Archive for July, 2011

Gender Bent

July 28, 2011  |  Current Events, Fatherhood  |  No Comments

A couple of months ago, a Canadian couple made headlines by refusing to reveal the gender of their newborn child. It was, they declared, their goal to raise a gender neutral baby. To do so, they decided to hide his/her/its gender from the world and only reveal the nondescript name: Storm. (This is preposterous since everyone that’s seen X-Men knows that Storm is none other than Halle Berry who is, most definitely, a chick.) At the time, I sort of laughed off this story, chalking it up to a couple of harmless idiots who deserved an eye-roll and a shake of the head and little more. But no sooner had I dismissed this out of hand than more and more gender denial stories began to crop up.

First it was the Egalia School in Stockholm and their decision to eliminate all gender specific language from the curriculum. No more him/her, he/she, his/hers – nothing. Instead, children will be “friends” and “they/thems” — all in an effort to stop the menace of gender stereotyping in its tracks (despite making Old MacDonald somewhat cumbersome to sing.)

Now, it seems, even the little baby Jesus wants to get in on the action. A coalition of biblical scholars and church leaders is publishing a new “Common Language Bible” that aims not only for accessible verbiage, but…you guessed it…gender neutrality. No longer will Jesus be the Son of Man, now He’ll be referred to as “the Human One.” I’m dying to read the gender neutral version of Genesis…”And on the sixth day, God created Friend.” Later, Friend’s Friend shows up and they share “quality friendship time.” Maybe, I’m speculating here.

There is, of course, a genuine problem with gender equality throughout the world and there’s no doubt that everything from advertising to peer pressure push men and women into stereotyped and sometimes unhealthy roles. I aspire to be open-minded and I am usually hesitant to squash well-meaning attempts at progressive thinking. Still, well-meaning and deeply misguided are not – in any way – mutually exclusive and this issue seems to have buckets of misguided to spare.
Brace yourself for some shocking news: boys and girls are different. This isn’t something we learn from television or movies and it’s not something that even the best effort at denial can hide from kids. Even my two-year-old little girl knows that what she’s got going on in her pull-up isn’t the same as what her brother’s packing in his Spiderman underwear. Still, my wife and I have made a concerted effort to avoid letting gender have an undue influence on how we raise our kids. I roughhouse with Pebbles like I do with her brother and we try to avoid the whole “princess” thing with her. Her first non-hand-me-down toy was a doctor playset. And yet, without any help from us, she genuinely prefers pink to blue and she’ll step past all of Z’s trains and trucks to get to her dolly. Not because she’s been brainwashed by TV and not because we even bought her a doll (it was actually Z’s at one time but he never took to it) but because she likes it. The kitchen set that we gave my son Z for his third birthday now lives in her room, not because we’re training her for the day she’ll be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen but because she thinks it’s the coolest toy in the whole world. She’s a girl and she does things traditionally associated with being “girlie.”

What Pebbles hasn’t yet been taught – and hopefully never will – is that there’s something inherently better or worse about one set of anatomical gear or the other. For me, the goal isn’t to keep her in the dark about her gender but to help her understand that her potential as a human being isn’t defined by her sex. She knows she’s a girl and, thus far, she doesn’t think of that as a limiting factor in her life. On that score, she seems better adjusted to gender at two years old than the geniuses pushing this ridiculous gender neutrality agenda forward.

The worst part of these efforts at gender neutralization is that they all make the same terrible assumption: that gender, itself, is the problem and if we remove it from the equation, everything will be better. It’s an approach defies all reason and logic. Saudi women aren’t forbidden from driving by their gender, they are forbidden from driving by a patriarchal society with dysfunctional cultural norms. Removing the word “he” and”she” from all language wouldn’t suddenly make it easier for a young man to tell his parents he’s gay anymore than it would make employers pay women the same wage they pay men. Does anyone imagine that Barrack Obama is President because no one ever told him he was black? Or is it more likely that he was raised in an environment that embraced all aspects of his person and that encouraged him to believe that he was capable of anything.

