I’ve always enjoyed day-trips. The liberating and expansive feeling of going to and from a distant destination, all in the same day, has always carried a satisfying sense of completeness. When I was young, my family would undertake ill-fated long voyages by car to distant destinations, often requiring several stops at local tourist attractions in fascinating places like Disneyworld, or somewhat less impressive locales like “Dogpatch USA“, in rural Arkansas. As I grew older and family funds grew tighter, the grand scope of family trips decreased, though I always appreciated that my mother was willing to do, out of love, ridiculous things like drive four hours north to Topeka, so that I could tour the state capitol building and take pictures for a 4th grade class report on the 50 states.
Because I’m not wealthy enough to fund grand interstate pilgrimages to exotic amusement parks, most of my family outings have taken on the form of the latter. Day-trips and short ventures just a few hours away have been happily adequate and I recognize that a great many families never take any kind of day-trip together, much less to a state park a few hours away.
A few weeks ago, I packed up the family to trek into the Oklahoma wilderness on a voyage to pick up my oldest daughter from a week at a summer camp for Student Council. On the way back, we planned to stop at the Great Salt Plains and dig for salt crystals. While this might be incredibly boring to the average adult, I can’t imagine any kid that hasn’t secretly hoped to uncover a crystal or gem while digging around in a sandbox or backyard. My daughters are getting older at a rate that far outpaces my ability to catch up, so any time that I can get them to still be a kid is a time that I cherish.
We arrived at the sectioned off digging area, which is predictably in the middle of nowhere. A fairly nondescript county road stretched ahead over featureless land. Crop fields were demonstratively partitioned by houses, encircled by the occasional copse of trees meant to break the wind in this part of the state legendary for its Dust Bowl conditions. Suddenly, the sleepy prairie transformed before my eyes into a minimalistically marvelous and absolutely barren, blindingly white moonscape.
Looks like someone missed a spot..
Before industrious diggers head out onto the salt plains to dig for crystals, it’s smart to stop and read about the environment and also let the little prospectors use the glorified port-a-potties adjacent to the area’s entrance. Naturally, neither of my girls felt the need. We proceeded onward, dazzled by the landscape and secretly dreaming of being the one that pulled out the biggest, most flawless crystal of the season. I had done my homework and packed appropriately for the activity. Despite the complaining about who had to carry what, we found a spot away from other folks and set to the task of excavating what were sure to be entrancing geological rarities.
I set out to dig a fairly large hole, hoping to see crystals abounding in every scoop. The girls dug with less efficiency, just a few feet away. If you’ve ever been out this way to do this exact thing, you’ll know that there’s something the tourist websites don’t tell you. Digging around in the salty sand isn’t just messy. It’s smelly, gritty, and irritating. The sun’s full rays reflect off the bright ground, right into your eyes, which washes out everything. The salt drifts through the air and lands in your mouth bitterly. Salt collects on your clothes, skin, hair, and tools. Everything feels like it’s covered in sandpaper, yet it’s terribly fun being able to carve out a massive, unsightly hole just because you can, just because it’s not prohibited.
As the park’s helpful informational video suggests, you don’t have to dig far to find what you’re looking for. Unless you’re me. The girls, on the other hand, were pulling out crystals with satisfying frequency. The oldest and youngest both argued over who needed to use which small scoop or large shovel while their mother enthusiastically pointed out crystal after crystal. More than anything, I enjoyed hearing the interactions on the light breeze, reminding me of days spent in the backyard drawing on the driveway with chalk or playfully arguing over who got to use which pool toy next. Non-parents have a very hard time understanding how something as typically irritating as petty sibling squabbling can sound comforting, even delightful, when it’s tone remains just below the threshold of a hissy fit.
Despite my lack of material success in the endeavor, I continued digging. By now, I had switched to a smaller tool in the hopes that patience and precision would reward my ambition. My lovely, delicate daughters saw my lack of results as an opportunity to mock me lovingly. “You’re not finding any, Dad” said the older one, always in ready command of the obvious. The younger one, whose sassy attitude constantly riffs off her sister’s straight-man routine, chimed in with “Yeah! You said this was super-easy. You don’t want to be the loser who doesn’t find any!” It didn’t take long for their mother to also lend her voice to the sirens’ chorus trying to lure me off my quarry.
