8/12/2018 – TODAY IS NATIONAL MIDDLE CHILD DAY – Marilyn Armstrong

I was a middle child. I’m not anymore because my older brother died and my younger sister got addicted to everything and disappeared. I’m assuming she is alive since no one has told me otherwise, but I have no actual evidence to that effect.

1963

Middle children have an interesting place in family life. If the family is big, there are lots of middle children so you can have quite a heap of middle children, but in the three-child family, middle children are often communicators. We take messages to the other warring family members.

Mom tells you to tell dad whatever, which you do, then he tells you to tell her something else. You brother confides in you because you are “The One Who Talks.”

It’s a weird role for a kid. It makes you feel important. Everyone counts on you to take and deliver messages. But it’s a fake importance. What you are really doing is helping your dysfunctional family not communicate with each other.

That was the final reason I went to Israel. My marriage was tired and not doing well … and my family had gone from dysfunctional to dangerously dysfunctional. Frighteningly dysfunctional with potentially lethal results. I felt — and I’m sure I was right — that if I didn’t go far away, I would never break the chain of recriminations, threats, lies, prevarications, fear … the whole ugly wrapper.

Not all families are equally dysfunctional, but mine was way beyond standard. Matthew and I survived. I survived better than he did, though he lived a good — if sadly short — life.

He had a great wife and an amazing relationship with her. I’m pretty sure she saved his life. Although I had one really awful marriage, Jeff and I got along well. As a marriage, it faltered, but it was a strong friendship. We were supportive of one another until finally, he died. Even after we divorced, we stayed friends.

I was right. My time in Israel broke that chain of me as the family communicator. Unfortunately, my mother died … and then, there was only my brother, and then Jeff and Matthew died — both much too young.

2012

But then there were new friends. There was the internet.

I communicate again. I don’t see your faces, but I feel you. I worry about you, want to know you are okay. You matter to me. I am not good at virtual relationships. To me, you are real. Distant, I admit, but real.

Stay real. Stay well. Stay safe.

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE IN RELATIONSHIPS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post on June 3, 2018, written by John Gottman and Christopher Dollard. It’s called “Five Myths About Marriage.” It confirms something I’ve always believed – that it’s not really common interests that keep couples together. It’s common decency and courtesy in relating to each other.

“Our research has shown that criticism … is one of the four destructive behaviors that indicate a couple will eventually divorce. A stronger predictor of compatibility than shared interests is the ratio of positive to negative interactions, which should be about 20-1 in everyday situations.”

The only thing that surprised me was the ratio they promulgated. 20-1 is a huge differential. That means that relationships can only survive one negative comment out of 20 positive ones.

I’ve always known that negative interactions have a far greater impact and carry far more weight than positive ones. Put another way, one negative comment can erase 20 positive ones! This was definitely true for me and my kids. Their father, my ex-husband, was bipolar. When he was in a manic phase, he said some pretty hurtful and destructive things. But when he was not manic, he said many positive things as well.

My kids and I always seemed to take the negative comments to heart way more than the positive ones. My ex could be very loving and affectionate. But when he was bad, he was very, very bad. And that left a mark on all of us. I used to say that one criticism or slight would wipe out a dozen compliments. I was close, according to the Post article.

I think this is true because most people have many insecurities. No matter how much we try to build up our kids’ egos, there are always big holes we can’t seem to plug. Therefore, it’s easier for us, on an unconscious level, to believe bad things about ourselves than good. So we need a lot of positive reinforcement to feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, it only takes one diss to deflate us completely. This is especially true when the negative comments come from parents or spouses.

It turns out that the old cliché is true. Mutual respect is the most important thing in a relationship. Treating each other with consideration is the true secret to most successful relationships.

A corollary to this is letting go of the small stuff. Procrastinating about taking out the garbage is annoying. But it’s not critical. And above all, it’s NOT ABOUT ME! My husband is not purposely ignoring me when I ask him to take the garbage out and he doesn’t. He’s also not slighting me. He’s just lazy and he hates garbage! If I make it about him not caring about my feelings, we’re both screwed.

