Imagine a Future

© 2007 Brooke Allen

Being a dad wasn’t working out as I’d hoped.

I grew up on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”.

Our home was more like “The Simpson”s or “Married With Children”.

That January I found myself on an airplane sitting next to a woman who is a psychologist and an expert on rearing children. I asked her for advice on how to be a better dad.

We talked for hours and she had many sensible suggestions. As we approached Kennedy Airport, she said, “Well, there really isn’t time left to get into much depth, so let me ask you a simple question.”

“Sure.”

“Can you imagine you and your family in some idealized future setting?”

Alps1
The future I imagined with my sons in the Alps.

“Yes.” It wasn’t a hard question, “When I was in college I traveled around Europe on a rail pass by myself. On the one hand I wished that my parents had been with me as we explored things together. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that the experience would have actually been a pleasant one.”

“When we had our own children, it was my fantasy that we could be the kind of parents that our children would enjoy having with them on vacation. Right now the thought of spending time together is inconsistent with our concept of a vacation. I’m sure they find our company “no fun” as well. It seems like we spend our days making up rules and enforcing them. They resent all that we do for them. It seems likely I’ll have to give up on that fantasy.”

“That’s perfect,” said my traveling companion. “Imagine what the ideal rail trip would be like. Imagine all of you exploring new things together, sharing experiences, and enjoying each other’s company. Imagine what it would feel like.”

“OK.”

“Good. Have a concrete image in your mind of this trip and set it as a goal. Now don’t concentrate on where you will go, or what you will see, but rather on how you, and everyone else, will feel and how you will interact.”

“OK.”

“Now, as you go through your daily life, each time you are about to do something, think to yourself, ‘Is what I am about to do going to bring me closer to this goal?’ If it occurs to you that what you are about to do now might hurt your chances of reaching your goal, try something different instead.”

I took this to heart. Each time I was about to yell about homework, bath time, or bedtime, I thought again. We found better ways of motivating our children without the acrimony.

In the summer of 1998, less than three years after that plane trip, we planned a vacation in Europe. Other parents assumed we were going as a couple and offered to introduce us to the baby sitters they trusted with their children when they went away. Traveling with their children was inconsistent with their concept of a vacation.

EuroTrains1007
Eve and Glen on our imagined European trip..

But we wanted to see if we could make our vision a reality. We all remember that trip; we visited France, Italy, and Switzerland by rail pass. Eve and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute we spent with our children. They enjoyed their time with us.

I can attribute most of my disappointments as a parent to a failure to remember or apply the things I learned on that flight in 1996.

It is better to keep a goal in mind and make up rules along the way than to follow rules and lose sight of the goal.

Sublimation

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

“Granddad, something’s different.”

“What’s that?”

“I haven’t seen you smoking a cigar since we got here.”

“I quit a year ago.”

“Why? I thought you loved those things.”

“Nope. I hated them.”

This was puzzling. “If you hated them, then why did you smoke.”

“It started in the 1920’s. I was the head of the United Press office in Havana. The other men in the office told me that, since I was the highest paid man there, it was entirely appropriate, expected even, that I have a mistress.”

“When I told your grandmother that everyone thought I should have a mistress, she blew a gasket.”

“When she finally calmed down, she said, ‘I guess I have been too strict. I will allow you just one vice, but a mistress is out of the question.'”

“Since cigars were so cheap in Havana, I took up smoking.”

“You didn’t like cigars?”

“No. I hated those things.” He laughed, “I wanted a mistress.”

“So, why did you quit.”

“Anne told me that for my 80th birthday I could have a mistress, so I quit.”

That was interesting, “So, now do you have a mistress?”

“No. It is probably too late and I’m not really interested. But I’m sure glad to be done with those cigars.”
Find alternatives to doing the wrong thing.

Hobbies are good. Carcinogens are bad.

Shortness of Breath – Shortness of Time

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

In November of 1995, my father, Thomas J. Allen, Jr. was admitted to Kings Hospital in London, England complaining of shortness of breath.

