Two Sides: Ambivalence Part 2

When we are young, we change.  The hurtling forward into growth exhilarates us. We learn at full gallop, disastrously adding new ideas before old ones have taken shape. We are gluttons, and the table is richly laid out and endless. Our Apollonian and Dionysian sides eat together—the only rule is More, and more we do have. We learn and learn, good gods I hope we do, like gods.

rr-apollo-quiz-apollo-lyre_23f7551cSome people, most people, grow up, and cast their lot on one side or the other. Apollonian selves dream into an idea of logic and order—think a sonnet by Shakespeare, glorious in its arrangement of rhythm, rhyme, and idea. This is Apollo brought to earth, walking firmly on the ground. Dionysian selves trumpet feelings and instinct: Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” is as much a dictum as can be borne.

180px-Dionisio3

Rule three thousand one hundred and sixty-two: if you are one, do not marry the other. And do not ask about the other five million rules.

And recognize that just because one is Dionysian, do not think there is a lack of rules about how to go wild. A little Apollonian memory slips in.  You need to party like this, or you aren’t really partying, dude.  On the flip side there may be a wild inconsistency built into that Apollonian logic—call it hypocrisy if you feel like it but know that wildness finds a way.

A few people never settle into one side or the other.  The two halves bristle within like ions in a storm cloud. Ambi-valent: charged in two directions, fire in both hands.  We don’t grow up, but out, finding hidden paths through the forest, wanting one last opinion, and reassessing as we charge into conflict. Yelling at our superiors and demanding a reckoning.  Being schooled by our students and admitting our blindness. and always, always learning.

I bemoan my ambivalence; I cherish my ambivalence. It’s a dirty little secret about my life. I hate being fenced in, and I love the elegant symmetry of a well written novel. You point out chaos, and I will chart the forcelines that create paisley swirls. I want to love someone and build a life with them and I want them to dance right out of the picture on their own. I want to lead the way, and I am happy to chase comets.

Oh, it’s the worst. And the best. Or the other way around. And the other way around.

Some folks tell me that I’m too strict, or not enough of an adult, or that I have too many rules, or that I don’t follow their rules. Dude, this is how we party. How am I a teacher? How could I be anything else? How can I not shake up my life and take my daughter along for the ride: reassuring her, giving her the foundation she needs, and teaching her that when the earth shakes, the ground still loves her. And that everywhere I am, I will love her.

coin_flipping_by_uroskrunic-d36x79rMy youngest brother has told me many times that I am too serious. And of all the boys, I am. And not. My wildness is serious, and my seriousness is wild. Flip a coin, and watch the light glint off side after side after side as it tumbles through the air. Heads or tails, the glinting wins.

Wrestling with ambivalence

jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

My younger daughter randomly pronounces “I’ll miss you, papa,” or “I’ll miss you, daddy.” We could be doing anything: folding laundry, driving to the store, watching a video about geysers. It tears me apart every time.

My daughter stays with me three nights a week, which has been the arrangement with my ex-wife for the three years we have lived apart. We live blocks from each other, so I have seen my daughter between times as well. In a few weeks, I will move three hours away, and our comfortable schedule will change. We will spend weeks and months together throughout the year, and manage weekends, but I will not be the nearly daily presence I am now.

So why move? Why tear the central chamber of my heart to shreds? I don’t see myself as a horribly selfish man, which kind of negates the entire, “I’m doing this to be happy” argument—or belies it. Maybe I am a selfish man.  Wear that feather in your cap for a bit, and feel how heavy the crown really gets.

“You can’t let yourself think that way,” I will be, have been, told. And that’s fine, but when Socrates trots out “The unexamined life is not worth living,” this is the kind of thing one is meant to examine—not every sandy beach in the Caribbean or every dive bar in Baltimore.  Saddle up for self-examination, or get off the trail.  And yeah, keep your eye on the trail, greenhorn. See them rocks over there?  That’s ambivalence, and we’re here to fill your packs with it.  Get digging!

So many things—too many things? –pull in opposite directions.  Half of life seems a paradox, and the other half I just can’t make my mind up about which direction it’s headed. And I don’t simply throw my hands up and say, “Oh well.” I wrestle, intently, with the angel of ambivalence.  In “The Waking” Theodore Roethke states, “This shaking keeps me steady.” Damn right.

I don’t hold with those who don’t engage ambivalence—being of two minds about things.  People who insist “you’re either with me or you’re against me” give me a serious pain. People who say such things and then claim, “It’s okay if we disagree,” help me find my way to the exit tout suite. You cannot claim an absolute and then say it doesn’t matter—or vice versa. Be afraid of those who claim an open mind while harboring a stone heart.

I cannot claim that this is an easy path. I think a reasonable amount of comfort and privilege makes it possible. I have walked away from the comfortable certainty of doctrine, in large part, because I felt that a life without doctrine would be neither dark nor disastrous.  I knew that the monsters hidden in the chaos were as deeply entrenched within the staunchly defended halls. Beowulf never had to go far beyond the mead hall to find adversaries as deadly as Grendel.

