Friday, May 23, 2008

Childhood thoughts

Every once and awhile my mom will ask me if I had a happy childhood, usually when we are reminiscing or looking at old pictures. Such was the case yesterday as we were looking at a collage of pictures of my sister Katie that my aunt Lynn made for Katie's high school graduation in 2002 (Lynn makes each of her nieces and nephews a collage when they graduate from high school, by the way!). My answer, as it has always been, is that yes, I did have a happy childhood, but I would never do it again. I have enjoyed being an adult, despite the many trials and challenges being such brings, much more than being a kid, mostly because I have much more control over my life: what I can do, what I can buy, and where I can go. That said, there are certainly aspects of my childhood that were not so happy, which is what I wanted to blog about. I'm not writing this to hang out my family's dirty laundry because let's be honest: pretty much everyone who reads this blog are people I know, so you either already know my history or I'd end up telling you this anyway.

As most know by now, my parents divorced when I was 4 years old (almost 5) back in 1987. It was the direct result of my dad's actions, not only for what he did morally, but also legally: he was the one who filed for divorce. For the most part we were shielded from the divorce and it did little to change our "status quo" as young kids. I was aware it was happening, but it did little to affect my young world. It was the results of the divorce, as opposed to the divorce itself, that affected, and continue to affect, my life in various ways from the present problems with the house to the relationships between my dad and the four of us (me, my brother, and 2 sisters) and between me and my Ridinger side of the family. As I told my mom yesterday, I wasn't happy then, nor am I happy now, about how the effects of the divorce were handled by my Ridinger side of the family, mostly because they never bothered to get our side of the situation and when we made our feelings known, they were almost always brushed aside or ignored. Unfortunately, this is occurring once again with the current situation surrounding the house that I blogged about at the beginning of the month.

I certainly understand that my dad is under a lot of stress not only with this problem, but also with imminent major surgery. We have known he has surgery coming up and that it was major, but his indications have been that it is a routine procedure; no need to overly worry. Well yesterday I was informed by my grandmother that he has expressed fears of "not making it" through the surgery, so I was treated with a short, awkward lecture of needing to fix the relationship with him so that I don't have any regrets should the unthinkable happen. I typically don't say much, even though there was a LOT I could've said to her right then; but I didn't think it would've been very effective. I also knew that if I got started on it, it would've opened the floodgates and I would've gotten them and myself very upset; so I just listened. I did tell her that Dad has "not said a word about this to us." She said that he said that he didn't think we "were communicating." That's funny because we were all at dinner on Tuesday night and we were talking just fine. In fact, I've been lamenting to my brother, sister, and close friends that Dad and the Ridingers have been acting like nothing is wrong and to be here you would never know that we have a pending foreclosure over our heads along with Dad's bankruptcy. In a way, it seems like nothing has changed, when it most certainly has. The only lack of communication was in the initial weeks after we were notified about this. I simply wasn't speaking to Dad unless I had to because I had nothing to say. He has yet to ask me what I even think about the whole thing, but yeah, it's my job to "fix" the relationship. Hmmmmm. My grandma made it sound like Dad has tried to communicate to us and has been rebuffed or shot down, when in fact, he has said virtually nothing nor has he made any notable attempt to do so. In fact, NONE of the Ridingers have asked me how I'm doing or how I'm feeling in regards to the whole situation. I'm losing my home and support right when I need it most but I'm supposed to be OK with that because I don't want Dad to feel bad. Well, as I've said many times, when this is all said and done, Dad will still have a home, Dad will still have an income, Dad will still have relative stability. Me? I stand to watch virtually all my things go into some storage facility and become an extended guest at one of my grandparents' houses and basically have my whole world turned upside down right when I need to focus my energy and ability on graduate school. But no, I'm supposed to be OK with that somehow.

