The bullets have stopped flying, the bombs are defused and one epic manhunt is over in Watertown. And as satisfying as it is to have some small amount of closure on the horrors of the last week, a chasm remains between the end of the police work and the beginning of understanding how something like this could happen. Sitting in front of the spectacle of TV news infotainment and melodrama, my brain traverses the geopolitical – I try to puzzle out the agendas and grievances that led two young men to cram nails and ball bearings into a pair of pressure cookers and then kill and maim families on a crisp Monday morning. I think in terms of indoctrination and world-view.
But when I lay in bed at night, I think like a father – I think about the more treacherous questions of how, why, and what could have been done differently for the children that eventually became these men. How much, if at all, can we lay some portion of the blame at the feet of the people brought these two murderers into the world?
I know very well that my own kids were born with distinct personalities that have nothing to do with how they’re being raised. My son, Z, is a rule follower, a negotiator, and deeply concerned about winning the approval of the authority figures in his life. Pebbles, my four year old girl, spends most of life laughing and dancing, but try to make her follow the rules and you’ll have a wailing ball of drama on your hands. This is who they are. My wife and I have tried to sand down the sharper edges of their personalities with love, reason, and patience. But – and I think every parent gets this – they are who they are and all you can really do is try to add a solid moral structure and healthy dose of responsibility to what the cosmic personality generator has handed you.
I remember having something of a small panic attack when Z came home from school with a little blood on his sleeve from a bumped lip at recess. A game of ‘Harry Potter’ had gotten a little out of hand and Z, who had insisted on being the bad guy, had gotten tackled on the pavement. But it wasn’t the blood that bothered me, it was the idea that Z wanted to be the bad guy. Was this a sign of something sinister brewing in my 6 year old? Did I need to worry that, despite all my admonitions about kindness and love, Z was attracted to the dark side? When I asked him, Z told me that the bad guy is the one that gets chase and, after all, he really loves to run. Crisis averted, for now anyway.
But surely Susan and Tom Klebold loved their son as fiercely as I love mine. Susan was, by most accounts, an engaged and involved mother. By nine years old, her son Dylan was in the gifted program at school and a regular chess partner for his father. By seventeen, Dylan was dead in the Columbine library after participating in the worst school massacre in American history.
Do his parents own part of that tragedy or are they victims of it?
Bud Welch lost his daughter when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. One night not long after, Bud saw McVeigh’s father, Bill, on TV and told a friend, “Timothy’s father’s pain has to be incredible. As best I can tell, he did everything right.” Three years after the bombing Bud sat down with Bill McVeigh and Tim’s sister Jennifer. After two hours of talking, Bud Welch went to leave. Jennifer McVeigh wrapped her arms around Bud and began to sob. Bud, thinking of his own daughter, held her and said, “Honey, the three of us are in this together for the rest of our lives.” They had all lost someone they loved and none of them could tell you precisely why it had happened.
Maybe some human beings are fundamentally broken at birth. If so, can they be course corrected by family? Straightened out by discipline? Overwhelmed by love? Can we, as parents, see this kind of thing coming, can we know the difference between a kid who’s different and a kid who’s dangerous? Do we have any chance of seeing the line between solitary and sociopathic before it’s too late? It’s hard to believe we’re helpless but it’s equally hard to pinpoint what the Klebolds or Dahmers or McVeighs might have done differently.
I suppose it’s possible that taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive provides a chance of inching closer to some kind of epiphany – but I doubt it. It’s far more likely that he’ll simply be added to a long list of disaffected and destructive young men.
Like everyone that loves Boston and has agonized over this attack, I want justice. And it looks like we will get some measure of that. But what I truly want is to understand. And that, I fear, is never going to happen.
