Conflict 101

“I would do it again. I’m just being honest.” This was the statement made by a participant in the workshop I was facilitating. It was disappointing (to put it mildly) to hear, three hours into a workshop that was designed to, in large part, change his perspective.

Although I am retired, I consult every so often for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), working with school district governance teams. The idea of the workshop, generally, is to strengthen the team and make sure they are on the same page. I have been doing this for more than ten years, with varying degrees of success.

Typically, a board will have one of these retreats when they are experiencing trouble. The specifics of the problem differ each time, but it usually boils down to lack of trust between the board and administration or among the board members themselves. Sometimes the breach is not too serious, and a healthy discussion and review of roles and responsibilities can get them back on the right track. Sometimes the divisiveness is deep and seemingly intractable. That was the case at this most recent session.

This Board had recently gone through a contentious process hiring an assistant superintendent. The Board, particularly the Board President, had been very involved in the selection. Best practice, as defined by NYSSBA, is a more circumscribed role for the Board, leaving more of the responsibility to the Superintendent. Without getting into the gory details, the relationship between some of the Board (it is a seven-member board) and the Superintendent had broken down. Two board members were uncomfortable with how things had gone and thought the team would benefit from some training. The full board agreed.

I was invited to help the team by putting together a program that would review their roles and responsibilities and walk through a hiring scenario so that we could discuss the issues. The goal was to have them, including the Superintendent, agree to a protocol moving forward. When the Board President made that comment that he would do it all again, it was crystal clear that he was not buying what I was selling (which was not a specific solution, but rather a definition of roles). We continued the discussions, going over other topics, but this was a case of mission NOT accomplished. Maybe I had spent too much time going over the details of what had happened; or maybe we hadn’t spent enough time and needed to dig in even deeper.

It got me thinking about conflicts in general. I know a great deal has been written about conflict resolution and I have read only a tiny fraction of the literature. Perhaps I should read more!! I’m wondering: how much should we hash out our conflicts? Do we go over all of the minutia? Or is it better to talk more generally and focus on moving forward? These questions apply to personal relationships, too.

Most people don’t like conflict, though I have come across a few who seem to crave it and are purposefully provocative. Fortunately, they are the exception. Other people are so steadfast in their desire to avoid it that too much gets swept under the rug resulting in a mountain of resentment. I guess the challenge is to find the sweet spot – to balance processing/understanding the differences with the need to move forward and not belabor the point. It isn’t easy to find – especially when emotions run high.

Plus, all parties have to be invested in finding resolution, not a given in many situations. In the case of the workshop I was facilitating, the Board President was intransigent, convinced of his rightness. Ultimately, we had to agree to disagree. I had the luxury of leaving it at that. In personal relationships you can’t necessarily do that.

I am thankful that in my marriage I can say with confidence that we are both able to see the big picture. We both want resolution and we want the other to be happy. We have some fundamental differences that pop up now and again, but we have been able to manage them.

I’m thinking, looking at our world rife with conflict, that more situations are like the one with that school board than my marriage. I’m thankful for what I have and wish it for others.

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Sometimes we need a bit of peace

 

 

If…

If you want to find every bit of schmutz (translation: dust bunnies and other crumbs) in your house, have a 14-month old visit.

If you want to be reminded of the wonder of electricity, watch the face of a 14-month old when you flip a light switch on and off.

If you want to discover muscles you forgot you had, play with a 14-month old for two full days.

If you want to see the beauty of the wind in the trees, look out the window with a 14-month old.

If you want your heart to melt, get a hug around the legs from a toddler who nuzzles you when she is ready for a nap.

If you want to experience your heart in your mouth, watch that toddler walk like a drunken sailor past a glass and wood coffee table.

If you want to experience the full range of human emotion, spend 15 minutes with a 14-month old who goes from joy to frustration to laughter to curiosity to tears in that space of time.

If you want a smile, give a 14-month old a bite of a sugar cookie. Yum.

 

I had the pleasure of all of this, and more, over the past four days. It is also why my blog post is so late. I admit to being tired, physically, mentally and emotionally. I am also reminded that there is a reason we have children when we are young. But, it is all worth it. To be a grandparent is a privilege and I am keenly aware of that. I will treasure memories of these days.