See, it's always been like this. When we didn't get along with my former stepmom, it was our fault, not hers. We were supposed to be the "mature" ones as 6-12 year olds and open up and be patient while she continued to treat us as second-class citizens especially in comparison to her own spoiled son. Never mind that she made ZERO effort beyond the initial contact to try and get to know us and help us feel comfortable around her for the nine years they were married, but we were supposed to do such to her, at least according to my Dad and the Ridinger side's "standards." Let's also not forget that at the time, NONE of them had ever gone through anything CLOSE to a divorce and remarriage and having two separate families like we did. It is something I will never wish on anyone. And no, we didn't have a problem with my stepmom initially; it developed as we got to know her better and experienced how we were treated differently (read: WORSE) not only by her, but also my dad compared to her son. Case in point: in 1992 we took a combined "family" trip to Disney World, my first time ever there. While I had a pretty good time in my first "Disney experience," I will never forget how my siblings and I were each given $20 spending money for the 4 days we were in the parks. My step-brother? He was given $100 not to mention whatever he could get his mom to buy him. This just one early example of how we were always second. Another example, also at Disney World, was one night we were heading for the ferry at Epcot and my step-brother, who was not yet 6 at the time, was ripping leaves off the bushes along the way. I told him to stop doing that ("stop picking at the bushes."), but my stepmom said "Jon, don't tell [him] what to do," ignoring what he was actually doing (damaging park property) and instead focusing on me. She never did tell him to stop doing that. I also will never forget how we used to visit my dad at her house (it was never "their" house) when they were married. We would alternate who spent the weekend up there, so I would go up about every third or fourth week. I became friends with one of the neighbors across the street and during one of my visits; my dad and stepmom had agreed to help a friend of theirs move some things. Well, my friend invited me to stay at their house at the same time, so my friend and her mom apparently asked my stepmom, who they told me said to ask my dad. My dad said it was fine if I went with them instead of going to help this friend (whom I didn't even know) move. Well, I went over to my friend's house and wasn't over there long before I got a phone call from my dad telling me I was a "liar" and that Emma had said it wasn't OK for me to go over, yada yada yada. He wouldn't listen to me at all and made me come back and go over to this person's house. Her wishes were more important than mine. I think I stopped going up to visit on the weekends after that or shortly thereafter. I didn't set foot in that house again for almost seven years. It started before they were even married. I remember going with them, my sisters, and my step-brother to go shopping for a wedding dress and other wedding stuff (so I was 9). For some reason, I was very good and didn't run around and get into trouble and was even telling my sisters to not do stuff. Well, my dad liked that I was being so "mature" (now that I think of it was was being kinda bossy) and to reward me, he told me he was going to take me to Niagara Falls, which was something I had always wanted to do. We did go sometime I think later that year; along with my brother, step-brother and stepmom, of course. To be "fair" to my sisters, he decided to take them to Sea World (back when we had a Sea World in Aurora, Ohio!). Guess who also got to go? step-brother and stepmom too. "Fair" meant equal in how he treated us in relation to each other, but not in relation to my step-brother. It was plainly clear we were second-best. Let's not forget how many events in our lives were missed because my dad "had to be" at something of my step-brother's like when my dad missed my sister Becky's 3rd grade open house at school because my step-brother had a soccer game. It's something that still sticks out to her and emphasizes how we were always second. Are we bitter about all this? One could say that, but in reality, it's in the past. I only bring these up to show how they have shaped the relationship between my dad and myself (and my siblings as well). If the same type of situation didn't keep recurring, I'd have no reason to be reminded of, and bring up again, these sad events in my past. But, once again they do keep coming up. When we were presented with the news that we would be losing the house sometime as early as this summer, there was never "but we'll make sure everyone is taken care of" or "we'll work though this no matter what" or anything of the sort. The only mention of me directly was "Jon can live at Ridingers," in other words "not my problem or concern." I got the impression that yes, Dad was sad to have to tell us, but moreso because of the embarrassment of having failed financially versus than the direct and negative impacts it would have on me, my sister Katie, and my mom. Whether that was his intention or not is irrelevant; that is what was portrayed to me. It was, as my brother put it, "like we had been encroaching on an overly nice stranger who could finally tell us to get lost." We'd always felt he couldn't wait for us to be out of the house and more distant from him and he finally had the reason to cut the cord. Let's also not forget that even though we were the ones most affected by these decisions, we were among the LAST to know about them.

I think it's also important to point out that my dad and his side of the family have always regarded how he has treated us "compared to other divorced dads." When you look at it in that light, yes, Dad performed remarkably well as he was a part of our lives growing up and paid more child support than he was legally required to (along with a variety of other things). Of course we recognize and are grateful for all he has done and does for us which he doesn't "legally" have to. But look at that closely: "compared to other divorced dads;" hardly a desirable group to be compared to. Many in that group have almost no contact, financially or emotionally, with their kids and still others have severely limited contact and involvement in the lives and upbringing of their children. I have often compared this to a sports team promoting their own "success" by stating they were "one of the best teams that didn't make the playoffs." On the other hand, we (my mom, my siblings, and I), compare Dad to dads who didn't get divorced and instead stayed as part of the family so that not only did all of their income (as opposed to a child-support payment) go into supporting the family, but they played a full-time role in the upbringing of the children, as opposed to a part-time role and did not have other interests- or people- competing with the family as the main importance. When you compare him to a dad like that, he falls well short. Financial support and part-time parental support is great, but it is hardly a substitute for a full-time devoted husband and father. The Ridinger's assessment of Dad also makes it sound like the divorce was some kind of mutual agreement between my parents, when in fact, as I pointed out earlier, it is COMPLETELY on the head of my dad; my mom did not ask for nor want to be left alone to raise 4 young kids on a fraction of the income that had been coming in, but she got it nonetheless. I don't care what the world thinks about divorced parents and divided homes: children raised with BOTH full-time loving parents have SIGNIFICANT advantages in stability (emotional and financial) as well as constant examples and figures to look up to. I didn't have that...I saw dad about once a week growing up and even then, I only got one-on-one attention from him maybe once a month or so on "date night" (which I did enjoy...I got to pick the restaurant and something fun to do). But still, that pales in comparison to if he hadn't left and we saw him and interacted with him every day and he was here for all our problems and difficulties rather than when they finally got so big he had to come here and intervene.

