’t spin out in my mind what had really happened. I wasn’t yet aware there are all too many men willing to “help” an inebriated woman. To be mentally ill is to be vulnerable, and her tale of sexual abuse is a long one.) She didn’t want to go back to the mental hospital, and I didn’t want her to either, so we told no one what had happened.

With many such incidents, a lot of children would have grown up feeling very insecure and vulnerable. I’ve long wondered why I didn’t. I’m clear now that her unconditional love was key. Our bond was powerful and mutual. Despite our fights, despite her illness, we were a team against the world. I knew she was always available to me. Her forgiveness was if anything too readily given. She even allowed a sort of amnesty for confession when I’d done something dodgy (“Promise you won’t get mad?”). I knew far too much about her life, but I understood what was about me and what wasn’t. And when we laughed together, we laughed.

The unconditional aspect of her concern for me was critical. Although of necessity and predilection I became extremely independent, I knew I was not alone. I always had at least one stalwart. By the time she died I was almost an adult and the foundation had set.

In reading about attachment, I realized that I have no idea what it would be like to be denied it. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. She always made me feel like a blessing in her life, never a mistake, and there was no price of admission. Her love was unconditional even when I was not being particularly praiseworthy. I knew it was there even when she was not being particularly praiseworthy either.

I don’t think the bad things that happened are all right. I’ve never dismissed them. They still sting. I am mindful of them. I accept that I can’t change the past. It’s done. To pine after a better childhood is a preoccupation with the impossible. Our lives are lived in the present. The future is where the possibilities lie. I’ve met any number of self-congratulatory people who assume I fantasize about being more like them, but I realize appearances can be deceiving. Over their shoulders, I too often see childhoods of emotional sterility, of benign brutality. No one should go through what I did, but also no one should be denied the unconditional love I enjoyed.

I know my mother worried a lot about whether she had permanently harmed me. I doubt she recognized her successes even though she was delighted to see mine, much owing to her. My mother didn’t read a book on child development. What she got right, she did by just being herself, through love and self-sacrifice. She did so in defiance of a life of suffering that would have broken most of us. It was a tragedy that I was her child, and it was a blessing.

So here is my posthumous Mother’s Day card:

I don’t remember my childhood with resentment. I do not want to rewrite it any more than I would relive it. I wish instead that you were in the present and the future of my life, and of the lives of your grandchildren—whom, thanks to you, I love very much.

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