Archive for September, 2012

I Am Going To Talk About Politics

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

This is insane. Honestly, everyone I’m close to is talking about this, and despite the wealth of information drenching us every single second, most of us can’t even begin to guess at what is really going on in the world, in our economy or in the situation room of the White House. And lord knows, I’m not the one breaking the bell curve when it comes to “smarts”.

Obviously, I lean left. But not so obviously, I have a lot of real affection for the conservative point of view. I have absolutely no interest in expanding gun-control laws, and I don’t really care if the laws on the books now are revoked. Sure, guns can kill people, but they’re tools and it feels sorta anti-intellectual to try to ban a *thing* instead of dealing with the illegality of *actions*. Also, I totally understand the anti-abortion people. Yes, you shouldn’t legislate what I’m doing with my pantsjunk, but on the other hand if you *actually believe* that it’s murder, then you really do have to fight against it. I get that – I totally *disagree*, but I get it. I’m also the only person I know who thinks we should cut the NEA. When I was a kid, it was a pathetic two dollars per American. Now? It’s about 40 cents. Dump it, give them a win, we’ll bring it back when someone has the guts to actually fund it.

When it comes to economics, I don’t have a degree and neither does almost anyone talking on television, so I don’t really listen to what anyone says.  If I pay more taxes and more cops are hired and less criminals steal less of my shit, that seems like a net win for me, but I tell you what – I’ll admit that I don’t understand the free market economy if you’ll admit the same. Then we can talk

So, “where I stand” is pretty shaky ground. But what we seem to be looking at is the fact that Mitt Romney is going to lose this election, and the general take on it is that he’s a terrible candidate. While that’s probably true, he certainly *seems* to be a terrible candidate to me, I personally don’t think that’s why he’s losing. I think he’s losing because the Republican platform is making less and less sense to people.


1) “We need to end abortion and limit access to birth control.” Okay, this is insane. Obviously, about 60% of Americans want no change in access to abortion, so that’s not exactly a popular position… BUT BIRTH CONTROL??? Do you guys just WANT to lose? Why would you choose a position that basically NOBODY supports, except for about two hundred guys in their 70s who haven’t had sex since they banged their wives watching tapes of Nancy Reagan.

2) “We need fewer restrictions on guns.” Really? Because everyone looks around and sees people getting shot for no reason, regardless of the fact that crime is at an all-time low. Look, I’m with you guys, but this is a totally stupid position when you consider the zeitgeist.

3) “Gays and Immigrants shouldn’t have the same rights.” This is a huge one because it’s part of a larger problem. The American Way is this – no matter how you were born, you can achieve greatness. It’s the story of Jesus in the manger, of Moses in the rushes and Lincoln in the log cabin. Your platform states, “because of how and where you were born, the American Dream is not for you”. I’m not even saying the American dream is real, but it’s starting to occur to everyone that keeping our collective foot on the throats of people we’ve been trampling on for years is not particularly *good* for us.

4) “Job Creators are extremely wealthy, and we need to make it easier for them to make jobs”. But… we all know that doesn’t make any sense. This is trickle down economics. If it worked at all then the years when it was being implemented would show a healthier economy, and they don’t. We all know that people making 20 million a year aren’t creating jobs – that guy is *saving his money*. It’s the guy making 180k a year who keeps opening one more lumber store.

But that’s all economics, and we agreed we’re both morons, so let me say it’s more than that. It goes back to point three. Most of the wealthy people we see came from wealthy parents, and George W. Bush embodies that… but nowhere NEAR the level that Mitt Romney does. In an economic climate like this one, nobody resents a guy who was born on third and claims to have hit a triple more than the guy who falls asleep when his head hits the pillow and drags himself awake when his alarm goes off five hours later.

5) “Liberal Bias/Snobs/Elite College Aristocrats/Unfair Advantage to Democrats”.  There’s a saying in basketball fandom – if you’re complaining about the refs, you’ve already lost. A group of insanely wealthy people, with countless insanely wealthy people standing in the wings behind them, have the gall to say, “the entire media world, with the sole exception of Fox News, has an orchestrated effort to make us look bad.” Never mind that the best way to make Mitt Romney look bad is to play videos of things he says, and the best way to humiliate the GOP is to fact-check their statements.

John Edwards and John Kerry couldn’t claim to understand the middle class and get any traction because they are both insanely rich white people with more advantages and creature comforts than Queen Elizabeth the first. The sense that people get looking at today’s GOP is that they believe “the middle class” are people making 200k, that when you make a friendly wager, it’s for ten thousand dollars, that half the country are parasites living on the government teat. That half of the country is astonished and angered, and most of the other half know it isn’t true.

6) President Obama is a Muslim/Wasn’t Born in this Country. Most of America doesn’t know what to do with this insanity. And the fact that the GOP holds on to these ideas, subtly working them into campaign speeches, strikes most of the American electorate is distasteful.

And trying to win on a technicality? President Obama wins the election by a fair margin, and there are people who are saying “technically, he shouldn’t be President because we think he wasn’t born here!” and people start thinking, “well, wait – we voted for him, we want him to be President… if there *is* a stupid rule that invalidates the American People’s wishes, then maybe the *rule* is bad…”

7) “We Are At War With Islam”. No, we aren’t.

