Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Letter to My Son

Dear Brendan,

Today, my son, you are seven years old.

If you will, allow a father his ruminations, and trust that his own patience for them will sufficiently limit their length. It's hard to believe it's been that long, that you are so big, and growing ever faster. What you were the day you were born, what you have meant to us these last 2,557 days, and what you are becoming are never so sharply in focus than the morning of your birthday, when I stand at your bedside and stroke your hair while you sleep, or the night before, when I sometimes cuddle with you and whisper how special and precious you are.

You and I both know we don't see eye to eye. I'm willing to accept that we may never share so much common ground as your siblings and I. But as we occasionally joke, I love you no matter what: when I'm angry, tired, crabby, happy; whether you're screaming or smiling at me; whether you're respecting Mommy or not. The things that make you different from me, from your brother and sister, are the things that make you more special than I ever could have hoped before I held you in my arms.

I've said before you have the biggest heart of anyone I know, and I don't think that will ever change. You are so like Mommy in your pure capacity for love and compassion, in your temper and sense of justice. I see so much of her in you.

You and I have had our share of troubled times. Unable to feed you as an infant, as I was your brother, I think I lost many precious hours. The day you rolled off the bed and fractured your skull, you were in my care. I didn't know you could roll so well, and thought there was time to brush my teeth before you needed anything else. You have always been stronger than we thought. In an effort to step over you into the bathroom (you weren't yet walking) I kicked you with my heavy work boot one day. You test my patience more than any other child I've known...or at least it fails the most with you. And last summer, we were out climbing, sharing a special afternoon together in Virginia, and you fell off that rock because I failed to catch you.

I thought I'd lost you that day, Brendan. It is the most real fear I can ever recall in my whole life.

I am so sorry for all these things.

Despite my difficulty bonding with you, I think we are a very unique pair. I think that over these and future years we will develop a respect and understanding for each other that many other father-son pairs take for granted, including the relationship I will have with your brother. I think that you will grow to be a man who understands what it is to love in the face of difficulty, who knows the purpose of a struggle in life and sees it as a challenge rather than a road block.

Today you will get a glow-in-the-dark junior sized football because I know nothing about Pokemon cards (and let's face it: neither do you) and I cannot (as I have explained) afford a RoboRaptor. I think you will like the football, but in case you don't I will allow you to throw it to me just so you can muscle me to the ground right after I catch it, or fumble it on purpose so you can recover it and make the winning touch down, even though I know you'll know I did it on purpose.

I think it's really cool that you have the first birthday in the new house. I will enjoy showing you off and asking about your school day in front of grandparents. I will enjoy talking about our Cub Scouting together. Today I hope that, through simple things, you will know that I love you.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Teaching Self-Victimization

A few nights ago we all sat down to watch the US-Mexico soccer game. We crammed into Santos' room, since he is, after all, the only real fan of professional soccer in the house, and were introduced to the world sport that we, as Americans, really have no appreciation for or understanding of. I have to admit we may be missing out on something quite cool.

So we six sat...well, except our oldest, who has even less interest in soccer than your typical adult American. The rest of us engrossed as we were, we took little notice of his disinterest. I asked if he'd like to sit down, and he indicated that he the seat I was occupying.

Here is where the scene freezes, almost. My initial response was that no, I'm sitting in this chair. As he left the room dejected, I realized what he was truly after: attention.

His request wasn't meant to find a comfortable place for his rear end, but to get throw a minor wrench in the works and be noticed, and hopefully get someone interested in doing something else with him. I was the person he came to for this.

Now of all the good things I am, something I am not is a model parent. I really have no idea how to handle most of the more subtle aspects of parenting. My first reaction to this situation is that I do not allow this child to dictate my actions, and therefore if he wants to sit with us he will find another place to do so, and if he does not he will do something else in another room. My next reaction is that he is only eight years old, and is already lacking in proper confidence and means by which to express himself and his feelings (courtesy of his parents, who also lack these things in varying degrees), and did his very best to say what he needed to me, his father. So I sat in a quandary for a slice of a second.

I decided that offering him my seat would probably have the greater effect of showing him that I noticed and cared about his feelings, and possibly also of encouraging him to spend this time with us, which I knew, as bedtime was quickly approaching, would only amount to fifteen or twenty minutes total. The scene resumed, I made the offer (which was accepted) and I squeezed in next to my wife. In hindsight, I should have offered him my lap. I'll beat myself up about that later.

After a few moments, I realized that my plan had failed. I think he perceived my concern for his feelings, but that was only good enough for so long. Now he was in the chair he asked for (not because he wanted that chair, mind you) and he was stuck doing something he really didn't want to to. His plan had failed too--that is, his plan to get someone to spend time with him. So he started hemming and hawing, doing all the unconscious things we've taught him to do that trigger concern in other people, and prompt them to ask, "What's wrong, Anthony?" And so like Pavlov's dogs, we did.

