Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

They found it

June 13, 2013

Just got a text from Older Daughter: there yet? “Nope. On our way.”

She and her pals are on the road to Bonnaroo. Wasn’t thinking about there, exactly, when I packed her Seuss box in anticipation of wondrous journeys. “O the places you’ll go,” o the humanity. 100,000 people in a field near Manchester, TN as the mercury heads back toward the mid 90s.  Rustic conditions, minimal amenities, security not entirely reassuring, loud and crowded and HOT. Sound like fun?

How’s a dad supposed to feel, especially after getting a message like this a few moments ago?

“We can’t find Bonnaroo, but we’re in Manchester. Can you look on the website for an address?”

Well, I feel concerned, amused, mildly perturbed. Mom and I have been pushing survival guides and FAQ pages and explicit travel instructions at her for days and weeks.

But, she’s more prepared than she lets on, I know. From the time she was a little girl she’s always delighted in proclaiming “got your goat!” She insisted to Mom that she wouldn’t need earplugs to sleep, then on the sly asked me to pick her some up.  So mom was right after all? “No. This is a just in case. If she’s right, I’ll tell her after…”

Breaking news:

“We found it.”

Good. Guess I can stop worrying now, right?

No explanation needed

May 8, 2012

The Middle School kids were off for a teachers’ in-service day, and Younger Daughter announced it would be a Daddy-Daughter Day. We used to have those all the time, back in the pre-school era.

What happens on Daddy-Daughter Days? Nothing. Everything.

Yesterday, it began (after we dropped Older Daughter off at school) with breakfast at Krispy Kreme. Then home to walk the dogs at Brook Hollow, she breaking away to run with “Angel” off-leash for a few minutes. Then the ritual rest in the gazebo.

Then a bike-ride, followed by still more dog-time at the Centennial Dog Park. It was time to go when somebody’s amorous pooch wouldn’t listen to “no” from ours. The owner said he couldn’t resist the dogs that smelled good. “Stop spraying them with Febreeze, Dad!”

Then we dropped the dogs at home, cleaned up, and headed to the Farmers’ Market food court where Younger Daughter says the best Chinese in town is at “Green Asia.” I recommend the spicy chicken.

Then shopping for girl clothes at Target. I really thought this was a Mommy-Daughter job but it fell to me this time. I was a little alarmed by the transparency of the top she selected, until it was explained that it tops a camisole.

Then to Mom’s office for an x-ray of that painful ankle that had been annoying her during softball season. Bone spur maybe? We’ll see.

And then, speaking of softball, it was time for the annual Middle School sports awards banquet. Guess who (following in Older Daughter’s footsteps) took home the MVP trophy? “It all started with backyard whiffle ball.” But she was more excited for her friend who got the basketball Coach’s Award, even though Mom and I thought she deserved it too. Parents can be greedy.

It was the perfect end to a  delightful day that required no explanation.

evolution of childhood

May 11, 2010

So… what book shall I write?

I’ve been threatening forever to write something about childhood. Melvin Konner has finally come out with his Evolution of Childhood. Maybe “play” needs more attention.

Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

How does play give way, in our development, to critical acuity and rational maturity? How do Red & Rover rise from their crate-box spaceship to face real questions about the cosmos? How do any of us learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, and replace the will to believe with the will to find out? What are parents’ and teachers’ obligations in this regard? And what about the moral lives of babies? Or philosophical babies?

There’s at least another book or two in those questions.

The Rock

October 6, 2009

“Some emotions make us flourish, others sap our well-being, others make us wither.”

No kidding. I’ve been talking up the positive emotions, and so does Ricard just a few paragraphs on: “positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire” to include joy, interest, contentment, and love.

Great. But a friend reports his 10-year old daughter’s recent diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and the attendant emotions are just as you’d expect: “feeling stuck, tired, angry, & not much fun to be around.” I have a 10-year old too, I’m sure I’d be every bit as demoralized and debilitated by that news as he is. There are moments in life when overt demands to flourish ring false.