See, this is America, and almost everyone has Muslim friends. And while they were annoyed with the cartoons of Mohammed, they didn’t get “rage”. In fact, they probably got roughly as angry as the bloviating red-faced fumers on television talking about Muslim Rage. They did a poll, and 8% of American Muslims said that it was moral to murder an American Citizen if the action was justified by religious precepts, and while that’s certainly terrifying, it’s only half the story. Because 16% of Evangelical Christians said the same thing. Americans are simply not buying the idea that these are the end-days and a war with Islam is upon us. It’s been going on for 1400 years, it’s not gonna suddenly all come to a head in 2017.

And if it does, a Mormon might not be the best person to run the country. Not for nothing, but they think there were horses in the United States before the Spanish came. They thought black people had the mark of Cain until 1977. They believe that a farm boy found a… you know what, google it or something. I grew up with it, I could tell you stories, but that’s not what this is about.

8. “President Obama Did Nothing And That’s Why You’re Miserable.” But, he did, and we’re not.

Unfortunately, the Republicans are on record, FROM DAY ONE, saying they will defeat everything that comes in front of them from the president, that their number one priority is getting President Obama out of office. To most of America that seems… shitty. President Bush got his tax breaks because the Democrats hated him, but they didn’t want to punish *Americans* for his actions. The Republicans actually screwed America’s credit rating to make the President look bad. A comprehensive health care plan, developed by conservatives and implemented by a Republican governor has become the centerpoint of the Republican’s hatred. And yes, it doesn’t help that it was Romney’s idea, and now he has to run against it.

But also, we’re all okay. It sucks, we’re not psyched, but we’re Americans, we’re fine. It goes back to point #5, we aren’t whiners and we hate whiners.  When you say, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” almost everyone’s gonna say yes. Certainly the soldiers who aren’t in Iraq, and the other soldiers who can now love whomever they want openly. Certainly the millions and millions of people who now have health care. And everyone who had money in the stock market -that shit is worth almost DOUBLE what it was four years ago. So, that GOP talking point just isn’t sticking.

9) “We will cut taxes and reduce the deficit”. You can’t.

There’s literally nobody in the world who thinks, “If I can find a way to bring in *less* money, and then get rid of some of the stupid ways I spend money, then I’ll have more money.” I said before, I know nothing about economics, but this is what George Bush Senior called “Voodoo Economics”. And when Mitt Romney said, “If I get elected, people will feel so good and so positive that capital will rush back in without us doing anything!” the American people largely said, “Um… I’m, like, pretty fun to be around, but it doesn’t make my boss give me more money, and it doesn’t make my rent any lower.”

Mitt Romney is a very bad candidate and he’s deeply unattractive to a majority of voters. So yes, that’s one reason why he’s slipping in the polls and why he’ll lose this election. But more than that, the Republican ideas are starting to not make sense to the average American.

George W. Bush was elected and re-elected because his economic ideas weren’t all that terrifying when we have a surplus, and his foreign policy and domestic policy were intellectually consistent. His administration was *interpretive* in a way that I disagreed with vehemently, but at no point did I say, “but that’s not actually a *thing*.” He didn’t want gay rights – fine – but he poured money into treating AIDS in Africa because as a Christian that’s what you’re supposed to do. I didn’t like him and didn’t agree with him, but I thought he was living in the same world I was living in.

The GOP now, regardless of who they are running, isn’t living in the same America that I am. It doesn’t help that Romney is terrible at running for president, but no matter what – it’s actually the Republican message that isn’t working with American voters.

Maybe “Bottom-Feeder” Is The Wrong Term

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Barnaby has been practicing his existential woe lately, culminating in occasional conversations about how he’s the worst person he knows and he’s growing up too fast – things that would normally be heartbreakers if I didn’t know him so well – if I didn’t know he was trying these mood on like spring sport coats. But one day, as we were walking, he tripped into a doozy.

“I’m not as good at stuff as other kids are,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not the best at anything. Everything I do, some other kid is better at it.”

“Yep, that’s true,” I said.

And while some kids need a longer answer than this, I know better than to say much more until pressed. He is the kind of kid that if you lean back and give him space, he’ll come to you. It’s so funny to see people trying to generate conversation with him, along the lines of “how was school” and stuff – if you make a goofy face at him and say, “I once ate eleven bananas”, he’ll be your friend forever.

But he pressed me. He kept saying “other kids have better writing, and other kids can read better, and other kids can run faster, I’m not the best at anything.” And I said, “that’s totally true, Barnaby. Almost always, for the rest of your life, someone is gonna be better at stuff than you are.” And he said, “Well, what am I best at?”

I said, “Look, you probably aren’t best at anything, but I can tell you that there are two things that are really great about you, two things that I’m just thrilled with. One is that you really love your sister and your friends and your family and your neighbors. Not every kid is like that, but you really deeply love the people in your life. I think that’s great.

“The other thing is that the stories you tell are different than the way people normally tell stories. If you ask most people, they’ll say, ‘a man walks into a grocery store and a bad guy is stealing money, so the man jumps up and stops the bad guy and saves everyone in the store.'”

He stared at me and said, “But that’s a good story.”