Ulysses was trying to get back to Ithaca. I was trying to take a few rocks back to Oklahoma City. Same thing.
My younger daughter’s favorite activity is playing the computer game Minecraft. She loves the free-form nature of the game and it requirement of a meticulous, problem-solving mind appeals to her intellectual side. She builds massive cathedrals, thousand-foot-tall models of sheep, and digs relentlessly in pixellated mines for rare materials like gold and diamonds. She’s also picked up some fairly weird lingo form the game. If she’s anything, she’s persistent. So, it didn’t surprise me that she ignored my commitment to my excavation and continued to try and convince me to abandon it. She playfully merged game lingo into reality, beckoning me by saying “Come on, Dad. Mom’s hole is hot over here!” with complete ignorance of the double entendre that just burst forth from her lips. The older daughter didn’t let the opportunity slide by, sputtering out a series of honks and chortles that she passes off as laughter when she’s in an unguarded moment.
But I wasn’t moving from my spot. This was my plot of land and I was determined to work it. The land was rich with crystals. Surely, the absence of them from my fingertips only meant that they had coalesced into a legendary formation below, just a few scoops from being exposed to the bright light of day.I continued on, unsuccessfully, for several more minutes. This isn’t because I possess the same noble commitment to the land that brought several well-intentioned Okies to the brink of disaster in the Dust Bowl. This was pure, irredeemable stubbornness.
Of all the life lessons I’ve struggled with the most, knowing when to pull the plug is my most vexing. I’m terrible at knowing when to push on, when to quit, when my effort will actually pay off, and when my effort is profoundly wasted. In my younger, wilder years, I was terrible about ending new relationships far too quickly or impulsively. On the other hand, I still preserve certain friendships well beyond their point of possible usefulness. Sometimes, old friends come back around and I’m pleasantly surprised that they still have more fruit to bear. At other times, I find myself liking a former student’s status on Facebook and wondering how creepy it must seem that I’m still interacting with them, four years after they turned in their last essays.
I’ve bolted for open doors when I thought the strain of a current relationship was too great to bear and I’ve fought to preserve connections that are obviously toxic for both myself and the other party involved. The phenomenon isn’t limited to friendships either. I lingered for almost eight years working 40+ hours a week in a dead-end job because I was possessed of the notion that I needed to finish the task I began when I first went to college in 1997. Conversely, I’m hanging around the base of the Ivory Tower as an adjunct instructor in the lumpenprofessoriate because of an inability to know the perfect time to cut and run or when to double down. I’m simultaneously capable of exceptional fidelity to a given goal while being very stubborn about admitting that some efforts are in vain and should be abandoned. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, as much as I’m embarrassed to admit it here and now.
And so I continued to stubbornly dig. We had been at it for the better part of an hour when both daughters, having already walked to the car and back for better shoes, decided they needed to use the bathroom. An hour is a long time, I suppose. Though, there’s not a parent out there who hasn’t experienced the joy of their child needing to go at the most inconvenient time, when better chances were available just a few exits back on the interstate. All three of them decided to head back to the car for some needed air conditioning and a trip to the glorified port-a-potty. Not I. I had to find a crystal. I had to find something in the hole I excavated to justify the expenditure of time and energy. After over an hour in the abrasive, dessicated moonscape, I found one crystal in the hole I dug. One. And it’s chipped, rough, and very unsightly.
Look on my pyrrhic victory, ye mighty, and despair.
Throughout the drive home, I reflected on how this fit into the greater pattern of who I am and what I could learn from this. In between moments of reflection, I annoyed my family by subjecting them to my broad musical tastes. It’s a balancing act, you know. We can’t always be navel gazers. Still, I wondered to myself about what excavations in my life needed abandoning and what it might cost to walk away from bad bets and toxic situations. I had no idea that I was about to face the problem in a new and bewildering way.
I try to give my oldest daughter, who’s currently obsessed with Lana del Rey, more and more liberty to make life choices as she ages. She understands this most of the time and always after the fact, not during the heat of the moment. It doesn’t help that many of her friends have exhausted single parents who allow their teenagers far too much leeway. It’s very difficult to have to constantly explain the virtues and merits of not getting caught in a potentially bad situation without relying on some sort of abstraction, like obedience or purity, to do the intellectual heavy lifting for me. Despite some misgivings about the character of the boy she wanted to date, I let her make her own decision on the matter and enter into the relationship as best she could.
