It’s 9:45a and I’m running late for an all-day meditation retreat.
It is a rare and special thing, as a parent, to get all-day without the kid(s), and I’ve chosen to spend mine reconnecting with my meditation ‘roots’ (tons of podcasts, that one app with the Australian dude whose voice I grew to hate, etc). I’d also done TM recently, but like an indie version of it run by some dude in LA who I thought charged less than the actual TM organization which, turns out, was not the case.
But that’s the past, and this is now. The retreat starts at 10a on Zoom (it was moved online after the host got COVID). A retreat online, eh? Not exactly what I was hoping for but hey, now I’ll chill in our bedroom, meditate so fucking hard, and I’ll reach Nirvana by nightfall. Plus, now I can squeeze in a workout and probably get some writing done later – it's gonna be one heckuva productive, ego-dissolving day!
But then I dillied, I dallied, I monster-car-rallied (went to the gym), and now? It’s 9:51am.
I pull into the driveway and storm into the house like I’m doing a robbery because YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE LATE FOR A MEDITATION RETREAT! But I can’t just run to the bedroom because YOU CANNOT END A WORKOUT WITHOUT HAVING A PROTEIN SHAKE, otherwise it’s “like you didn’t workout at all”’ said some dude in a message board in 2005.
Lauren’s in the kitchen too, prepping some cheerios and cherry tomatoes for her and Wilder to head out to the playground, so we’re packed in tight like a coupla sardines after an algae-can-eat buffet (I am ready to face any repercussions related to this joke).
Meanwhile, Wilder is screaming like he’s just been born again at Pentecostal churches, the TV is on with Miss Rachel whose psychotic high-school theater energy terrifies me, and also Robert our dog is barking because he understands leverage.
(in an italian mobster accent for some reason) “Oh, you want me to stop barking? It’s too much with all the other noises you got goin’ on? Then maybe, I dunno, it could be prudent for you to consider giving this lil doggie a treat, I’m just sayin..”
But I don’t give ol’ Big Roberto from Staten Island a treat because I am very overwhelmed and it’s 9:55am now and I haven’t really begun the protein shake process so I says to Lauren, I says, “I think my bucket’s full.”
“This is the only advice we've ever found to be actually useful,” my friend Wendy said, before Wilder was born, “and here it is: The Bucket System."
"Oh..." I said imagining an elaborate rope and pulley system that helped the family’s flow of toilet regularity needed to keep things moving.
Wendy, worried about what was happening to my face, continued, "You each have a 'bucket,' and the more stressed and overwhelmed you are, the fuller your bucket is. When the bucket gets full, like you can't handle anymore: that's it. There's nothing you can do. You're overwhelmed, game over, and the best thing for everyone is if you take a break.”
“So, at any point either one of you can say, 'My bucket is full,” and the other person knows that means they need to step up, no questions asked, so the full-bucketee can take some time away," she explained.
The key, she stressed, is that there’s no judgment around it. Neither of you is due for a full bucket after a certain amount of time, and there's no judging the other person’s bucket fullness. If a bucket is full, it is full. No questions asked.
Back to the story
So I tell Laur that my bucket is full and we keep bumbling around the kitchen. But something has changed. It’s barely perceptible, like how a violinist’s performance sounds beautiful to everyone except the violinist, who can just feel that a string is ever so slightly out of tune. This is marriage, it seems--becoming world class at knowing when the other is broken.
And so I go ‘what’s wrong’ and she says ‘nothin’.
And I say, ‘ok but what’s wrong?’ a little part of me maybe wanting her to say something mean maybe?
She answers, “nothing...it’s just funny-I’ve been with him all morning and you’ve been home for 15 minutes, and your bucket is already full.”
Now I’m, as the kids say, steamed, and not in the yummy dumplings sorta way. No, in the gross ass veggies with no sauce sorta way, because:
It triggered a fear I’d already been having about the lack of merit in my claim of bucket fullness. A part of me knew she was right, and her saying so proves my greatest fear true: I AM, in fact, a piece of shit failure who can’t handle even a short amount of time with his son.
She violated the bucket rule: you do not under any circumstances question someone else’s bucket. Or, as Dwayne “The People’s Champion” Johnson said in the 2008 action/comedy vehicle GET SMART: “We have rules here. If you don't follow the rules, then what are we?”