"I'm bored!" he exclaimed with an agonized voice. Here the scene changed again, skewed by the lens of our frantic dysfunctional reaction to our son's alleged distress. Right away, my wife and I reacted. It's sad and comical, really. We concern ourselves with our child's welfare so deeply that we do not even want him to be bored. Intuitively, I know that letting him alone to deal with boredome will teach him to self-stimulate, solve problems, and ultimately think on his feet. But I am very well trained, and reacted immediately before even thinking.

My brain kicked in mid-consolation, as my mouth was offering him a list of things he could do rather than sit here in the room with us. "It's okay if he's bored, honey," I said, feeling almost guilty that despite all my ideas about coloring or finishing that chapter or turning on the other TV of having a snack, here I was abandoning my firstborn child in a desert of nondiscovery. And as terrible and rediculous as it felt before it came out, suddenly the scene changed back to a linear simplicity once spoken. The lense quickly dissipated in a giant sucking sound, and all was well again. Even Anthony. Although slightly distressed at having been given free reign over the last ten minutes of his night, he just got up and trotted out, and found something to do without a fuss, which, by the way, he was quite happily into by the time we asked him to brush teeth and say goodnight to everyone.

I don't honestly know how often these scenes occur in my house every day, but I'm willing to bet it's more than I could count on one hand. Obviously, I react...we all react...with subconsciously predicted precision each time. I don't really know if this is contributing to the self-victimization of my children, but I don't feel it's healthy. I do not want them growing up waiting for someone else to tell them what to do or how to handle conflict. I want them to know what they want, get it for its own sake, and be able to deal with problems as they come. I don't want them to isolate, but I want them to be independent. By the reactions I saw in myself and my son that night, what I'm really teaching him is if someone else doesn't provide a solution for you, you can blame your negative feelings, and the consequences of actions you take because of those feelings, on that person. And I am appalled at that.

I know my only way out is to learn better how to parent myself and transfer that to the parenting of my children. I'm as guilty as anyone of self-victimization, and I need to learn to recognize the signs and stop them before the automatic action-reaction machine kicks in. So I'll be working on that, and asking for help. And hopefully, as Mr. Woodlief points out so very eloquently in his SitG post More Light, I can overcome myself and teach my children to be better, more whole human beings than me.

By the way, the final score was US 1, Mexico 0. Viva Estados Unidos!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Alright, let's talk about Lisa Nowak.

I know, I know. She's all the buzz on the national media scene. I'm usually resistant to pop news stories, especially ones that run dozens of stories per day on mostly voyeuristic subjects. But this one has me by the short hairs, so indulge me. Or not (that little 'next blog' button up top there is just for you today).

The synopsis: Lisa Nowak, a married (separated) Navy officer and NASA astronaut, drove 900+ miles in ~14 hours to confront the girlfriend (single Air Force officer Colleen Shipman) of another Navy officer and NASA astronaut (divorced William Oefelein) with whom she is known to have had at least a one-sided romantic interest. Yes, 'love triangle' is big in the news. It's better than a movie.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. Cries of wonder abound in the news coverage about what could have happened to such an accomplished woman that would drive her to such ends. We as a nation are aghast that one of our heroes has done something so unthinkably...ghetto. That's right: I think what most alarms us is that a member of this elite corps of Americans is now overqualified for an appearance on Jerry Springer.

Fact is, this is a very sad situation, and it has nothing to do with the rest of America. It has everything to do with the three adults involved and the Nowak family. If we as individuals insist on being affected by this situation, a requirement for opening our mouths (or columns, or blogs) to speak on it should be first asking ourselves why we hold certain people to higher standards and assign hero status to such folks.

While I'm not refuting that some people ought to be held to a higher standard and/or be granted hero status, I am simply saying that we need to examine the reasons before we spout off or feel betrayed.

Here are my thoughts. What Lisa Nowak has accomplished in her life is very admirable. Her bio is here, and we can all agree it's pretty impressive. Certainly anyone would be praised for wanting to achieve the things she's done, moreso for completing them. Even admission to a military academy makes one elite, let alone finishing and being granted a commission. And let me straighten out a fact: she's identified as a Navy Captain, which most folks don't realize is equivalent to Colonel in the other services--that's just one rank below General.

Maybe I'm engaging in a little hero worship of my own here. So be it.

At the end of the day, what this whole story proves to me is that no matter how accomplished, how educated, or successful we may be, none of us are immune to our humanity. We all have feelings and emotions and things that send us into childish fits. We all have weaknesses and are prone to bad judgments and mistakes. Lisa Nowak had such a fit, and made such a judgment. She was caught and put in a cage, paraded down Main Street, and is currently on display at our American Town Square. Just check your favorite news site every 10 minutes.

Before we feel sad for ourselves over our lost hero or national pride, before we feel sorry even for Captain Nowak, we ought to first consider what this has done to her family, namely her son and daughters, for whom this will be probably a life-altering, maybe life-defining, event. Lisa Nowak's greatest struggle following this will not be going to trial, possibly prison, possibly being dishonorably discharged...but reconciling with her children.