No, a perfectly level playing field and perfect equality don’t exist in our culture (or perhaps in any culture) but denying our differences only serves to perpetuate that problem by suggesting that we can only be equal if we’re all the exactly same . Creating a safe, accepting environment in which kids can explore all aspects of gender is a noble goal. But let’s remember that gender is a function of biology, not sociology. He, she, his, hers- it’s not pronouns and possessives that once prevented women from voting or that now try to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. The problem isn’t in our pants, it’s in our hearts and minds and that’s where any genuine change will have to begin.

Legos: Best Toy Everer or Satan’s Handmaiden? An Empirical Examination

July 22, 2011  |  Fatherhood, Video Games  |  1 Comment

by Guest Blogger, ERIK PETERS.

In a world in chaos, it is crucial to have unwavering, core principles to bitterly cling to:

Remember the 5-second rule and keep it holy;

Shirtless fat guys dancing = Pure hilarity; and

Jimmy Carter is history’s greatest monster.

Recently, however, the very foundations of my belief system have been rocked by (like?) a hurricane even more powerful than some pointy-headed inna-lectual lobbing faux scientific data over a half assed pay wall. It has compelled me to conclude that history’s greatest monster is not Jimmy Carter, it is Ole Kirk Christiansen.

[Crickets]

Ole Kirk Christiansen. The guy that invented Legos. Follow along:

First and foremost, Legos are responsible for an alarmingly premature decline in the ever-important Respect Thine Parent category. Hearken back to the year 1985. A young Don Johnson was teaching proper stubble razor technique to a nation enraptured by Wham!’s Careless Whisper. On a personal level, I achieved the ultimate Bjorn Borgasm in July, when wielding my Wilson T2000 racquet like the Hammer of the Righteous,© I blasted a second serve past a diving Instruction Guide Manual Senior, clinching an epic 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory widely considered among the finest father-son tennis matches ever played.

The first actual athletic triumph over my dad. The King was d-e-d dead. An entirely new world dawned. As I strode confidently to the net, waiting to shake hands until he’d finished lighting his Marlboro, all things seemed possible. I had slayed the dragon. I was 15.

Compare and contrast to the recent purchase of the Lego Ninjago Ice Dragon for official blog older son Know It All Junior™. Upon our return to the family compound, a look of sadness and anger appeared as we pulled into the car hole. His giant head sank when he saw that Mrs. Instruction Guide Manual was gone. Glaring at me, he spat out the words, “Great. Mommy’s not around, so there’s nobody that can help me put this thing together.” He is 6.

Ole, I’ve got enough problems camouflaging my inadequacies as a man, father, husband and human being without getting pantsed every time I open up a set of instructions for one of your little visions. You could at least meet me halfway by adding a narrative to help out. Something contextually appropriate along the lines of “Snap cannon onto pirate ship – not on the red block – put it on the black one. Jesus . . .. And not too hard asshat, or you’re going to break off the bow of the boat that you just put on backwards.”

And get your money grubbing Danish master carpenter’s hand off my wallet. It was bad enough when you ruined the tranquility of a peaceful family outing to Target (a/k/a the place where our second mortgage is paid) with grim pilgrimages to “your” aisle characterized by our mantra, “‘Cause you just don’t get a new Lego every time we go to the store. Because – just because – you don’t – nobody does. I don’t care what Jordan tells you.” Even worse, since Mrs. IGM made the mistake of introducing the progeny to the availability of your kiddie heroin on Amazon and craigslist, I can’t even check Facebook turn on my computer for work without KIA Junior and official blog younger brother Stampy® begging to look at Lego Porn.

Ole, I could try to forget all of this. I could ignore what you’re about to do to spring break 2012 and try to bond with you over our shared Scandinavian heritage (“How’s the pickled herring? Need another Carlsberg?”) But then you did it, you . . . Dane, you. You formed an alliance so unholy, it makes Palpatine hooking up with Anakin look like the Easter egg hunt from Steel Magnolias. You did a bodyshot with the blood of virgins and somehow came up with the idea to put Lego games on the Wii.

