Addicted to the Big Reveal

So this winter break I’ve become really interested — okay addicted — to an HGTV show called Fixer Upper. Despite this show, and this network really, being responsible for my wife and me thinking we could buy a building (and then we did) I still love this show. And what’s not to love?

There’s the typical goofy husband / beautiful wife combo who work with clients to make their dream homes become reality. There’s some silliness during construction, a peek at the Gaines’ growing family and their animals at Magnolia Farms. It’s great.

What I especially love is that Big Reveal at the end. Ooh, I just friggin’ love it!!! The couple is nervously laughing and their shoulders are all tense, or they’re grabbing one another’s hands in anticipation, and Joanna or Chip ask, “Are you ready to see your fixer upper?” and the couple says “Yes!” and then the screens are pulled away and then someone shrieks with joy, or the couple hugs, or they exchange handshakes or hugs with Chip and Joanna. It’s the best, that moment of unveiling and sharing after such a long time of waiting and hoping and wishing and dreaming for the day.

I love the moment of the big reveal because energetically, spiritually even, it feels like a big moment of exchange, of following through with all your promises and giving it everything you had, of showcasing earnestness and honesty, of having every good intention fulfilled and put on display, of giving and healing — healing both the home owners and the home itself. It’s the final moment of taking someone’s trust (and money, of course) and turning it into a newness that was previously only imagined in the mind’s eye. The home, the place where our bodies and minds come to rest and where our energy is replenished, is made new. It’s just so… — I just love it.

And in some ways, New Year’s Eve feels like that, too. Tonight is the big reveal on the new year, on the start of 2018, something new and fresh. It’s like a backyard full of freshly fallen snow, and no one — not even a sparrow or a stray alley cat — has stepped foot on it yet. It’s blank, and the potential seems endless.

The tricky thing is what to do — and how to live — once we get that clean slate, that do-over, that moment of starting anew. I know I’ve had many Mondays where “this is the week that everything will go just the way I want it,” and of course it doesn’t — because life is a messy organism. And after one fail I wait for the next Monday, and it turns out that over the years I’ve spent a lot of time waiting to start over.

So I go into this new year focusing on the big themes I want to heal and make new — no, not make new — just see and live in a new way. Because we all have lives that are just like these fixer uppers — the bones are good and the potential is there, we just have to see it in ourselves and then lovingly, day after day, choose the path that creates change and fulfillment — one little Big Reveal at a time.

Christmas Shopping & Gender

This past Friday I was about 1% prepared for Christmas in all of the possible ways:  no gifts purchased, no decorations hung, no cards written, no cookies baked. But it was on the list of things to do for Saturday and my wife and I really got it done. At some point I just decided that this year all the adults were getting socks and all the kids were getting books, so I think that helped. Sorry, family members, if you’re reading this. Maybe I should’ve put a spoiler alert at the top for you. Either way, let’s move on.

Besides the socks and books, my wife and I did some other in-person shopping and as we zigzagged between the boys’ and girls’ clothing sections the contrasts were pretty stark. Thankfully a boy I was shopping for only needed clothes in navy and hunter green — but if he had wanted anything in an even slightly peppier hue, it would have been a challenge. At one point I stood in the tiled aisle facing in towards the clothing racks, boys’ side on my right and girls’ side on my left. The girls’ side looked like a a balloon had just popped and as many sparkles and frills as you could imagine rained down in colors like pink, soft purple, white and yellow. Since it’s Christmastime, there was also a good mix of red, green, and black, but when my eyes moved over to the boys’ side, it was like all the color had been leached out. Gray, navy, hunter green, black, more gray, a few spots of white and royal blue. That’s it.

And what does this tell our boys and men? Because it’s the same thing when I walked the women’s and men’s sections, if not even more pronounced. Women’s racks were strewn with dresses that looked like silver and gold disco balls and the men’s racks had black, gray, blue, dark green, more gray. Just looking at color, and not even more detailed things like fit or design, to me it looks like boys and men aren’t supposed to have any fun. They’re not supposed to see their bodies and their clothes as a way to express themselves, to be viewed in a decorative or showy way, to play with color, pattern, or texture.

