Saturday, February 22, 2020

Tales of a 4th Grade Something

My wife teaches 4th grade at a public elementary school. She’s an excellent teacher, is adored by her students and coworkers, and makes a real difference in the lives of everyone she interacts with.

Star Wars Shrine 1.0 (Circa 2014)
I’m told that her classroom is a favorite place for the 4th graders to hang out—even by students from the other classes. I can’t blame them because Danica has an awesome sense of geek decor. I learned this when we were first dating and I showed her the surviving remnants of my childhood collection of Star Wars toys. It was then that she told me that I should use them to make a “Star Wars shrine” in what would later become our first apartment. This tradition has continued into the decoration of our home and now her classroom.

A magnifying device of some sort
It's gotta be educational!
I’m grateful to have developed a skillset over the years that lends itself quite well to aiding Danica not only in her lesson planning but in other ways that benefit the school. I’m often called upon to upgrade worksheets that have been made from photocopies of photocopies... of photocopies—probably for decades—into updated, high-resolution digital masters. I’ve aided her in preparing classroom experiments. I hired a drone operator, courtesy of my nonprofit organization Utah Filmmakers™, to capture some awesome footage of a school event. Whenever my eye catches an educational tool at a thrift store—or at least something that has the potential to aid her in teaching—I confer with her to see if it’s worth getting. Thrift store-finds and clearance items are usually worth it.

Not legal tender... but Sooo cool!
When I was told that the 4th grade would be teaching the kids about money and budgeting by paying them in “classroom cash,” I insisted on contributing to the final design of the currency (based on concepts voted on by the students themselves). I was no stranger to the concept of teaching kids about money management in this manner. My 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. King, issued “King’s Bucks” in her classroom. Danica’s class-cash is referred to as “Puente Pesetas”—based on the former legal tender of Spain before the country switched to the Euro in 2002. I also recalled that when I was in elementary school, we didn’t just use our King’s Bucks to buy pencils, erasers, and glue. The students were quick to organize a black market, usually trading in toys and trinkets brought from home. This unauthorized use of Mrs. King’s educational tools was tolerated but frowned upon. It wasn’t until an “Old Maid” gambling ring was discovered that King’s Bucks were declared to be no longer legal tender. I didn’t make that up, my best friend, Tom, told me about it; though my theory that the crackdown was the result of an elaborate sting operation involving a 10-year-old informant trying to have some demerit erased from their “Permanent Record” remains unproven. Afterward, the economics of the Coarsegold Elementary School 4th grade reverted to a barter system dealing mostly in good behavior and completed homework assignments. Either way, I was a very poor student.

Every day, when Danica comes home, she always has stories to tell. Amusing anecdotes from her fellow faculty members, funny things that her students said or did, moments of pride, times of embarrassment. One thing that I had not counted on, being married to a teacher, was how many memories of my own childhood would be brought to the surface as I learned about how modern elementary schools function and whenever I listened to Danica just telling me about her day.

I was told about one child during Danica’s student teaching who came to school and seemed to be distracted and upset. They were asked some questions in an attempt to figure out what was wrong but there were no helpful answers, then Danica simply asked, “Have you had anything to eat today?” That was the problem. The child was hungry. In a nation that throws away 141 trillion calories of food every year.

When I was a kid, my mother bought us the same frozen item to take to school for lunch every day. I can’t even bring myself to say what it was because the other kids made fun of me for it and used it as a cruel nickname for me. I begged my mother not to make me take it to school anymore but by then it was too late. I stopped taking lunch with me to school altogether… Mom never made our lunch for us. I would sit in the cafeteria with my classmates and eat nothing, wishing that I could have the school’s hot lunch like so many of the other kids but I didn’t know how to get it. It never occurred to me to ask anyone about how I would go about getting it. I was afraid to ask my parents for anything. It was easier just to be hungry. I’m sure that the teachers noticed but they never said anything. Not to me, nor to my parents—as far as I know.

The special attention that is given to the problem of bullying today makes me feel encouraged… and resentful. I’m glad to see that people are more willing to step-in when it comes to bullies and it pisses me off to think about how no one took it seriously when I was being bullied as a kid. The fact that bullying used to be addressed as a disciplinary problem and not a behavioral one meant that I was often made to share the responsibility of incidents that came to the attention of teachers. It didn’t matter to them that a smaller child was being attacked by a larger or older child, if the smaller one tried to defend themselves then they were just as bad as the other student because they were both fighting. I even tried not fighting back, but feelings of fear and anxiety over what sort of torment I would face during the day would take its toll on me in other ways that my teachers seemed to assume was just a problem with me and not the other students’ abusive behavior toward me. The emotional, psychological and physical abuse that I endured at home meant that the only respite I had from any torment was during the walk to and from the school bus stop.