Some people hang onto negative feelings about the small stuff and let them blow up into a big deal. That is counterproductive. You’re definitely not going to get garbage taken out faster if you’re harboring anger and resentment about the garbage. You’re also going to sour the rest of your relationship.

So, the take away from this article/study is to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, just like the old song says!

STAY AT HOME KIDS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I have a friend who has three daughters, including a set of twins. They are now in their late twenties and early thirties. And they are all back living at home now. I was shocked to hear this.

All three girls have four-year college degrees. All three have full-time jobs. But none can earn enough to live on their own. One of the girls has a one and a half-year-old baby. The mom is no longer with the father, though he is still in the baby’s life. He also works but doesn’t earn enough to contribute to his daughter’s support.

What is going on here? What a tragedy, that middle class, educated working, young people can’t afford to live on their own without their parents’ support. It can’t be good for twenty and thirty-somethings to be living with their parents. It’s infantilizing and demoralizing. There also doesn’t seem to be any prospect for them to move out in the near future. This set up is not necessarily great for the parents either, especially if they want to retire at some point.

Starting wages today don’t seem to be high enough to pay for a home and even minimal living expenses. At least in New England, where I live. And this is even true with a college degree. Part of the problem may be that kids leave college with heavy debts that contribute to their financial dependence on their parents. So, it’s a vicious cycle.

And if you have a baby, the financial situation becomes exponentially worse!

My friend’s daughters are lucky that their parents can afford to support them. And that they didn’t already downsize their home. The kids contribute to the household, but not significantly. What will happen when my friend and her husband want to retire? They probably won’t be able to.

My friend is also lucky that she can work part-time from home. So, with the help of the other girls, they don’t have to pay for daycare or other childcare. This makes a big difference, financially. I know young people who pay a large percentage of their annual income on childcare – just so they can continue to work. This is also a travesty.

I don’t have any earth-shattering insights or solutions to any of these problems. I just got to see first hand what this economy and this society can do to young adults and their retirement age parents.

I’ve read about this phenomenon, but things affect you differently when people you know are involved. I can now put a face on this problem. It’s no longer an abstract issue, but a personal story. I’m shocked, appalled and depressed.

What will happen to whole generations? What will happen to our society? This is our future. And it looks pretty bleak.

DO OVER

What Would You Change?  by Rich Paschall

If you could do your life over, what would you change?  Would you choose a different career?  Would you choose a different house or apartment?  Would you consider living in another town?  Another part of the country? A foreign country?

Would you travel more?  Would you see other towns, other regions, other countries?  Do you have adventures that remain unfulfilled?  Do you wish to do more exciting things?

Here’s a big one for you to consider.  Would you change your mate?  Would you have more or fewer children?  Would you stay single or get married, depending on what you current circumstance is?

Contemplative

Many people like to say that they would not change a thing.  They would do everything the same way.  Some say this defiantly so, as if defending the life that they have led.  That may be just a front, however, for certain family or friends.  Would we really do things the same way?

No matter what we insist to others, we all have made mistakes that we regret.  Would we not change these mistakes, if only we had the chance?  Would we not make better choices if we had the chance to choose again?

Do you recall a statement that you said you wish you could take back because it was insensitive?  Do you recall the gossip that you took part in, only to realize later that it was just a way to put down a coworker, neighbor, or family member that you just did not like at the time?  Wouldn’t the passage of time make us wise enough to refrain from such things?  If we took part in these things with the knowledge of our lifetime in front of us, would we not take a different course?

Perhaps you have seen the article, frequently reposted on social media (I have seen it a number of times, anyway), that talks about The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. These were collected by a nurse and published in a book.  It is summarized on Collective Evolution website. The list indicates that if these people could live their lives again, they would not take the same paths.  When they looked back from death’s door, there was plenty to change.