Oh, sarcasm, you annoying lil defense mechanism, you.
We proceed to argue for a few minutes until I realize that, yep, it’s 10:15a, which means that, yep,
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important Retrate
I run into the bedroom, close the door, and try to come up with a good excuse for why I’m late and also very sweaty because, and this too is no joke, the only other time I'd done a guided meditation with this guy, I was also LATE, also after the gym, and also very incredibly sweaty. I ended up doing that meditation in my car like a sicko.
But I’m so overwhelmed that nothing comes to mind, so I say nothing and try to listen as the dude explains today’s focus: Natural meditation which means it's like all about NOT focusing on anything, but instead just acknowledging whatever it is that’s happening. Great!
He kicks things off with our first meditation and the Big Feelings take over -- how dare Lauren do this! the injustice! – looping, building one on top of the other, like I’m a detective finally making sense of the case. Medically, I believe this would be called a panic attack.
After 15 minutes, I leave the retreat. I’ll Namastay away from my thoughts, today, thank you.
To clarify, leaving the retreat just means closing my laptop. I close my laptop.
I try to nap, but can’t. I’m still so steamed, like a locomotive on the wrong side of the tracks, so I go and wash the dishes when in walk Lauren and Wilder.
Things are tense. Even Robert can feel it, and stays far away, licking his own butt.
Lauren puts Wilder down for a nap and I head to my office. Which is also the living room because I got evicted from my office so Wilder could have his own room. An absurd move, since he has no idea what a room even is. And how is a baby room theme of ‘depressing office of a guy who tells everyone he’s a creative’ not the way to go? Sorry, it’s my bucket talking. Onwards
I’m on my computer probably googling “how to meditate without having to sit and do nothing” when Lauren returns. After a minute, she says, “So...are you on break from the retreat?”
And I say, “I ended up not going,” knowing it will probably make her feel bad because I am a lil stinker.
Lo and behold, she feels bad. Clearly I really needed this retreat, so she extends what’s known in the biz as an olive branch, though she’s forgotten one thing: I hate olives.
She says, “the 20% of me that is worried about having a second kid is –” WAIT ALEX HOLD ON THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW ABOUT THE SECOND KID THING.
Important background info
We’d been talking about expansion. The Wildenko firm needed one more person, full time, right away -- 18 year contract, benefits, free lunch, the nines (it is unpaid, but a great boost for your resume!)
A huge decision. Thinking about the numbers like we always do, Lauren said the other day that 80% of her is excited but 20% of her is terrified.
Now you know.
Background info complete
K so Lauren says “the 20% of me that is worried about having a second kid is because I’m worried that you’re not gonna be able to handle it, like how can we have a second kid when you can’t even handle one?”
To which I respond, ever the peacemaker, “yeah well then maybe you should have a 2nd kid with someone else, cuz this is who I am.”
Which, in retrospect, not my finest work.
We keep arguing though I can’t remember exactly what was said. I know in my head I really wanted to ask for space, but I couldn’t pull it off. WHY is it so hard to de-escalate? It's as if, in these moments, asking for space means breaking up. The stakes are impossibly high.
Let’s do a quick check in. How is everyone? Need some water? An iced tea? Maybe you started reading this at work and are now like wtf dude I can’t do this I’m at my office! Totally fair. You can finish later, but me? I gotta keep going.
Brief Interlude for those still seated during intermission
Allow me a moment to...explain. I’m sensitive. People have always said, “Al don’t be so sensitive,” as if feeling your feelings was a malfunction of the (and it does seem gendered somehow)- male condition.
Besides smells, my number one trigger for said sensitivity is sound. Especially the sound of a baby crying. And especially the sound of my baby crying.
Like, my nervous system can’t handle it; it feels like fight and flight, that classic duo, finally decided to squash their beef and do a sick collab, Both Are True style -- no more fight OR flight, for Alex, it’s Fight AND Flight!! (Fight x Flight, by Fenty).
It’s hard to admit any of this. It feels weak, like I should be able to handle it, especially when there is a literal actual baby in the room with us. And yet, it’s true. Sounds like screaming panic that I need to fix but I can’t, so I’m just stuck there, helpless. From there, anger comes fast as a protection.