Sometimes, when Danica expresses frustration with particular students that wouldn’t do their homework, turned in assignments obviously completed by their parents or could always be counted on to be distractions in class, I’d feel like I was nine years old again. I remember those students from my youth very well… because that was the sort of student that I was.
That was me, on the far left... leaning in...
Wishing I didn't feel like an outsider.
Hearing Danica’s frustration about some student or another, all I could think was how I most likely had that same effect on my teachers. I imagined my 3rd Grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, and Mrs. King going home and venting to Mr. Hansen and Mr. King about me for the same reasons: “I don’t know what to do about Joe. He’s always talking in class, he doesn’t do his homework…”

Another frustration for Danica—and most other teachers, I presume—is the obvious indifference shown by some parents, especially those who will only intervene if serious problems present themselves. That’s what my parents were like. I remember getting slips of paper to take home to them, inviting them to PTA meetings or bearing some other item of potential interest to involved parents and I would throw them in the trash on my way out of the classroom because I knew that my parents just didn’t care about those things—my sister got the same slips of paper but I don’t know if they made it home through her either. I remember being asked by a substitute teacher or a teaching assistant why I was throwing away the slip and telling them why. I don’t recall their reaction. Of course, there was nothing I dreaded more than having to take something home that needed to be returned with a parent’s signature. Rarely was it anything that I felt good about presenting to my mom or dad. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I remember one form—of a punitive nature—that actually included a clipart image of a child, hanging their head in shame with a tear in their eye, right next to the line where it had to be signed.

I have a vivid memory of a phone call with Mrs. Hansen. My mother was on one phone in the house and I was asked to be on another phone in a separate room, listening to them talk about how difficult it was to teach me. How my teacher tried to organize a classroom schedule that she hoped would work for me and implemented it for the entire class so I wouldn’t feel isolated. It didn’t work and my teacher didn’t know what else to do, except to call our house and talk to me and my mother on the phone. As I continued to hold the telephone receiver to my ear, listening to my teacher’s frustration and my mother’s anger, I started to cry. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think to hang up and leave because all I knew in that moment was that I had to stay on that phone, I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, and both my teacher and my parents were disappointed in me and were at a loss for what else to do. I had no idea what I was supposed to say, I didn’t know what sort of contribution I was expected to make to the conversation, all I could do was listen to the most important adults in my life talk about me and express their disapproval and frustration with me, then ask, “What do you have to say, Joe?” And all I could do was cry. I don’t remember what happened after that. Like so much of my youth, I’ve repressed it.

At the end of one school year, Mrs. King wrote certificates for all of the students in the class to commemorate their accomplishments for the year. She couldn’t think of anything that I had accomplished but she didn’t want me to be left out. All the kids in the class laughed and I smiled, proudly holding my certificate with absolutely no idea that they were laughing AT me. That afternoon, I took home a certificate that read, “Most Challenging.”

At one point, my Mom informed me that she was told—by Mrs. King—that the only reason I didn’t have to repeat a grade was that my teacher felt sorry for me. What’s a boy supposed to do with a revelation like that—from their own mother, of all people?

Years later, Mom decided to pursue a career in teaching. It wasn’t until she was studying various learning disabilities that she recognized certain patterns in my behavior as a child. But it’s not as though such issues were unheard of when I was going to school in the 80s. I later learned that one of my older siblings had been diagnosed and treated for the same problem, but all I got was guilt-trips, groundings and periodic physical beatings from my mother when she felt that she had run out of options to correct my behavior.

Not an ancient insect trapped in amber...
Just a modern mosquito in some UV resin.
I’ve told Danica all about my experiences growing up and how her anecdotes have effected me—we keep nothing from each other and she has been very understanding—but I don’t want her to not tell me about her day. Despite how difficult writing this has been—with a need to take long breaks of several days between painful recollections—it also feels necessary for me and I think it has helped me to put things into perspective so that I can continue to be a dependable resource in Danica’s teaching efforts, so she knows that she can come to me at any time with a request to update a worksheet in photoshop or to make some sort of teaching tool or experiment to share with her students.

I have said to Danica—only partly in jest—that I sometimes feel as though the work that I’m doing to help her at school is a sort of penance for all the aggravation that I gave my elementary school teachers, especially Mrs. King.

I love my wife with all my heart and I’m so grateful to be able to help with the important work she does in ways that I truly enjoy. That her profession has managed to stir up some old and painful memories has turned out to have been a cathartic experience, reminding me that everything that I’ve been through has helped to form the person that I am today. Thankfully, I’ve come to believe that the person that I’ve evolved into is one that is good and worthy of love because I know that Danica loves me for who I am and not just for the things that I am able to do for her.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Honesty, truth, facts and family

It should be understood by the reader that these observations are not necessarily about any one person nor any particular family or group that isn't specifically identified. The behaviors described herein have been exhibited by just about every member of the human race at one time or another for millennia. If one identifies with any unflattering descriptions contained in this essay, they are invited to remember that they are not alone and identifying a problematic behavior is the first step in changing it.

(Please note the addendum at end of this essay, revised on December 27, 2018)

Al-Anon Logo
© Al-Anon Family Groups, Inc.
I used to attend Al-Anon meetings. That’s the 12-step program for friends and family of Alcoholics—or people with any addiction, really. At the time, I didn’t really know any addicts but I did spend a lot of time with professional artists and they tend to share many of the same “crazy-making” traits as your typical drunk, junkie or tweaker. I’m serious. Read, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. She’ll tell you.