I’m guessing you’ve seen those commercials where some chatty eleven month old appears to be sight reading simple words at a mile a minute — ball, dog, car, chair — all thanks to a miraculous breakthrough in baby reading that can be yours for three easy payments of $19.99. It’s impressive to watch. It’s also unsettling to see an infant tearing through flashcards like Paula Dean through a chicken fried steak while your own offspring dribbles Lucky Charms down her bib in an Umizumi induced stupor.
This is the sort of thing that can make a parent feel inadequate. Surely if you love your child and want her to succeed, you’ll reach for the phone and order this DVD set right now (operators are standing by). But it turns out that, at best, these miracle reading claims were wildly overblown and now the company that promised your baby could learn to read is going out of business rather than fight in court (read about the Federal Trade Commission complaint here).
We should have seen this coming, some of you probably did, but thousands of people decided to drop a wad of cash in hopes that doing so would make their little one some kind of superstar (and, by association, make them great parents). Purveyors of all things baby/child know two crucial things about us breeders: 1) we all want to give our children the very best and 2) we have no idea what, exactly, that means. We’re easy targets. I’ve been as guilty as anyone and probably will be again – even though I know that the only result our time spent watching baby Baby Einstein is that I can no longer hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without singing “I love balloons, I love, I love balloons!” (and a totally unsurprising study from the University of Washington agrees.)
Maybe the problem is that we are used to having all the answers at our disposal. When the entire collected knowledge of humanity can be accessed on your phone while sitting in traffic, it’s reasonable to imagine that there’s a quick fix to the relentless and confounding issues we face as parents.
On the one hand, of course, this is a sign that we really want to do right by our children. On a less flattering note, it’s also a sign that we’re lazy – and not just when it comes to parenting. Year after year, sketchy entrepreneurs get rich selling us ridiculous pills and plans to make us thin, systems and seminars that promise to make us rich, ancient herbal remedies for everything that ails us and – in this case – DVDs and books that promise a better, brighter child. We race to embrace these thing because we’re desperate to avoid the monotonous, soul-numbing work that each of these goals otherwise demands.
We should know better. There’s no gimmick or trick because parenting, like most things in our lives, is about paying attention on a daily basis, listening and responding to needs, adapting and evolving, relentless self-evaluation, diligence, patience and unconditional love. It’s an obvious list but, when we’re mired in the day to day grind of raising children, who can blame someone for wanting a shortcut?
I hope that the next time some splashy ad makes unbelievable promises, I’ll all remember the lesson of the quick-fix reading-baby-sham. But bet I’ll forget and fall for the same thing again. If only I’d taken a little more ginko biloba….
Tonight was the winter concert for Z’s elementary school here in Brooklyn. It was more or less exactly what I expected; an unwieldy gaggle of bad sweaters and funny wool caps up on stage, mangling a catalog of inclusive-non-denominational-all-possible-holidays-represented melodies. A very Park Slopey recital and very nice.
As soon as the family walked in the door, I made a beeline for the parent coordinator and volunteered to help wrangle the first graders. I could tell that they didn’t really need me (the PTA at Z’s school is a very ‘shit together’ group of people) but, for some reason, I needed to volunteer. I was delegated the all important task of lining them up by size (this put Z at the end with the girls, part of being the son of a 5′ 10″ dad and a 5′ 5″ mom). Once everyone was in order, we marched in and sat at the foot of the stage to watch the older kids do their thing (a thing that included bongos, and dare I say, enough cowbell to get me through all of 2013).
I have always been a problem solver, someone that makes very quick mental pro/con lists, weighs options and considers possible outcomes. This doesn’t mean I’m some great puzzle solving intellect – you may or may not agree with a single solution I come up with. But I think about possible problems and possible solutions all the time. I’m a visualizer, a planner.
For example, I know that at our home in California the ceiling in Pebble’s room was redone after some water damage back in 2004, but the ceiling in Z’s room is still the original 1929 construction. So, in the event of an earthquake, I need to go to his room first, lest 200 pounds of lathe and plaster come crashing down on his bed. It’s not something I think about often, but I’ve done the math and that’s the best option. (well, the BEST option is to redo his ceiling but I never got around to it). For better and worse, this is how my mind works.