I’ve made no secret of this to Laur either, not that I could have kept it a secret since I have a very physical panic whenever it happens. Sounds, smells, whatever. I remember as a kid I would become obsessed with someone’s bad breath and not be able to go on until I told them about it. Usually this meant me saying to my dad or mom, “You have bad breath.” I wasn’t like 5 either, we’re talking like age 12 maybe? Fascinating stuff..
fight n flight drawing
This next part is key. Sitting there, stewing in a steamed pile of my own self hate, my brain tries to make sense of things. To find a STORY that will legitimize the FEELINGS.
I’ve heard the brain described less as the CEO of you and more like the PR team. Feelings and fears and sensations are happening, and it’s the brain’s job to spin it all into a story the press can understand. Split brain studies show this but I sorta forget how they work exactly so let’s move on.
Searching for the story is a rushed, panicked experience. It feels like I’m trying to disarm a bomb, staring at all the red, blue, yellow, green wires, but instead of defusing it i’m actually connecting all the wires necessary to make the bomb explode, a fact I’d realize if I could slow down but I can’t and then BAM there it is:
Amidst the madness, this is a great feeling. I’m like a scientist whose finally solved the problem that’s vexed him for all his days, but instead of saying ‘eureka', I just scream. Like I actually scream. Ok, maybe it was more of a growl-whisper scream because also Wilder is still sleeping though, let’s be honest that dude is so high on Sound Machine TV static that an actual bomb could go off and he’d be chill.
Oh yea, the bomb analogy. So yea - the bomb exploded. Or imploded, like a nuclear bomb does, or however those things work we really just don’t know yet.
I’ve entered a Hulk like state and the details get real blurry. A psychiatrist badass dude named Dr. Ham explains trauma reactions this way: your body’s overreactive alarm system treats everything as a mortal threat and all a sudden, you’re The Hulk.
Once you’re in Hulk state, adrenaline takes over and your intelligence goes way down. Which explains why its so hard de-escalate in the middle of a fight - The Hulk isn’t too big on nonviolent conflict resolution.
Lucky for us, there is a record of what happened next - my journal.
“She leaves and mere moments later I flip out, scream and hit my legs or something then shoot up out of my chair to find my socks to leave but Laur comes back out and asks what’s wrong. I say that “I never doubt you. Why do you always doubt me? I never doubt you.”
That was the story I’d given at the press briefing: “Alex is raging out because he feels like Lauren doubts him, but he doesn’t doubt her. No further questions at this time.”
Laur tries to explain she doesn’t doubt me but I don’t hear it. I’m too far gone. I feel defective, broken like a tickle-me-Elmo that can’t be tickled, but rather than admit it (the Hulk doesn’t really do a great job at self-aware apologies) I keep on Hulking by finding blame with Laur. You just don’t know how to tickle Elmo, that’s why I won’t laugh when tickled. It’s your fault. You doubt that Elmo can be tickled so why would Elmo laugh, Elmo does not think this is funny
Lauren goes back into the bedroom for a minute, maybe two, then charges back out, and now she’s a Hulk too (She-Hulk?) and says “I don't just doubt you, I doubt me, I doubt all of us.”
But I’m good at subtext, so all I hear is, “I do doubt you, yes,” which Lauren can feel, so she sorta growls and kicks the empty laundry basket in the middle of the office/living room, then rushes back to the bedroom and closes the door.
I try to keep Hulking or at least wallowing, but I can’t stop thinking about one specific thing. It takes over, all-consuming, a question I need answered.
I walk into the bedroom where I find Laur under the covers.
I approach, slowly, and finally ask, “Did...you mean for that to be funny?”
She whips the covers down and looks at me: “What?”
“Like with the laundry basket, did you mean for it to be funny when you kicked it.”
And I can tell obviously she didn’t, but she agrees - it simply was objectively funny. Lauren never kicks things, first off, and the growl she made beforehand, I mean the whole thing was just such high level Charlie Chaplin-esque work.
And again, I don’t remember what happened next, so let’s check the tape (journal):
“We laugh. We resolve. I lay on her chest and it feels so nice, like melting into her, becoming one, a team.”