To me this small detail, a wardrobe drained of color, portends that men cannot have — are not culturally allowed to have or are not “supposed” to have — a relationship with their own sensuality. Think about it — when you picture a “bachelor pad” in your mind, what do you see? Over the years in person and in media I’ve mostly seen hyper-minimal looks, lots of black, white, gray, and stainless steel, maybe some raw or dark wood, maybe some sports memorabilia. Colors are often bland and dark. It’s often feels hard and in many ways lifeless. Sometimes even a bit cold and empty.

And what does male clothing or home styling have to do with anything? Well, we’re having this national “moment” about men and their bad behavior towards women — not all men, but enough men towards enough women that it’s made its way into many of our daily conversations. It makes me wonder:  if these men, who were once boys, had been allowed to get in touch with the full range of their sensuality by playing with color in something as mundane as their clothing, what would have happened — what could have happened?

If men had had the chance, the permission, to wear yellow, orange, purple — gasp! pink! — what would that have felt like? Would it have sparked a change, a tiny shift, into asking the simple question:  What else? What else can I feel? What else can I experience? And what if the what else didn’t end with color and clothing, but with putting aside other hyper-masculine attributes to explore something else, another side of who they are and another way of being in the world? What if they asked what else when it came to expressing affection? What if they asked what else when they wanted to express sexual desire? What if they asked what else — how else can I deal with this — when they felt sad, lonely, rejected, isolated, unattractive, unwanted?

Because beyond being male, each individual person, regardless of sex or gender, is so much more — and there is always something else, something more to explore, something more to see, another shade or angle to experience.

And if you’re a man or identify as male, it’s very likely that if you’re like most of the men I know:  you haven’t had a chance to explore your sensuality, your creativity, your way of being in the world that isn’t highly dictated by very strict masculine norms. And what a thing — to miss out on all the shades of life. How dull. How boring. How gray.

How do we solve a problem like Ms. Coughlan?

The public schools in Chicago are going into their fifteenth or sixteenth week of school, and I’ve been feeling a little behind. Some of it absolutely has to do with buying a building, moving, and becoming a landlord (landlady? landperson?). The bigness of a move and the shift from being a renter to an owner is a much bigger deal than I initially realized. But something’s been off beyond that. And it has to do with how much time I’ve been spending on my students’ parents.

Yes, you read that right. Not the students, but their parents. And honestly, it’s not all the kids’ parents. Really it’s one set of parents who are very, very intense. And I’d say calling them intense is nice. Because I think — were I in another profession — it would be called harassment. I mean, would you be emailing your doctor or attorney — or hell — your handy man or car mechanic on a daily basis, questioning their every move despite their regular updates? And then regardless of their responses, would you then go to their bosses — behind their backs — to complain about how they’re not doing their job?

But let’s rewind. How has it gotten to this level? Well, without going into too much identity-revealing detail about the child, it essentially has to do with the parents — on a fundamental level — disrespecting me and living in a deep level of denial. You see, early on in the year, probably around week four or five of school, I reached out to the parents, expressed some observations and concerns, and presented a plan to support their child. The parents agreed, said it was a great plan and appreciated it so much, please move forward. Then when I clarified my plan with my administrators I realized that I had skipped an important step in the support process, and so I had to reach out to the parents again, let them know our support plan would be delayed about 10 school days, and then we could resume. Upon hearing that these supports were now more official — aka not off the books and not done “just between us” — they freaked out and refused the supports. Because — obviously — Harvard and Yale and Northwestern are all monitoring third graders’ support plans.

So, I complied with their wishes and never implemented the plan. However, their child continued to exhibit the same concerns, and the child has continued to free fall. And here we are:  the child has an F in a core class and Cs in the other two. And it’s all my fault.

And as this whole exhausting, distracting, unnecessary fiasco has proceeded I began to lose myself in the drama and the conflict. I also started to hypercritically monitor myself and question my every move. It got to the point where I had to ask my colleagues if what I was doing in my classroom was even teaching. The voices of criticism and self-doubt, and the shrill demands of these overly protective, overly demanding parents got that strong.