And I said, “Sure, it is. But everyone knows about a grocery store, and a bad guy, and money. That’s already there, just sitting there, like regular ideas that hang about all over the place. When I ask you to tell a story, you say, ‘in every hole, all over the world, there are little guys. Their bodies are made out of water and their skin is paper and the drink out of a hole in their belly button, and every day they run around and fly around on miniature dophins, and their job is to stitch together all the matter in the universe because they’re the ones who invented the big bang.

Barnaby had a giant smile on his face. That was one of his actual stories.

“It’s important to have people like you. It’s important to have stories like that, because those are the stories that are going to make people see the world in new ways, and new ways always lead to strange and new answers. And that’s important.”

So much of art is one step removed from the primary source. In the same way that most websites are just a collection of links, most art now is a collection of previously generated ideas. Pop culture, and the worship of it, has left us in a position where any piece of art that is *free* of reference leaves us feeling breathless and unfastened emotionally.

It’s worse in the hardcore professional world, where livelihoods are at stake and real money can be won or lost. But even in our world there are so many people who are aspiring to take an existing idea or format and turn it into the same success, only owned by this new person. I have turned down so many situations where someone said, “I think we can be as big as (some other person’s thing) if we only (do a thing that has nothing to do with making a piece of art)”, and I’ve never regretted it. I’m always proud of the people once they find the success that they’re looking for, but I’m also really happy to be stuck somewhere else, looking for the weird.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that there are a raft of new ideas out there. I know that all the stories that can be told have probably already been told. I also don’t want to produce a play written by a five year old – the budget along would kill me. But reinventing the wheel on your own time is a thrill, and each new reinvention might have an intrinsic improvement.

Mac wrote a play over ten years ago  where a man has to write a blessing for his best friend’s best friend’s wedding while another character is trying to help him with it by offering Shakespeare quotes and bible verses, and he keeps shooting them down as “cliches”. Finally she asks him what is wrong with cliches, and I don’t have the language in front of me, but he says that cliches just hang in the air like cobwebs. They aren’t thoughts or inspirations, they’re just things you walk into that stick to your face. It’s the same thing with aspirations – we can’t just look at the successful and think that their model is applicable to us, we have to allow for – even fight for – real innovation.

Barnaby doesn’t know he’s supposed to have good guys and bad guys, he doesn’t know that his stories have to have structure. He sets up circumstances and then asks you what you think will happen. I’m not saying it’s good, but I stand by what I told him – it’s different, it’s specific and it’s thrilling.

Green Grow, The Rushes Go

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I was at a large social gathering which has always been when I’m at my happiest, although childrearing can create a coat of rust on your grown-up chain mail and I really wasn’t at my best. But, as Pavoratti said when asked how he sings when he’s not a hundred percent, “the times I was a hundred percent I can count on one hand, one must still sing…” And I went in determined to enjoy myself and see if I could make my smart friends crack up. No easy task, either of these things.

Hours into the night, as everyone was well lubed and loosened, I happened upon two friends discussing the astonishing beauty of a third friend and one of them said “God, it would be amazing – not to just, y’know, *date* her or whatever, but to just get to have a life where she’s the person you’re sharing it with. That would be astonishing…” (or something to that effect, we were all drunk, who remembers) and I very calmly said –

“If you found a woman like that, an astonishing woman, a bright and inspiring woman who’s mind matches her beauty who inspires you to try to strive to be Your Best You every single day, and if you got her to go out with you and date you and call you her boyfriend, and if one day she marries you and decides to have children with you, and you do, and she likes it so much she decides to have a second, and you do, and your money is steady and your home is safe and your children are healthy and this astonishing woman only gets more intelligent, more insightful and more beautiful with each passing day… you will be faced with the undeniable truth that nothing about this relationship changes the fact that every day you still have to be you, you still have to roll out of bed every morning and stare into the existential abyss and know that while the company you keep is the very best company you can possibly find, you still are born alone and you die alone and there is a wall that separates you from the greatness of the people you choose to share your life with that even the greatest intimacy that life allows will not break down.”

My two friends gave me bear hugs and thanked me because they weren’t thinking about this truth, and realizing it gave them enormous comfort. That’s the kind of friends I have.

I have not discovered the very thing that I want to instill in my children and if you don’t have something, you can’t give it to your kids. I am loathe to give advice on kids, but here’s the thing – you just can’t make your children better than you, you have to become better *first* and then hope it rubs off. You want your kids to eat veggies? The only way is if it’s the only option and you’re eating it with them. My son eats fried chicken nuggets and guess what? SO DO I. Been doing it for years. And I totally forgot to change everything about myself before I had kids, so now my kids are turning out *just like me*.

Barnaby was in swim classes and it was a real struggle for him. But he worked all year, too nervous to put his face in the water, too scared to be in the pool without holding on to his teacher, and because he’s our kid he spent the entire class spinning some yarn about what actually happens in water, what creatures are like on Neptune where their bodies are made out of water, what kind of dinosaurs can actually pilot space craft through planets made entirely of water, etcetera. Finally, after a year we found ourselves in Myrtle Beach and on our last day there, he swam with water wings all by himself. Kicking, paddling blowing bubbles and breathing. By himself.