Over the course of the relationship, some troubling patterns emerged. I try to be proactive and interested, so our standing policy involves checking in on the relationship by asking lots of questions, suggesting positive options when asked, and periodically checking texts, apps, and downloads. This is something my generation’s parents almost never had to do. I’m not going to air the dirty laundry in their relationship specifically, but I will point out that several different early signs of abuse had emerged. No parent ever wants to discover that their child is in a potentially harmful relationship, but knowing how to react is even more confusing. It’s not helpful to run their lives for them, rescue them, or micromanage their decisions, but it’s also a parent’s job to step in with teenagers when situations become potentially dangerous.
My oldest daughter had the best week of her year at her summer camp and was mildly depressed at having to come down from the mountaintop, as people in the Bible belt say after a week at church camp. A series of baseless accusations about unfaithfulness, coupled with bitterness at not being able to dominate her time by texting her whenever he wanted, led her to a crossroads. She finally had enough and made the mature decision to end the relationship on her own. His reaction was to immediately call her vulgar names on social media and drag her integrity through the dirt. These are obviously immature and unacceptable reactions to the end of a relationship and she knew that, despite how much it hurt to see and hear these words. It struck me as a very clear exhibition of her inner strength that she could stand up for her own dignity and choose to walk away.
A few days passed and she went through the natural grieving process that people do. Anger and disbelief gave way to reflecting on the good times. Regret wafted out from the sadness at the void in her heart that the imploded relationship left behind. This is what happens to us when our friends and loved ones pass away. These people we love pass beyond our ability to contact or ever see again in this plane of existence, depending on your beliefs. The problem with grieving over broken relationships is that you can pick up the phone and call them again. They haven’t passed into the great beyond, unless stress eating Taco Bell after a break-up counts as dying and going to Hell.
Inevitably, she and her ex boyfriend contacted each other. It appeared that reconciliation might be in the works, but he specifically shifted blame back onto her and absolved himself of weeks of increasingly abusive behavior with statements like “My bad. That’s just how I am sometimes. You knew that about me.” Clearly, this isn’t the kind of recognition that was necessary for her to feel better about the situation, so we talked it over. We both talked about the importance of self-respect and drawing lines. I explained several different warning signs of abusive personalities, drawing parallels to the current situation. She understood these points, but wrestled with the decision to ultimately walk away. Intense feelings are hard to discard and I completely understood that.
After talking to a few good female friends who had found themselves in emotionally and physically abusive relationships, it was clear that I needed to be more than just a passive guide in this moment. Millions of women find themselves in abusive situations year after year, without someone to turn for help. A consistent thread through their experiences with abuse is the regret of not walking away when the first warning signs emerged. Because we, as parents, didn’t want to watch her become inextricably entwined in an abusive relationship so early in life, we let her know that she wouldn’t be allowed to resume the relationship, for her own safety and because she deserved more respect and dignity. A few veiled threats of violence on Twitter appeared from the ex-boyfriend, which confirmed everything we suspected, but they quickly dissipated.
Despite recognizing the danger, this prohibition still generated a barrage of angry reactions and promises to wait until she was eighteen, when we couldn’t stop her from doing what she wanted. I took this stance, knowing full well that she’d hate me for it. Even if we know we need to cut our losses and walk away from a bad situation, we resent it when that course of action feels forced upon us. I hated having to be in the position to walk the fine line between parent and tyrant, but that’s where the process takes us at times. A few days later while we were driving, she accused me of being happy that the relationship had ended. I wasn’t. I hated seeing her heartbroken, but I hated the thought of someone disrespecting and abusing her more.
I don’t expect anyone to agree with me and I believe part of being morally consistent as a human being means making logically defensible decisions, even in the face of disagreement and opposition. I’m also aware of the inherent “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy of being courageous enough to ask someone else to cut and run when I’m hesitant to do so at times in my own life. Hypocrisy is inexcusable when it’s accompanied by arrogance, but we’re all hypocrites on some level. We should still strive to humbly recognize our faults and not allow them to paralyze our instinct to do the right thing when the moment demands it.
If you know someone in an abusive or potentially abusive relationship, or if you’re in one right now, call the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE.