Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Shape of the River

Raising kids can be frustrating. You feed them and pamper them and teach them to think like you do and then one day they start thinking for themselves. What kind of gratitude is that?

My children are all pretty open-minded and inclusive when it comes to accepting others and wanting everyone to have a fair shot at life. So it shocked me when one of them challenged what has, for me, long been an article of progressive faith: affirmative action.

I grew up in the Jim Crow south. To me, affirmative action is reparations for slavery (and not very generous reparations at that). Maybe my devotion to that moral imperative stems from my guilt at having been a passive observer of racial oppression when I was a boy. As my grandfather used to say about the brutal segregation of his boyhood, that’s just the way it was in Mississippi in 1925. It was better in Tennessee in 1955, but not much. I am ashamed to say that I took it for granted that the maids who cleaned my parent’s and grandparent’s houses and the waiters who served us at restaurants and country clubs were all black. “In the end,” Martin Luther King said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

In my mother's arms, beside Osie,
who lived over the garage at my
grandparent's home
Long before my son would have been worried about a minority student snagging his place at college, he said he thought affirmative action was just another form of discrimination and, as such, was wrong. Oh, my god, I thought, it’s Clarence Thomas sitting there talking to me. I figured I would explain the bitter legacy of slavery and he’d see the need for continuing to help those whom my ancestors had oppressed. We started talking that night four years ago, and we’re still talking.

In fairness, my son has been spared growing up in a place where teenagers with unthinking cruelty joked about how black men found in chains at the bottom of the river had tried to steal more than they could swim with. The old newsreels of Bull Conner and his police dogs and fire hoses must seem like ancient history to him. He has always had friends of all races. For him, skin color just doesn’t come into it.

He has gotten a good look at another kind of hateful prejudice, however: that directed toward gays. And he hates it. Not just because he has gay friends, he says, but because he detests discrimination of all kinds. Looking at it that way, I see where he’s coming from on affirmative action.

Still, don’t we have an obligation to make up for the damage we do in life, especially when it affects an entire race of people? I went out and bought a copy of The Shape of the River, Derek Bok’s and William Bowen’s examination of the effectiveness of affirmative action. I read my son the parts about the sorry state of affairs for blacks when affirmative action first gained currency. I read him the argument, which made a lot of sense to me, that young blacks need role models, that they need to see black men and women in positions of power and influence if they are to imagine such possibilities for themselves.

My great grandfather (seated at right), Dr. John
Randolph Page, a surgeon in the Confederate army,
with his body servant, Ben
A staggering percentage of blacks and others of color live in poverty; giving them a leg up is the only way to break the cycle of poor education leading to more poverty, I argued. My son said he agreed with that. Let’s have affirmative action for all poor people, he said, regardless of skin color.  

“Economic affirmative action,” as he and I have taken to calling it, covers a lot of territory. Many minority students would qualify on that basis, and it’s hard to argue that kids from Appalachia shouldn’t have their shot too. But we didn’t put those poor white kids in the position they are in. We didn’t go to Africa and trap their ancestors.

Or did we?

Didn’t we trapped millions of white fathers and grandfathers in coal mines in West Virginia, in sweatshops and factories in the northeast, in textile mills in the south? Great chunks of this country were built on the backs of exploited workers. By and large we have used them up and spit them out, leaving them and their families to poverty. Don’t we owe them reparations too?

Still, I have trouble letting go of the skin-color thing. When you educate a white person and he achieves success, you can’t tell him from the rest of the white people, so it’s harder to point to him as a role model. Black or brown skin stays with you. A black or Hispanic girl who sees Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor sees a black man and an Hispanic woman, and she thinks (we hope): if they can do it, maybe I can too. In fact, apart from salving white guilt, creating role models seems to me to be the best argument for affirmative action.

But how well has that worked out? We’ve been at it for decades now, and what do we have to show for it? Sure, there have been personal successes in politics, business and education, but the great mass of poor people, black and white, are poorer than ever. The economic divide is widening. The few blacks and others of color who have reached the promised land are either not reaching back for those left behind (the Clarence Thomas approach), or their arms aren’t long enough.

Thanks to President Obama (a man with long arms) and others like the Gates Foundation, public education reform is getting serious attention for the first time in decades. And as part of that dialogue, we are looking beyond the tokenism of affirmative action to helping the entire public school population. To do that, it is going to be more important to get most children into a good pre-school than a few into Harvard.

A problem with affirmative action may be that it let people like me off the hook too easily. Our guilt and good intentions were focused on a few bright kids, while we ignored the millions of others who were dropping out of high school and filling our prisons. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it a shame that the poor have such dreadful education opportunities, but the problem seems so intractable that we have a hard time seeing what can be done. That’s just the way it is, we might say.

We are beginning not to accept that, just as fifty years ago we ceased accepting racial segregation and began trying to rectify its wrongs. President Obama and Bill Gates and many others are pursuing my son’s “economic affirmative action” on a grand scale. If, as my son does, we are also beginning to see these problems apart from race---post racial, some would say---perhaps we can move beyond both bigotry and guilt as we begin our journey around the next bend in the river.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Master is the Padawan

What I learned from my children:

-To love the Nutcracker
-How to spot a lie (thanks, Grant, you are the worst)
-All the lyrics to Les Miz (and how they repeat, how the tunes repeat, so cool)
-What the singularity is (“Hello, Dave.”)
-The Sicilian Defense
-Who Frederick Hayek was
-How to make a light saber
-That if you do the crime, you do the time.

Backstage at the L.A. Nutcracker with Ashley (right)

Before I had kids, I was a know-it-all. If someone’s house was decorated differently than mine, he didn’t have good taste. Colorful cultural dress was just tacky. Seeing the world differently than I did meant that you hadn’t had the privilege of being brought up right.

Dreadful, I know. At least I didn’t have one of those pointy white hoods. Looking back, I hope I affected some modesty (we learn to do that in the South). Otherwise, to anyone outside my provincial country-club crowd, I must have seemed like a jerk.

Thank goodness for my children. They saved me from myself.

There is no cure for ignorance like a child’s curiosity. By the time you have tried to explain all the things kids ask about, you realize how little you know yourself. If you’re lucky, you catch the bug of their curiosity and you start to wonder about…well, about everything.

Why do the Sunnis and the Shiites hate each other, anyway? Is there dark matter? Was Keynes right, or Hayek? What are the limits of artificial intelligence; after Arnold retires from fighting the California legislature, are we going to have to bring him back to lead another fight against cyborgs who have decided they can do without us?

In law school I learned to assume nothing, to get the evidence and measure it against the legal precedents. But somehow analytical rigor didn’t do much for my understanding of the human condition. Antonin Scalia is supposed to be brilliant, for instance, but to me he is an idiot savant, strictly construing the Constitution without regard to societal changes. That’s what I was, an idiot savant.

When you talk to children, though, they want to know why. Not just what, but why. And you start to wonder why yourself. Pretty soon you’re beginning to understand why those colorful clothes mean so much to people of other cultures. Strange religions and gods begin to make sense, or at least you can see why they make sense to others. The passions in the Middle East seem inevitable when you look into the psyche of those who for millennia have struggled back and forth over those parched lands.

This is empathy, of course: the ability to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes. I would have said that as a young man I was empathetic---I stopped to help anyone with a flat tire. I gave money and clothes to the poor---but what I did was sympathetic, not empathetic. I pitied the people I helped more than I understood them.

For a long time, Nick sang the songs from Les Miz in the shower every morning. He’s the one who showed me (duh! you say) that the music and the lyrics repeat and circle back among the characters in a kind of musical testament to the ways (“I am of the gutter too,” Javert tells Valjean) in which we are all the same.

Now, when I hear the dying Fantine calling Cosette in from the darkness, or Javert praising the order and certainty of the stars, when I am roused by “Do You Hear the People Sing,” then sobered by “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in those moments when my analytical guard is down and my prejudices and preconceptions have relaxed their grip, I slip inside the characters and see the world as they do.

For that gift, I have my children to thank.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


It's the last night before Chris and Nick go back to college. Meg and I have had a nice Thanksgiving weekend with them, but I, ever the pitiful sentimentalist, am looking for one more night of family time. I’m scrolling through the movie catalogue with Nick, who, like me, not only will watch just about anything but actually likes romantic comedies and English period films, but I’m not seeing anything I think I can sell to Chris. And then I remember “How to Train Your Dragon.”

We had all gone out to Best Buy that afternoon to browse electronic toys. Even Meg likes to do that. Chris and I were wandering among the video graphics cards, thinking about our Christmas lists, when we came upon the television section and were drawn in by the amazing beauty of some of the big screens. One of the nicest was set up with a sound system in a kind of faux home-theatre grouping. We sank into the pair of leather club chair and watched ten minutes or so of “How to Train Your Dragon,” with Chris, who will be twenty-one in a month, smiling like a young boy as he explained to me what was going on (he had already seen the movie).

Fantasy days
Over the holiday weekend, at dinners and lunches, over Scrabble, sitting around late in the evening, we had talked about so many things, so enjoyably, and yet, like an addict, I’m always left wanting more. We talk about politics and public policy; we talk about what they are studying in college, what they are looking forward to learning. But while I can get tidbits about dorm food and a little about friends, its hard to know as much about their personal lives as I used to: who they’re hanging out with, whether they have their eyes on a girl, all the stuff that boys seem to clam up about as they get older. When it comes to the juicy stuff (the things Elizabeth Bennett and her sister Jane talked about so freely), the most I can ever get from Chris or Nick these days is “it’s complicated.”

I’m sure Chris and Nick would say I know way more about them than I need to, but still there is an umbilical that connects the family when kids are young that doesn’t reach as far as a college campus. When we all sit in the family room and eat popcorn and watch a movie, it feels like I’ve hooked that life-support system back up.

As we watched that night, I wondered what they were thinking. Were they caught up in the magic the way I was, transported to that parallel universe where the skinny kid with the big heart can ride dragons? That’s the world we parents see for our children, right? We want to believe they can do anything; we want them to believe they can do anything.

I wonder whether the magic creeps into their sense of self and possibility. Do they come away from a movie like that feeling (if not exactly believing) that they to might be able to tame a dragon and fly him into their future?

There was this: the dragons in the movie were just like Frodo, our dog (except for the details involving flying and breathing fire). The boy hero related to his dragon pal the same way Chris and Nick relate to Frodo. That sort of makes the fantasy true, doesn’t it? Frodo could grow wings.

I’m not sure whether Chris and Nick like fantasy for the same reasons I do, whether it puts us all under the same spell, but stories like that, of hopes and dreams coming true with the help of a bit of magic, have been bringing us together since they were very young. And that night, before they left to go back out into their own strange new world, with its own kinds of dragons, for that two hours, nothing was complicated.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Homies, Of Thee I Sing

Imagine a high-school production of “Hair,” the school newspaper taking on an insensitive principal, the robotics team working late into the night in Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop.

What do you see? (Check all that apply.)

O - The Goths and stoners who are luring your innocent child to the dark side.

O - A chart on the wall in the robotics lab indicating the maximum number of volts/amps the human body can survive.

O - Your child sitting out his three-day suspension stoically, blogging about the totalitarian administration at his school.

O - You, wondering whether a three-day suspension for civil disobedience (didn’t that used to be a good thing?) will kill his chances at colleges.

Beware of cute girls wearing lace gloves
We have only ourselves to blame, right? We can’t wait to take them to Mommy and Me, arrange play dates, sign them up for violin lessons. Wouldn’t you rather be doing [fill in the blank] than sitting around home? we say.

And then, sure enough, they would.

I’ll give you a ride home after the play. No thanks, Dad. We’re striking tonight. (Who knew they had unions?) Well, call me and I’ll pick you up later. I’ll just bike. (Or, worse: Aaron will give me a ride home---Aron who you’re sure probably has a few DUIs and no parents, as much time as he spends at the theatre). But it will be midnight. I’ll be fine.

But dad isn't fine. You sit up waiting (midnight is way past your bedtime by then), occasionally going out on the sidewalk to look up the street to see if you see his bike light coming down the road, one ear listening for his singing, the other for ambulance sirens.

You begin to think maybe he should just skip the play, robotics season, school newspaper, whatever, and stay home and concentrate on his studies, which you have become convinced are being undermined by his fierce new passion.

It’s good training, though---for us, that is. Just wait until he walks out the door for college. Then you have no idea what the heck he’s doing. The school doesn’t call to say he missed a class. You don’t see his grades every few weeks. If he walked into a bad part of town late at night, maybe with no ID on him, he could be lying in some hospital for days before you even knew about it. Yikes.

We put ourselves on this roller coaster because we know our kids need friends. More than that, they need pals who like to do what they like to do, home boys in the play “West Side Story” rather than in a real-life gang. Friends like that can be hard to find, though.