I can’t exactly recall my reaction when I learned of this. Yes, yes I can. The combination of your evil creation and the product whose sole purpose is seemingly to turn kids into whiny, complaining, timeout-receiving messes was a stroke of pure genius, designed to benefit no one but you and Satoru Iwata, the CEO of Nintendo and history’s second greatest monster. (Sorry President Carter.)

I suppose I should acknowledge your complete, utter and total victory over me, Ole. Rationalize it by noting that KIA Junior is learning to follow directions and work things out for himself and that Stampy has amassed an army of shark people and ninja pirate aliens who stand ready to do his bidding. (Although, it’s tough to understand his commands. You know, because of the Legos in his mouth.)

I cannot concede, however, because my inability to follow instructions written for children ages 5 to 7 is accompanied by an indomitable spirit. Even now, I plot my revenge. It is a basketball hoop residing in my driveway in a large cardboard box.

There will come a time Ole when the children of the world – my children – are freed from the tyranny of block based play and video games to – dare I say it – go outside. To bond with their fathers over trash talk, games of PIG and the lost art of the mid-range jumper. As God as my witness, I vow to make this happen Ole.

Until then, how ‘bout a little help putting this hoop together – you’re good at stuff like that, right?

ABOUT THIS WEEK’S HANDS ON DAD GUEST BLOGGER:

Erik Peters is a lawyer and writer residing in Maine who was born with a silver spork in his mouth. His ringtone is the theme from The Gambler. He writes The Instruction Guide Manual, widely considered to be the Interweb’s unparalleled resource re: parenting, manliness, the fairer sex and life in Texile. Should you choose to, you can find many fine, writer-like offerings at http://instruction-guide-manual.posterous.com/. Smaller, more deranged musings are available on the Twitter: @IGuideMan. His unauthorized autobiography, Sticky Fingers: The Idiot’s Guide to Masturbation will be in stores this fall. He frequently meditates in his car.

Death and Kindergarten

July 21, 2011  |  Fatherhood  |  11 Comments

Like most curious little boys, Z is a master of the startling nonsequitor. Brush-your-teeth time can go from a discussion of the virtues of watermelon flavored toothpaste to a passionate declaration that broccoli stems are superior to broccoli heads without notice or segue. I suspect this is a combination of a short attention span and a brain that is being flooded with new experiences and information on a daily basis. I find myself trying to puzzle out Z’s train of thought and deduce how he got from his love of popcorn to the poop habits of marine animals in a single sentence.

Lately, two particular topics have come up on an increasingly regular basis: death and kindergarten. Kindergarten is a just weeks away so it’s not hard to imagine why it’s on his mind. And we have dealt with death in our home already; Karen lost both of her parents last year in the space of a very difficult ten weeks. Z knew Grandpa Henry and Grandma Eleanor well and is still processing the idea that they won’t be coming to visit anymore.

But it’s only recently that Z has begun articulating his thoughts on these subjects, frequently as if they were the same subject. It started unexpectedly at Trader Joe’s and it went something like this:

“Daddy, when’s your birthday?”
“In October, pal.”
“Well, I don’t want you to have a birthday this year.”
“How come?”
“Because after you have a lot of birthdays you die and I don’t want you to die so don’t have a birthday this year, okay?”

This was the first time my mortality had come up and it was clear Z was brainstorming ways to keep me above ground as long as possible. But before I could assure him that I wasn’t going to die for a long while he followed up, seamlessly, with:

“Is kindergarten all day long?”

A week or so later, in the car, our top of the lungs duet of “Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night” was interrupted by the following declaration:

“Daddy, when you die I am going to talk to the doctor and find out where you are so I can dig you up and say I love you.”

This was such a bizarre combination of loving and gross that I wrestled with an angle of approach. Do I tell him that I plan to be cremated or that doctors don’t handle the burial part of their former patients? Should I mention that what he’s talking about is, technically, illegal grave robbing or just say ‘thanks, I love you too.’ I was rescued from my dilemma as Z came out with the only logical follow up to such a statement:

“Do I still get outside playtime at Kindergarten?”