He immediately shut down our praise. It was nothing. He knew it was nothing, every other kid has been swimming forever. He looked around at other kids who were just swimming and said, “Quit making such a big deal. This is nothing. This isn’t some big deal, everyone can do this.”

What can I tell him? I am restless and dissatisfied in a way that is actually destructive to me. Any perceived success feels like a missed opportunity for something far better. And my dissatisfaction with my life, considering the jaw-dropping advantages and good luck that has simply fallen in my lap, is disgusting to me. I wrote the title of this blog and thought to myself, “Man, it’s been a while since I listened to early R.E.M., I wonder if I still have all those CDs.” And I didn’t look because I know I don’t, I just went to iTunes and bought a couple of early R.E.M. albums. That’s the life I live, that moment right there is a fucking DREAM to 15 year old me, who didn’t have the money to buy a single R.E.M. album – I stole from record stores ALL THE TIME and had my friends make me *tapes* of albums I wanted.

Do you know how I shoplifted? I went into stores and grabbed tapes and then ran out the door. That was my plan. How did my life become *this*, where I am now? How do I have a magic music machine and magic money that gets me any album I want and I don’t have to worry about the eight dollars? How did that happen? I look at my friends who went to beautiful private universities and I see them enjoying their own shows and enjoying their lives and part of me just pines for that simple pleasure of *appreciation*. I see my married friends hurrying home from their actual grown-up jobs to be with their kids for a couple of hours before bedtime, and my stomach drops because of all the times I drive slowly home from my half-hour trip to the grocery store by myself because it’s the only time I’m neither here nor there, the only time there are no self-imposed expectations that I’m missing the mark on.

And then I remember – man, every single one of us, on some level, feels the same thing. There are people who look at my kids and my marriage and think I’ve got my shit together, it’s even possible that people look at my life and wish they could have the things I have, despite the fact that absolutely none of it gives me the slightest sense of accomplishment or peace. The green grass grows in every yard, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I can’t help but stare at the lawn and, while forgetting that I should never have had a home or a yard or a place to grow anything, I think of how much greener and fuller it could be. And if there is any one thing that I wish I could improve, it would be my ability just be goddam thankful for the life I have, that gives me such rewarding and simple-to-solve problems.

It Gets Different

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I know there’s a theme emerging in what I’m talking about here. It seems as if all I can talk about is just how perverse it is for us to hang our hats on some “truth”, when most of what we believe doesn’t hold up when tested. But when you have little kids it becomes a daily problem. Children ask you questions and they listen to your answers. And they don’t point out your hypocrisy because they’re jerks, they do it because they’re genuinely confused.

A generation ago this was all much easier. You could just say, “that’s not a question for children,” and let it go. Unfortunately, we’ve figured out that if we don’t give our kids answers, they’ll find them. If you’ve given them a partial answer, or an answer based on a perfect world, or an answer based on how you *want* your life to be, then when they find out you weren’t telling the truth they will either assume you knew and you lied (which is awful) or more likely, that you just aren’t as smart as they thought. And the problem with both of these is that you won’t be able to give them any more guidance later.

I am a passionate defender of the LGBT community – and I say “defender” because I’m not a member of the community. I’m on the outside, hopefully helping the bouncers making sure nothing too destructive gets in to wreck the party. And although I am moved to tears by *every single* video testimonial from the “It Gets Better” series, my innate contrarianism pushes me to question the premise.

The fact of the matter is this – there have been people who were born gay, who grew up miserable in some horrid small-minded red state in a culture that told them every single day that homosexuality was not only the most socially disgusting thing you can be (“faggot!” “Homo!” “Queer!”) but that God himself will hate you for all eternity even if you don’t *act* on it because Jesus said you can’t even lust in your heart. So you grow up, you get married, you learn to stay silent, you have sex about 25 times in your entire life with a woman you resent and every time is a heart crushing betrayal of who you are, an eye-clenching act of revulsion that can only happen with the help of liquor and daydreams, you raise your kids distantly, you grow old, you never admit who you are and you die.

That happens. That has happened countless millions of times in human history, and it’s *fine*. It’s terrible for that one person, but the rest of us don’t care *at all*. Most people aren’t gay, so what the hell do we care? It’s one horrible life in 250,000 years of human history, in the countless generations stretching back to the grasslands of Africa… in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter at all.

Things don’t “Get Better”. We have to fight and scratch and scream at the top of our lungs to change anything and we need to keep fighting for the people behind us that we don’t care about because letting go of your morals based on circumstance is maybe the only thing close to “evil” that I can imagine. The laziest thought, in my barely functioning brain, is the famous Martin Luther King quote, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It doesn’t. Humans are just horrible little animals, caring only for their own individual comfort and, somewhat, for the comfort of their immediate families. In order for the arc of the moral universe to bend towards justice we have to act, passionately and powerfully, all the time, and not for our own self-interest but for what is *just*.

And this is my problem, when I’m talking to my kids. I want to tell Barnaby that he is better than me, that he is already a better person with  a better mind, that each generation going forward will be better than the generation we’re leaving behind. But the truth is, if he screws up his life to the same degree that I screwed up mine, he won’t be any better than me. He’s gonna have advantages that I didn’t have – parents who dote on him and more money – but IN NO WAY does that indicate that he’ll be happier, kinder, more humane or more successful. He’s gonna have to work his ass off to be any of those things, and I can’t do it for him.

The individual videos in the “It Gets Better” campaign often include a list of things you can do to make things better, and the hope they give is an undeniable pure good. Very often the message is, “hang in there, in a few years you can move to a better city, you can change the people around you, you can find your community.” And that’s right, that’s what a young kid who’s contemplating suicide needs to do. But if your parents hate you, that stays with you no matter where you are. When you find your community in San Francisco and then the entire state votes to legally make you a second class citizen the small minded shittery is gonna stay with you. When you go on vacation in Florida and you and your partner get jumped and beaten, it will remind you of the time *before* things got “better”. Getting beaten as an adult, with your partner there with you, is “better” than getting beaten alone as a kid, sure. But that’s not what we’re telling these kids.

I can’t tell my kids that they’re Smart or Talented or Chosen. I can’t. Because I would be lying, and pretty soon they’re gonna figure out that I’m lying. When I first realized that I wasn’t particularly smart or talented I was *devastated*, and I couldn’t figure out why my parents had decided to lie to me. Then I realized they weren’t lying they just couldn’t tell the difference between what actually is and what they want to be true and I never really trusted them after that. Despite what I want to be true of my kids, I can’t pass down the lies. I hate it, but the truth is better than what we want to be true.

The Wrong Story

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

One of my best friends in the world is having trouble with her son and his terrible sleep habits. She hadn’t asked me for any help, but she told a terrible story on an email list we’re both on (hey Kids Born In 1993, we used to use email lists to talk to large groups of people! Hey, people born before 1950, email lists are things that people born between 1955 and 1990 still use to talk to large groups of people!) about how she ended up in the hospital with a bladder infection, cause somewhat by 18 months of crippling sleep deprivation.

I did what any friend would do, I wrote a long email explaining exactly what she was doing wrong and how to fix it.

What is amazing to me is that I had the presence of mind NOT to send it. I spent about twenty minutes furiously typing out my astonishing expertise on what she, a mother of her own 18 month old, living in California and working full time – and, oh yeah, six months pregnant with her second child – should do as a parent to get more sleep, and then somehow I managed to NOT be a dick enough to send it. You know what I thought of doing instead? This is what an asshole I am, I thought of sending the email TO HER HUSBAND. Because I didn’t want to step on her toes, poor dear, but I was sure her husband could shepherd her through these disasterous decisions she was making.

Now, I ended up not sending it to anyone, I deleted it, and despite the rest of this story that was the exact right thing to do. This woman is 40 years old, in perfect health and is running a large non-profit in California. I have sought out her advice for every grant-and-job application I’ve filed in the last god-knows-how-many years, the very idea that my extremely limited parenting skills should be foisted on her, unrequested, is really the height of disrespect to a person that I regard more highly than almost anyone else I know.

Now, what happened is – she called me and asked what she should do. I told her that I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t have sure-fire answers and the whole thing is really delicate and nobody knows a kid as well as their parents do… She essentially said, “Oh for the love of… I’m exhausted, I haven’t slept in 18 months and I just got out of the hospital with a bladder infection, can you please just help me fer chrissakes?”

There is a difference between discipline and humiliation. If your child breaks the rules, then they have to be told that they broke the rules and they have to deal with the consequences, and for everyone this is different. Some parents very sweetly take their child aside and explain to them that a *better* way to do something is to do it according to the rules, and that way everyone’s happy. Some parents just give their kid a swift hand to the butt. Honestly, I don’t know which approach works better, I know that all the books say that spanking doesn’t work but somehow we survived two hundred and fifty thousand years of human development surrounded by crushing violence and cruelty and everyone made it just fine, so who am I to judge?

I’m embarrassed to admit, my tragic flaw as a dad so far has been misunderstanding that the long talk about the rules is equal to attention, and kids love attention and affection, so what happens is this – your kid acts like a little shit and in return he gets to have a five minute talk with you in your sweetest voice. It took me a while to realize that what Barnaby hates the most is isolation. Now, when either kid acts like a little shit, they’re sequestered, they get put in a room and we leave. That’s discipline, for us, that’s as bad as it gets. And it only really happens when the kids are shitty.

In my book, waking up at 4 in the morning is shitty. It’s bullshit. In our house, nobody’s awake between midnight and six, those are the rules. I break them all the time because of insomnia, but I’m sure as hell not gonna wake up Jordana at 4 to sit and talk (the way we both used to before we had kids). When Barnaby was about seven months old, we set up the rules (although it was more like 5 AM back then). But when Barnaby cried in the middle of the night, we did nothing, we let him cry.

Because HONESTLY, as a parent you have to ask yourself, “what am I, BATMAN? Is there really a four AM problem that only *I* can solve? An emergency drink of water or my child will have malnutrition? Is he gonna be on a shrink’s couch at 40 because I didn’t give him a hug in the middle of the night? I mean… if that’s true, then I have a child that is simply *not gonna make it in the world*”

Now humiliation isn’t discipline. Humiliation is when you scream at your child at the top of your lungs, when you spit out the things she’s doing wrong and follow it with a punishment delivered with disgust. Humiliation is a totally reasonable tool, but you have to look at it like military intervention – a last ditch when diplomacy has failed. You have to use it only in times of hideous actions on the part of your kid. If your kid is supposed to be brushing their teeth and instead they’re doing a naked interpretation of The Nutcracker in a full length mirror – and they’ve been doing it for ten minutes despite the number of times you’ve asked them to brush their teeth – humiliation is NOT necessary and you’ll dull its use later. If your kid is dicking around and runs out into the street in front of a car, then humiliate the SHIT out of them, make sure they know that this rule, when broken, will lead to them being DEAD.

