Making Marriage Work

In honor of the fact that JoAnn and I are celebrating our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect a little on what I think has allowed our relationship to survive.

WateringCan2People express their understandings of a marriage in many different ways, but my friends Andrew and Claudia put it like this:

Each person takes turns being either a watering can or a flower.  Sometimes we need to be watered, and sometimes we need to do the watering.

I know. It’s a simple metaphor, but it works. Sure, sometimes I don’t feel like doing the watering, or I feel as though I’m completely out of water. I’m sure there are times when JoAnn feels the same way. But after thirty seven years, I’ve learned it’s worth finding the emotional resources necessary to nurture my mate – even if it means having to change my own focus or ignoring something that has irked me. In the end, making that effort comes back to me as a peaceful life, a calm environment, and a mate who digs deep for me when I need her.
Being generous to someone I love seems a small price to pay.

I’ve known from the start that individual egos are the biggest enemy of a good relationship. Once someone begins to take umbrage, there’s a problem. Once the resentment begins to pile up, and both people become unwilling to water, the flower begins to wither. The key is making a conscious decision to break the cycle – essentially deciding that peace is more valuable than whatever is hanging up the conversation. I think JoAnn and I have done this (subconsciously) by creating an “ego” for our relationship, and considering how things feel (for each of us) before blowing into the china shop.

BlogLite21When we started out, we were just kids – seriously, we were twenty-four years old. In fact, now three of our four kids are older than we were when we got married. For whatever reason, on that day and for many days before it, we had a sense that we were right for each other.

For me, marriage wasn’t an emotional deal. I knew I “loved” JoAnn, but as I try to do with most things, I applied a little logic to my situation. My marriage theory was based on this thought: although I could probably approach any woman at a bar, introduce myself, have a fun conversation and end up having a “successful” evening, the fact is that I never approach that woman and I probably never would. Also, I knew that as a world-class procrastinator who never wrote a paper until the day before it was due, I figured marriage would create a series of deadlines to help me achieve my goals in life.

Both of those theories held true.

RGnJGGI also entered marriage with open eyes. When I told my father that I intended to marry JoAnn he said, “Son, you are going to meet three or four more women in your life whom you might find really attractive.” I sad, “What? Are you telling me you don’t like JoAnn?” And he replied, “No, I love JoAnn, I’m just telling you what’s what.”

There will always be opportunities that we believe might make us happier, but trying to catch every ball may cause us to drop the one that is most appropriate for us. By letting me know that there would be understandable and common temptation, my father was trying to prepare me to acknowledge those possibilities and move on. Like an addict, I resolved to live my marriage “one day at a time” so that a lifetime of fidelity wouldn’t seem so daunting – and when the temptation to consider others arose, I made it through those days. On Wednesday I’m getting my thirty seven year chip.

REGJEGFeetAnnivLite

Photo by Emily Greenberg

The hallmark of our marriage is that we’re kind to each other. We don’t yell. We don’t call each other names. We don’t keep score. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry, or leave each other space when one is feeling tapped out. It means that our kindness is defined by the swallowing of pride, of understanding and generosity. One of us will do the dishes when neither of us feels like it, because the dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. We take care of each other, and consider each other’s needs as equal to our own. It’s our agreement, and we both know we’re better for it.

People will object, “That’s easy for you to say, you married the right person.” But, the fact is we’ve spent years training each other. No one comes out of the box designed to cohabitate perfectly. We’ve learned to pick our battles. We’ve learned what isn’t going to change – and we’ve managed to get over it. We all have our nuances, things that can drive others crazy… or not. Our choice is to see those things as part of the process and move beyond them. Learning to trust and communicate about them, rather than suffering in silence, is one of the keys to moving forward.REGJEGLaguna

There’s an old expression – “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” I like being both, and my wife knows it – so she humors me (until I admit that I was wrong).

Marriage is not fifty fifty – it’s ninety ninety. Give more than half and it’ll make thirty-seven years go by in the wink of an eye.