I flew over to see him and he seemed in good spirits though he was having problem breathing. It could have been from the 438,425 cigarettes he’d smoked in his life.

I took the train from London to Cornwall to meet up with my Uncle at my grandparent’s flat in Truro. I arrived to find a message. My dad had taken a turn for the worse.

The next day I found him in an awful state.

Every breath was a struggle.

His hands shook; a terrible thing for a sculptor.

His fever was high.

He was in considerable pain.

He told me he wanted to die.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I did not want him to die.

I began to cry so I wrote him a letter.

I wrote that I felt he was facing a choice between life and death and I wanted him to choose life.

I wrote that it wasn’t time for him to die. He did not know his grandchildren. We hadn’t spent enough time together.

I told him that I wanted him to want to live and to become healthier than he had been before. My parents lived on the penthouse floor of an apartment building in Dulwich, South London. The elevator only went to the 8th floor and they would have to climb the last flight. He would rest after every step. When he got out, I wanted him to forsake the elevator and climb all nine stories.

You might think I was too demanding. He needed sympathy, not orders. Perhaps.

I did not think it was time for him to die yet.

My mother was more direct. She shook him and said, “If you die, I will never forgive you.”

He went into intensive care that day. His emphysema had developed into pneumonia. Before the doctors could get that under control he caught a drug resistant bacterial infection. Natural selection is hard at work in our hospitals.

He stayed in intensive care for five weeks before it ended.

I felt I hadn’t been paying enough attention and now I was afraid it was going to be too late.

It was all over when he was released from Kings in January, 1996. He was feeble and emaciated, but he was alive.

He needed to learn how to use his legs. Climbing the stairs became part of his therapy. He soon stopped using the elevator.
He needed to learn how to use his hands. When a contest was held to design the “Millennium Mark” for the year 2000, my dad won. For 12 months, every piece of precious jewelry in the United Kingdom was stamped with his design. He received a 2,000 pound check as the winner. He gave the check to Kings Hospital as a gift.

When my parents moved back to the United States, we crossed the Atlantic on the cruise ship Maasdam. We went right through hurricane Cindy. It was a lot of fun. You should try it if you get a chance.

Fifty-five foot waves went crashing over the decks; seventy-five mile an hour cross winds. It was a wonderful week. Hurray for stabilizers and healing tanks. We did not get seasick.

During the hurricane the ship’s swimming pool developed massive waves. The children loved that.

They loved spending time with their granddad and hearing his stories.

My folks lived with us in New Jersey for a little while before they moved to Seattle to be near my sister. The weather in Seattle is like the weather in London. The busses smell much better in Seattle than in London.

The cigarette tar in his lungs wasn’t going to go somewhere else. Things became real bad real slow. Increasingly, he needed to exert a conscious effort to breath. Sleep meant no air. Breathing meant no sleep.

My mom and my sister went to the movies and suddenly my dad died.

It was time.

Love the living. Live for those who love you. Remember the dead.

How I Learned to Wiggle My Ears

OPD 07/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.net www.BrookeAllen.net
Originally published in International Family Magazine

You might be amazed to know that you have muscles that don’t get wired up to your brain unless you work at it.

When I was nine we moved to a new house that had a large field that had been used by a farmer to grow hay. Because we wanted to convert it to a lawn we had to remove many large rocks. We piled them behind the barn.

Ah hah,” my dad said one day, “We can paint the stones white and use them to line the driveway.”

He gave me a can of white paint, a brush, and the mission.

I began by painting one stone behind the barn. Then I carried it to the edge of the driveway. I did this a few times. It was a cumbersome process because the stones were quite heavy. And, it was annoying because the paintbrush kept drying between each use. And, it was messy because I wanted to get done that day so I didn’t wait for the paint to dry before moving each stone. A good deal of paint made its way from the stones to my hands and clothes.

After observing my efforts, my dad took one stone and the can of paint from behind the barn. He placed the unpainted stone beside the driveway and place the can of paint next to it.

I hadn’t seen him do that and it took me quite a while to discover what he had done. Who asked him to do that? Sometimes my dad would play cruel tricks.

After bringing the can and the stone back to the barn I continued to paint the stones and carry them to the driveway Then, for no apparent reason, my dad took a wheelbarrow out of the barn and parked it squarely on the path between the stones to the driveway. Navigating my way around an obstacle placed in my way was even more annoying.

Finally he put the wheelbarrow, inverted, over my pile of stones. I became infuriated. I angrily grabbed it by both handles and flung it a few yards out to the side. What was he trying to do to me?

It was back breaking work and I was exhausted by the time I was finished.

That afternoon my parents had a guest who stayed for dinner. The guest congratulated me on how hard he saw me work. He said I must be very strong.

My dad said, “He was working a lot harder than he needed to. He’s got to learn to use the muscle between his ears.”

That angered me. I wouldn’t have had to do any of it if he hadn’t made me do it.

As I went to sleep I thought about his comment about the muscle between my ears. I knew some of the kids in the school could wiggle their ears. Perhaps that is the muscle he was talking about. It took me a very long time to find that muscle, but eventually I did.

I was so excited and could hardly wait till morning when I would wiggle my ears and tell my dad that I finally figured out what he was talking about.

My dad had a really good laugh.

Years later so did I.

Time to Get Married

OPD 06/01/2006

Time to Get Married[*]

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

 

We had been dating for a year when I began to wonder to myself, “Is this the woman I should marry?”

I started asking everyone I came across, “How does one tell if someone is ‘the right one?’”

A young female squealed, “When you speak baby talk to each other. Isn’t that right daadeee?”

“Goo goo.” He replied.

Yuck.

“When your hearts join as one,” was the simultaneous reply of an old couple on a bus. I was enthralled… until a fight broke out between them. “I was speaking.” “You always interrupt me.” “Oh, shut-up.”

“You’ll just know.” A common but useless answer.

“Chemistry.” Another.

“When you can picture yourselves doing absolutely everything together.” I thought about that. I could even picture it. It wasn’t attractive… surely not everything?

“When you don’t have eyes for any other woman.” Not me. I have eyes for every other woman.

“When you think she is the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Nope. I’d rank her an 8.

I asked the most beautiful woman I’d ever met, “Gina, I’m thinking of getting married. How do I know it is the right thing to do?”

She said, “I wish it were me.”

“I didn’t realize marrying you was one of my options.”

“That’s not what I mean. I wish I were the one getting married. I can picture it perfectly… the house… the children… I even know what my kitchen will look like.”

She seemed to be in the advanced stages of something. I asked, “Does your boyfriend share your vision?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

I talked about this to Jack, a friend at work. He said, “It is a mistake to imagine your future with someone.”

“Why?”

“You’ll be disappointed. Besides, you’ll close off the opportunity for lots of adventure.”

I asked, “How did you know your wife was the right one?”

“Lack of imagination. I couldn’t imagine a future without her. That is why I had to marry her.”

On our wedding day I could not have imagined the children we’ve raised, the things we’ve done or the places we’ve been.

But it would have all been unimaginable without Eve.

I have no idea what the future will bring, but I still can’t imagine it without Eve.

Jack was right.

When you can’t imagine a future without a certain person, you have to ensure you have that person in it.

You can leave everything else to chance.

 

 

 


[*] Note: This photograph was not taken at our wedding (which took place at City Hall in New York) but two days later at a Fake Wedding conducted by Alan Abel, an internationally renowned prankster (but that’s another story). Alan’s shenanigans and my goofiness should have given Eve ample warning of what she was getting into. But I fear it has not.

How Grandmother Won Granddad in a Beauty Contest

by: Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

OPD 05/01/2006

My Grandma Anne was a southern belle born and raised in Dallas. Granddad Tom was raised in Chicago and sent from home at 14 to earn has way as a man. They met in New York City.

Anne had entered a beauty contest. In those days (before the bikini) young ladies were judged on poise, grace and intelligence. She won.

First prize: a week in New York. All expenses paid.