Al-Anon invites its participants to implement the same 12-steps in their own lives that recovering addicts can use. It’s not uncommon for a person to attend their first Al-Anon meeting hoping that they’ll learn how to cure the addict in their life, only to have those hopes dashed by the news that they can’t make an addict do anything that the addict doesn’t want to do.

Encouraging friends and family to embrace the same 12-steps is not about trying to set an example for their addicted loved-one, it’s about helping them to understand that despite not abusing drugs or alcohol or engaging in other obvious self-destructive behaviors, they’re just as addicted. However, instead of being hooked on a substance, they’re hooked on people; specifically, the addicts in their lives. They learn about concepts like “enabling” and “co-dependency” and they can discover—by working the Steps—that the tools of recovery can help them as well.

Recovery programs are very fond of aphorisms and acronyms.
(CC BY-SA 2.0) andrey lunin
“One day at a time.”

‘No.’ is a complete sentence.”

“Keep coming back, it works…”

F.E.A.R.False Evidence Appearing Real.”

G.O.D.Good, Orderly Direction.”

P.U.S.H.Pray Until Something Happens.”

T.E.A.M.Together, Everyone Achieves More.”

S.O.B.E.R.Son Of a Bitch, Everything’s Real.”
(n.b., Gary Busey coined none of these.)
One axiom that really stuck with me is, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”

Within the context of addiction, it can relate to how alcoholics and other addicts do everything they can to hide their drinking or habits but I think it applies to everyone in terms of the harm that can come with trying to conceal truths about ourselves from other people, especially those we are closest to.

Within a family dynamic, being needlessly secretive—about anything—has the potential to cause a great deal of stress and anxiety; oftentimes more so for other members of the family than for the individual(s) keeping the secret(s).

Honesty is very important to me… I’m even willing to concede that—to me—its importance may be to a fault.

Honesty is more than just being factual. Honesty goes beyond just telling the truth. Honesty incorporates trust, loyalty, objectivity and respect. Honesty can even be considered an expression of love.

I don’t like to be out of the loop. That doesn’t mean that I feel like I need to know everything about everybody at all times but if it’s a matter that even tangentially concerns me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to be aware of it—and awareness of a matter doesn’t even mean having every little detail.

I’ve been in relationships—professional, interpersonal and familial—where people confused being factual with being honest. This confusion almost always resulted in hurt feelings and strained—if not completely devastated—relationships.

We have all heard the phrase, “Everything that I said was true.” But a true statement—spoken in isolation and apart from other accounts or evidence that are equally “true”—can be perceived as deceptive within a broader, more objective context.

Honesty isn’t just about being truthful in what we say, it’s also about not withholding relevant and important truths.

Being honest does not mean volunteering information. Nor does it mean relinquishing one’s right to privacy. Every single day, most people have to navigate the world by deciding what truths we share based on whether or not they’re appropriate or pertinent to the current situation. We sometimes have to consider whether revealing one truth in the present will have repercussions in the future and—if so—ask ourselves if we are willing to accept them or not and hopefully understand why.
A reasonably innocuous example of choosing what to share and when (a TL;DR response to this section would be completely understandable): 
When applying for or renewing a drivers license in the state of Utah, the application states: “Applicants who apply for or hold a license are responsible to report physical or mental health conditions…” Among several other health-related questions, the application asks, “Do you have a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, severe anxiety, or severe depression?” 
Mental illness carries with it a stigma in society. In an effort to remove the stigma, many people choose to be honest about their mental health and the steps they take to maintain it. In the interest of trying to do their part to help society progress to a point where negative attitudes toward mental illness are a thing of the past, one might respond to the above question in the affirmative. 
Also written on the application—in smaller, albeit bold type—but only after the “YES/NO” selection of responses to the “health conditions” query, is the following admonition: 
“Answering yes to any of the above questions may result in your receiving a request for additional follow-up information.” 
The application does not say that the follow-up information is in the form of a blank “FUNCTIONAL ABILITY EVALUATION MEDICAL REPORT” which has to be filled out by at least one state-licensed healthcare professional. It should also be noted that it is NOT a one-time request. A licensed driver that chooses to be candid about a health condition on their application can expect to receive a new copy of that blank form every year which they are required to have filled out by the aforementioned medical professional(s) within a specific period of time, otherwise their drivers license will be revoked. 
One could say that the drivers license application is not written honestly. It does state that additional information may be requested because of a “yes” answer so there certainly was no concealment. However, while no one is required to read the application in its entirety prior filling it out, most people are going to read it as they fill it out so placing that caveat after the relevant questions—again, in smaller, albeit bold type—makes it more likely to be overlooked as applicants will simply want to get to the next portion of the form and be done with it. If the proviso was included with the instructions for that section ahead of the questions themselves, applicants might give the questions and their answers some more thought. 
The application asks, “Do you have a mental health condition…?”
It does not ask if the applicant has been diagnosed with anything—to say nothing if the diagnosis was made by a licensed physician or just inferred from an article on the internet. 
Even if the applicant does, in fact, have a clinical diagnosis for anxiety or depression—diagnoses with a plethora of variants and associated symptoms—they can determine for themselves whether or not it can be considered “severe” enough to impact their ability to drive warranting an affirmative or negative response to the query. 
A person can be clinically depressed, take prescribed medication and/or participate in therapy to manage their illness while also being generally functional and able to do things like drive an automobile. When all such factors are considered, that person can honestly say, “I do have a mental health condition, colloquially understood to be ‘depression,’ but I would not call it ‘severe.’” They can then respond to the application’s mental health question truthfully in the negative. The fact that such an answer will also spare them the bureaucratic frustration that is taking time out of one’s day every year to get a form filled out by a specialist just so their license won’t be revoked is also very useful information to know beforehand.