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Trickle Down Parenting

When my wifeIMG_0857 JoAnn was pregnant with Emily, our fourth child, my mother decided that JoAnn needed a “day off.” She invited our family (three boys, ages fifteen, twelve and, six plus our newborn) and my sister’s family to meet her for dinner on Monday nights. “It will give you all a sense of family,” she said.

My sister has three kids. At the time, her oldest was fourteen, followed by two twelve-year-old twins – so even though they went to different schools, the kids were all pretty compatible in age.

IMG_0873We chose to eat “Monday Night Dinner” at a centrally located restaurant called the Souplantation, known as Sweet Tomatoes in Northern California and the rest of the country. Part of the plan was that each family had to scan the weekend newspaper to find the restaurant’s discount coupons. Our children did this with glee because they knew that it made Grandma very happy when they proudly presented their coupons when it came time to pay. In this way, they were contributing to making the meal possible.

IMG_0851Word of Monday Night Dinner became part of our vernacular. Our kids would speak of it often, and their friends were always curious. Grandma was very inclusive, and providing that her grandchild called her personally ahead of time and asked if it would be OK to bring a friend, their pals were always welcomed. Some even joined us regularly. They remain family friends to this day.

IMG_0864My parents had a very amicable divorce, so when my father heard that we were all gathering on Monday nights, he wanted to take part. That meant including his wonderful second wife (my stepmother) and their two sons. Once again, my mother chose the inclusive high road: “Greenberg – party of fourteen!”

Here’s the catch. It worked! Today our children, their cousins and their uncles are all very comfortable and loving with each other. They understand the concept that we are all family and that, idiosyncrasies included, we stand by each other and “show up.” There is a sense of unity and, although she passed away a couple of years ago, there is a reverence for Grandma Marcie that keeps her, and her goals, alive.

IMG_0902As I think about my mom today, I realized that she always did the right thing even if it caused her pain, embarrassment, or difficulty. This was the most important lesson she taught us all. My parents each had their problems, and neither of them was easy to live with — neither was ever wrong or capable of conceding — but they rose above their own frustration with each other to demonstrate for all of us how adults should communicate. This is why I credit “Setting an Example” as the most important thing that parents can do.

Swallowing anger and aggression is unhealthy – but my parents didn’t ignore their anger, they just did something positive about it. Both strong personalities, they chose to part company amicably and better appreciate each other without having to cohabitate.

IMG_0884So in addition to learning the value of a dollar (from coupon clipping), the need to ask permission to bring a guest, the importance of thanking your host, and getting to know your family, my children and I were treated to the concept that a peaceful life is more important than getting the last word.

Monday Night Dinner. Give it a try any day of the week.

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Keeping Thanks in Your Thanksgiving – 10 Simple Ideas

louis-ckLITELouis C.K. jokes that airline passengers often complain about slow Internet while sitting in a tube hurtling through the sky at 400 miles per hour.

I am often frustrated by bad cell coverage, when 20 years ago I couldn’t call anyone from the car.

Sometimes I feel like I’d be a real dummy without my smart phone. My need for instant information is important.

Yep, I’m living my life “on demand.”

When I want to ask a question — I ask Siri or text a friend. When I want to communicate with my family, I go on our group text. If I want to see a movie, I order tickets. If I want to hear a song, I buy and download it right now. If it’s your birthday — you’ll get some virtual love from me — maybe even some virtual flowers.

This Thanksgiving I think I’m going to slow it all down.

I have the impression that we’re all so busy living our lives that we don’t stop to appreciate the fact that we have lives at all. Sure, many of us take time to have conversations, or practice the calm that can be our religion. But too often, I find myself moving from one event to another with barely time to grab a coffee or a sandwich. I believe this goes for my children as well.

Gratitude is a key element in defining a child that “other people like to be around,” and November is a wonderful month for laying of that gratitude groundwork. In two weeks most of us will get to look around a table and give thanks for the miracle that got us all here.