If your child is a good athlete, he’ll likely be on a sports team. Sports teams are great (except for all the sports-team metaphors the rest of us have to endure), but not every child is a jock. So here she is, your amazing daughter, starting in a new school, high school, where some of her pals are going, but where there will also be a lot of kids she has never met. She doesn’t have a particular passion yet. She’s a good student, but she’s a bit of a loner. What about her?

Kids in tribes are a kind of organic life form. They give each other emotional nutrients we can’t give them at home. There is the stuff we hear all the time about learning to work with others, but the main thing is that they are a place to belong. They are an affirmation to a child that he has worth, that he fits in somewhere other than in his family. They are a first foray into the big wide world.
The robotics tribe
(Gangs fit this tribal model, too, of course. They are a kind of default option for kids who want to feel that sense of belonging but have no constructive alternatives, none they would be caught dead trying, anyway.)

Looking back, I think the experiences that shaped my children the most were the ones they shared with peers in pursuit of a (usually legal) common objective: an autonomous robot; a musical about being themselves through being someone else; getting out the school newspaper on deadline; recruiting new members for the chess club and taking it on the road. These are the places where they learned who they were. Not who I told them they were, but who they themselves could see they were, the reflection of themselves in the eyes of others who valued what they had to contribute.

We’ve had some stressful times here in our community over the past few years. Several high-school students have committed suicide, and we are all trying to understand why and what can be done to make things better for the kids. Many think the academic stress, the pressure for achievement, imposed by parent and student alike, is too great. I don’t know if that’s true. It might be. I think it depends on the kid. But I do know this. We all feel better about ourselves when we feel we are part of something, when we feel like there is a place where we belong. That sense of belonging, of knowing who we are, is more important than any grade or test score. It’s the first step toward finding a place for ourselves, and from there, how we might make a difference.

After my youngest sons graduated from high school, I wrote the local superintendent of schools and suggested that the two high schools in our district encourage one-hundred percent participation by students in extra-curricular activities. I would go so far as saying that joining a club or team or student enterprise of some sort should be mandatory, like P.E. is now. Why not build into the curriculum exercise for self-esteem the same way we insist upon exercise for the body?

And if participation is required, everyone has to try it, even the shy kids who might not otherwise. (Or even the reluctant gang-banger, who can tell his buddies he didn’t want to try hip-hop dance, or art, or saxophone, the school made him.) Just getting them started might be enough to make a lifetime of difference.

I also suggested that every teacher be required to be the faculty liaison for a student club. I remember when one of my sons was taking the baton for the chess club, the teacher who had been the faculty liaison retired and my son had a struggle finding a replacement. Without one, the school wouldn’t support the club, and yet it did little to help him find somebody. Having teachers work with students after school, even casually, helps both sides understand one another better by showing each that the other cares about something besides homework and pop quizzes.
Taking it on the road
There is nothing quite like a gang of high-schoolers on a mission. All that energy and passion. It’s an ecosystem that feeds all those who come into it, a kind of controlled environment in which they can practice the skills they will need when they are released into the wild.

One last encouraging note: When they do go off to college, even though you know they are staying up too late and doing god knows what else, you actually worry less. I’m not sure why. Out of sight out of mind, maybe. Or perhaps it’s hormonal (ours, not theirs), an enzyme triggered by not having to negotiate bedtime every night, nature’s balm to help us let go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comrades in Arms

When my son Grant was looking for his first car, he wanted something zippy and red. The best he could do on his budget was a tarnished-silver 280Z that had seen better days. It was a tank (drivability, not durability), but we had it painted red, and he loved it.

Actually, he didn’t love it that much, but that was the line he gave my mom after he left it behind to go off to college in her hometown and they began hanging out when his laundry hamper got to be too aromatic or the dorm cafeteria was closed. I can see his sorrowful brown eyes, her eyes, damp in the corners if he was on his game, as he told her I had sold his baby to buy a car for his sister.

On our way rejoicing
No matter how many times I told her Grant was just having fun at my expense (payback for my various sins), Mom went to her grave believing, or at least not disbelieving, Grant’s tall tale. Now and then over the years she and I would be talking and, especially if she was annoyed with me, she would stop whatever she was saying and lean over and touch my arm with a trembling hand, as if to exorcize my callous insensitivity, and say, “Mac, why did you sell Grant’s car?”