This next part, I remember.
I said, sheepishly, like a lil sheep, “I don’t want you to have kids with anyone else.”
She paused, then replied, “I can’t, because having two with someone else would mean three in total, and that’s too many.”
First off, another absolute banger from Laur. Incredible.
Second off, I JUST REALIZED LAUREN KICKING A LAUNDRY BASKET MEANT THAT OUR BUCKETS, BOTH OVERFLOWING AT THIS POINT, WERE FINALLY EMPTIED OUT.
If that ain’t Shakespeare, idk what is bruv.
Ok now onto the not so fun stuff...sure, the skirmish is resolved, but the war sadly rages on. How the fuck do I handle this stuff???
rabbi therapist says that for sensitive people with ADHD and OCD, noises and stimuli of all sorts are a LOT. Basically, there’s a progression that one goes through, starting with overstimulation to dysregulation all the way to ‘flooded.’
Once you're flooded, the bucket’s way too full. You’re full Hulk and you’re drowning in the bucket water. Any rational part of you that can step in and say heeeelp is offline, so you have to take action at the overstimulation/ dysregulation phase and basically say, “Hey Laur, I’m feeling overstimulated, is it cool if I take 5 min outside?”
But in a Hulk or Hulk-adjacent state, it feels impossible to do! It is pathetic, in my brain, to have admit how I’m overwhelmed by ‘the noises’ of our actual baby child. It feels unmanly, though maybe that’s just my PR team brain trying to explain what is largely a biological response (Fright x Flight, by Fenty).
But I’m trying. A couple times it’s even worked. I went outside and cooled off and came back as my normal self. Lauren has explicitly said that she’d much rather I take a beat than just stick around, steaming in my own bucket water obviously would much prefer this than me staying pissy Hulky without saying anything
Usually though, it’s not that easy. I’ll notice that I am close to getting flooded, want to say something, but be unable to, like I open my mouth, but the words just won’t come out, like I’m choking how, everybody's joking now, the clock's run out, time's up, over, blaow.
Or to translate the words of the late 2000s Poet Laureate, Eminem, I don’t say shit. I just sorta sit there, convinced that I can white knuckle it, because I am a man.
But I can’t.
So what do I do? Van Gogh this situation and cut my ears off so I can’t hear anymore?
No way, the cleanup would suck.
I just keep going, keep trying, and keep getting better. The main thing that motivates me, actually, is Wilder. The problem is the solution. Alpha, meet omega.
Because the next few years are going to be prime for him to figure out how to handle emotions that overwhelm him. Well, lucky for him, he’s got an in-house expert!
If I can model (once again, there should be a feelings runway for feelings models) for him how to handle a situation where you get overwhelmed with emotions, he’s gonna have suuuuuch an easier time doing it than I do! In fact it might be too easy and I’ll get jealous and mad but whatever we’ll cross that ditch when we get to it.
Writing about this helps too. Sharing what feels shameful makes it no longer feel so. Out in the sunshine, it loses a lot of its power and becomes one of the many annoying things Al does on a semi-regular basis. This, we can work with. This we can live with, adjust for, manage.
None of this would work without Lauren. She accepts me, even and especially the parts I hate about myself. It’s easy to love the best parts of one another; that’s intro 101 shit. Advanced, grad school work, however, is loving or at least accepting that your adult husband is in fact also a small child, as we all are in our own little ways, and he needs to be cared for and held and loved on and told that it’s all gonna be okay, ya lil freak.
And what is love, if not that!
I love writing essays for y’all. If you love reading them too and recently robbed a bank, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Also if you share this with even just one person an angel gets one wing. two people? two wings.
they’re so high no elevator will even go up there even though we do need the stakes for dinner tonight almost everyone ordered the stake! (I received death threats about putting this joke into the actual piece, so I’ve compromised and put it down here)
I forgot to mention: all the images are actual photographs (Canon Mark x5, 30/30 focal)
Funny and painfully honest, that's Both are True! I am a fan, but I've got to be honest, I feel empathy for Laur. Please buy her some good quality chocolates and flowers and tell her I said so.
- from a fan who has been married since 1984 and had three kids spread out over 12 years just so we could be sure to never have time to ourselves for as long as possible!