My wife is an excellent cook. I know this because I’m not getting any thinner. I also know this because we’re usually sold out at Thanksgiving. Yep — everyone comes to our house, and we wouldn’t have it any other way because

Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite holiday. It has no religious undertones, it reprises our Pilgrim predecessors who, in one of their last acts of magnanimity, invited some natives over to celebrate how lucky they all were to have corn.

So what’s Thanksgiving about today? It would appear to be about thanks (after all it’s in the name), but mostly I think it’s about teeing up Black Friday and maybe a four day weekend. Sure, there are sporting events, and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but where is the thanks? How do we express our gratitude?

Here are some simple options:

  • TGivingTablePut all cellphones away before, during, and after the meal.
  • Take a moment — ask everyone to be quiet – and to focus on the wondrous things for which we have this chance to be grateful.
  • Ask each member of the group to describe one thing for which they are grateful.
  • Remember those who came before us (our families, not necessarily the Pilgrims) and create a sense of continuity with past Thanksgivings.
  • Thank everyone who contributed to the remarkable meal. (I hate to have to write that, but there are people who “forget” to do this).

Other options for “feeling” the day:

  • Volunteering-is-Great-for-TeensParticipate in a program with your kids and serve Turkey dinner to the homeless. (Many churches run these programs.)
  • Initiate a team project at home – include your kids in dinner prep, or gather toys or clothes to be given to charity.
  • Bathe your animals (just because it’s an act of giving (and not an easy one))
  • Call or visit a relative or close friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time.
  • Do something nice for a stranger.

We are surrounded by miracles every day — from pasteurization to pacemakers, from instant messages to innovative ideas. The gifts are all there, it’s just up to us to see them…

… and to say thanks.

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Ebola, Panic, and Kids

emorylogoWe have a daughter at Emory University, home of our country’s most advanced Ebola treatment epicenter. People ask us if we’re worried and frankly, we’re not. We’re not good with panic.

Teaching our children to remain calm, find the facts, and react correctly to changing developments are among a parents’ most important jobs. But we must also remain calm ourselves!

DFW TaxiI’ve mentioned a number of times that, as a father, I compare myself to a taxi driver guiding his children through life. In their early years, they ride in the back of my cab and I show them the best ways to get from place to place. They don’t’ have much input with regard to the route, but they’re certainly welcome to make observations and to discuss things we see along the way.

As the kids get older, they may chime in about traffic, and we can share some route-based decisions. I know that someday they will be driving their own vehicles, so I teach them to navigate while I’m still around as their safety net.

CautionSignEven though there are times when the cab is almost out of gas or the tires may burst, I avoid making them aware of those problems because it’s my job to make them comfortable enough to look out the windows and learn about the world.

As a parent, I always want my child to feel safe even if I’m a little worried (which is just about as much fear as I would show my children). I also know that the world is full of scary or dangerous things, some of which require everyday attention — like swimming pools, electricity, sharp edges, and plastic bags – while others are more conceptual (like disease, war, fire, and death).

Knowing that we’re not always around to offer reassurance, I believe we should give our children the following tools to comfort themselves:

  1. Be skeptical. Teach them not to believe everything that people tell them. Research the facts to avoid repeating dumb things. Ask your kids if they can give you an example of someone telling them something crazy that they knew was untrue. Tell them the story of Chicken Little.
  2. Know your source. Identify the people who like to spread news, especially bad news, and weigh the value of their information. Explain the concept of “drama” because most of what bothers tweens is drama – not substance. Teach them to avoid “bandwagoning” – becoming one of the dramatists.
  3. Pause to educate. Delay your reaction until you can find the facts. There are many places where information about the threat (or non-threat) of Ebola can be found. If your child asks, sit down at the computer with and find the facts.
  4. Remain calm. Teach them the dangers of panic. The world was full of smokers when I was young. One of them was a good friend who, while driving, lit a cigarette and accidentally dropped the match in his lap. His panic to find the ember and put it out was so extreme that he steered his car right off the road and into a tree. It was the panic that got him, not the match.
  5. Offer reassurance.. If something scares your child, use your strength and knowledge to teach away their fear. When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. My mother asked me if I wanted to stay afraid, or learn more about the dark. I wanted to learn more and, with my agreement, she told me to get in my closet and get comfortable. Once in the closet, she said “I’m going to close the door until there’s a sliver of light – will that be OK?” I meekly said “Yes.” And she closed the door to the sliver. She reminded me that I was safe, nothing had changed, and that there was nothing in the closet that could harm me. Then she asked if I thought I could sit in the closet with the door closed. “I guess so.” I said, and she closed the door the rest of the way. Once my eyes grew accustomed to the absolute darkness I could see that nothing had changed. There were no demons, and I was no longer afraid. My mom suggested that I just go to sleep… it would be a good way to kill some time if I was stuck in a dark place. Years later on a tour of Alcatraz, I was put in a solitary confinement cell for twenty minutes. Easy peasy. I took nap.