Meg and Chris and Nick and I moved to Nashville not long after Grant graduated from Vanderbilt. Living in the same town with Mom again was like rediscovering her. You grow up and go off to life, and maybe there have been some rocky times at home and you can’t wait to get out of there, and you don’t look back. For better or worse, your parents are pretty much frozen in that moment of your departure.

But I got a second chance with Mom. Dad was gone by then, dead for twenty years. Mom had lived on her own all that time. It was getting harder for her to take care of herself, though, so I was glad to be able to be useful. If you’re a man (me at least), you can rediscover you mom while being useful, but not so much any other way.

I began helping her pay her bills and driving her to exercise class. Meg and I had her over for brunch on Sundays, and she reciprocated by inviting Chris and Nick to her house for macaroni and cheese and a movie once in a while so Meg and I could go out to our favorite Mexican restaurant and have margaritas on the patio on warm evenings and talk about our books and pretend we were wild and free. Mom was kind to us, and wise (except for falling for Grant’s malarkey), but kind was the main thing.

As Mom aged, her persistent anxiety made it harder for her to get out. Then she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Meg and the boys and I moved to California, and Mom came with us. I sold her house in the city where she had lived her entire adult life and found her a sunny, upper-floor apartment in a nearby assisted-living community. She still came to our house for brunch every Sunday, with a walker at first, later in a wheelchair. She had Grant’s and my taste for sports cars and always wanted to ride in my old Porsche with the top down.

When she needed more care than the assisted-living facility could provide, I began the search for a nursing home. Here in Northern California, nursing-home care is terribly expensive, and even in good facilities the conditions are not that great: the best place I could find that was affordable said she and her roommate would be separated by a curtain and the only clothes she would need would be a few comfortable cotton outfits that could be washed in hot water.

Mom loved her clothes. Even when she could hardly see, she could identify each blouse and sweater by touch. No way I was putting her in drawstring sweatpants.

My brother, David, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, said they had nice, less-expensive facilities there, with quiet, comfortable private rooms. Mom said she would like a private room. She said she was afraid she was becoming a burden to me, that would like to spend some time with David before she died. Still, I could see the fear behind her brave smile as we flew together to Louisville.

In war movies (and Hemingway novels) the fallen man always looks up gamely from the bloody dust and tells his comrades in arms to go on without him. Sometimes the hero picks up his friend and carries him to safety. Sometimes he leaves him behind with a bottle of cognac and a loaded pistol.

I knew my brother would be good to Mom (he was), but still, seeing her sitting there helplessly in her wheelchair, listening to an eager caregiver speaking to her as if she were a child, calling her “Miss Page” (which she hated), I couldn’t help feeling that instead of carrying her to safety I was leaving her behind with a bottle of cognac and a loaded pistol…or not even a loaded pistol.

I went back to see her a few times before she died ten months later. I wheeled her around the nursing home and she showed me the caged lovebirds. She sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” for me, just the way she had sung it to me when I was a child. I left her sleeping in a dim, cool room, her still lustrous gray hair slicked back over her scalp, her breathing soft and shallow, her face, at eighty-four, still girlish.

Mom has been dead two years now. The other day I saw an article in the paper about a planned expansion of a local nursing home. The neighbors are up in arms, opposed to the prospect of a noisy building project and more traffic. I thought: Gee, that will be a nice place when they finish. Maybe Mom would like to come back from Louisville and live there.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tending the Garden

Last summer, Meg brought me two baby tomato plants. I planted them in the back yard. That’s the whole story. Nothing else relevant to picking and eating tomatoes, or even seeing actual tomatoes, occurred.

Not that I didn’t try. I prepared the soil, I amended it (which always makes me think of the Constitution), I lovingly fertilized and watered the plants. I did everything but sing to them (which might have been the best thing, as it turned out, a sort of mercy killing). The plants grew huge, caressing a nearby rose bush, creating a bouquet of roses and tomato flowers, but no tomatoes.

It’s a metaphor, right?

Chris in Meg's garden
Meg on the other hand is a world-class gardener. When we lived in Baltimore, she tilled and tended a large vegetable garden on a gentle hillside behind our home. We lived on a farm, so there were fields and streams and woods all around us, even cows, but it was this plot that Meg tamed and made fertile. She grew chilies (for chilie rellenos), corn, asparagus, raspberries, melons, squash…and tomatoes. Chris and Nick loved digging in the dirt and filling their baskets with whatever was ripe, although when they picked raspberries, we saw a lot of red mouths and cheeks and not that many berries.