And that’s when it hit me – we weren’t really talking about death or kindergarten, we were talking about change. These two seemingly ill-matched topics were, in fact, a perfect pairing in the mind of a thoughtful five-year-old. The full picture is too epic for him to see it in it’s entirety, but he’s getting flashes of a central truth of our existence: everything changes, life moves on. Z will not, forever, be my little boy and one day I won’t be around to sing songs with in the car.

Even if he doesn’t recognize it, Z has found the courage to talk about the exact issues I have been trying to avoid. My little boy is going to kindergarten and, in some odd way, that’s a reminder that my time on this planet has begun a long, slow wind down. It’s morbid but it’s also true. And rather than hide from this reality, I am suddenly grateful that my son is giving us both the chance to talk about it. Truth be told, I am probably more distressed about both of these issues that he is.

“Z, you are going to love kindergarten. You’re going to make new friends and have great teachers. They even have a special name for outside play time. It’s called ‘recess.’ “

Z ponders all this for a long moment and then…

“Daddy, for your birthday you should have a bounce house.”

“You know what, pal, I think I will.”

The Short Life and Long Death of Christian Choate

July 16, 2011  |  Current Events, Fatherhood  |  6 Comments

Lost in the fanfare surrounding Casey Anthony’s trial and acquittal is another story of child murder that doesn’t seem to be generating the same headlines. That’s too bad because, for me, it’s a story not just of brutality and evil but of our communal failure to care for the people around us.

Christian Choate

Christian Choate was 13 years old when his father beat him to death. Being dead, by Christian’s own account, was a step up from living the dog cage where his father, Riley, and step-mother confined him for well over a year. He was regularly beaten, starved and forced to live in his own waste – taken out only on occasion to help with household chores. Sometimes he was given a pencil and paper so he could write down his thoughts on confinement and why he deserved to be treated as he was. On the good days, Christian wrote about how we wanted to go outside and play . On the bad days, he wrote about how he wanted to die rather than endure any more.

One evening, Riley – whose mugshot appears to show a slobbering fat prick of no less that 220 pounds — punched his frail, malnourished child in the head, full force about a half a dozen times then locked him back in the kennel. At some point in the night, Christian’s sister informed her father that Christian wasn’t breathing. Dad and step-mom wrapped his dead body in a garbage bag and buried him beneath a slab of concrete in the trailer park. It took two years for somebody to finally whisper in someone’s ear and get the police involved. Two full years.

There’s something exponentially worse about what happened to Christian than about the Casey Anthony docudrama or Susan Smith’s mental collapse, because this particular abomination happened in plain sight, in a trailer park over the course of more than a year. For a decade, Child Protective Services had an open file on the Choate family but – impossibly – could never come up with evidence of abuse. It’s a baffling collision of incompetence and bureaucracy and it cost a child his life.

Even if we can, somehow, accept that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way the system failed Christian (it happens all too regularly), we’re still left with a troubling question: Where were the rest of us? Where were the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the mother, the siblings, the passersby, the neighbors, the teachers? How did a year of torture and two years in a hole in the ground go unnoticed?

By the age of 12, I had first hand experience with sad fact that there’s nothing inherently special about being a parent — any idiot with the right anatomy can have a child. I got through this period of my life unscathed and unabused because people that didn’t have any stake in my well being, folks that had no obligation to me whatsoever, made the somewhat courageous decision to give me a home and role models and friends when I needed all of those things. People watched out for me.

Why did no one do the same for Christian?

Stories like this leave me feeling angry and helpless and – most of all – guilt stricken.

“Hey, has anyone seen that home schooled kid? I haven’t seen him in, like, a year”. Shrug. “Who knows, I can’t talk now, the new season of True Blood is on.”