ignoranceinactionEbola is scary and it’s being talked about almost everywhere. When there’s danger, realistic precautions need to be taken. But there is a difference between teaching preparation for a tornado or an earthquake perhaps and worrying about a disease in a far off place.

My mother used to quote Goethe when she’d say, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”

Remember, panic is more contagious than Ebola – and probably more harmful.  Do your kids a favor, teach them to stay calm and check the facts.

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Sibling Rivalry – Pupdate 3

RegalDaisyFor a while my days were almost perfect. I could sleep wherever I wanted, wander the house at will and always find food in my bowl. I could daydream for hours while my masters talked or watched that glowing box.  It was peaceful, but there were trade-offs.  I didn’t get a lot of attention.  Sure, I got some nice rubs once in a while, but I was given a bath only once a month, the menu never changed, and I rarely went outside the walls of my perfect prison. For the most part, I lived the classic dog’s life.

Then “it” happened.

I don’t know what they were thinking. Was I too boring? Did they need a challenge? Maybe I ate too loudly. I just don’t get it. I thought I was being the perfect dog – and then they brought “it” home.

For years my human sibling, the Long Haired Boy, had been bugging my masters to “get a puppy.” He said, “It’ll keep Daisy young,” and stuff like that. Well, I’m not feeling particularly old. In fact, I’ve had a pretty good run so far. Hips are in order, eyes are working pretty well, ears have never been that great. So aside from the fact that I poop every four hours, which the vet says is fine, I’m showing very few signs of age.

On the other paw, my two-legged owners have changed quite a bit. The little one who smelled the best moved out over a year ago, and the Hairy Guy has been home quite a bit (but he’s not taking me on any walks or anything.) The Pretty Lady with brown eyes (like mine) still brings me my crack crackers, but she’s not taking me on walks either. Basically, we’ve been pretty lazy around here for the last year or so.

2CuteGirlsinCarOn the whole, hanging with the Lovebirds was fine with me – until they brought home the little idiot they call Delilah.

For the first few days, I wanted nothing to do with the intruder, but my humans were obsessed with her. “Blah blah blah blah Puppy. Blah blah blah blah Delilah.” They were giving me that “extra nice” treatment… but it’s kind of crazy watching them get so excited about the little ball of fur that doesn’t know anything except how to jump up into my face and try to bite my jinglers. Can I just get five minutes?

That puppy doesn’t know anything. She breaks all the rules. She pees in her bed, she chews on the chairs, she grabs paper towels. Worst of all, the minute she sees me she comes flying in my direction and tries to bite my ears.. Lately the little bitch (literally) has been showing me up. My human says “Sit” and she sits. What a tool.

GrowlyLookAfter a few days of total puppy avoidance, my Masters forced us to get together. They held The Energizer still and let me give her a good sniffing. Not too bad. Puppy smell; simple, clean, new, and a little vulnerable. The two-legged ones forced us to get to know each other and then we started playing. A few well-timed bites, a big growl or two, and now little D knows how it’s gonna work around here.