That was in the early nineties. Meg and I had been married for five or six years. My three older children lived in other states. I didn’t get to see them much. To be honest, I think they were still upset with me for divorcing their mother (may be yet). A divorce is awkward, I don’t have to tell anyone that. It’s tough on everyone, especially kids. Little kids, certainly, but even pretty big kids.

My daughter, Ashley, was fifteen when her mother and I split up. She had gone to ballet camp in Boston that summer and she came home with a t-shirt for me that said “World’s Greatest Dad.” I remember her holding it tightly as I told her what was happening. I never got the t-shirt.

What did I tell her and her older brothers? That their mother and I had grown apart. It sounds so vapid, so insubstantial, so not a good reason to break a child’s heart. How can you explain your heart to a child? How can you even understand it yourself?

In the years before my divorce, I worked all the time. I rarely got home for dinner. I loved my children intensely, but saw them little. I remember being on airplanes and thinking about them. That was the worst time, isolated, alone with nothing but my thoughts.

I was running and gunning at work. That’s what men do, right? But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe I just didn’t want to be at home.

Paul Simon has a great song called “Slip Sliding Away.” A man came a long way to tell his son “the reasons for the things he’d done,” but instead “kissed his boy as he lay sleeping then turned around and headed home again.”

Why is that? Why do we have such a hard time talking to our children about our deepest feelings? Are we playing a role we can’t step out of? Is it pride? Or shame? Is it fear they will never see us the same way again?

Perhaps we simply lack the courage to admit our human failings, our weaknesses, to those who love and trust us so completely. To ask for their forgiveness and understanding, and to try, in asking, to understand ourselves. If we shed the hard shell of father protector, might we not disappear entirely, like some hologram for which the generating force, a child’s adoration, is suddenly switched off?

Maybe it’s harder for men than for women. I don’t know.

It’s easy to kid yourself about the consequences of your choices. Children are resilient, you tell yourself. They’ll be okay. They certainly give that impression as they grow up, moving in a blur from one stage to another, seemingly indefatigable.

But what do they think when something goes wrong in the family? When dad never comes home from work. When mom and dad split up. They think it’s their fault. In your life, as an adult, it’s a bump in the road; in theirs it’s transformative.

Why do you suppose the things that happen to us as children carry such life-long emotional consequences, whereas life’s later ups and downs are just part of it all? We bounce from job to job, years go by, all pretty much the same, but during those same years our children are being molded from soft clay and hard-fired in the kiln of their homelife.

When our children are young, we think it is our job to teach them. That’s certainly true, to a point, but lately I have come to think that, whatever we might wish, mostly what we are really doing is providing the environment in which they will teach themselves. We are their gardeners, responsible for giving them rich soil and water and nourishment. They do the rest.

We can’t change who we are. We can’t always moderate the passions that drive us. Nor can we live lives entirely sublimated to those of our children. But we can think like good gardeners. Are we transplanting them too often, leading to a kind of dull and sustained shock? Are we, in the emotionally arid states that afflict each of us now and then, withholding the water of attention, the nourishment of love?

These are not easy questions, even in the abstract, much less under battlefield conditions. But they are questions any good gardener would ask. I have no ready answers, only things to consider as we wander up and down the rows of our family lives. I still don't know what happened to those tomatoes.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Temples of the Gods

On Halloween night, Meg and I went to Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England. We sat on hard-burnished benches in the soft glow of candlelight and listened to the choir’s harmonies resonate within walls that had been raised up stone by stone in 1,250. (And I used to think the little stone chapel in the Maryland countryside where we used to live was old.)

Since the days when in god’s name we tossed virgins into volcanoes and, my personal favorite, danced naked under the full moon, we have built temples to our gods. And we have taken our children there to show them the majesty and power and to teach them what our gods demand of us.

What is a boy to think when he is led by the hand into a soaring cathedral and told that this is the house of god? (“That must be one big dude. Better not cross him.”) A child believes what his parents tell him. Some god or evolutionary imperative has seen to that.

This is the way we pass along our religious beliefs. It’s no more complicated than that. Some children are encouraged to study their religion (think bar mitzvah), others are taken to church only on high holy days, but the vast majority of us here in the United States grow up believing in god, and we pass along our belief to our children.

My grandfather was a preacher’s son, a man of quiet and steady faith himself, a deacon in the church. Sitting there in Christ Church Cathedral that night, listening to the prayers of his faith, closing my eyes and feeling as much as hearing the choral music that so often comforted him, was like being with him again.

That evening got me thinking about the choices we make as parents when it comes to religion. Would I have wandered into that cathedral if I had been raised differently? Will my own children, who were offered, shall we say, more casual exposure to religious services, seek out the organ and choir for the solace they still give me even though I have drifted far from faith?

In the South, where I grew up, faith, or at least the observance of its rituals, was the norm. In a community with a church on practically every corner, it didn’t seem safe not to have faith. And to the extent I thought much about it, there wasn’t any compelling reason to challenge the widespread belief in and worship of god. Even after I began to have doubts about some of Christianity’s more mystical beliefs---I can’t tell you how terrifying the concept of virgin birth was to a teenaged boy---it was easier to just not think about it very much.

Similarly, when at age twenty-five I already had three children, I couldn’t see much reason to stray from tradition when it came to exposing them to religion. However weak one’s faith, what parent wants to take a chance with his child’s immortal soul? But it was more than that, really, that led to those occasional Sunday morning struggles with tiny ties and stubborn cowlicks. Somehow in those days of my young adulthood it felt like I would have been abusing my children had I not taken them to church, like I would have been creating little heathens, culturally if not theologically. Who wants that for their child?

Even after I had slipped into spending Sunday mornings making brunch rather than marshaling the troops for Sunday school, long after my own faith had devolved into doubt, I read the children the story of the Nativity on Christmas. It’s hard to explain why I did that, since I no longer believed it myself. I loved the imagery, though, the angel of the lord appearing before shepherds tending their flocks, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, and I suppose I thought my kids should know the story that so many still did believe so fervently.

Perhaps I felt that reading those lyrical verses from Luke was a way to offer my children a look at our cultural roots, in much the same way that playing recordings of Martin Luther King’s speeches on the anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech gave us a chance to talk about the legacy of slavery. The lessons were connected, too, in this way: Dr. King used the language of the Bible to preach his message with such beauty and eloquence that he gave one faith in religion---not so much faith in god as faith in the good that can be done in god’s name.

Daily now, though, we are also reminded of the harm that can be done in the name of god. Unholy acts of oppression and terrorism are not new; since there have been gods, there have been atrocities in their names. I would like to think we are moving away from atavistic religious violence (not tossing virgins into volcanoes anymore), but a stoning for adultery or a bullet in the head for performing abortions doesn’t feel like progress, never mind flying airplanes into buildings.

So much of the political debate lately has become tangled up in religion that it has caused me to think that my complacent acceptance of it, acquiescence that is rather like the way I inhabit the same space with roads and factories and fossil fuels, seeing their benefits, tolerating their attendant pollution, is irresponsible, especially when it comes to the education of our children.

Religion is a tricky subject to take up around the dinner table. No one wants to tromp on someone else’s faith. Spouses don’t always agree, and sometimes it seems safer to just keep quiet. Often we let others talk about it for us.

Which brings me to this question: what should we teach our children about religion?

If you are a strong believer, the answer is simple: you teach them what you believe. But should that be the end of it? What about what others believe? Should we let our children, who tend to see the world in absolutes, infer that people of other faiths are idiots, or worse?

And what about the more extreme and exclusionary views (sexist, anti-gay) of our own faiths? Should what is said from the pulpit never be questioned? Are we failing our children, and society as a whole, if we send them out into the world unprepared to participate in the debate on that question?

When I was a lawyer, I negotiated business deals. The most important thing to know to reach a good business agreement is what the other side wants---not just what they say they want, but the basic need driving their specific demand. If you can get behind what is being asked for and focus on what is really needed, frequently you can find a way to make everybody happy, or at least happy enough to agree to something mutually beneficial.

Faith isn’t like that, you say; it’s not something you can compromise. You’re right, of course. But often there is common ground to be found. And even where there is not, we can agree to disagree on certain points without demonizing one another.

Take abortion, for example. For those who believe that human life begins at conception and that terminating a pregnancy amounts to murder, it is hard to justify abortion. But there are so many issues in the reproductive penumbra---birth control, AIDS prevention, how men should treat women---that it makes no sense for us to go to our respective corners and come out fighting rather than sitting down at the table and working out programs to reduce teen pregnancy, AIDS and rape.