While I understood what Obama was getting at when he talked about economic insecurity driving people to cling, I knew that there were plenty of secure people who traffic in certainties and verities.  Maybe that’s what helped make them secure. Or maybe there’s something else at work—a digression for another time.

As for me, now, this decision, to leave my secure and certain life, has immediate repercussions. I may have reasons, and good ones, to move.  But I know that I am unwinding the steadiest relationship in my life for uncertainty.  Of course, it is not as uncertain—my daughter and I have a firm bond.  And a happier father will, in the end, be a better father. Or so I hope. Nonetheless I make this move with a serving of ambivalence, and perhaps, that will be enough to keep us steady.

Play time

I’ve been sucked in. It’s true. I have played an inordinate amount of Pokemon Go, although “play” seems like an exaggeration, since all that the playing involves is taking walks and swiping or tapping incessantly on my phone screen. Strategy? Pidgies: collect them, evolve them with a lucky egg when you’re ready to level up (but only in the 20+ levels). The game is gleefully simple (and relatively stupid): collect stuff, collect more stuff, and then collect even more stuff. The player is “rewarded” with greater strength and ability as he or she “levels up,” but let’s be honest: the stuff and the rewards are imaginary; the only thing real is the time one spends playing. So, why do we play?I explained the old rat-reward experiment to my daughter while we watched people paw at their screens. B.F. Skinner showed in an experiment with rats that variable interval reinforcement leads to a higher rate of response than constant rate of reinforcement, and that both were significantly more effective than punishment (which, it turns out, swiftly ends the impulse to work—or play). Well that’s a lot of mumbo jumbo. Here’s the skinny: rats work (or play, for the purposes of game play) harder when rewarded; they get turned off by punishment; and they work hardest and longest when the rewards come consistently but unpredictably. Surely, rat brains and human brains are different, but just try to run such an experiment on people. Wait, let’s track all those Pokemon Go players and see what that tells us about how they play.

Short story long, we are built to be frustrated. The brain likes rewards (and hates punishments), but only so often—too many and it gets bored. Of course our complicated brains find connections and correlations around causes and consequences. So, it’s not a surprise when my brain gets caught up in figuring out if I received that reward for bringing my girlfriend flowers, finishing my annual report, or catching a wild Gyarados, and that’s just if I got a reward for doing something in the first place. My rat brain tells me: just keep working and something will come.

The cool thing about being human (and not a rat pressing a bar in a cage) is that the rewards come in all shapes and sizes—M&Ms, Mazda Miatas, sailing ships in bottles, shoes. We can turn those cash/work rewards into whatever we like. And I will not overlook the reward of the view out my office window, or the company I keep at work, or at home. The world seems designed to reward us—all these surprises. The Clash sings, “I fought the law!” That’s right brothers!

I do believe–and when I started writing this last week (before I reminded myself of all the rewards that I have strewn before me, like a reverse trail of breadcrumbs into the future) I believed it a little more—that games like Pokemon Go offer a fairly consistent diet of rewards, and that in spite of their frustrations (and because of them too), they are bright little respites from the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.” If we lead, as Thoreau asserts, “lives of quiet desperation,” we lead them because too often we think that our human brains need punishments to convince and cajole them into agreement or good behavior or harder work. We beat ourselves and each other like mules bound to work until they stop. We preach about “tough love” and manly determination as values that have meaningful positive consequences. My rat brain says, “I’m done.” My human brain says, “No thank you. I’m off to play.”

 

The Schedule of Life at Home

Those of you who know me know I lead a fairly busy life. I work 3 part time jobs, none of which is really part time. I have 7 day work weeks, and this makes me, by all accounts, fairly normal in the working world.

I enjoyed the time in China getting my daughter, in large part, because I was not working (or only working a very small amount), and I had scads of time to spend with my family. My only limits were sleep related during the initial bout of jet lag.

Now, at home, I am back of the world of work commitments. I went to work within 24 hours of arriving back at home. Jet lag would have to wait for days when I could afford a satchel full of half hour naps while my circadian clock got back on track.

I cannot say that my work schedule is fully appreciated by those with whom I live. Work often gets in the way of spontaneous outbursts of family activities, and if I beg off for prior (paid) commitments, I get more than a little of the hairy eyeball. I understand why, and I desperately wish for more time.

However, the paycheck helps the family world go around too. Our China expenses reached well beyond 30 thousand dollars, and that doesn’t even fully take into account the money we had spent on the previous plan that fell through when the adoption agreement between Vietnam and the United States four years ago. Yes, a small chunk of that will come back to us when we do taxes next year. Nonetheless, money does not buy happiness, it only opens the door to the park. Happiness comes when you play inside.

So, I look forward to a few months in the summer, when I get to be Superdad. And while I bemoan the current situation, I plan for some time in the park–as much as I can get.