I’m not about to advise my friend to buck up and be happy. That would be insensitive and probably counter-productive. But I wonder if I’d be able to tell myself that, were we to find ourselves in his family’s  situation.

Ricard mentions William James’s concept of “sustained, voluntary attention“– the key, for James, to free will, self-determination, and ultimately to happiness itself. (Winifred Gallagher just wrote a great big book on this.) When life snaps you over the head with a two-by-four, can you still turn your attention away from “disturbing” emotions to positive, nurturing thoughts? I know, Buddhist meditators can do it for hours on end. But Buddhist meditators, afflicted by many forms of suffering and denial, still tend not to have 10-year olds with Type 1 diabetes. Or is that an outworn, culturally-confused stereotype?

Maybe it is. Buddhists in America especially come in all shapes, sizes, and domestic situations. But I’m afraid the “calming” exercise in this chapter is not a lot more specifically instructive to me than the earlier advice to expand my mind. “With a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever…” Carpe diem? Memento mori? I think Hallmark could do better.

In general I have nothing but admiration for such sentiments, which come to me in almost precisely this form and with some considerable frequency– usually on sunny days when I’ve placed myself in my own form of meditative receptivity, while hoofing it around and watching the thoughts rise and fall.

What I still want to understand is how Buddhists and other serene folk summon such comfort and joy when the days and nights are dark and long and the news is heartbreaking. We’re passionately “attached” to our children, we grieve when they suffer, we curse the impersonal universe that dispenses weal and woe so indifferently, and at such moments feel anything but appreciation for life’s maldistributed “potential.” (Is that what Heidegger meant by “presence in the mode of absence?”) At such moments, what we want is to be dealt a new hand… not to be urged to be effusively grateful for the crummy old one.

And we’re going to need a better “exercise,” there’s not much consolation in this one.

Chapter Ten, to Ricard’s credit, picks up the challenge. “There’s no question here of ceasing to love those whose lives we share.” No, there’s not.

“As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience.” Again, details here are wanting. But this is key, if only I could figure out how to make it fit my psychological  locks: “You are overwhelmed by a sudden tide of anger… But look closely. It is nothing more than a thought… It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it.”

But when conditions objectively “suck,” as my friend observes, shouldn’t we identify with the emotions that express our sharp revulsion? It feels like the right response–not the most pleasant, not the happiest, not the healthiest, just the right one. Why is that wrong? Why are we entitled to stuff those emotions and opt for the positive ones, when conditions do not elicit them spontaneously?

Of course, liberation from anger at the moment it arises would be wonderfully soothing– to me. It would not mitigate a little girl’s anguish, would it?

But is the point, rather, that even righteous anger does no good and might do harm? That begins at last to speak to me, as did the Oklahoma City Dad’s refusal to endorse Timothy McVeigh’s execution (ch12). One more death, one more angry act of retribution, eases no one’s pain.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” leaves us all blind and gummy.

Once again, though, the exercise does not work for me. “Don’t unite with the anger… keep on just  observing [it], it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.” Yes, eventually we’ll all evaporate. Just now, though, when the anger is a tight little knot and the world does not feel much like home, is observation the best response? It might be. But it feels like a waste of perfectly good adrenaline.

schopenhauer1Ricard quotes “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer,” and his coupling of striving and desire. The Mark_Twainimplication is that desire always frustrates, is  “everywhere impeded,” always struggling, fighting, suffering. We can escape desire, or suppress it. But Mark Twain said the best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it. Is that not, sometimes, a gratifying strategy? (I don’t know what Shania says about desire, that’s whose image Google wanted me to put here. You prob’ly did too.)

As for dismantling hatred and hostilities: Buddhists and cheek-turning Christians have much to teach us all about this. I confess I simply do not comprehend the sensibility that is capable of feeling love and compassion for even the most hateful and hostile others, simply because they too “strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.” I suppose I am deficient in fellow-feeling. I hope I would refrain from calling for Tim McVeigh’s head, but I don’t feel bad about not extending to him the love and compassion I feel for my kids. Should I? Please explain.

My reflections on this book began with some quibbles about renunciation. Ricard is explicit, now, in denying my presuppositions: “Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness… saying no to all that is pleasant… Genuine happiness– as opposed to contrived euphoria– endures through life’s ups and downs.” And smooths them out? “We can get off the endless roller coaster of happiness and suffering.” That’s fine, I’m not that fond of roller coasters anyway. And I’m very fond of Ricard’s next authorial citation: “Simplify, simplify.”

But I still think William James has had the sharpest insight into our correct default position on the question of desires: fulfill as many of them as we can, erring on the  side of the presumption that more (not fewer) satisfactions will raise the sea level of our happiness.

william-james“Take any demand however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all.” The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Is this wrong? If you read it as an excuse for narcissistic, ego-grabbing, non-reciprocal, non-altruistic selfishness, read on:

“Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock’s inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed. We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.”

Our emotions and desires need not pull us apart. They can bring us together, here at The Rock. We just gotta follow the rules,barney_fife keep our cool, resist pointless anger, and practice a little tough love (as well as loving-kindness) with the rule-breakers. Don’t be spiteful and immature. (And, don’t get a swell-head like Goob did once.) Ol’ Barn had it all figured out. “Frood wrote a book about it, Andy.”

Meanings of Life

September 14, 2009

Our next chapter is “The Meaning of Life” (illustrated by “The Death of Socrates,” implying that meaning may come from noble, principled self-sacrifice… but that’s just one example).

I taught a course at Vanderbilt under this title a few years ago. It was mis-labelled. We pondered many meanings, and concluded that many meanings are exactly what accrue to life, every well-lived life. That’s so not only because different individuals and cultures value different objects and ideals, but because each of us– like Woody Allen’s character in “Manhattan”– has  a collection of  things that make life worth living:

The items on his list will not coincide with those on most of ours, but the point to notice is that he and we can make our respective lists, and in the process discover what it is in life that motivates us to get up off our figurative sofas and chase our dreams. Many of us would say that the chase itself is intrinsically meaningful.

Our authors take a different tack, focusing on four alleged sources of meaning that seem to point to something “outside of [people’s] lives” supposed to confer meaning: children, God, a supernatural afterlife, and (paradoxically) absurdity. Option #4 most obviously calls for a leap into the irrational dark, treating meaninglessness as meaningful, somehow. But all of them may defy the demand for a straightforward answer to the Big Question of meaning. All may “postpone” a satisfying response.

Children. The joys of child-rearing do indeed strike many of us as deeply meaningful, though also deeply fraught with risks and disappointments. But in order for parenthood to be meaningful for me, as a parent, it can’t simply be a vicarious hope that our children (or theirs, or Generation x+’s) will find meaning in life. Strictly future meaning is too, well, futuristic.

God. “Belief in God seems only to make the question more urgent; belief does not solve it.” Divine meaning and purpose is not obviously transferable to mortals. Some, though, do appear to be more “god-intoxicated” than others– Spinoza, Calvin, Ned Flanders…

Afterlife. What if “the rewards of [a] next life will be available only to those who live this life to the fullest?” Aren’t we back, then, to Square One?

Absurdity. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Easier said than swallowed. A meaningless struggle doesn’t fill my heart, though Camus’ car crash was full of poignant irony. What to say, though, about  my interest in team sports? It does often feel absurd to care so much about how it goes for  “my team,” but it also feels like a source of valuable connection to the world and other people, past, present, and future. Maybe life is a ballgame.

Freud is quoted as saying that “the goal of all life is death.” I hope that was a mis-translation. The end is death, the goal is to live. Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death, “save to enjoy the interval.”

Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea offers an intriguing angle on this question. There’s a suggestive typo in our book ( on p. 48) that would skewer the philosopher’s intent: Nietzsche’s view was that the credible meanings of life are internal and natural, not “external” (in the sense of transcendent or other-worldly).  He wants you to ask yourself how you’d handle the supposition that “this life as you now live it and have lived it” is IT. There’s a nice dramatic rendering of this idea in the film “When Nietzsche Wept,” as the philosopher counsels his shrink– Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer.)

And then, there’s Groundhog Day. Bill Murray returns to Punxsutawney, PA again and again, but not eternally… just till he gets it right. He learns how to live well, treat others respectfully, and  enjoy the present. Then he can leave, happily and with no regrets. That was, after all, the intent of Nietzsche’s “gift.”

So we’re back to Woody. Make your lists.

“Home Game”

August 7, 2009

Sat down last night with Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis, and didn’t get up to go to bed ’til I’d turned the last page. (I first heard about it when Lewis talked with Bob Edwards.)

Hilarious! His kids say the darnedest things. Like the time his 3-year old younger daughter called out the older boys who were menacing her older sister at the pool: “TEASING BOYS! YOU JUST SHUT UP YOU STUPID MOTHER(bleeping) ASS****!” (It’s p.13, if you want to confirm that the little girl really said what you’re sure she couldn’t have.) And who knew a detailed first-hand account of one’s own vasectomy could be so much fun? The spousal acknowledgement on the last page is sweet: “The first reaction of many readers to the original series was to pity the woman who was married to its author… incubator of the source material.”

At one time I, too, aspired to write a Daddy memoir. I, too, kept notes of our girls’ early years. But I didn’t follow through. Yet.

This isn’t the book I’d have written anyway, even if I could rise to Lewis’s level of narrative and wit. He begins from a very different emotional place than I did, he not having felt particularly sentimental about what he calls “the dirty work” of hands-on parenting where I was totally into it. He says he inherited his Dad’s parenting style, who “didn’t even talk to you until you went away to college.” I self-consciously set out to do it differently, to what end only time will show.

michael lewisBut maybe there’s room on the shelves for one more of these Daddyographies. I’ve also noted a gap “between the idea of fatherhood and a man’s actual experience of it.” Lewis has inspired me to hunt up those notes. But it might be better to just start scribbling some fresh observations, with the kids on the respective cusps of Middle and High School. They’ll love me for that!

Spectator birds

May 30, 2009

This is a special day. It’s our anniversary, and also that of our friends who are driving a great distance today and will arrive for an eagerly-awaited visit later this afternoon. We were there in Virginia for their wedding, on the 5th anniversary of ours, all those years ago. More years have elapsed since we last got together, shortly after the birth of their youngest.

Collectively we and they have been hitched – not always a state of holy engagement, let’s be honest – for 27 years now. There were three of us and just the two of them, on the day of their espousal; now we are four, and so are they. More generational and experiential shingles, as memory deepens (but loses a bit of suppleness, alas) and as hairline recedes. (Speaking strictly for myself here, of course.)

parasailing3 It is a happy anniversary, I do have vivid and pleasing memories of events during the first week of June, in that first summer of the Clinton presidency. One stands out, or soars over: flying high over Captiva Island and the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of a very long tether secured firmly (I hope!) to a speeding boat. It was a great thrill, of the type that I habitually, reflexively resist in my constant, mostly-successful quest to avoid  significant personal injury. That day, though, it seemed like the right thing to do. Marriage was a serious proposition, fraught with risk, but also intoxicating in its promise of life-transforming possibility. We were looking, or I was, for symbolic punctuation of the high-wire act that brings two kindred, but also stubbornly-distinctive spirits together and impels them to exchange sacred vows of mutual trust and commitment before friends and family (it was the last time Mom and Dad, then already long apart, were together in public).  Philippe Petit being unavailable, parasailing seemed the perfect symbol of our connubial future. Controlled, but potentially dangerous. And thrilling to anticipate.