Sure, I let her lay in my bed. I let her bite my leg. I let her try to steal my snacks and my masters are really grateful for that.  The puppy’s so enthusiastic I have to cut her some slack. I’ve got the energy. We’re both taking vitamins now. I’m even getting brushed once in a while.  All in all, I think this might be a gain.

DaisyHoldsHerOwnMore good news! Suddenly everybody is paying attention to us dogs, and even though they’re mostly petting the fluffy younger one, they’re being pretty darned nice to me too. HE actually gave me a bath, which HE hasn’t done in about ten years. I get a ton of treats. I’m sore from the regular walks and that stupid puppy is actually getting me into shape.

I’m also getting a lot more personal attention. It’s like my two-leggeds don’t mind having me around any more. They see that The Energizer will do anything I do, so they’re counting on good ol’ me to set an example of how to behave. This older sibling thing could really score me some points.

Today they rode in the Windy Box to the Land of No Leashes. Every once in a while the Masters are kind enough to take Delilah there so that I can get some rest. In those lovely, quiet moments, I can lie anywhere I want and not have to worry about being jumped. It’s kind of funny though. I actually miss that little puppy when she’s gone.

DogTugofWarAt first I thought this growing family thing was going to be a bummer, but I was wrong. It’s good to have a new friend.

Gotta go now, the puppy’s getting in trouble and I like to watch.

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Parenting the Puppy – Pupdate #2

NoseyThis puppy thing is a lot of work.  Just as with our children, we console ourselves by saying, “If we put the work in now, we’ll have less to do later.” But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the required dedication at all.

Our friend Bruce summed it up when he said, “Puppies just don’t know any of the rules.” So, unlike Daisy, our tried and true eleven-year-old Golden, the puppy thinks everything is her business – the open dishwasher, my tool bag, any open drawer, and my underwear (which can still be found too often on the floor.)

MealtimeTogetherWe think Delilah is brilliant. By watching Daisy, she’s figured out the doggy door. She’s pretty much got the whole potty thing under control, and she has outsmarted our attempts to blockade her passage into other parts of the house. She’s wearing us down, fighting the war of attrition. Little does she know that we are united in our determination to teach her the rules and get our relationship off on the right paw.

As for the fetching….I remain concerned. I find that she loses interest in the ball after about four or five tosses. Up until a little while ago, we thought she was sixteen weeks old. That’s a point when she should be able to concentrate a bit. But today when we took the calendar off the wall, we determined that she’s only fourteen weeks old. That will allow me to cut her some ball-concentration slack for another couple of weeks. The Perfect Fetch will have to wait.

My big concern is that Daisy, a non-fetcher, has somehow propagandized her. “Is that all you want to do with your life…just chase that smelly ball for The Man?” Delilah seems to be thinking it over.

CraftsmanBagThis age miscalculation is a classic. We’ve been treating Delilah as though she should be farther along, and suddenly we find out that we are wrong. We had started some real training, we had eliminated her lunch, and we had serious bladder-holding expectations. On one hand, we’re relieved – she still seemed hungry at lunch time, she was a little “spacey” during the training sessions, and her bladder could have used the break. On the other hand, we just figured, “Man, are we boneheads!”

Having raised four kids, this is not the first time we made a fundamental error, and it probably won’t be the last. The important thing is that we’re not wasting time, energy, or emotion investigating the error and assigning blame. We’re just laughing it off and moving the enterprise forward – kind of similar to the time I accidentally locked our son in the car on a sweltering day.

LookinAtYouJoAnn’s internet adventures have migrated from shopping, “Candy Crush” or “Words with Friends” to “Doggy Discussions.” As a result, much of our discretionary conversation is devoted to things like “boundaries,” “meal time,” “doggy play,” and “socialization.” Some of the suggestions on these sites make sense – in which case we adopt them – and some seem a little overboard for us. We are not willing to enter the psychological arena with our dogs. From my point of view, they live in a binary world. Good is good and bad is bad, with no interpretation of feelings with regard to their behaviour. This keeps it simple for both me and them.