Back in the auditorium, somewhere in the middle of the second number (a heart warming Kwanza song) I realized that my heart was pounding and I was in full problem-solver mode. Without realizing I was even doing it, here’s what I had figured out:
The stage left door is the most likely point of entry. A fifteen foot hallway, up three stairs, and out a set of double doors and you’re standing on 5th avenue. If there is going to be a problem, that’s where it is going to come from.
I have two options. I can go for the back of the theatre, but with a seated audience (or an audience throwing themselves to the floor in panic) the slow incline from the stage to the rear of the theatre would make us an obvious target. The stage right door, however, is way better. It’s about ten feet away with a steel plate across the bottom. It gives me not only distance but a more complicated line of sight to the far stage left door. As an added bonus, a dilapidated grand piano provides some measure of cover. Even someone experienced with an M4 would have a hard time making that shot on a moving target. Statistically, it’s a good bet.
Z is five feet away, I can reach out and snatch him by his little red Christmas sweater, if need be.
What the fuck is wrong with me? How could I possibly be running scenarios like this in my head when I’m supposed to be enjoying a holiday concert with my family?
Wait, I’ve got a better question. What’s the average 911 response time in this part of Brooklyn? It’s gotta be, like, 7-8 minutes, right? The ER entrance to NY Methodist is on 7th street just east of 7th Ave. At a dead run, carrying 43 pounds, I could do that in about four and a half minutes.
Seriously, just shut up and enjoy the concert.
I wonder if I should have worn better shoes…something I can run better in. Four and a half minutes would be okay, though. The human brain can go five to six minutes without oxygen so if you run hard, it’ll be okay.
When it’s the first grades turn to take the stage I follow them up and stand in the wings. It’s at that moment that I realized I volunteered tonight because I need to be close. I’m not processing any of what’s happening in the world very well and the problem solver in me needs to know that if someone is going to get to my boy, it’s going to be me. But it’s all good. I’m going to get my mind right and enjoy the ‘hip-hop-holiday’ number. Z is not a natural when it comes to bustin’ a move and it’s insanely cute.
And, anyway, I can cover the ten feet between us in 2-3 seconds. I can do it. Everything is going to be fine.
About a month ago I started a series of blog pieces entitled “A Few Things My Dad Got Right.” Shortly after the third and final installment went up, I got a long letter from my father that made it clear he felt blind-sided and hurt by the content of the posts. I immediately took the posts down so he and I could discuss them and figure out why something I had intended as a positive homage to the lessons he had imparted had struck him as an unfair, public and one-sided upbraiding of him as a human being.
Judging by our back and forth, it seems to me that my Dad felt like the pieces I wrote
were infused with resentment and more than a little selective memory. This couldn’t be more contrary to what I had intended but it’s very much a reminder for me that writing autobiographical material (especially material that endeavors to be very honest) means writing about other, real, people who may not like their personal, private lives dissected for mass consumption (or, at least, would like some say over how said dissection is done). This feeling is, no doubt, magnified by the fact that I am the lone voice in this particular pulpit and so it is my recollections (subjective and flawed as they no doubt are) that stand, unchallenged, as historical fact. That fact alone is probably unfair to anyone whose name appears on this blog (my wife most of all).
After a good deal of back and forth with my father, I’ve reposted the pieces in question (he was actually hoping I would do so, not because he’d suddenly agreed with their content but because he didn’t want to be seen as a censor). With all this as preamble, I’ll be interested to see how they read to people who don’t know either of us very well (or know both of us, who knows).
I’ve read over the pieces half-a-dozen times since receiving my Dad’s original note. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible and, at this point, I’m satisfied I gave all of you an accurate portrayal of my father as he was back in the day. I very much hope that the message people took away in regard to his legacy as a father was, on balance, a positive one. It’s a mixed review, no doubt, but the point of the pieces remains the same: only as a father myself am I able to see the important lessons I learned, even though I didn’t know I was learning them at the time.
That’s not how my Dad has seen it and the conflict we’ve had poses something of an
ethical dilemma for me. On the one hand, I can’t apologize for writing what I think is an honest and fair assessment of who he was when I was little. I tried to paint a somewhat complex picture of a guy with his share of failings and his share of successes – whose parenting choices I both reject and replicate on a regular basis. On the other hand, I want him to understand that I value the relationship we’ve developed in my adult years and that these days I think of him as a loving, warm and generous friend and grandfather. (indeed, if my kids could read the pieces I wrote, they would have a very hard time believing I was describing their Popop).
Striking the balance of those two ideas has been harder than I would have imagined. It remains, like most father/son relationships, a work in progress.
Here we go with the final installment of lessons learned from my father.
Lesson #3 – A Kind Heart and A Sharp Right Hook
In our big house on Ripple Road, in Oshkosh we had a sprawling upstairs where my two older brothers and I slept in bunkbeds. It served as a playroom, a dormitory and
- on many occasions – the family boxing ring. My Dad liked to have us put the gloves on and flail around at each other from time to time. I was the youngest and I’m sure my brothers will tell you that I got it the easiest – but I got it, square in the nose, more than once.
My brothers and I knew that when we went out into the world, we were expected to know how to handle ourselves and part of that was knowing how to fight. Starting a fight was absolutely forbidden. Finishing a fight that someone else started with you was strongly encouraged. Of course, I rarely ever had to fight. By the time I was in elementary school, my older brothers had been through and made it clear that what the Roberto boys lacked in size, they made up for in willingness to get punched in the head and punch back. That was enough to send would-be bullies looking for an easier target.
All of this is horrifying by today’s standards. Much of it is a sad vestige of 1950s working class, immigrant life, where fathers teach sons to fight because fighting is a fact of daily life.
My life, my family and the parents I’ve met from my generation are entirely different. We don’t do violence. Period. That’s a good thing and I’m totally on board with it. Sort of. My overarching goal as a father is to raise a loving, kind and empathetic young man – the kind of child who would never resort to violence to settle any dispute and has the good judgment to avoid any conflict before it ever began. Then again, in an age of overwhelmed teachers and ballooning class sizes, where children impose themselves physically on each other, you know who never gets bullied? The kid with a solid right hook. Parents get obsessed with making sure little Timmy is a gentle soul and terrified of raising a little aggressor. We act like children live in a Tibetan monastery when the truth is very much the opposite. Like it or not, boys are physical and – at some point – most young men will find themselves in a situation with the potential for violence. (yes, I know, girls fight too – please, God, don’t beat me with your P.C. stick, just roll with it). Barbaric as it may sound, it is entirely possible to teach a child to eschew and avoid violence and also teach him (or her) to effectively, potently defend themself.
Put it up there with designated drivers, condoms and vaccines – it’s fine to hope everything will turn out all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s foolish not to prepare for the alternative.
Lesson #4 – Get Up
I learned by age six that there was a difference between being hurt and being injured. Being injured required medical attention, being hurt required sucking it up and walking it off. I was something of a wimp as a kid, but I knew how to take a hard fall and recover without calling FEMA for help deciding between Mickey Mouse and Scooby-Doo band aides.
These days that feels like a lost art.