I’ve been working in the field for 11 years and I’ve been teaching third grade specifically for 7 years now, but I don’t think that I’m on autopilot by any means. I don’t shy away from questioning myself, consulting with other teachers, listening to parents’ concerns, or making changes to my routines and methods. But the place I got to — doubting myself on a fundamental level — was unwarranted because I wasn’t doing anything wrong. If anything, I had done everything right and I’d been doing a damn good job the whole time, and was wasting my precious time on a set of parents who weren’t showing me respect as a professional or even as a person. Granted, their passive-aggressive tactics show they’re acting from a place of fear and denial and I feel for them in that sense, but I have to draw a line somewhere. I’m not going to let someone’s fear of their child “needing support” take over my professional life and throw my teaching into a tailspin — at least, not anymore.

So we’re scheduled to meet next week to discuss, well, whatever it is they need to discuss. Again. Thankfully there will be someone there mediating. But I’d like to leave you with a few tips to live by, especially if you’re a parent of school-age kids. I  mean to share this with the utmost care and respect, so please read on with an open mind.

Tips for dealing with “difficult” teachers:

  1. Remember that this teacher is responsible for your child as well as up to 30 other children. The teacher has to make sure all children are learning, and it can be a difficult task to keep track of 30 lives simultaneously and for multiple consecutive hours. Please recognize this is hard, and they’re doing their best.
  2. Remember that this teacher is not any other teacher your child has had before. Their previous grade level is over, and with a new grade level come new challenges and higher expectations. Your child may need some time adjusting to these changes. Good thing you’re there to help them!
  3. Remember that even though the teacher is responsible for your child’s learning, it’s never too early to teach your child strategies for self-advocating. Ask your child about the class procedures for getting teacher help. It may be as simple as raising their hand or asking a neighbor. Also, simple phrases like, “Can you please help me with this?” and “I’m not sure what to do, can you help me?” are music to most teachers’ ears. Encourage your child to be a risk-taker and ask for help.
  4. If you notice that your child is uncertain about what to do on homework assignments or looks confident and then fills out everything wrong, remember that you can ask the teacher for support and clarification. Asking sooner rather than later is everything. 
  5. Remember if your child’s teacher is telling you about ways your child is struggling, they have no ulterior motives — other than to share information with you and find some ways to work together. Even if your child never acts the way the teacher describes at home, school life and home life can be very different in the child’s eyes, and what the teacher is saying is mostly likely true. Please take the teacher’s feedback in good faith.
  6. Remember that teachers want solutions, not problems. No teacher wakes up in the morning planning ways for their students to fail or struggle. It’s quite the opposite. Teachers are driven and impassioned by their students’ success and growth. Nothing makes a teacher happier than seeing their students happy, growing, and learning. Those are the moments teachers live for. 

Taking Things Apart

About two weeks ago, I came home from work to see my mom and wife preparing to take apart the pipes under the kitchen sink. The sink had been draining slowly for a few days and she had decided to call my mom, who knows a few things about home maintenance and repair, so that she could learn to do it herself. Three hours later, after a trip to the hardware store and a few breaks to just stare at the mess we’d made, the sink was put back together and draining just like it should. The process, though, was very uncomfortable for me. Partially because I didn’t know that The Kitchen Sink Project was going to happen, and partially because I feel very uncomfortable with taking things apart and making a mess.

In part some of my discomfort — that borders on dread — stems from my upbringing. And what better way to get to know myself and my childhood hardwiring than to throw myself into new or uncomfortable situations? My mom liked a very orderly, neat and clean house. And I don’t blame her:  she was a single mom with two kids and she had to go to whatever lengths she could to make sure we were clean, clothed, fed, and educated. As a result, keeping a tight schedule and an orderly home was the cornerstone of my childhood. Neat and orderly is generally a good thing, but sometimes there can be too much of it.

