Tuesday, July 7, 2009

stages of life

One thing that i have been thinking a lot about the last few days- and something i have thought a lot about over time - is the stages that we go through in our life. I know that the psychologist Erikson went into detail on some of these stages (more on this in a moment)- but i've been thinking about them in terms of my own life- and especially in relation to this film.

About 10 years ago I tried to work with my father on a book about parent child relationships that focused on helping adult children and their parents transition from a strictly parent -child relationship to one that was a bit more peer based- one that relied on mutual respect and moved away from sticking to the roles that had developed over time.

My father was extremely cynical, and it's something that I picked up as well. That cynicism clouds my view of both authority and religion. While I did grow up aware of jewishness as a cultural concept I had very little connection to the religious aspect. There was a dearth of ritual in our household. My mother liked to try to embrace certain rituals like Hanukah, but my father's dismissal of these issues, while subtle, was powerful. I must have had an innate curiosity about ritual as I ended up taking enough religious studies classes in College to make it my major without even meaning to. I was fascinated by the way different people and different cultures structured their lives, yet I still have trouble grounding myself to this day.

I regret that I too am bringing my children up without a strong sense of tradition or history. I wish that I had more of an ability to embrace these things, and I think a lot about it, but I'm not so sure how to go about it. i went to college without clear goals beyond simply learning as much as I could- which was great in many respects, but didn't really prepare me for life. I imagine that the process helped me to understand that the lack of ritual in my life had made it difficult for me to move forward in some ways.

When I was in my 20's I struggled with my father a great deal. I loved and respected him- and we talked on the phone a few times a week. While on some level he respected my desire to live a creative life, it also made him uncomfortable. He had a rebellious streak yet he had managed to work within the university system and spent many years as the head of the psychology department where he taught. He couldn't see me as a musician, and even if he thought i was a good photographer he understood that being good at something was only part of the equation. He knew that if I wanted to work as a photographer i would have to play the game so to speak. The trouble was that even if I had wanted to, i was terrible at it. if i made a portfolio i would sabotage it by not paying attention to details- or rebelling against the expected details. If I got a photo job i would wilt under the pressure- often times i would try to be too conventional- or try to do it the "right way" and screw it up- because I didn't know how to do it the right way. When I followed my instincts I made great work- unfortunately there wasn't always a market for that work. On one level i didn't want any part of that market, and in fact completely rebelled against it.

As a parent myself now, I can understand my father's desire to steer me towards stability. At the same time he tended to do it with sidelong comments that stung. As and example, he would end most of our conversations with "write when you get work". In some ways i understood it to be a riff on the way that my grandmother always ended every conversation with "well that's the story there". On another level though it was a reminder that i didn't have "real work" or a real career path. Sometimes I reacted with anger, sometimes i could ignore it, and sometimes it would leave me depressed for days. Other times i would calmly and patiently describe why I found the comment so hurtful. To his credit he would listen and understand. However, the next week he would do it again.

Through the process of discussing this little tic of his i worked hard to have empathy for him, to see him as someone other than "my father" and also worked to help him understand that i wasn't the same person that I was at 10, 15, or even 20. Over time we worked through some of the issues and had a much stronger relationship because of it. At some point i suggested that we work together on a book about the process of transitioning to a more complex relationship. One of the most important parts of the process was that both the parent and the child had to be committed to making the change together. In reality it was complex unwinding of unconscious behaviors and we felt that a book could be a useful tool for both parties.

I envisioned something that was light and easy to read and while he agreed with that approach he found it hard to let go of his academic identity. I found his prose stiff and off-putting, filled with references to people like the above mentioned, Erikson that would make sense to psych majors but might be difficult for the average reader to wade through. After an initial burst of creative energy our efforts faltered. I was a bit upset at the time but realized it was best to let it go.

At a memorial service for him when he passed away, a former student of his approached me with a folder. My father had asked her to type up his notes for our book, and she still had the original papers. She told me that he had been extremely excited about the idea and hadn't heard that we'd dropped the project. I still think I might try to write that book someday. Thankfully I have his notes and can see him as the co-author.

This brings me back to the idea of stages of life. i imagine that for the first decade of ones life in our society we identify as a child. For most of us the next decade is where we self identify as a student. The next decade is where i think we tend to go off in a myriad of directions. In my early to mid 20's i was a musician/photographer/filmmaker/struggling artist. After that I became simply a filmmaker and father. The second half of my 30's was even more father than filmmaker. In fact for the last few years i would say that I have felt more like a father than anything else. With my older daughter having turned 7 and my younger daughter 3, I feel like I am starting to move past this and back into the mode of filmmaker. The lines between these stages are very fluid but at some point i think we can all look back and find areas of transition and areas of solidness between those transitions.

When we are young we often have a strong idealistic streak. it's been refreshing to spend time with Alana and her friend Brian. They hitchhiked and hopped trains from New Orleans to NY via Nashville, Chicago, etc. They busk (play music, juggle, etc) on the subways and in the streets to make a few bucks for lunch. Alana has played her heart out to under 10 people at both of the shows I've attended - but made a few bucks selling cd's. Spending time with her I can easily reconnect to the sense of myself as a 20 something musician. While my band mates and I certainly wanted to make money at what we did, the idea of playing music with the goal of making money was anathema to us. The music world that we were a part of wasn't about fame or fortune, but at the same time it was cliquish and self referential. For almost a decade it was my world/ community. I am still in touch with a lot of the people that i knew but with kids one tends to spend a lot of time with people that also have kids.

Last week we were out of town visiting my mother. it was one of the better visits we've had since my father passed away. We both try hard to work together but we clash a lot. My mother has been working on her mindfullness and it was clear that she's made progress. She kept trying to get my wife and i to go out by oursevles and leave the kids. We actually got to go out to dinner by ourselves twice. i kind of felt like i was pretending to be an adult but I could get a sense of having a life that included time independent of my children. I remember growing up that my parents went out to dinner almost every Saturday night. Somehow that still seems a long way off for us, but by the time it does happen on a regular basis, i will be on to another stage of life


  1. it's crazy reading your posts.
    I feel like I'm copying you in a strange echo.