Like any six year old, my son can sometimes be a wild man. Every wall has to be scaled, every puddle has to be jumped, every person of similar size has to be challenged to a footrace. This makes for a lot of fun and more than a couple of crash landings per month. Each time that I see my precious little man hit the pavement, the same thought runs through my mind, “Oh my God, my child is hurt!” This usually goes hand in hand with an overwhelming desire to run over, scoop him up and make everything okay. Sometimes I do exactly that, but most of the time I channel my father and say, “You’re okay, buddy, get up.” I can tell he doesn’t like it when I say that. He has no idea that I don’t like it either. It hurts my soul a little to deny him that immediate hug and comfort, but it’s the right thing to do. The truth that I can’t explain to him, the one he’ll only learn through long experience on this planet, is simple: the whole ‘hitting the pavement’ thing never ends. We get knocked down all our lives; spiritually, emotionally, financially, you name it. Life can be a contact sport. Like most things in life, you can’t control that – but you can control how you react to it. Helping a child develop the impulse to instantly pick themself up off the ground is a life-long gift, even when it robs us of the unparalleled joy of being the one that makes it all better.
In the end, that’s what all of these throwback parenting perspectives have in common; a willingness to allow our children to be unhappy or uncomfortable when it’s in their best interest. More often than not, that means suffering our own minor trauma – the knowing that we can make things easier on our child, but that doing so is doing them a disservice. I certainly don’t pine for the days of disconnected, workaholic Dads and Betty Crocker Moms, but I’ve come to understand that each generation has something valuable to teach the next about how to turn children into responsible adults. It may be easy to write off our fathers as unenlightened products of their time, but most of them did the best they could with the knowledge they had. After that, the best that we can hope for is that, one day, our kids will say the same about us.
Last week I started jotting down a short list of things my Dad – much maligned in the parenting arena – got right when it came to fatherhood. Dad was old school (I say “was” because he’s mellowed in his AARP days and is in a fair bit of denial about exactly how hardcore he used to be). Much of my perspective on parenting is defined by my desire (need?) to be a different kind of Dad than I had. And yet, sometimes in the touchy-feely age of helicopter parenting, I can see that the way my own father approached raising children still has some value.
Lesson #2: Manners Aren’t Optional
Manners were a high priority for my father. I distinctly remember visiting him in the hospital when I was about eight years old. Dad was recovering from back surgery and the nurse came in to deliver his meds. As soon as she left, Dad lumbered out of bed, hobbled across the semi-private room to his three sons and gave each of us a sharp whack on the back of the head (Dad would deny this, he has a kind of selective-dementia that seems to only crop up when I remind him that he was a hard-ass back in the day). Anyway, this is how we all learned that the rule about young men standing when a lady comes into the room applied to nurses as well. For the Roberto boys, the bar was set a good bit higher than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. To this day I can tell you that a large dinner napkin should be placed in your lap still half-folded and only after the host has done the same , the salt and pepper should always be passed together, and that, in a formal place setting, the cutting edge of a knife always faces in, toward the plate. The list goes on. I’m not saying I actually make use of these rules on a regular basis, but manners are as much a formative part of my upbringing as Bugs Bunny, messy divorces and Spaghetti-O’s straight out of the can.
I can’t quite embrace this level of intensity on the whole manners issue but I’ve definitely come to understand that politeness is about a lot more than knowing which fork to use on a salad (the outer most fork is for salad, in case you’re wondering). We’re relentless at our house with manners, even when it seems like no progress is being made whatsoever. Nothing is given without a please or received without a thank you. Z and Pebbles both know that the phrase “try again” means that whatever has just come out of their mouth needs a “nice word” attached to it. It’s exhausting and repetitive but crucial. There’s something about saying “please” when you want something that reminds the asker that a favor is being done for them. “Pass the salt” is a command. “Please pass the salt.” involves the speaker acknowledging that there’s another person in the equation that is doing them a kindness, however small.
We do all this not because we have an Emily Post fetish but because we’re intent on teaching our children gratitude and decency. As small as these words may seem, their absence speaks of entitlement and expectation in a world that has too much of both. I’ve said this before: people who dwell in gratitude rarely dwell in misery while the entitled tend to live with perpetual disappointment.