But anyway, as I mentioned, my Ridinger side has been slow to hear and even consider our side of things or even show some care for what we're feeling or to understand why. All through my life it's me who's the one who needs to be more "open-minded" or understanding, but never the other way around. They simply do not, and don't appear to try to, understand things they have not experienced themselves. I have NEVER closed the door on any of my family relationships (even with family members that they have severed ties to) and I have certainly not slammed and locked the door to my dad. But they need to understand that a relationship is a two-way street and that he, not me or my siblings, has done a lot to close the door by his actions throughout his life. One can only take so much of being treated as second-class so long before it gets to them. And despite that fact that we are now all adults, he also has to make a direct effort to reach out to us if he wants to retain the relationship; after all, he is still the father in this relationship. Our growing up has not eliminated his responsibilities as a father any more than his divorcing Mom did. Talking to his parents about the relationship is not reaching out to us; in fact, it's doing the opposite. For people who profess to be so "open-minded" and "liberal" they sure seem to have a hard time seeing anyone else's viewpoints or even trying to.

Notes on pictures: 1. Christmas 1989: Andy had just turned 10, I was almost 8, Katie had just turned 6, and Becky was almost 4; 2. Christmas 1990 with my dad and our new "Sound FX" toys (we still have those!). 1990 was about as close as we've gotten since the divorce to having a full-time dad again after he had moved back from Philadelphia and before my stepmom came into the picture; 3. I will give Dad credit for taking me on some fun trips like this one to Virginia Beach to visit my aunt in 1995; 4. My dad and Grandpa Ridinger with the four of us at Chimney Rock, North Carolina in July 1994.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

California and Gay Marriage

So news broke today that the California State Supreme Court has overturned the state's definition of marriage as between one man and one woman as being unconstitutional by a 4-3 vote. OF COURSE I have something to say about this, but who knows, maybe I'll surprise someone with what I say...

It goes without saying that I'm disappointed with, but not at all surprised by this decision. This has been the argument not only for states passing their own constitutional amendments, but for passing a federal constitutional amendment as well. California banned gay marriages- and the recognition of gay marriages performed elsewhere- by virtue of a 2000 vote in which some 61% of the voters approved a measure which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Ohio has a similar law, but ours is a constitutional amendment approved in 2004; so the only thing that can supercede that would be a federal constitutional amendment or a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

As for this specific ruling, of course gays began to celebrate and party all over the country, but especially in California, which has a significant gay population. I can't say I blame them for being excited, even though it's an outcome I don't particularly care for. Unfortunately, this is hardly the end, and I don't say that as a "defiant conservative," but rather as someone who always tries to keep a level head and a realistic view of things. First, even if there were no other opposition to the ruling, it takes 30 days for judges' rulings to take effect in California, so the earliest the first gay marriages can happen is in mid June. Of course we all know there is opposition, though it seems unlikely that there will be any more court battles. From what I read, there are opportunities for the opposition, conservatives in this case, to ask for a stay on the decision or for the court to reconsider. I really doubt the court would reconsider based on the wording of their verdict and a stay also seems unlikely, even with the pending constitutional amendment coming up. That leads into the next item, the expected California amendment. Sometime next month we will find out if supporters were able to obtain enough signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot which would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Because it would be a constitutional amendment, it would override the recent court decision. If it does get on the ballot, it will most certainly be hotly contested and close and will probably get a lot of people to the polls that normally wouldn't vote. From what I've read, both sides seem pretty confident they can win, so I guess we'll see. Of course there is also the possibility of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I don't see that happening. I don't think the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case at all because they would cite the fact that marriage is not listed as a federal responsibility in the U.S. constitution (10th amendment), so it is delegated to the states and therefore they have no jurisdiction over how to define it. Indeed, that's been the argument over a federal constituional amendment; that the issue should be decided by the states. Well, we're getting that and what we're getting is marriages that are recognized by some, but not all, of the states, even though we're all in the same country.