Top on the list was having the courage to live your own life, rather than that which was expected.  As we grow up, there are expectation of parents, grandparents, other family members, teachers and even our communities about what we should do in life.  Our roles are frequently defined by others and we, as loyal children and friends, take the path expected of us.  Would we now decide on “The Road Not Taken?”

Every male patient wished that they had not worked so hard.  They missed family events or other adventures while they worked extra hours.  From the perspective of the end of life, the choice was clearly a wrong one.  Yes, many need to work harder to support their family, but did we choose work, when another choice would have been better on a particular day?

Many wished they had the courage to express their true feelings, or that they had stayed in touch with old friends, or that they allowed themselves to be happier.  Perhaps they regretted all of these things.  So I ask the question again, what would you change if only you could?

If time and health are on your side, then you can still do many of the things you missed earlier.  You can still make amends for bad choices, thus undoing some mistakes of the past.  Of course, we can not now change everything, but that is no reason to be sad about the past.  We can use what we learned to move forward with better choices.

I think the desire to make up for missing some things in the past is one of the emotions that gives rise to the “Bucket List.”  Of course, you may put things on the list that are new to your thought processes, but how many of the things you would list now would actually be things you feel you missed out on in the past?  Is there some adventure you should have pursued in the past that you can still do now?

While there are many decisions I regret from the past, and some that I regret now actually, I have one basic problem with a “Do Over.” If I had made different choices in the past, would I still end up in the same place? You see, there are many things about the present I like as they are.  If I had gone a different route, would I eliminate some of the things I like about today?  Would some of my close friends be missing?  Of course, I would not know they were missing if I had gone another way.

Friends meet up in Strasbourg
Friends meet up in Strasbourg

My jobs in recent years have allowed me to make new friends in other countries.  In fact, one of my best friends lives in France.  We have travelled to France, Germany and England together as well as much of the USA.  I can not now imagine a life that does not include him.  I never thought of these travels or friendships when I was young, so I could not have consciously made the choice to end up where I am.

Because of my love of my current adventures and friends, I guess I really do not want a “Do Over.”  I just hope the knowledge I have gained from past mistakes will allow me to make better choices in the future.

From where you are right now, do you wish to go on with the knowledge you have gained, or would you rather have a “Do Over” realizing it may take you to a different place?

TO MOM ON YOUR 101st BIRTHDAY

Today is “Flag Day” throughout much of the world.  Here, it is much more. It’s my Mom’s birthday.

Happy Flag Day, America

Esther Letticia Holder Armstrong left us 11 years ago. But for me and my family, she’s very much alive in spirit and 101 years young. They were singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” when Mom was born on that June 14th in 1917.  Mom’s father,  my grandfather,  was over there. He was a sailor in the Danish Navy during World War 1.

Gramps, a Barbados native, saw plenty of action as he would tell us many times in the years to come.

Esther Holder, as Aunts and Uncles would gleefully tell me, was a feisty child and teenager.  “Smart as a whip,” friends said about Mom. She graduated near the top of her Julia Richmond High School class of 1935.  My Mother once described herself to me as a “Jazz baby,” showing off pictures of herself as a young woman who liked to dance. I’m not sure how that resonated with some of the older folks in the family but none of them lived in a glass house – if you get my drift.

I guess Mom left a trail of broken hearts when she and my dad, William Benfield Armstrong, married in 1941.  It was one of the biggest social events of the year. However, modesty aside,  the glittering affair was just the warm up to my début on the world stage in April of 1942.  A star was born —  at least that’s how I’d see it in my private fantasies which Mom frequently punctured.

Mom was a single parent during my early years because Dad was away — in the Army – seeing some of the heaviest action of World War 2 in France and Germany as a Sargeant in the still-segregated armed forces.

We looked like a Hollywood family when Dad finally came home from the war. At least that’s what I thought. Mom was beautiful and Dad was such a handsome guy.

Over the years, my Mother was “the voice” of our family. She clearly set the parameters for right and wrong, good and bad for my two younger brothers and me. I tested her many times, especially as I got older and became a “man” in my immature mind.  I always lost those confrontations.