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On a brutally hot day, she had the right idea! My precious one.

 

A Remembrance

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We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.

They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.

Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.

The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.

Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.

Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.

Siblings

I was visiting with my son, we were debriefing after the successful birthday party for his daughter, who turned one the prior weekend. He mentioned an observation his wife shared after the party. She said she never met siblings who were more different from each other than my brothers. I got a good laugh from that. She is so right.

Her observation came as no surprise, but I realized that I take it for granted. I don’t think about it; it just is a fact of our family life. Hearing her comment, though, gave me pause. It is hard to explain how two such different people grew up in the same house, from the same set of parents, born only 17 months apart. Mark and Steven are about as different as day and night.

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Me and my bros – 2017 – recreating a pose from when we were small and could more comfortably sit like that!

Mark likes to be the center of attention; Steven doesn’t (he certainly doesn’t seek it). Mark is a jokester; Steven enjoys a good laugh, but doesn’t work to get one. I can see Mark’s wheels turning as he figures out a way to tease someone or fit in a humorous story; Steven tends to hang back. Steven gives attention to his appearance, he enjoys wearing stylish shoes and a well cut leather jacket. Mark couldn’t care less – he is pleased if his clothes aren’t stained. Mark is also color-blind; Steven isn’t. Steven is neat and organized; Mark is anything but. Mark is very liberal politically; Steven is a centrist. Other than being about the same height and having the same hairline, they don’t look much alike either. Steve has a dark complexion; Mark is fair-skinned and freckled. I could go on and on. How could they share so much DNA and yet be so different? It is a mystery.

They do share some commonalities. They like sports and are good athletes. Hmmmm. What else? They are dedicated husbands, fathers, brothers and sons (though how they express that dedication is not similar). They are both upstanding citizens – trustworthy and hard-working. Beyond that, it is hard to find adjectives that apply to both. Interestingly, they married sisters! My sister-in-laws are not as dramatically different as my brothers, but enough so that they are a good fit.

It makes me wonder about siblings. I see patterns in the siblings in my extended family and Gary’s, too. Our mothers had an interesting and similar dynamic with their respective sisters. When asked about her childhood, before the war, Paula recalled with warmth and love her father sitting on the edge of the bed she shared with her sister telling them bedtime stories. Sophia, younger by a couple of years, didn’t remember it that way. She insisted that their father directed the story to Paula, Sophia felt neglected. Fifty years after the fact they still disagreed about it. Paula insisted he was entertaining them both; Sophia said no, the stories were for Paula. There is no way to reconcile the difference in perception – they felt what they felt.

It is sad because that perception colored Sophia’s view of the world. Her Holocaust experience added trauma and pain to the baggage she carried. Paula at least had a more positive foundation.

The story of my mother and her sister was not as dramatic, it didn’t play out against the Holocaust, but the theme was similar. If asked to describe the same incident from their childhood, my mother’s version was lighter, more positive. Whether it was because she was extra sensitive or tuned into subtleties, her sister, Simma recalled slights and hurts. They often disagreed about the meaning of the actions of their parents or aunts and uncles. Again, it could be difficult to reconcile their views of the same people.

The pattern isn’t limited to sisters. If you asked Gary and his brother to describe their father, you might think they were depicting two different people.

I wonder how common this is. It would be an interesting experiment: ask siblings to describe their parents and see how much overlap there is in the portrait offered. Maybe the same words would be used, but it might still feel different to each child. I imagine that my brothers and I would agree that our Dad was impatient. But, we each might feel differently about that. It might have rolled off my back because I knew the storm would pass. One brother might have been unnerved by the harsh tone and the other might have been oblivious. It could be that Dad mellowed with age and while I saw his impatience, I may not have experienced the intensity of it. Or maybe as his baby girl, he may have shielded me from the worst expression of his impatience. So many possibilities! Birth order, gender, gaps in age all likely play into it. Is it any wonder that sibling relationships can be so complicated?