Years ago, when I was still single, I was asked by a close and trustworthy friend, “What’s the one thing that you’ve never told anybody? Your deepest, darkest secret?”

At first, I didn’t want to answer her question but she insisted and I eventually relented and I just told her.

She looked at me—without judgement—and said, “Me too.” She then proceeded to share with me her experiences related to that same secret which suddenly didn’t feel so deep and dark as it did before I opened up about it. At that moment I felt a little less lonely, understanding that most people carry something intangible that weighs us down. By acknowledging it, I felt free of it and knew from that moment on that I needed to be more honest with myself and others. Especially as I continued my own journey, keeping my eyes peeled for the person that I would eventually share that journey with.

After I first met the woman that would become my wife, we got together at a coffee shop to talk and just get to know each other better. At one point in our conversation, I felt that I needed to share some things about myself that I normally kept very guarded. I took a risk and just laid all my proverbial cards on the table. I told her my secrets, my most painful mistakes and poorest decisions. It was one of the most vulnerable positions that I had ever put myself in and I waited for her to stand up and leave… but she didn’t.

She saw what I was doing and how it made me feel. Most importantly, she knew that I wouldn’t have told her all of those things if I didn’t trust her—even though this was only our second date. Instead of leaving, she smiled at me and said, “I’m still here.” She then told me some things about herself that she wasn’t so proud of, reciprocating the trust that I had shown her.

For the entirety of our relationship, one of our mottos has become, “No secrets, just surprises.”

Not every relationship starts this way but many—the healthy ones, I think—do get to a place of trust where nothing is hidden and there are no earth-shattering revelations years down the road because honesty is deeply intertwined with the love of family.

Jesus "Jess" Puente
When I was growing up, I remember my Dad always saying that the most important thing is communication. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it. English was his second language, he was raised in a very different culture under incredibly harsh conditions—Civil War Spain—and suffered from what many in our family suspect, upon reflection, was post-traumatic stress.

He was rarely one to communicate his feelings verbally. When Dad got angry, something usually got broken. I recall my half-brother, Victor, joking about how whenever Dad visited their house—after his divorce from their mother—they knew that they would have to get a brand new set of dishes afterward.

I remember one of many times when my Dad was furious with me, kicking in the locked door to my bedroom—while I was inside, trying to hide from him… and watching him fix it later.

Maria C. Alvarez
My Mom—who was more educated and raised bilingual—was better at talking but was also physically abusive, perpetuating a generational pattern from her forebears. My sister, Christine, and I also noticed a pattern in the way Mom dealt with us. Chris and I discussed it in private and one day, without planning to—just seeing an opportunity and running with it—we repeated that same conversation, knowing that we were within earshot of Mom. It seemed to us that most of the time, one of us was the good kid and the other one was the bad kid and when Mom had enough of the bad kid, she’d just beat the hell out of them to get them to behave. The bad kid would then become a good kid but the kid who was good before would start screwing up and then they would become the bad kid… until Mom had enough and beat them back into obedience and the cycle would continue. We would later learn as adults that our older brothers from Mom's first marriage had similar experiences.

After that conversation, Mom didn’t beat us anymore, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have other emotional and psychological tools of abuse at her disposal. Her communication skills were better than Dad’s but she wasn’t always honest. She was very good at withholding information, affection and anything else she had control over in order to get what she wanted. Before her passing, she admitted to playing me and my Dad against each other.

Withholding information was practically a hallmark of our family. Sometimes done in fear of violent reactions from our parents, other times it was just a byproduct of the selfishness and narcissism that we grew up to believe was “normal” behavior. The phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind,” seems to ring true for many in our family—myself included. When we lived in Los Angeles, my brother Bob joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. Then, my brother Mark enlisted and after his initial training, he was able to get orders to be stationed in Southern California, not far from home. One day, after settling into his new duty station, Mark went to the house he used to live in and knocked on the door—intending to surprise his family—but the door was opened by a complete stranger: the new owner of the house. At some point after Mark had left for boot camp, Mom and Dad had decided to move to Central California but no one thought to tell him.

Patrick Little
As my siblings and I grew up, we also grew apart. The minimal communication we had growing up made it easy for us to just live our lives almost completely separated from each other. So much so that when my brother Patrick passed away, it was months before anyone else in our family was aware of it. Bob had gotten into the habit of periodically searching for Patrick’s name on the internet, hoping some information about him would come up. Eventually, it would be Pat's obituary.