There has been a funny evolution in the friendship between Daisy and Delilah. When they are together, Delilah is often telling Daisy that she wants to play. She does this by jumping on Daisy, biting her ears, pulling her tail, and generally hassling the crap out of her. As a measure of her true brilliance, Daisy has chosen to remain upstairs, sometimes hidden in JoAnn’s closet, until very late in the morning. She’s no fool.

Meanwhile, JoAnn or I head downstairs before 7a.m. to let Delilah out of her crate and take advantage of the “alone time” to do some training. Sometimes, we’ll choose to take Delilah for a walk and she’ll whimper almost the whole time because she’s wondering where her walking mentor might be. The same goes for piling her in the car and going for an adventure (to Starbucks). She just keeps looking for Daisy.

OvertheShoulderWe think Delilah likes Daisy more than Daisy likes Delilah. But we are highly entertained, and even proud (which we find hysterical) when they play together like loving siblings. Every once in a while we achieve the perfect balance. Either the dogs play lovingly with each other or they lie in their respective corners of the kitchen. When these moments hit, we revel in our satisfaction and forget the fact that we are both “dog” tired.

Yes, we have hope for a peaceful, fetch-filled future.

Next up: Daisy weighs in.

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The Kid Pro Quo

GreenFamHawaii2014According to Merriam Webster Online, a quid pro quo is “something that is given to you or done for you in return for something you have given to or done for someone else.”

I believe in the Kid Pro Quo, which I define as “something that your child gives or does for you in return for all the things you do for your child.” Essentially, it’s creating an expectation of emotional and behavioural repayment for the years of selfless, generous, and loving attention that we parents shower upon our lovely unsuspecting children.

Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet believe it or not, there are parents who dote on their children — buy them everything, drive them to dance, or little league, or karate — without any expectation of Kid Pro Quo at all. I understand that “it’s a parent’s job” to do those things. But common sense tells me that it’s important to expect something in return – because sooner or later our kids will enter a world that expects gratitude, or at least a “thank you.” It’s a little like teaching the Golden Rule: treat your children the way you expect them to treat you.

Over the years, I have observed that by expressing gratitude for the things around us, we have taught our children (and others) to appreciate the things we all have in life – whether it’s a meal, a beautiful sunset, a car that works, or a spouse who is an excellent Mom. Every time I express my appreciation I am essentially defining a value for my children. It’s value that is not about them, that is external , but it’s one they should equally appreciate.

Children who are grateful have a tendency to respect the good things that come their way – good things like us, for example, their parents.

Aaron12kitchen_92liteSometimes even wonderful children need a little guidance. We were once expecting visitors from out of town. We had told our oldest son, Aaron, that the guests were bringing their teenage niece with them. We had also told Aaron that we expected him to help the girl feel welcome. But when the fateful day came and they arrived, Aaron was hanging out with a his friends.

I sought him out and said, “Our guests have arrived. Please come and meet Jeannie.” His response was, “They’re your friends, Dad, not mine.” Although I was upset by that comment, I stayed calm and again asked him to join me away from his friends.

Once we were in a relatively private situation, I held his shoulders firmly, stared directly into his eyes and said, “Understand this, dear son: If what is important to me is not important to you, then what is important to you will not be important to me. And, at this point in your life, you need me — for a ride to baseball practice, for example — much more than I need you.”

Aaron immediately grasped the concept and said, “Let’s go say hello to our guests.” As it turned out, the niece was really fun and Aaron ended up very happy with his decision to help out. Things your children resist often turn out quite nicely for them. It’s important to remember these positive outcomes so that they can be cited downstream when resistance raises its head again.

vectorstock_634418It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a Kid Pro Quo. It’s important that we recognize that life is full of give and take, and that by catering to our kids without expectation, we are not preparing them for the road ahead.

As is the case with many parenting issues, teaching our children to be grateful and respectful is connected to the example we set. I wrote my book to create a logical and methodical process to help give parents confidence enough to have high expectations of their children and themselves – to demand the Kid Pro Quo.

Teach gratitude, and if that doesn’t sink in, tell your kids what Bill Cosby once jokingly said: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”

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