My personal opinion is that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman. The minute you start redefining it, you open the door to any other "definition." What's to stop supporters of polygamy (not only more than one wife, but more than one husband), or group marriage, or even close-relative marriage? If you say that barring two people of the same sex from "marrying" is discriminatory, how is barring a woman from marrying a man who is already married not discriminatory? What if that woman is really poor and the man can take care of her? What if the first wife is OK with it? I really don't see how one can be defended and one cannot, and no, I would rather not see a return to legal polygamy even as a Mormon! Some say I'm just "overreacting" but really, what is to stop any other group who is "denied" marriage from seeking the same rights, no matter how "disgusting" or outlandish we think the idea is (remember, a lot of people think two people of the same sex getting married is "disgusting."). Really, the bottom line in my belief is that I believe God himself has defined marriage, not only through the Bible, but also in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and most importantly living prophets. That's not to say God hates gays because he does not; they are also his children who he cares about and loves. But any parent will agree that just because you love a child, that doesn't translate into you being "OK" with whatever they do; you have expectations and hopes even for adult children. I don't hate gay people...I have several friends who are gay, so I have some sort of understanding that it's not simply a "choice" to be gay. But in the end, how we act or don't act on our urges and wants is our choice, whether gay or straight, and we are accountable for our actions.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The importance of getting ALL the facts...

There are many lessons that I can take from the situation which continues to unfold in front of me concerning our house and the state of my family. Not only financial lessons (what NOT to do), but also life lessons. One that has really come to the front right now is the importance of withholding judgment until one has sufficient evidence for both sides of the story. Obviously, here, you have my dad's case of why he feels that he needs to do this, but you also have my case and my mom's case of how difficult of a spot this puts us in. Not only that, but the emotional aspects tied to the house and the relationship status between my dad and all of us. I won't go into great details here because my point is not to publicize our disagreements and problems. I only wish to make a point about judging.

It's a word Christians hear a lot, in particular that it's something we should not do. It comes from the Savior's teachings in Matthew 7:1-2: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. " It's a concept that Christians are familiar with, yet I've found few understand. It seems many believe that "not judging" means we cannot make decisions on people or things at all. But, as we all know, we have to make judgements every day on who we associate with or what we are going to do (among other things). Without judgments, we would never progress or learn. So, was Jesus trying to teach us that we shouldn't come to a decision? Hardly. What he is talking about is making improper judgments, or judgments without the full picture. This usually involves how we label people. The most common "judgments" I see around are more generalizations or oversimplifications we make about a person or group of people based on very little information or lack of experience. For instance, the idea that because someone is overweight it's because they're "lazy" or just "sit on their couch all day and eat junkfood." There are likely a variety of reasons why that person is overweight and unless we have a full look into how they actually live their life and all the things that affect them both phyiscally and mentally, labeling that person as "lazy" is an unrighteous judgment. While we can certainly make conjectures about why they may be overweight, we cross that line when we simply decide one is true and we condemn that person. There are other examples of unrighteous judgment too, of course. Sometimes in arguments it's easy to judge how someone is acting (or reacting) because we assume they are "just mean" or "hateful". In fact, it may be that we don't know something because of lack of experience, lack of understanding, or just ignorance of the history and background of that person. Sometimes too, we may simply just have one side of the story. So in reality, that person we think is "hateful" may actually have a wealth of experience that has caused them to not trust someone (or whatever the disagreement is over) and thus be perfectly justified in being upset.

OK, so how can we judge better? I'm OF COURSE not perfect, but I have found things that have helped me. It goes without saying that we need to get the whole story, especially when it involves two sides who disagree. That can involve asking people how and WHY they feel as such and truly being open to their responses. Being respectful of viewpoints and experiences is a big one too. It also involves being as fair as possible. This is a case where information from the Book of Mormon plays a key role in helping us to better understand what the Bible is trying to tell us. Moroni 7:15-18 gives us the counsel that not only are we to judge ourselves (we have to, like I said), but we are to do it with the "Spirit of Christ" (v. 16), also referred to as the "Light of Christ" (v. 18). The reason that God is able to judge us is because he is able to do it in perfect fairness. He knows all the sides of the argument, he knows the limitations or situational elements, and most of all he knows us; our tendancies, our strenghts, and our weaknesses. Through the Light of Christ, a power of discernment given to all of us, we can better judge not only right from wrong, but also who is right and who is in the wrong.