Dad liked bragging to his friends about how his children were in four different corners of the continental U.S. At the time, my half-sister Adele was living in Alaska, my half-brothers Ed and Victor still lived in Los Angeles, Chris was living in Alabama and I was stationed in New England.

Mom, recognizing that most of her children lived nowhere near her, reasoned that it was because she had raised all of her children to be independent—though, in reality, if any competent social worker could witness her style of parenting, they would simply call it “neglect”—but that was the story she told herself and others.

Everyone tells stories in an effort to make sense of all the random—and not-so-random—things that happen in our lives.

When presented with only bits and pieces of information, we naturally tend to fill in the blanks in order to derive some meaning from it. Unfortunately, the details that we use to fill in the blank spaces are usually completely fabricated, usually just speculation and guesses derived from our own feelings and imaginations.

The author and his wife
Image by Red Bloom Photography
In the relationship that I share with my wife, we established early on the need to communicate to each other what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it so that the story we share is an honest one. If anything seems off, we try to check in with each other to figure out what it is that’s causing any tension. The fact that there is tension from time to time is a clear indicator of how difficult it can be to face problems head on but we have both learned that trying to ignore it or pretend that it isn’t there only feeds the tension, creates blank spaces and plot-holes in our story that could wind up being filled with details that just aren’t true.

In a family dynamic with grown children that don’t have as much regular contact with their parents and siblings—for any reason—being able to check in takes more effort. Regardless of the difficulty, it’s worth trying to overcome any hesitation to reach out, especially when misunderstandings and hurt feelings are involved.

If one member of the family says or does something that unintentionally hurts the feelings of another, the person who feels hurt needs to let the one who hurt them know how they feel and why. Confronting someone about how their words or actions resulted in personal pain is one of those most difficult things anyone can do. It’s our natural instinct to avoid confrontation, to avoid allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in the presence of someone else, to risk being hurt again. But when it comes to close-knit families, where periodically spending time with parents, siblings, cousins and in-laws is part of one’s regular routine, it’s healthier for everyone involved to address interpersonal conflicts directly and as soon as possible.

When we avoid talking about a potentially misunderstood statement, an action or inaction that has resulted in hurt feelings, we prevent ourselves from understanding the reasons behind it and we postpone any chance to heal from the experience. If we cut ourselves off from those who have hurt us without even telling them that they have caused us pain—or worse, assuming that they already know—their ignorance of what happened can look like indifference to our feelings.

By not confronting the person(s) that have caused us pain and not asking why they said or did something we have no way of accurately processing what happened. Our minds will never be content with just not knowing. We will fill in the blanks with something that might make sense to us but is most likely completely wrong. We can't help it. This false narrative—the story that we make up—will usually serve only to reinforce the hurt feelings we are experiencing and breed resentment toward the person that hurt us. And no matter how intense the pain is, if we don’t talk about it, no one else will know. The pain that they may have caused us may not even have been intentional but without confronting them about it and asking, “Why did you say that?” Or “Why did you do that?” we’re more likely to assume that it was done on purpose. We’ll wonder why and not knowing the answer to that question, we’ll fill in the blank with another story element that—again—might make sense but is still wrong like: “They did it because they hate me.” Then we wonder, “Why do they hate me?” and having no real answer, we’ll make one up to fill in the blank, eliciting more hurt feelings for thoughts that we can’t even know are real because we refuse to acknowledge our pain to those who may have caused it.
My late mother taught me—as a child no less—“Don’t ever assume. It makes an ASS out of U and ME.” She even did me the courtesy of writing it out on a little chalkboard that I had in my room. She was also prone to making a lot of assumptions.

Another human tendency is to form alliances, even within families. If someone feels emotionally wounded, they will want to talk about it with someone—it just isn’t usually the person who hurt them. They may approach another member of the family, not only for comfort but for help to understand why that other family member would hurt them. Of course, having not confronted the person who committed the offense, the only thing the wounded person can discuss is their perception of the events: the story that they’ve assembled in order to make sense of what happened—complete with inaccurate plot points to fill in the gaps of knowledge that they don’t have.

The introduction of a third party—even one in the same family—can be problematic when they’re only given knowledge of an incident limited to the perception of the wounded family member. There might also be social and/or geographical disconnects to consider. People grow, even within families, and yet, many get into a habit of looking right at a fully grown, mature and experienced sibling and still default to treating them or talking about them as we did when they were children or teenagers. We remember habits, personality traits and character flaws that they may have outgrown but we still assume that the siblings we know as adults are the same people they were as children when they are not.

The desire to avoid conflict, to maintain a peaceful atmosphere without directly addressing any action or event that has resulted in hurt feelings and misunderstandings, is impossible. Wounds cannot heal by pretending that they don’t exist. As I’ve written elsewhere:
“To deny the conflict, hurt feelings and tension that naturally arise between people...will only compound those feelings; and if someone is unwilling to acknowledge those issues openly they will manifest themselves in other ways like resentment, complaining, obstructionism, not expressing hostility or anger, i.e. passive-aggressive behavior.”
If the family is the fundamental unit of society and if we are truly striving to establish a Zion society, where members of a Zion society are described as being “…of one heart and one mind…” it has to start by embracing and living the ideals of Zion in our homes and with our families.