And before we blame Captain Nowak (she'll get what's coming to her, rest assured), let's take a close look at what the media is doing. True, the words I've read in the news stories over the last two days have been pretty objective and cleaned pretty well of anything human or emotional. But I have a serious gripe with the use of her mugshot as a comparison to other photos. On one side we see her NASA publicity pic, a pretty smiling woman, a woman who has done more with her life at age 43 than most people will in their whole lives, and on the other the dark haggard face of a...what are we supposed to see anyway? A criminal? A freak? A homewrecker? A skank? What does a person look like who carries these labels? Like this? Because the woman in that picture is still the 43 year old senior Navy officer with a Master's degree in aeronatical engineering who's been aboard the space shuttle. Seriously, guys. Comparing anyone's best to their worst will yield the same results. It just won't usually tear down public opinion on what we believe is a 'common' American with normal standards of behavior.

What a lot of us are looking for here, including NASA, is a cause or trigger, something they can point to and say "yes, that's what we missed, this is what we need to do differently next time." I've got news for you folks: the problem was there all along, and can never be taken away. No matter what psychological screening process astronauts are put through, every one of them will have the same issue: they are human, living human lives, with marriages and families and credit scores and debts, with qualities good and bad, with flaws and strengths.

The tragic irony of this story is that without these human qualities that make us what we are, we are nothing more than machines. Those that would hide their vulnerabilities are not brave, they are running away from something that defines them. We hold high such figures that present us with stories of unmatched dedication and perseverance, that have accomplished things in their lives we think mean something, and then we tear down those same people when their humanity emerges from behind the veil. The only time we recognize this is after we realize that a fallen hero was, in fact, just like us. How many examples do we have as a culture of the officer-president-hero-JFK's who we quietly acknowledge, after the fact, was a womanizer?

We must not take this, yet another chance, to tell ourselves that being or doing makes one person better than any other. We must resist the compelling urge to hold ourselves higher than this woman who left her family and career to do something that could potentially (and probably will) ruin the whole life she's known. If we feel better than Lisa Nowak the obsessive philanderer, we should be scolding ourselves for putting Lis Nowak the hero astronaut above us before we realized she was human.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Color of Love

This morning, per my habit, I looked at a couple news items online. Like most internet users, I grow increasingly immune to the various means of advertising placed on websites of all kinds. My eyes scan past the banners, the Flash animation, the cute little games, and the free iPod offers with automatic precision. Today, however, one ad did catch my eye.

It was a Sprint ad, and the first frame said something like "the colors of love." What followed were pictures of phones in the three prominent colors. I shall detail them for you:

"Forgot our anniversary" silver
"Spent too much on golf clubs" pink
"Thursday is poker night" espresso


So what have we seen here? Nice phones, yes, in admittedly attractive colors.

And what have we learned?

First, we need to assume that these phones are being marketed to men with female partners. Then we can make the following conclusions:

1) only men make such mistakes as forgetting anniversaries, or do so with characteristic frequency

2) one good way to make up for spending too much on one thing is to make a completely unplanned additional purchase

3) it is a bad thing for a man to plan to spend an evening away from his partner

4) men can make up for their boyish folly by buying their partners stylish and expensive gifts

5) women will accept such gifts as restitution for the named transgressions, and possibly many others

This is yet another example of our social understanding of men as simplistic baboons and women as fawning materialists. Is it wrong to be disgusted at these assumptions? Yes, we are all simple creatures with primal urges and instincts. But if we're going to communicate on that level, let's not pretend it's all we are. If you want to sell me a phone, I'm more likely to listen if you begin appealing to my sense of utility (a basic male quality in my opinion) than the guilt I feel at having 'wronged' my wife.

This ad is funny in the way that the Super Bowl Snickers ad was funny. There's enough media attention on this issue that I needn't go into why it was inappropriate. I admit I didn't notice any distasteful content, being the straight middle-class WASP that I am, but reading comments and thinking more I realize the truth. It's not exactly gay-bashing, but how many boys who might be questionong their sexuality were sitting on couches with their fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends, and had it confirmed that yes, being gay is an awful thing, to be remedied only by stupid acts of "manly" prowess? How many of them laughed with the crowd and were secretly crushed at seeing how the men who love them would react to a possibly inevitable truth? (And just how manly is it to rip out one's chest hair, anyway?)

Disclaimer: This whole rant might be one more example of me taking myself too seriously. If it is, then I have misjudged the world around me and the lot of you may continue living your lives, no matter how superficial, judgmental, consumerist, or shallow I might think they are.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Dirty Ball Blues

An original song by me:

Oh, I got the dirty ball blues

Every time I move my mouse
It gets stuck on the desk
If I use a pad it don't help
Makes me feel so bad

Oh I got the blues
Yeah the dirty ball blues
It's been such a long time
Think I been paid my dues

Used to be I could mouse
All around that pad
Don't matter how much or where I went
I di'n't ne'er feel so bad

Well now I bang my mouse
up and down
on the desk
I go to town
with that thang
don't do no good
seems to me
like it should


Can't make no good man
Put up with such a po', po' thang
So I fin'ly got to Best Buy
Spent me a little twang

Now my mouse is happy
It's got a lil red light
It glides around the mousepad
And feels so, so right