Regardless of the differences in perceptions and personalities, my mother and mother-in-law were deeply connected to their sisters; they were not estranged. They argued, but they were present for each other. The message I received growing up was that familial bonds should be valued and respected. Hurts and disappointments could be overcome because you knew you could count on your sibling to be there for you, especially during tough times. You didn’t have to like your brother or sister, that would be a bonus, but you loved them no matter what and they were part of your life forever. Judging by how often families are estranged, not everyone grew up with that message.

I do understand that sometimes relationships are so toxic that they have to be cut. Certainly, where there is abuse, it is appropriate and necessary to dissolve the bond and create a family of choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me or my brothers.

Whatever differences in character traits that exist between my siblings or between them and me, we know with certainty that we can rely on each other. I am grateful for that knowledge.

 

 

Friendship

When I arrived on campus at SUNY-Binghamton in August of 1976, I was 16 and emotionally fragile. I emerged from the disaster that was junior high school and had grown more socially competent through high school, but I was still a bundle of insecurity. Plus, though I didn’t understand this about myself yet, I was prone to depression.

Thankfully, when I moved in to Cayuga Hall, I met Merle. It isn’t really correct to say that I met her because that implies that I didn’t know her before. Merle went to my high school and we were in many of the same classes. But Merle was out of my league. She had a posse of friends. She was captain of the booster squad, co-leader of Arista (the honor society), in the top ten in our class. [Editor’s note: since I posted this, Merle called to thank me and also to correct me. She was not captain of the booster squad! She was just a member of it. I stand corrected. :)] She was pretty, petite and seriously smart. I may have given myself partial credit for being smart – at least in English and Social Studies (my grades in math and science were very average), but I was none of those other things. In fact, feeling unfeminine and unattractive was my Achilles heel.

So, though I knew Merle, at the same time, I really didn’t. Imagine my surprise when we bonded over our shared struggle to acclimate to campus life during college orientation. Thus, began a beautiful friendship.

I learned there was a reason Merle had so many friends. She listened attentively, she empathized, offered great insights and gave useful suggestions. And to top it off, we laughed our asses off. We took one class together – Anthropology. One time we disrupted the class with our laughter, the professor stopped and glared at us. We tried to rein it in.

I came to college so young and inexperienced – in every sense of the word. I was wound up pretty tight, afraid to try things. Merle was a whole six months older, maybe not much in the scheme of things, but she had a much more adventurous spirit. I needed to loosen up and she helped me do that.

Much of our time, in the beginning, was spent commiserating about our roommates. Both of us were tripled; both of us were in a dorm room that wasn’t connected to a floor (the door to our rooms opened to the outside – hers on the first floor, mine in the basement). One of her roommates was quite beautiful and knew it. She lounged naked. She entertained her boyfriend at night, thinking her roommates were asleep. Merle wasn’t. It made for lots of things for us to discuss, and more to laugh about.

We signed up to be trained as counselors for High Hopes, an on campus help line that mostly gave referrals to students if they had questions or problems. Merle, I think, had already decided to be a psych major. I thought it would be interesting and believed it was an important service. The training was great. They taught us to reflect (using Carl Roger’s approach) when listening to someone’s issues because it helped the caller to clarify what they were thinking and feeling. That was one of the most valuable skills I learned in college.

We also attended a lecture about homosexuality as part of the training. It was 1977, before AIDS, before gay characters were on television, most lived in the closet – mothers were still being blamed for it. The lecture opened our eyes to something we knew very little about. A mutual friend of ours was in the process of coming out. In fact, Merle’s older brother, came out to her around that time. I went with Merle to visit him in San Francisco in June of 1978. I have great memories of that trip. I learned so much about opening my mind and heart to differences. He took us to the Castro, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way at the time, I began to understand that love is love is love….

We also went camping in Yosemite. I had seen mountains beyond the Catskills when I went with my parents to Rocky Mountain National Park years before, but Yosemite Valley and the majestic Sequoias were sights to behold. Merle’s brother and his friends brought food, but it was mostly vegetarian. While it all tasted good, Merle and I snuck off to share a ham and cheese sandwich when we were at the gift shop. We were kindred spirits even if we inhabited very different bodies.