Many have heard the caveat to “avoid the appearance of evil," but I think it's often misinterpreted to mean “avoid the appearance of conflict” in order to maintain an illusion of Zion. The problem is that these aren't just appearances. They are real conflicts, which in and of themselves are nothing to be ashamed of—it's human nature—but by trying to avoid their appearance, it’s the same as just denying that they exist. A major problem with attempting to control outward appearances is the fact that Zion is not defined by its appearance. It's defined by intangible concepts of heart and mind.

It's not unheard of for families to look like they're getting along despite the fact that they have disagreements, conflicts and hurt feelings that aren’t being addressed but this behavior is dishonest and stands in the way of establishing a Zion society.

It's easy to say, "I'm not doing anything" when we're exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior. But avoiding conflict does not make it go away. Bottling up our negative feelings (heart) and not being open about what we're thinking (mind) when there are problems between family members can still affect those around us, sometimes in more detrimental and enduring ways than an actual confrontation. Ignoring the efforts of others to communicate—especially in an attempt to resolve an issue—is not inaction. To quote a popular meme, “No response is a response. And it’s a powerful one.”

It is possible to overcome these deleterious feelings and mindsets. Left unchecked, they can, at worst, tear families apart and, at best, maintain only superficial and insincere familial connections out of a sense of obligation or societal/cultural pressure to maintain an outward appearance of harmony—which takes a great deal more effort and emotional strain than actually being part of an honest, loving family.

We can move beyond these issues by acknowledging our discomfort and our ways of thinking. By being open about our feelings—including our pain—and addressing misunderstandings between each other with love and empathy, we can be better able to let painful feelings go. But the most important thing that we must understand is that we need to be willing to forgive those who have wronged us and, in turn, be willing to seek forgiveness from those that we have wronged.

Joseph L. Puente
Salt Lake City, Utah
December 6, 2018


I experienced something that I described in the fourth-to-the-last paragraph above:”

A family gathering that looked “…like they're getting along despite the fact that they [had] conflicts and hurt feelings that [weren’t] being addressed…”

I want it to be understood that the overall experience was not an unpleasant one. It was much more enjoyable than just about any family gathering from my youth—that is to say, those memories of family that I haven’t suppressed. I felt loved and appreciated. We laughed and generally had a good time together but at the end of the evening, I went home feeling like a liar, wondering if these conflicts will be addressed before the next family gathering, if at all.

I have some very strong feelings about this and I feel that I have to address them, even if it’s only in writing.

Being unable to read anyone’s thoughts other than my own, I can’t presume to know what was on everyone’s mind. That being said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the memory of the most recent family squabble presented itself in the minds of everyone in attendance at least once during the gathering, but no one acknowledged it, to say nothing of trying to reconcile it in an attempt to heal and to move on.

Everyone—myself included—remained silent about it. Without any preplanning or discussion—as if we all entered into a subconscious, telepathic contract—everyone instinctively knew to avoid certain topics, not to ask particular questions and to steer conversations clear of any subject that could be considered adjacent to those that might stir up any unpleasantness.

This was not a unique situation. It happens in practically every family, all around the world for as long as mates and their offspring have decided to stay in relatively close proximity to one another as they continued to live their lives.

It’s especially true when extended family members come together for holidays and other gatherings, ostensibly to celebrate the love that they have for one another while simultaneously bottling up resentments, hurt feelings, perceived slights and injustices; putting on fake smiles while secretly grinding away at hatchets that should have been buried a long time ago.

What strikes me as especially ironic is that I honestly think that others in attendance wanted to talk about it but we all chose not to—as per our subconscious, extrasensory covenant—because we didn’t want to ruin the “nice” time that we were all having… even if “nice” was really just a substitute adjective for “awkward.”

I want to believe that acknowledging the elephant in the room—ideally when its presence was made known long before this gathering—discussing it and working through it would have resulted in a genuinely nice time for everyone.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s too late to talk about it.

I think it should be. I strongly feel that it needs to be. I’m not one of those people to boycott participation in activities until I get what I want but having unresolved conflicts just floating out there—unaddressed and still periodically hurting feelings just by crossing someone’s mind—makes me feel like I’m being dishonest. Because, “…to look like [we’re] getting along despite the fact that [we] have disagreements, conflicts and hurt feelings that aren’t being addressed… is dishonest…”

The next time I go to a family gathering and there’s an unspoken expectation of silence for the sake of appearances, it’ll be no different than being greeted at the door with a sign that reads:

(Image by the Author)

Additional images courtesy of Stuart MilesSupertrooper and tuelekza at

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dream girl

One would hope that dreaming of one’s significant other would be a pleasant experience. That having your companion join you in your dream state would be a neat way for the two of you to connect and bond. Sure, you’re not actually sharing the dream but you can certainly talk about together in the morning.

I remember when my wife, Danica, and I first started dating, I didn’t dream about her. I kinda felt bad about this. I missed her when she wasn’t with me, I thought that maybe seeing her in my dreams would be a nice compromise until I could see her again in person. And if the dream happened to have a certain amorous nature, all the better.