Manners are a gift, not just to the old lady who gets a door held open for her or the Grandpa who gets a hand written thank you card, but for the child who learns to appreciate how much is done for them day in and day out.
(in the interest of full disclosure, we’re pretty bad about thank you cards but we’re trying to get better!)
This will probably sound really strange to many people but when Z, at four years old, came home from preschool asking about Martin Luther King, it was very important to me to explain Dr. King’s accomplishments outside the context of race. Z’s favorite preschool teacher, Ms. Karen, is a wonderful, loving, black woman – at times another Momma for Z – and he had (and has) no sense that there’s anything about her that’s the slightest bit different than him. To me that’s an innocence worth preserving for as long as possible. The only time he ever asked about skin color I held my (olive skinned) arm out and said “Hey, look, I’m a little darker than you.” and he said “Yeah, and Momma’s lighter than me.” and that was that. People come in all shades, ’nuff said.
So I explained to him that MLK was a great, brave man who had been a champion of equality. He had stood up and said that no matter who someone was, no matter what they looked like or how much money they had or where they came from, they deserved the same rights and respect as everyone else. Z, who already has an acute sense of fairness, latched on to this and has been an MLK fan ever since. A month or so later, after a crushing loss in little-kid soccer, Z came stomping off the field angry and red faced. The other team had more players, he insisted, “And Martin Luther King said it has to be fair!” He was ready to march on from Selma to Montgomery because this was bullshit! In a rare moment of fatherly excellence, I comforted him without laughing.
For better or worse, at this point in his life Z has little or no concept of black and white – there’s no such thing as a ‘minority’ to him just as there’s no such thing as an ‘alternative lifestyle’. There are nice people, there are loving couples, that’s it. Obviously, he’s going to know about all of things at some point, but the longer he goes in life without thinking twice about Sophie having two Mommies, the more repulsed he’ll be by people who try to tell him there’s something wrong with it. And that’s exactly what I want.
Dr. King’s name came up again just this week. Z checks a book out from school each day, brings it home and we all read it together at bed time. It’s a great system that encourages reading and parental involvement and Z really enjoys it.
I got home late Thursday night from a week of shooting in NYC and when I got Z out of bed Friday morning he told me how excited he was to read his new New York City book together. Z loves New York – not only is it the place Daddy flies off to for work, he’s visited a few times and always gets to stay up too late, eat too much pizza and do cool stuff.
ME: A New York book? Sounds great.
Z: Yeah, it’s all about the buildings that burned and fell down.
Me: Uh…can I see your New York book for a second?
Turns out, Z had come home with a War of Terror / September 11 photographic retrospective. Now, I don’t think of myself as a prude or prone to overreacting but this seemed incredibly inappropriate for a kindergartener. Flipping through the book I found photos of everything from the WTC on fire to AK-47 wielding Taliban to a guy, in a pool of blood, shot dead in an airport. Checking it out to a six year old was an accident , it was a book that looked harmless enough on the cover that the librarian let out because she (I assume) had no idea what was inside.
He was disappointed that I wouldn’t read him the book or let him page through it but we decided to go to the Burbank library together and there we got a proper New York in photographs book – one of those Life Magazine coffee table books that is so fun to go through. When we came across a shot of lower Manhattan from the mid-1990s, I explained that those two big buildings were the ones that got knocked down. The brief conversation that ensued will stay with me as long as I live.
Z: Who knocked those buildings down?
Me: Someone who was mad, who didn’t like America very much and did a bad thing.
After a moments thought, a little light bulb went off for Z, as if he’d just made a meaningful connection between facts..
Z: Was it the same person who shot Martin Luther King?
Me: No, buddy, it wasn’t the same person.
Z: But they’re on the same team, right?
The thought was so simple and perfect that I just stared at him for a long moment. In lieu of the kind of wordy explanation I am prone to giving, I followed Z’s lead and went with the simplest and most immediate answer that came to mind.
Me: Yeah, they pretty much are.