I remember soaring above the island and thinking about birds: not in fly-away mode, but as co-occupants of a perch, and a life. I thought about Wallace Stegner’s “spectator bird” – from whom weStegner truest vision

drew the wedding memento scroll-quotation we gave our guests on that happy day.

It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom birdsyou can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

It has been something. I wouldn’t want to have celebrated our kids’ 23 birthdays without S. on the perch beside me. Career ups and downs would’ve been alternately less joyous and more painful alone. I’d not have a Ph.D on the wall, or a wall to hang it on, without my rafter-mate. I don’t know how I could have withstood the loss of both my Mom and Dad in the span of five months without her steady comfort.

Mine is a solitary nature, I fly solo in many ways. Too many. Summus quod summus, I suppose. Or as Bob McDill wrote and Don Williams sang,  I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be. But I’m very grateful for the best of what we’ve been, and for the perch and the life we’ve shared. Happy anniversary.parasailing4

Another milestone

May 20, 2009

This one snuck up on me, probably because my own transition from middle to high school in the early ’70s was by comparison unsung. We didn’t have a breakfast celebration in the student activities center of an internationally-renowned major private university to herald our passage. My classmates delivered no hilarious comic monologues or tear-jerking duets from the current Broadway ouvre, or crisp instrumental renditions of Carlos Santana’s music. We heard no stirring words about the power of gratitude from our principal.

So congratulations on graduating from MS, E, and good luck in HS.  The class of 2013 is already shining!


May 18, 2009

I don’t much like hanging out at the Skate Center, aurally assaulted by thumping waves of what we used to call bubble-gum music and cringing as underskilled novices tumble again and again to the real meaning of gravity. And nobody should go there, Yogi Berra might have said, it’s too crowded. But that’s where the birthday girl wanted to celebrate her tenth birthday with friends from school, so that’s where we hung out for a couple hours on Saturday. A whole decade under her belt: a real milestone, and the look on her face during the Happy Birthday serenade made the aggravation go away.

Another milestone: the neighbor girl who was five when we moved in had an open house to mark her High School graduation.

And another, coming fast: anniversary #16.

It’s the biggest cliche but what else can you say? Milestones eventually look like gravestones.  Tempus fugit.  Memento mori. Carpe diem. Carpe vitam. Sic transit gloria. (Speaking of transit…)

Roman milestones 1


May 10, 2009

rosesYou’ve been gone for over a year  now. I owe you a call.

You always had a hard time with your emotional hard-wiring. I may have inherited traces of that too, at least some of its  behavioral indicators: a manically-heightened sensitivity to the seasons, for one thing. I’ve chosen to exploit the up-side of that disposition, not dwell so much on the SAD, “seasonally-affected, disordered” wintry tendency but try instead to cultivate the happy, energized, springy quality of experience delighting in its own possibilities. Carry the weather with you, as the poet says.  Easier said than done.

Is a mother’s influence mainly via nature or nurture? There was much in your nature that I should be proud to claim a piece of. Stubbornness? No, tenacity. A spontaneous openness to people of very different background and circumstance. An unforced quality of kindness and giving. Much more.

You were a gifted nurturer, by temperament and occupation. When I fell ill at your side at age 12, on our family vacation in Minneapolis, you made me feel ok before I felt better – before hospitalization and emergency surgery. When I fell ill another time, during my first month away at college, you dropped everything in your busy professional nursing life to drive 100 miles and take care of me.  In countless other ways through the years you sacrificed for me, for my sisters, for all of our extended family and for many others. No words of thanks suffice. But thanks. I love you, forever.

Phyllis1962For all the Moms in my life: step-Mom, Mom-in-law, wife, friends: please, share the roses.

For all the Moms in my life: step-Mom, Mom-in-law, wife, friends: please, share the roses.