And here’s what’s ridiculous, everything I just said is more than likely wrong for anyone else’s kid. I mean, look, when I talked to the woman who called, I explained to her about how our sleeptraining worked and she tried it and, at least for the first two nights, had good results. She was sad because her 18 month old is now rejecting her because she’s the disciplinarian, but when the second baby comes along that’s all gonna change… and plus, these are kids, they’re lunatics, it could all change by *Saturday* with no explanation.

When I was explaining this, I said, “If a kid comes home with a bad report card and you punish him, that’s good parenting. If a kid comes home with a good report card and you celebrate him, that’s good parenting. If a kid comes home with their report card and you don’t pay attention when they try to give it to you, that’s bad parenting.” And I totally patted myself on the back for how goddam WISE that sounds.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized, I’m an idiot. Your kid brings you his report card, and you’re in the middle of working so you tell him you can’t pay attention right now. The take away from that might be “there is a time for work, and a time for us to talk and if I don’t make time for my work then it won’t get done.” What better lesson for a kid with a good report card, that time spent working is *valuable*, and that you honor their homework and reading time in the same way that they ought to honor yours. Or, on the other side, what better lesson for a kid with a bad report card, that prioritizing your work schedule means you accomplish more.

Even though she called me, and even though my advice worked for two days, it was still the right decision to keep my damn mouth shut about how to raise her child. Parenting is rollerskating down an endless flight of stairs holding a dozen puppies, if you think you have any idea how someone else is negotiating it you are probably somewhere between exactly right and dead wrong. And that’s about a hundred times less useful than your silence.

Dinosaur Question

Monday, September 10th, 2012

“Why does a T-Rex have two fingers one each hand that are totally useless?”

Jordana has a very simple response to Barnaby and Marlena – answer the question they ask. So, when Barnaby asks me, “why are your arms covered in fur?” I just answer “In the middle of ninth grade, over the course of about two weeks, my body just sprouted fur everywhere.” That was my answer. He didn’t ask any follow-ups, this answer satisfied him, and it was absolutely true. When Barnaby asks, “do you think we should have another baby?” I say, “Nope! When it was just me and your mom, we were lonely for you, and then when it was me, you and your mom, we were lonely for another kid. Now we have Marlena, so we’re all here!”

It’s just amazing how quickly things spiral,  though. Barnaby asked if the planet was getting hotter, and I told him it was. It’s a very simple question and there is not a single scientist on Earth that doesn’t know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the planet is getting hotter. He asked me this question in a room full of ardent conservative Republicans, though, and the air pressure dropped when he asked it. Fortunately, he stopped there, but later he asked me *why* the planet is getting hotter.

Now, there is no ambivalence on this matter. Besides a very, very small minority of fringe voices employed by large polluters, everyone knows that human activity is causing the temperature of the Earth to climb. There is some debate about whether we’re *solely* to blame, or if some planetary cycles have something to do with it, but it is beyond any kind of debate that human activity is causing the temperature of the planet to rise. Barnaby understands atmosphere and climate – he’s obsessed with terra-forming Mars when he grows up, so he knows that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere helps trap heat. It’s amazing, he’s five, he’s not the most attentive or studious kid in the world, and he understands the threat of human-influenced global warming more than the deniers.

Now, I should say, I’ve got no dog in this hunt, the environment just isn’t an issue that gets me riled up. As long as China and India are allowed to do whatever they want, no amount of recycling or turning off the tap when I’m brushing my teeth is gonna change that. But I also know that I can’t answer questions like this with “well, there are two schools of thought on this subject” because there aren’t. There is accepted fact as presented by the united scientific community, and there’s a fairy tale invented by a few corporations who are terrified of losing money. I didn’t tell him about the fairy tale, or why it’s invented, or who believes it for what reason, I just answered his question.

So, when he asks me why a T. Rex has these useless front arms, I’m in the same territory. The T. Rex didn’t make it, he’s a dead end. He has arms because every animal before him had arms, but not all evolutionary qualities make sense. Those tiny worthless arms, on some other creatures, eventually developed into wings and they became chickens. Barnaby has watched enough nature shows on the Science Channel to accept evolution as a completely reasonable and rational explanation for the development of animals.

So, I answered the question, “he evolved from animals who had more useful arms and fingers. His were useless because he didn’t need them, he had giant teeth and really fast legs.” He didn’t ask any follow-ups, this answer satisfied him and it was absolutely true. At one point, about a year ago, he asked what kind of monkey we evolved from, and I told him we didn’t evolve from monkeys, that monkeys, apes and humans all evolved from a common ancestor millions and millions of years ago. That made sense to him. It was amazing, all the Evangelical Christians who yell “my mother wasn’t a monkey!” – my five year old understands the scientific facts behind evolution more than that.