Eventually, I did start to dream about Dani but those dreams were not pleasant at all. In my dreams, Danica—who is normally very open and communicative with me—would give me the silent treatment. I could sense that something was wrong but when I asked her to talk to make and tell me what was the matter, she would just ignore me. Few things are more painful for me to experience than to be ignored by someone that I care about (especially when something is wrong and I’m pretty sure that talking it out would at least clear the air if not solve the problem).

I was very disappointed that dreaming about the woman that I love seemed to be a negative experience. When I awoke, I told Danica about my dreams about “her” but I was also sure to tell her that I knew that the woman in my dreams (as I slept) was not the same person as the woman of my dreams (with whom I share my life). Needless to say, Dani was kind of distraught at the thought of me having bad dreams about her. As the dreams continued and dream-Danica, who I took to calling “Mean-Danica,” would mistreat me, I always reminded myself as soon as I woke up that the real Danica isn’t like that at all. My Danica isn’t mean. She’s sweet, kind, supportive and loving!

The night before I started writing this post, I had another dream about Mean-Danica. It started out pleasantly but as the dream progressed, we made our way through some sort of party and as we left and got into our car, she said something to the effect that she enjoyed making herself available to other party goers. She didn’t go into much detail about what that meant but I got the feeling that it wasn’t just making polite conversation (but it didn’t go so far that any clothing needed to be removed). Regardless, hearing her say this made me very uncomfortable and anxious. I told her that we needed to talk about it and perhaps establish some clear boundaries that I had assumed were already just there based on the fact that we’re married.

Mean-Danica slowly turned her head toward me and with this look of annoyance and condescension, gradually raised her hand between us, the back toward me, and extended her middle finger.

When I woke up, I told Dani that I had a run-in with Mean-Danica again.

“I don’t like Mean-Danica,” my wife stated.

I then shared a realization with her, “Mean-Danica does have a purpose.”

“What could that be?”

“She’s there to remind me of how wonderful the real Danica is.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Reaction to "Ender's Game"

When I saw "Ender's Game" in the theater it brought back a lot of memories and feelings from my days in the US Navy. Especially my experiences in bootcamp. It was kind of disturbing. However, as I watched the film I did remember one experience that I was particularly proud of and I'd like to share it here. This was written while I was still in the Navy toward the end of my enlistment...
     March 25 of 1998 marked my five-year-anniversary of being in the Navy. As I’ve prepared for the end of my active enlistment, I’ve been looking back at the last five years, trying to see what it is that I’ve accomplished in the Navy. Certainly a great deal of personal growth, though that’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to measure on an evaluation “brag sheet.” I can’t say that I’ve turned too many heads professionally either. Though I do sincerely try to be a professional when it comes to work, I can’t seem to suppress the urge to take an assignment and put my own little Puente spin on it. Such as writing movie reviews in lieu of division news reports or ending briefings with jokes instead of formal dismissals. When asked why I joined the Navy in the first place, I can honestly say that it was a decision based on reasons economical, educational, political and even philosophical. I needed a job, an education, proof to myself (and potential voters should I someday run for elected office) that I’m a patriot and... a strange need to understand conformity. Well, after five years of living and working in an environment where conformity is the rule in almost every aspect of our lives, I’ve come to the understanding that I know what conformity is and I’m really not all that impressed with it. Oh, sure, there are a few things I’ll take with me, but, for the most part, I need to go back into the real world and be as different as I possibly can because that’s the only way I’m going to accomplish the other things I’ve set out to do.

     If I had to look back at my military “career” and try to determine exactly when my finest hour was, I can’t say it was when I became a petty officer. I remember going through “Petty Officer Indoctrination” and being told that it was the first of two major events in any sailor’s career (along with becoming a chief). But anyone with drive, dedication and, in some cases, patience, can become a petty officer. Is it the ribbons I wear? Yeah, right. I’m lucky enough to join the Navy while there were still American troops in the Persian Gulf so I’ve “earned” the National Defense Ribbon. I happened to be stationed at a Naval Security Group Activity at the right time so I “earned” a Joint Meritorious Unit Award. I managed to last three years without going to Captain’s Mast (UCMJ Article 15)... That’s not counting how many times I was threatened with it, but it’s what’s on paper that counts, so I “earned” a Navy Good Conduct Medal. No, I have to say that in the last five years that I’ve been in the Navy, my finest hour was in Boot Camp. It wasn’t anything obvious, like graduating, though I’m glad I did. Actually, it was something that occurred in the briefest of moments. It happened while my company was being “cycled.”

     I don’t remember what it was. But we screwed up somehow. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was the first time that I didn’t let it get to me. Our Company Commanders decided to cycle us. Cycling is the act of performing calisthenics to within an inch of one’s life. And as if that wasn’t enough, other Company Commanders in the division were invited to join in. They threw everything in the book at us. Jumping jacks, eight count body builders, push-ups and sit-ups... but not ordinary sit-ups. They devised a sort of “Team Sit-up.” We all had to lock our legs together and formed a wave of human bodies. As the recruit to your left came down from his sit-up, you were going up. When you went down, the recruit to your right went up. There were probably eighty recruits on the floor. I imagine that, were we able to see ourselves (and actually do the exercise properly), we might have looked like some strange ciliated, two-toned blue, microorganism.

     Well, it didn’t take long for me to get winded. I was having a heck of a time on one particular set of sit-ups and I made the mistake of making eye contact with one of our visiting company commanders. He saw me struggling and, like a hyena going after its wounded prey, he walked right to me and bent down looking at me like a bug he was about to squash. And there I was, looking at him upside down as I struggled to get that next sit-up.

     “You better get up there, recruit!” he said.

     “I’m trying,” said I, struggling before him.

     “Well, I don’t think you’re trying hard enough!”

     From that moment, time seemed to stop–or at least slow down–so that I might comprehend what he had just said to me and formulate a response. In that instant, I knew exactly what he expected to hear. The words any struggling youth might utter in a time of stress like this one. The words, “I can’t.” True or not, they sounded pathetic and hopeless. And, quite frankly, I didnt want to give this man the pleasure. Somehow, he was enjoying this and I knew that I had to do something to take the fun out of it for him. It has never been my style to offer a conventional answer when an unconventional one will do. I looked straight into the eyes of this man and said, at the top of my lungs so that everyone in that compartment could hear it, “Then I’ll try harder!”

     The room literally fell silent. Few were aware of the exchange that had occurred, since most were occupied with their own efforts, but all were aware of my contribution to the little talk between myself and this senior petty officer. The look on his face was priceless and words could never do justice to the emotion that I could see in his persona. It was first a look of shock followed by one of utter disgust. He had no response to what I had said. If I had cried, “I can’t,” as he expected me to, I’m sure he could have come up with something. “It figures,” perhaps, or “Then what are you doing here?” But there simply was no comeback to “I’ll try harder.” So he did the only thing he could think of. He walked away... angry. I called his bluff and he knew it. In our war of words, though I was the one struggling on the floor even after he left, I had emerged the victor. And he knew that as well.

     And that was my finest hour.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Philip I (1998-2013)

One winter day I had planned on taking my dog, Philip, to my friend Sandy’s house. She’s his regular baby sitter. I put some of his dog food in a plastic container and loaded him into the car. I didn’t make it to Sandy’s and wound up just taking Phil with me to where I needed to go.

On our way home, we stopped at a grocery store. Standing outside the parking lot was a homeless man and his dog. He was holding a sign asking for loose change. I don’t usually give money to strangers on the streets. I’m not unsympathetic, I’m just limited with my own resources. I went into the grocery store and picked up some things I needed.

On my way out of the parking lot, I saw the man again and remembered the extra dog food I had packed for Phil. I stopped on the way out next to the man and his dog and opened my passenger side window.

“I don’t carry cash,” I said, honestly, “but I do have some extra dog food with me that your pooch can have.”

With a smile on his face, the homeless man said to me, “That’s even better than cash.” He took the food from me and said, “This will keep her warm and she keeps me warm.”

That night, my Philip was the hero. Though he’s always been my hero. Just by being in my life, Phil always made sure that I made my way outside to get some fresh air and sunlight. Even toward the end of his life, when he wasn’t able to tell me that he needed to go outside, I still made sure to take him out and spend time with him laying in the grass and getting some sun.

I miss Philip. Whenever I was away from him, I missed him. When I took him to the vet that last time, I missed him even before we said goodbye. I missed the energy he used to have. His personality that shined through his canine complexion.

In the end, he was just tired and hurting and I had to make the difficult decision to help him let go. Now It’s my turn to let go.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Childhood flashbacks

This week I worked on a movie called "Dear Dumb Diary." I was a background player portraying a cafeteria worker. The set was dressed like a modern middle school cafeteria and it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories for me.

First—and this wasn't a bad memory, just a weird one—part of the film included an 80s flashback so I saw a bunch of kids wearing neon and crimped hair. I haven't seen that since I was those kids' age.

Then there were the signs about the school being a "bully free" zone and promoting friendship over bullying. I was bullied a lot when I was growing up and back then, no one seemed to care. Not even the teachers. I even recall being bullied by a substitute teacher once.

There was also the fact that the scenes we were shooting were in a cafeteria. Lunch time was a difficult time for me. My parents didn't seem to care if me and my sister ate or not. They didn't sign us up for school lunch, nor did they put much thought into having much for us to take to school with us. As a result, I didn't eat much during lunchtime. There was one time I recall in elementary school when I got to have a school lunch. I stepped away from my tray for a minute and when I came back, someone had chewed up something and spit it into my food.

I was grateful for the ability to work on this film but I didn't like the memories it brought up for me.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Romance novels

I read a romance novel last week. A friend of a friend wrote it. I don't think I read a romance novel since "The Bridges of Madison County."

This novel was more of an erotic romance novel. The love scenes were a but more detailed. I liked the story and loved the characters but being single, I found myself kind of annoyed.

Conclusion. A lonely person like me shouldn't read romance novels.