I have day-dreams where I can turn the clock back 3 years and waltz into that trailer park with a machete and a tazer and do things that would land me a spot in criminal psychology books for generations to come. But I can do no such thing. And even if I could, it’s a self-serving fantasy that misses the point. Nothing so dramatic or heroic is required of any of us. Simply that we be present enough to know when we are needed and courageous enough to meet that need when we see it. It’s a crucial gap in our society that desperately needs filling.

Our indignation and thirst for postmortem retribution might make us feel vigilant and involved – but only after the fact. Christian is still dead. In some small way, I feel like we were all accomplices – not in his actual death but in allowing these monsters enough dark corners from which to spread their sickness. It’s not enough to count on an overwhelmed, under-qualified group of bureaucrats to defend the defenseless. We have to be willing to shine a light into every dark corner, to knock on doors, ask questions and make uncomfortable calls — even when we might be wrong.

The opposite of compassion isn’t malevolence, it’s indifference. All the Riley Choates of the world need is our indifference and they’re free to lock children in cages and bury them in shallow graves.

Man’s Best Friend

July 11, 2011  |  Fatherhood  |  4 Comments

The most hands-on, intimate and enduring relationship in a man’s life is the one he has with his penis. Yes, ladies, you might be tired of hearing about our junk but we’re tired of hearing about Oprah so we’re even. My manhood and I have been through a lot together and after these many years some small amount of the razzle-dazzle has gone out of the relationship. These days we’re more like an old married couple.

Even Bono likes his Bone-o

Me: “Hey, what do you feel like doing tonight?”

My Penis: “I don’t know…what do you want to do?”

Me: “I don’t know. I think there’s a new Modern Family on the DVR, so maybe that.”

My Penis “Oh…okay, cool, I think I’m gonna just crash a little early.”

Don’t get me wrong, we still have fun and share quality time together but, like any long term relationship, I spend significantly less of my free time dwelling on my penis than I once did.

Not so for a five year old boy. Right now, Z is in the early, puppy-love, honeymoon romance stage of his relationship with his own anatomy. Anyone that’s ever been in love knows this stage — the giddy, delicious phase where you just can’t keep your hands off each other; where you find yourself unconsciously reaching out and touching each other — even at odd or inappropriate times. Well, that’s where we are right about now.

And the truth is, I struggle with how to handle these moments with my boy. My main goal is to help him be at ease with his body and learn that there’s nothing shameful or dirty about nakedness. I want him to be unselfconscious and confident, educated about his anatomy and, eventually, fearless about his sexuality.

I’d also like him to stop thumping the flesh piñata in the middle of the grocery store.

And herein lays a troubling parenting contradiction. How should a smart, attentive little boy makes sense of the following statement from his father: “Hey there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, it’s natural and it’s totally fine and just don’t ever do it anywhere other people can see you doing it.”

No matter what version of that logic I use, Z looks at me, like, “You’re shitting me, right? It’s either okay or it’s not okay, dude, make up your mind.”

And he’s right. I’m giving him dramatically mixed signals and I don’t know any way around it.

We run into the same issue when we go swimming with the 7 and 9 year old girls next door. These young ladies are, understandably,  more body conscious than they were just a few years ago.   Z, however, thinks nothing of stripping off his swim suit and marching over to his towel to dry off.  How do I explain that there’s nothing wrong with being naked, just don’t do it here in front of the girls. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, but people will laugh and point at you.

Yes, we have had the conversation about private things versus public things and – as much as he can at this age – he understands the difference. But it remains an area where he complies because he’s been told to, not because it makes sense. I’m really not a fan of the “do it because I said so” school of parenting. I know that if I give my child reasonable, fair, logical rules to live by, he/she is more likely to do what I tell them. There’s something very powerful for a kid about understanding WHY the rules exist.

When it comes to nakedness and his privates, I feel like I am lying to him. I am trying to sell him on an idealized vision of the world where we’re all comfortable with our bodies and sexuality in American society isn’t an dysfunctional collision of Puritanism and porn. But that vision doesn’t line up with reality so I am forced to say,  “Your body is beautiful, but don’t show it to anyone.  Your penis is natural and healthy, but go in your room and close the door if you want to touch it.”