Barnaby has been told stories by other people that I don’t think are true. He’s been “taught” things by a lot of the people he comes in contact with, and some of it is stuff that I would *never* tell him myself. My version of the Christmas Story is that a baby was born to poor parents and he grew up to be one of the greatest teachers and political figures in the world – that any baby can grow up and be anything they want. His version? A baby was born that everyone wanted to kill, and he was visited by some kings and some veterinarians, and eventually the people who wanted to kill that baby caught up with him when he was a grownup and killed him.

Seriously. He got that from his cousin. And… it’s not *wrong*.

I don’t run interference when this happens. I don’t care if someone plays Rush Limbaugh in the car while he’s riding in the back seat. He has never responded well to overt anger, and he’s incredibly logical, Rush Limbaugh holds no appeal to his kind of mind. In short, I trust him. We’ve had arguments about the existence of God – he claims there *is* a God and I tell him that it doesn’t make any sense to me – but we’ve agreed to disagree. I trust him so much that if he sees God, if he understands something that I don’t, then I gotta assume that I don’t know everything about the topic.

But I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to tell him the difference between what *is* and what some people *believe in*. We sent to Sesame Place and Barnaby met Elmo, but first he asked me how Elmo can see through his eyes, which were obviously plastic. I tried to evade, but he persisted. I finally leaned down so the other kids couldn’t hear me and said, “Honey, there’s an actor inside the Elmo costume. Those eyes are just there to look like eyes, but the actor is actually looking through the costume’s mouth. That’s how the person sees.” Barnaby looked at him and then said to me, “Daddy, I’m just gonna pretend that’s actually Elmo. I like that better.”

What can I say? I’ve been producing theater for sixteen years, and my five year old understands the suspension of disbelief better than I do.

I trust him.

On the Chin

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Look at me. Honey, look at me, look at my face. You’re going to be okay.

I have two children. When you have no children at all, you look at the way other people raise their children and you have opinions about it – you long to be the kind of parent that your friends are, or you decide that you will *never* behave the way some other parents do… you create opinions. Then, when you have a kid, you realize that you had no idea what the hell you were talking about.

It’s astonishing, and it might be the only time it happens in your entire life. When someone is at a table doing a puzzle, you can look over their shoulder and say, “well, those pieces right there, those go together…” and if the guy gets up you can sit down and take over and sure enough, they do. With parenting, when you take over, it’s as if your hands reach to touch the puzzle pieces and instantly turn into ingredients to bake a cake. My misunderstanding about what parenting is turned out to be more profound than any other misunderstanding I’ve ever had.

When you have a kid, you quickly assemble the skills that turn you into the parent you’ve decided to be. Attachment, or maybe Time Outs, or an old school spanker, or whatever – you make some decisions, you mold your kid into whatever you’re trying to make them into and you find that each age teaches you new skills for how to deal with each problem. You didn’t realize you were going to be this kind of parent, but a year, two years in and here you are – you’ve got rules, you’ve got skills and you know how to do this.

Then you have a second kid.

You didn’t make any choices with that first kid – that kid trained YOU. Because the second kid HAS NOTHING IN COMMON WITH THE FIRST KID. Everything you try to do doesn’t work, every single trick you think you learned – it only works ON ONE HUMAN BEING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, YOUR FIRST KID. The second kid forces you to figure out a thousand new things, almost every single second is different. And you can act the same, impose the same rules, train in the same way, but the second kid either thrives or ignores you, almost independent of your actions.

The world of parents is divided into two groups. About 90% of all parents realize that they don’t know a goddam thing about anyone else’s life or anyone else’s kids, all they know how to do is to survive the day with their own and what works for them. If you ask these parents for advice, they’ll start with, “what sometimes works for us is…”, but they’ll be pretty loathe to give you advice without solicitation. The other 10% of parents are the loud assholes talking about how important breast-feeding is, or why spanking *does* work, or how your baby wouldn’t be crying if the mom didn’t eat gluten. All of these people might be right… FOR THEIR OWN KID. In fact, they probably are. But they’re idiots if they think that what works for them is gonna work for you. Or for me.

Is someone gonna be in there? Will there be a teacher in there? What if there’s no teacher in there?

Look at me. Look at my face. You’re gonna be fine.

My kids are beyond my ability to talk about or describe. I’ve been lucky to come of age at a time of supreme personal assholery, where I have a digital record about everything I’ve ever felt, reaching back to the mid-90s. Before our generation, a person might be cleaning off a shelf and unearth a box that contained Letters Never Sent, and he might get to visit himself in his 20s for a moment, and think of the person he loved and the movies he saw that day. I’m lucky enough to have 200k of emails from 1998, where my friend Mac Rogers and I got in a heated fight about the movie Pleasantville. I had a two year relationship in the late 80s with a girl I can barely remember, but my three-date long relationship in November of ’98 is documented in two dozen emails to my friends.

But after my daughter was born, this blog died. I can’t figure out how to talk about them. I’ve put in the requisite ten thousand hours of verbal regurgitation, and I’ve sat down and opened a file to try to capture what’s been happening a hundred times… I just don’t know how to do it.