 

 

I write this today because yesterday was Merle’s 60th birthday. I am happy and proud to say that we are still friends. Through the loss of parents, the birth of children, the ups and downs of marriage and career, we have shared a lot. I still rely on her empathetic ear, her insights, her suggestions and her laughter. I hope I have returned the same.

I have learned countless lessons from my friendship with Merle. Not the least of which is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All those years ago I was intimidated by the cover. It turned out that while she is all of those things, popular, beautiful, petite, and smart, she is also warm, kind, vulnerable and funny. Here’s to continuing to celebrate life’s milestones and being there for each other during life’s challenges. Happy birthday, my friend!

 

Family

I was taking another drive to New Jersey recently. Usually I listen to music, but I have been exploring podcasts. A friend recommended Marc Maron’s WTF, saying he was a good interviewer. He’s also a comedian so I thought there could be some laughs. I enjoy a good interview and laughing so I decided to check it out.  (I agree with my friend; he is a good interviewer and I enjoyed the three podcasts I listened to – it is a long ride!).

Anyway, one of the comments he made got me thinking. He was relaying a story about family vacations. He did not remember them fondly (don’t worry, Mom, I remember ours very warmly). He talked about his family of four sharing one hotel room and in that cramped space they got on each other’s nerves. He mentioned that they didn’t know each other that well. He pointed out that they were probably all too self-absorbed in their day-to-day life and didn’t actually know each other. When they were thrown together in the confines of a single hotel room, it could get unpleasant.

The idea of not really knowing your own family gave me pause. On the one hand, I would have said that we knew each other quite well. We were a close family; we spent a lot of time together. On the other, maybe not…. especially when I was younger. Most of my time with them was as a family unit, and we fell into certain roles. Dad was the disciplinarian. Mom was the one directing our activities. Mark was the instigator, looking to get a rise out of someone, mostly me. Steven was the sphinx, keeping to himself, getting along. I don’t know who I was – sometimes I know I was the whiner, “Mark touched me!” I would cry with great indignation.

I don’t mean to reduce us to one characteristic, but I think there is something to that. We still fall back into those roles.

I remember once when I was a young adult living in Albany, having already started my own family, Dad came to visit alone. He was attending a social studies conference at one of the hotels in the area. He stayed overnight at Gary and my house. It was all fine, but it felt odd. It isn’t that I never spent one-on-one time with my Dad. But that was when I was a kid.  When I was 9 or 10 years old, I would go to watch him play tennis. I would ride with him to Marine Park, where he met his friends and they would play doubles. I would alternate between hitting a tennis ball against a wall and watching them play. On the way home, we’d stop for an egg cream. I remember enjoying those times, they are special memories for me.

I’m sure that was more time than some daughters get with their fathers. Yet, when he visited that time in Albany, it struck me that there was some awkwardness to it. Maybe it was because as an adult it had been years since it had just been us. Maybe we didn’t know each other as adults.

It wasn’t that he disappointed me in any way during that visit, or that it was unpleasant. I became aware, though, that our relationship was inextricably tied to our connection to my mother. I was more accustomed to spending time with them as a couple. It felt a bit weird to relate to him as an individual.

This notion was reinforced, years later, when my Dad died. I became aware that my relationship with my mother was changing. She was likely changing, after 50 years as a partner to Dad she needed to find her own path. I discovered different parts of her personality, as she may have been discovering different aspects of herself. It is hard to disentangle the varied strands – was she changing? Was I? was that who she had always been, but now I saw it?

I also think back on ideas I had about other family members. It’s funny how my understanding of our family has changed over the years. When I was young, I thought we were perfect. Then I went through a phase, not surprisingly, as a teenager, where I hated them (okay, hate is a strong word – they annoyed me profoundly). Then I got to college and realized I was so lucky to have two parents who communicated their love and care clearly, and an extended family that I was deeply connected to. As I grew into adulthood, I saw our family in more nuanced ways. I became aware of tensions that ran beneath the surface – not so much in our immediate family but with aunts and uncles. I realized that things were more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I remain deeply connected to my family. I continue to get to know them. How well do we know each other?  I can’t answer that. I wonder what others experience in their families. Do you know each other?

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part of my family

 

The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

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Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.