I am commenting on this in light of our current situation and judgments I feel are being made (some of which I have actually heard) about me or the situation in general. To the casual observer, it seems as though I and my mom should just "get on with life" and stop being so dependent. As I mentioned in my previous post, nothing would make me happier than being financially independent, but right now that is simply not possible. The same holds true for my mom; she is in this situation because she decided that raising her kids was her most important responsibility, followed by completing her college education, which she did in 2002. Now she is faced with an uncertain job market in art education and is relying on the unsteady pay (and lack of benefits) that comes with being a substitute teacher. Let's not forget SHE raised the four of us virtually solo with the financial help of my dad. Yes, my dad was hardly absent from my life, but it in no way compares with his role had he made different choices in his life and stayed a part of this family rather than pursue self-interests. I find it troubling and frustrating as well that the people who have security-- a place to live and a steady source of income-- are the ones telling me not to worry and that nothing is really wrong. Nothing will be wrong when I have an actual place to live (staying with someone is not living there) and some stability.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Watching my world collapse around me

I wish I had a happier thing to blog about, but alas, I don't. I can't give a whole lot of details here, but I guess I'll just have to be blunt. Not only will I be starting graduate school in just over a month, but I will have the added stress of finding a new place to stay (i.e. not live). Why? Well, by the end of the summer and maybe sooner I will no longer be able to live at the house I have called home since 1983 as we are losing the house. Yep. Not selling the house, losing it. I'm sure my dad wouldn't be too thrilled about me publicizing that fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. As far as I've been told the house is lost and so sometime in the next few months it will be foreclosed and we will have no place to live. Well, let me correct that: mom and I will have no place to live. Katie will be off to Virginia this summer and is presumably not coming back (especially after this), and my dad is moving on with yet another "life" by cutting his losses and running.

I've always dreaded the thought of selling this house even with all the major problems it has. I am a person that gets sentimentally attached to things almost as much as I do to people. We moved into this house in January 1983, when I was just 10 months old, so I don't remember the apartment we lived at in Kent. Technically, I have never legally moved out since my legal address never changed during the two years I was on my mission and the three years I was at BYU-Idaho. Home has always meant this house. It has never meant anything else, but now it is being ripped away. Selling it would be hard enough, but losing it? I don't know how I'm going to handle this on top of being in graduate school and all the other stress that will inevitably be in my life from everything. Just thinking about it is depressing me. Thinking about the way things are going to be after we lose the house is making it even worse. An absolute nightmare awaits me. Sure, I have places to stay, but not a place to live.

I know the typical person looks at me and says "why aren't you on you're own? You're 26!" Believe me, I say the same thing to myself all the time. Mom and Dad always told us that getting our education was the most important thing to do, so we didn't need to work unless we absolutely wanted to or had to. We were always told growing up that in college we could go to Kent State and live at home or we could go away for school and we'd have housing paid for (we get enough grant money to pay for tuition). Even if I did currently hold a job, it wouldn't be one that could support me living on my own since the hours I would get wouldn't let me work all that much due to my class schedule (for example, my classes this semester would have prevented me from working two days a week). Adding to that, by the fall I will begin student teaching and everyone who has been involved with it has said to not hold a job while student teaching because it just won't work. How can I make a living while I student teach? I can''s that simple. Second, it's not exactly like I live here and do nothing. I have been the main person who does almost all of the yardwork as well as a significant amount of housework. I earn my keep here! Well apparently that's not enough as my dad seems to think I "chose" to not get a job and I "chose" to go to grad school. While, yes, I did choose to do both of those things, I chose them because of how I was raised and the fact that I can't get on my own without going to grad school because my bachelors degree is not one I can get a teaching job with. Let's not forget I went on a mission for two years, which delayed school, and I transferred twice. Guess I wasn't quick enough.

So, just when I was thinking things couldn't get much worse around here, they most certainly did. By the fall, most of what I know will either be gone or in storage. It's beyond depressing to watch not only this but what seems like the complete disintegration of my family as everyone bolts somewhere else and I'm left here. Right when I need help the most, the rug is being pulled out and I'm supposed to suddenly find a magical source of income and a place to live. We also will no longer have a place where we can meet as an immediate family. Wherever we meet, it will be with the extended family: the grandparents and the aunts, uncles, and cousins. Christmas this year will be bizarre if it happens at all.

Oh, and this is not the direct result of the current foreclosure crisis going on around the country; this is the result of very poor financial planning and execution. That's all I'm going to say about that.