I remember as a kid, probably around 10 or 12, I felt inspired to draw, so went to take out some art materials. I opened up the cabinet and reached for the little plastic watercoloring set that we had had for years, but at the thought of having to control and then clean up the mess, I stopped myself. Rather than deal with the burdens of mess and clean up, I chose to avoid it. I chose to do something else instead. And that wasn’t the only time. As I grew up if I could do something cleaner, tighter, more contained, I chose that option. I systematically began to avoid messes, experimenting with materials, taking things apart, getting dirty.


Odds and ends from the tool closet.

The philosophy of staying need, tidy, and contained continued at school, too. When it came to those typically messier, more hands-on subjects like art or science, my teachers trotted out the easiest possible options. Paper and pencil drawings in art, maybe occasionally something like paper mosaics with construction paper and glue. And for a real treat, drawing with oil pastels or chalk on paper. In science, work mostly revolved around textbooks — books we couldn’t even take home to read, because in middle school there was a set of 30 for about 90 of us. In fifth grade I got to dissect an owl pellet, but I think my teacher only got five or six, so we had to share in groups of five or six. For me as a student, explorations meant looking on from a safe distance — from behind glass at a museum, by looking over my grandpa’s shoulder at his workbench, by wondering in my head and just leaving it at that. Maybe sometimes I’d look it up in a book.

And what does this mean? In part I see that it makes me really aware as a homeowner that I am uncomfortable with fixing things, with taking things apart, and making them work again. I’m afraid to make a mess. Partially because there’s the nuisance of cleaning up afterwards, but also because I’ve never really dealt with this kind of mess before. I haven’t had the chance to explore under someone else’s guidance. And as far as the house is concerned, I’m both child and adult as I begin this process of learning. I’m leaning how things work, I’m pushing myself to explore pieces and parts of the house and how things go together, I’m trying to build the belief in myself that if I take something apart I will have the know-how to put it back together again.

That experience with the sink was small, but empowering. With some perseverance, a little willingness to experiment, some coaching from my mom and encouragement from my wife, I did it — actually my wife and I did it. And afterwards I felt that click in my head, that particular part of my body and brain turn on and get excited. I felt the rush of doing something real for myself and my house. And as a teacher it made me want to bring that rush of excitement, that kind of learning experience, to my students.


My grandpa’s tool, now mine.

Because truly, how often do they get to explore and play — and with something that can eventually become real and meaningful? Culturally I see that there’s a push for kids to be “college and career ready.” And as a teacher I believe in education. Of course. But the obsession with college and “good jobs” is, frankly, bullshit. We see that the most recent generation of young adults is deep in college loan debt, to the point of being paralyzed by it. And in many cases, I see that people don’t know how to do. Generally speaking, we don’t cook for ourselves very much, we don’t fix things for ourselves, we don’t make or manufacture things for ourselves. Because — didn’t you know? — that’s someone else’s job. Somewhere along the line of pushing our children to be college and career ready we began devaluing and distancing ourselves from the valuable work of taking things apart, fixing things, and making them work again. Which to me is one of the most real things a person can do. It’s a tangible example of our realness and our power in the world outside ourselves.

And as I get of taste of my own realness, my own power to fix and make things, I see that I’m starting to question things. I’m asking, how does this work? How is this put together? Why does it work like this? Is there some way to make this better? Where does this come from? Can I fix this? What can I do to change this? And if I’m asking these questions after fixing one little ole sink, what kind of questions would our kids start to ask themselves when they have a taste of a something similar?

And if I see that I have the power to question, to take things apart, to get messy, to put things back together in a way that makes them better — and to clean up the mess, too — then I see that I can be powerful in other ways, too. And when “powerful people” want to tell me that they’re right and I should fall in line, I can stand in the knowledge of my own power and push back. I know that I don’t have to avoid taking things apart or to making a mess. I know now that I have the power to fix it. And I want the same confident stance for my students and for the future adults of our planet.


An assortment of inherited and newly purchased tools: vise grip, wrench, pliers.

There is beauty and power in being real, in being here  and doing things that are visible and tangible, things that concretely alter and improve the landscape of our lives. So let’s take things apart — from the humblest kitchen sink to the way we view ourselves and our places in the world. Let’s get messy and work on it together.