At first she was excited. Then it occurred to her that she didn’t know a soul in that Yankee city.

A friend set up a blind date for her first day in the Big Apple. She was to meet him under the big clock above the 42nd street entrance to Grand Central Station.

She leaned against the western wall as she inspected the young man standing across from her.

“Gawd,” she thought to herself, “let it not be him.”

It was.

At first they weren’t attracted to each other but they were both desperately lonely, for Tom had no friends in the city either. What’s more, on Sunday he was to be shipped out to Cuba by the United Press International, his employer.

They spent all of that week together and on Saturday Anne decided not to return to her life in Dallas.

That is how it came to be that my father was born in Havana.

They had picked the path that promised the most adventure.

The Right Woman

OPD 05/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

I began trading in May of 1988. By the summer of 1990 I felt like I was ready for a change. My days were spent in the most exciting, least interesting work imaginable. At least we had some money in the bank.

Your mother and I made a decision. We would change careers.

Eve was accepted into a Ph. D. program in Marketing. I would take a Masters in education so that I might become a sixth grade teacher.

Then something happened…

One afternoon in mid-August at 2:00 PM, my boss swiveled in his chair to face me,

“Brooke, would you like to go to Japan?”

“Do you mean for a business trip?”

“No. I mean to do some work.”

“For a few weeks?”

“Nope,” he smiled, “For a few years.”

I was stunned. “That is a big decision. I have a family now and I wouldn’t spend that much time away from them. We could all move but my wife is starting graduate school.”

My boss nodded, “It is a huge decision. You must think about where the kids will go to school, what you wife will do, where you will live. I’ll tell you another thing; when you return from an overseas assignment you’ll probably have to start your career over again. Be thorough in your deliberations and consider all the alternatives. I’ll respect your decision whatever it might be. No pressure.”

“How soon do you need to know?”

“Oh… Just tell me by five.”

Wow! Three hours to decide.

So I called Eve on the telephone.

“Do you want to go to Japan?”

“Are you inviting me along on a business trip?”

“No. He wants me to go do some work.”

“For a few weeks?”

“No. A couple of years. We would all move to Tokyo.”

She was silent for a few seconds, “Gee. When does he want to know?”

“By five.”

“Well then, I guess we’d better discuss it now.”

We told him we would go within the hour.

If you’re going to pick the path that promises the most adventure, it helps to be married to the right woman.

Choose Adventure

OPD 05/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published May 2006 in International Family Magazine

grand013
My son and my grandmother.

In 1966 my sister, Ruth, and I spent eight summer weeks in St. Mawes, Cornwall, a sleepy fishing village with a population of perhaps 200 souls. My grandmother had fallen in love with a two bedroom thatched cottage that had been built in 1450 as sleeping quarters for the guards at St. Mawes Castle.

During that summer we had no television, no VCR, no CD player, no iPod, no Internet and no computer games. We didn’t even have a telephone; we used the payphone at the village square. (Eventually they did get a telephone and were assigned the number 414. In the USA we use 414 as the area code for the entire eastern half of Wisconsin.)

My sister and I did find a few books, but mostly we had our grandparents as entertainment.

We spent our days listening to their stories. I’d estimate: 4 hours/day, 5 days/week (assume weekends off), 8 weeks total. That comes to 160 hours of storytelling.

My sister and I were fascinated by their stories, however we were somewhat annoyed. In their presence we felt we had so few interesting things to say.

In that sleepy village, in that ancient house, we heard of how they: had survived three revolutions in Latin America, how they crossed the Andes on mules carrying short-wave radio equipment, and how they were in the Caribbean on a German tramp steamer headed for the Netherlands Antilles on the day the US entered World War II.

I’m scratching the surface here…

At the end of that summer I asked my grandmother, “How do we ever get to have so many stories of our own?”

She said, “Live an interesting life and collect your stories. Do that and when you are our age you will have plenty to say to your grandchildren.”

“But, what do I have to do to have as exciting a life as yours?”

She said:

When you are faced with choices that are the same in all other aspects, choose the path that offers the greatest adventure.