Mom was tough! She was also tender, in her own way. She encouraged me to read and write.  She actually read my first attempts at fiction and assured me I had talent. She told me I should pursue my dreams.

We weren’t big on outward displays of affection,  something that I would have to deal with in later years. However,  Mom always found quality time for me. She knew I had a huge passion for movies.  We’d go to the movies, 3 times a week.  I was “Mom’s date.” She would explain who the people on the big screen were.

They were Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Cooper,  Grant and all the others who reigned over my fantasies through my many years of loving Hollywood.  Mom said she named me after her favorite star,  Gary Cooper.  There was a mixup in recording the birth certificate and Gary became Garry.

There would be frequent mixups later when I became a news guy on television. Actually, there are still frequent mixups. Some things never change.

I’m not sure my Mother was excited about my career choice.  She always said I should become a doctor, lawyer, or minister.  She agreed I talked well.  What she really said was,  “Garry,  you have a big mouth!”  I’d smirk when she said that.  The smirk usually quickly disappeared she gave me “the look.” Mom also thought I was too good for the women I dated. I think she left that impression with many of those women in my life. I got lots of feedback about it.

I remember Mom and Dad celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.  I saw a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen too often.  The look of love.

Dementia took hold of Mom in her last few years. Dad had passed away.  Mom was alone with my middle brother Billy in the old family home on Long Island. Anton,  my youngest Brother, was busy with his blooming career as director of the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota. I was the married, busy TV news guy up in Boston.  Family get-togethers were difficult.

In what would be her last coherent afternoon with me,  My Mom floored me when she admonished me to be a good husband, to find quality time with Marilyn, to show affection and not stonewall Marilyn with internalized emotions. Mom held my face close with her hands like I was that stupid teenager. She smiled with patience and compassion, counseling me to “… be good to your Wife … you are lucky to have her. Show her you appreciate her, that you love her.”

I’m still trying Mom.  I’m not there yet.

In the meantime,  Happy, Happy Birthday.  Mom.  You’re the best!

MIRROR, MIRROR – Marilyn Armstrong

The Most Beautiful of Them All?

I never — at any point in life — looked in the mirror imagining for a moment that I was the most beautiful of all. All what?

I knew I wasn’t the most beautiful anything. At my best, I was interesting, sometimes eye-catching. Frequently just different. I never looked like everyone else, except maybe all the other members of my family.

I remember going to my uncle’s funeral, looking around and seeing me, me, me, me. Everywhere. Some version of me. My cousins, aunts, parents. Everyone looked a lot or a little like me.

Now, I look in the mirror to see if I pass. Do I look truly hideous or just kind of old and tired?

I don’t look anything like I used to look. My face is a different shape. My hair is different. My eyes have sunk deeper into my skull.

Humans don’t always look the same, you know. We evolve. That’s how it’s possible to look exactly like your father when you are three, but exactly like your mother at 30 … and remarkably like your uncle at 50. It should be obvious if you stop and think about it. If we didn’t keep changing, we would be born with an old, adult face. Which you must admit, would look pretty strange.

I’ve now passed the point of looking like my mother. By the time my mother was my age, she was dying. Which I, apparently, am not. Garry no longer looks like his mother or his father, but some peculiar combination of both, depending on what look he has on his face.

I suppose I don’t know what to make of me anymore. At least other people still recognize me when they see me. That’s something, right?

NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE – Rich Paschall

JJ’s Night Out, by Rich Paschall


Jason was pacing the floor of the living room.  He was excited about his date night.  They were going to a new nightclub.  It had received nice reviews and he thought they could do a lot of dancing and singing.  Jason’s mom watched the pacing with a feeling of indifference, while his dad watched in what could best be described as “disgust.”

Soon Jason’s date would arrive. Jeff was a handsome young man who Jason had met at college.  Jeff fell immediately for the boy with the constant smile, and it did not take long for Jason to agree to a date.  After a short period of dating, they became constant companions.  Their friends began referring to them collectively as “JJ” since they always seemed to be together.