I feel like a good father needs give his son clarity and I’m not doing that right now. Z is going to have a life long relationship with his body, the last thing I want to do is make it any more complicated that it needs to be.

It Takes A Village, Idiot

July 5, 2011  |  Fatherhood  |  1 Comment

Dear Melissa,

Hey there, it’s me, JD – the guy at the park this morning who took the shovel away from your son Jackson/Caleb/Josh/Whatever. I wanted to touch base about the whole situation because I feel like we left things on bad terms and, even though you’re a complete stranger, I hate unresolved conflict.

So, what happened is, Jackson/Caleb/Josh/Whatever was taking big scoops of  sand and flinging them everywhere.  It wasn’t a huge deal, kids do things like this, but he got a little wild about it  and the sand was getting in other kids hair and eyes. In my “Nice Man” voice,  I asked him to be careful and maybe just dig with the shovel instead of throwing the sand.   Your little guy, apparently, hasn’t embraced the “please don’t do that” thing just yet as he continued to throw sand and eventually whacked another kid in the head with the shovel.  I’m not sure where you were at this point, maybe on your Blackberry?  I don’t know.   Anyway, I took the shovel away from Whatshisname and, using my not quite as friendly voice, let him know that anymore acting out and we’d be going off to find Mommy together.   This, of course, is when you made your appearance.  From your perspective ,  I can imagine you were pretty upset finding your son in tears and some strange man talking to him sternly.   You certainly seemed to be as you yelled “What are you doing?” to no one in particular and spirited the Little Prince away.

I’d like to apologize for taking it upon myself to reprimand your son.   I’d like to.  But I can’t because I’m not even remotely sorry.   Instead let me say this:  Welcome to my village.

Listen, I get that group parenting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.   I’m fortunate enough to live on a little suburban street where I know all the other parents and their kids.   Early in our block-party-co-parenting relationship we all made a deal:  at your house, my kid is your kid.  If I am not around and he needs to be talked to, put in time out, sent home – I trust you to do it. I won’t interfere or second guess you.    Same is true in reverse at my house.   This system works really well, my neighbor Patrick is a terrific Dad and Z knows damn well that if Patrick says “put the hose down” it’s time to put the hose down.   I like it – not just because it takes some of the pressure off me to watch Z every second when we’re out and about – but because, for Z,  this arrangement means that proper behavior isn’t something specific to me or Karen being in the room.

Maybe you haven’t made this deal or maybe you’ve simply never thought about it.   I’m well aware that some people get uptight when other adults help with the parenting.   There’s a conventional wisdom that folks have the right to raise their children however they see fit.    In fact, I’m sure many people see this as a fundamental right of being a parent.  Sorry, but it’s not.   Your right to raise a narcissistic little prick ends when my child, or any other human being, has to share the planet with him.   Yes, children are going to act out and that in and of itself isn’t at all a sign of a bad parent or a bad kid.  But how you react to this behavior – indeed whether you’ re even present to address it all – dictates whether or not it’s going to happen again and again.   You owe it to all of us to be present and to teach your child that his actions effect other people.

I am relentless with my kids about saying “please” and “thank you” not because I have an Emily Post fetish but because I want to live in a world where people are more polite to each other as a matter of course.   If that’s what I want from the world, then I am obliged to give the world the gift of two kind, decent, polite human beings.  That’s what I am trying to do with Z and Pebbles and I hope that’s what you aspire to with yours.

No, that’s okay, don’t thank me for my profound insight, because I’m not doing it for you. When I decided to take the shovel away from His Majesty, I was really doing
something important for my own kids. I’m trying to provide my daughter with a world
where there’s one less self-absorbed guy out there to break her heart or abuse her; one
less unthinking asshole to have a few beers and kill my son on graduation night.  As long as you and I are going to raise kids in the same village, I’m going to have to ask you to refrain from being the village idiot when it comes to what kind of child you’re sending out into the world.

If that’s too much to ask, don’t worry, I’m here to help…whether you like it or not.

Your neighbor,
JD