When Barnaby was born, we decided there would be no TV until he was two. Studies show that television at such a young age can lead to attention problems. We also, as much as we loved his baby talk and his hilarious spoonerisms, never repeated his mispronunciations because that can lead to speech problems. He had modeling clay and baby scissors and paint and paper, we worked on recognizing his letters early and were so proud when he walked at 10 months and began talking not much later. He was obviously very bright.

After a few years, his countless teachers and therapists had us convinced that he had some attention issues. He also desperately needed speech therapy and occupational therapy because his fine motor skills were so behind. He also has tried to convince us that he can’t read and has no interest in learning how.

So we pushed as hard as we knew how, and he, charmingly and without malice, didn’t budge. In the book Knufle Bunny, they describe the little girl “going boneless”, which every parent recognizes. It’s the moment a kid just drops, letting inertia do all the resistance work for them. Barnaby was the same way, but he used his own charm and storytelling to distract us from making him do what we needed. You put a ball of therapy clay in his hands and instead of pulling it and strengthening his fingers, he holds the ball and tells you about the solar system this new planet exists in, and all the creatures that live on it. He just sticks to his story because he’s figured out, if he tells it long enough the grownups start laughing and don’t ask him to do any work.

How do I tell you about him? He missed the Gifted and Talented program by a country mile, but he also doesn’t have any serious developmental delays. He isn’t shy, isn’t scared of other people, but that’s largely because he’s not entirely sure he lives in the same world as everyone else. He’s an anthropologist, a visitor, fascinated by things that are probably pretty mundane. He found a cookie that he really liked and couldn’t bring himself to eat it and it’s still in a ziploc bag hanging on our fridge with a magnet… how do I explain that to you, why that makes sense, why we would do that?

And Marlena is his. She is his sister, he has a sister named Marlena, who is his. And he is hers. As different as she is, the one thing they are really good at is adoring each other. She’ll do something crazy, and Barnaby will watch her and laugh and then look at me, like “is this actually happening?” She is as focused as he is distracted, as brave as he is cautious. I don’t tend to raise my voice at my kids, I use my boom-voice the way some people I know use coffee – the deny the use until it’s absolutely necessary in order to triple the effectiveness. When I yell at Barnaby, it scares him, it really does, but when I yell at Marlena… she gets this little smile on her face.

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to scare her. She’s the kind of person you can’t sneak up on. If you grabbed her from behind she wouldn’t jump or squeal, she’d lean back as if to say, “*there* you are. I’ve been waiting for you…”

So today, her first day of school ever, and Barnaby’s first day of first grade, you know which one we were worried about.

When I dropped her off, she said hi to the teacher and made a beeline for the toys. Now look, nobody is one thing and while she’s strong and brave and won’t take shit from anyone, she also loves her people and asks for Barnaby and her mom all day long. I know it’s not perfect, but this is a moment where she’s gonna train us to be the parents she needs. Tomorrow, when we go back, she’ll let us know if she was scared or if she likes going. The first day is always novel, sometimes the second day is as well, but at some point next week it will dawn on her that school is the new normal, and we’ll find out what kind of parents we are.

To her. On that day. That’s all we ever are, we realize, we’re the parents we are today for the kids we have today and their veggies might be organic, their television educational, their straws BPH-free and their homes free of violence but some kids have the opposite of all that and still thrive and our kids can, and very likely might, still fail. Most of the time when my kids are crying they need me to make light of whatever’s making them sad, help them see it in another way, but every so often I make light of their crying and they feel crushed, alone, ashamed. That’s just me, on that day, with that kid, making a giant mistake.

I’m right more often than I’m wrong. Or, rather, my kids are becoming more and more what I always hoped they would be, so I have to assume I’m right more often than I’m wrong.

Barnaby has been talking about the thrill of first grade for months now, but he’s often said he was anxious about it as well. Nervous, he said. This morning he woke up thrilled, loved talking about packing his lunch, talking about the day and was happy on the walk. We got close to the building and we took some pictures along with the parents of the other 1408 students at PS 122Q. It wasn’t until we started getting close to the door that I felt him start to get genuinely scared. Hundreds of kids streaming in, and parents aren’t allowed to go in with them. The color had started draining out of his face.

Will there be teachers in there?

Honey, it’s school! This is where they keep all the teachers! If you’re a teacher, this is where you go!

Will a teacher help me?

Sweetheart, go right to the top of the stairs and a teacher will show you exactly where to go.

And he clutched my hand, and I realized… he was ahead of me. He wasn’t pulling me, but he was moving forward and I was the one dragging, just a hair. He was so scared and he’d always been the guy who figured out how to just… not *do* and see if he could get away with it, but for the last few months it had started changing. The fine motor skills are underdeveloped, but then why has he switched to the regular grownup legos, why is he building homes and cars and spaceships. His speech is delayed, but then why do his camp counselors tell us his rhapsodic stories, his flights of fancy? He’s unfocused… but why is he two steps ahead of me heading to the door when he’s so scared?

We get close, the monitors tell the parents to move back and let the kids through. He stops walking, staring at the door and I bend down to him.

Look at me. Honey, look at me, look at my face.

He does.

You’re gonna be okay.

He looked me dead in the eye and said, “okay, daddy.” He pulled his bag on his back, turned toward the door and started walking. He didn’t look back.