When Jeff arrived in his best preppy, all American look, he stopped in briefly to say hello to Jason’s parents and wish them a good evening.  Then Jason exclaimed, “Good night, mom,” and gave his mother a hug.  It was returned in a half-hearted fashion.

“See you later, dad,” Jason shouted at his father who was standing quite a distance away.

“Yeah,” his father returned with his most annoyed tone.  The father’s look was his best effort at contempt.  Jason just smiled and the boys set out for a night of fun.  They both hoped that someday Jason’s father would accept them as a couple.  Whether that happened or not, soon the boys would find an apartment, marry and be on their own.  They had their whole lives ahead and could not be too worried about whether they would find complete acceptance.  They had each other.  That was the main thing.

The two men enjoyed the new nightclub.  The music was loud, the drinks were cold and the atmosphere was electric.  Around midnight, Jeff leaned over and gave Jason a big kiss.  Since he was not prone to such public displays, Jason asked, “What was that for?”

Jeff replied, “Because I love you so much, my prince.”  At that Jason’s usual smile became even bigger.

At 4 am the phone rang at Jason’s home.  By the time his mother was awakened and realized it was the phone, the ringing stopped.  She started to drift off to sleep but 10 minutes later the phone was ringing again.  When she got up and got to the phone, it had stopped again.  The mother thought Jason forgot his key or was staying with Jeff.

“He really did not have to call about that,” she thought.  She waited by the phone another 10 minutes but it did not ring, so she went back to bed.

72-BW-Boston-Night_004Just as she was getting up around 7 am the front doorbell rang.  She thought, “This must be Jason.”  She put on her robe and walked to the door.  She opened it to find a uniformed police officer standing there.  Behind her was a man in plain clothes, but he was wearing a police badge on his belt.

“Are you Mrs. DeAngelo?”  the officer asked.

“Yes.”

“And is Jason DeAngelo your son?”

“Why?  What’s wrong? What happened?  Tell me, what is it?” she blurted out, trying not to sound hysterical.

“There has been a shooting at a nightclub.  I am afraid your son was one of the victim’s.  We are sorry for your  loss, Mrs. DeAngelo.”
Jason’s mother stood there absolutely frozen to the spot.  She had been kicked in the stomach and her breath had been taken away.

“Is it alright if we come in and ask a few questions?” the plainclothes police officer asked.

For a moment Mrs. DeAngelo could not speak.  Her eyes began to water and her brain was numb.  She was transported through time to a place of unspeakable sadness.  It was a place where senses momentarily failed her.

“Would you like us to come back?” the man asked.

“No,” she replied.  “Come in.”

Mr. DeAngelo joined them in the living room.  He immediately knew what had happened.  He stood there silently.  His wife answered all the questions.

For the next half hour, the two police officers queried Jason’s mom.  Did Jason go to the Club often?  Why did he go that night?  Was he with anyone?  Was he gay?  Did they know it was a gay nightclub and so on?  Mrs. DeAngelo answered as best she could.

Then they mentioned the name of the shooter which led to a new round of questions.  Did she ever hear the name before?  Did her son know him?  There were other questions too but they all became a blur to Mrs. DeAngelo.  After a while, she was not even sure what she was saying.

The uniformed officer concluded by saying the coroner’s office would be processing the dozens of bodies over the next few days and they would be in contact with them.  Both told the parents “We are sorry for your loss,” as they were leaving the house.

Mrs. DeAngelo softly closed the door behind them.  She grabbed a framed picture of Jason off a table and sat down on the sofa.  She stared at the picture as a tear formed in the corner of one eye.  She tried to envision Jason’s happy face as a child and his boundless energy.  She remembered the time she called him “my little terrier” because it seemed he could run for hours and then come and lay down right by her.  She did not move from that spot for a long time.

Mr. DeAngelo recalled the look he gave the boys the night before as they left for the club.

It was the only thing he could remember.