Progress upends the status quo. Most of us have a stake in the way things are, so it is in our nature to resist change. Progress, in the form of living together more harmoniously, comes slowly, through hard-won consensus gained only after prolonged exposure to one another opens the door to understanding. In a recent speech addressing the plan for a Muslim center near Ground Zero in New York City, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said, “Ignorance---that is to say, fear of the unknown---is the source of most invidious prejudice.”

A year or so ago, my youngest son, who is a freshman in college now, bought a copy of the Bible and read most of it. Recently, he picked up a copy of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita from a monk who was handing them out on campus. My son is trying to make some sense of it all. Trying to understand what others think and why. Searching for common ground.

I’m proud of him for doing this. I’m proud of all my children for their open-mindedness about religion, whatever their own views. I just wish I had better understood, while they were growing up, that it should be my job to teach them not just to be tolerant, not just to elevate science to its proper place in the dialogue, but to understand the humanity that lives and breathes in all the world’s major faiths, in teachings which after centuries still govern the thoughts and actions of so many.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Darwin Takes Piano Lessons

When my daughter, Ashley, was a girl, I bought her a Yamaha upright piano. And I mean upright. That sucker was six feet tall. So great were my hopes for her musical future that I shopped for a baby grand, even though there was no way to fit one in our living room (or any room; I might have put it in the kitchen if it hadn’t been for that damned center island). Her mother still has that piano, holding onto it for our baby girl, who certainly is no longer a baby. Ashley plays it beautifully, at least once a year.

Many years later, when Chris and Nick, Meg’s and my sons, were old enough to tickle the ivories, I cajoled my mother into letting us borrow her piano for them. Mom had been a gifted pianist as a girl, but gave it up when concert stage fright got the better of her. I practically had to dynamite that old piano out of her house (to get it away from her, that is). We had it tuned by the best tuner in town and “Für Elise” brightened my evenings once again.

Hunting for food
Chris and Nick found other interests, though. Ashley is still my only child who plays (although they all got their shot at Carnegie Hall). Even she doesn’t play often. She’s an actor and film editor now. Those are her passions.

Every father wants his son or daughter to play the piano. Every father dreams his child will have some glorious talent that will bring him joy for a lifetime and comfort to the old folks as they sit on the back porch and watch the sun go down.

And in today’s hyperkinetic world, it’s not just one talent we wish for them. We want them to be the best at everything. We nurture secret, immodest hopes that they will be among the golden ones. We inhabit our dreams of their glory: pacing the sidelines of soccer games, kicking in sympathetic synchronicity as they try to drive the ball between brutish defenders; praying for strikes in little-league games in which they have walked a million batters; tossing flowers on the stages of their ballet performances; closing our eyes in transcendent bliss as they sing in hushed cathedrals.

Why do we care so much about how well our children do? In school. At sports. Socially. Why do we feel their triumphs and failures so deeply? Is it because we love them? Because we want to be proud of them? Because we are desperate to take another shot at realizing, through them, our own frustrated dreams?

Evolution is at the root of it, of course. The young who were well trained to hunt for their food and hide from their enemies were the ones who survived. Their genes were the ones that proliferated. And so here we are today, the survivors of a long line of adept tutors, evolved into virtual child-training machines.

We’re hardwired for the task, following ancient programming. The question is this: are we now simply the finest evolutionary expression of the training gene, or have we somehow gone beyond our original mission, like the robot Nomad in an early Star Trek episode that had been programmed to search out new life forms but, after a collision with another satellite, decided its mission was to stamp out imperfection wherever found (which meant you-know-who)?

Ballet lessons. Cello. Art. Baseball camp. Tutors for everything imaginable. Sometimes it seems we are trying to stamp out imperfection in our own children. In the process, many of us have embraced the job of training our children as our primary life mission. This leaves children over-managed, and parents exhausted.

And what are we training them for? To be little training machines themselves? Will their period of productivity, the time when they actually use the training we sacrifice to give them, be only those few short years of young adulthood before they have children of their own? With the obligatory time spent rebelling against having been forced to accept too much training, how many years will they have before they too are buffeted in the straights of dating and courtship and wash up on our modern Circe’s island, where nature will once again cast its Darwinian spell through that bewitching tiny face that beams with the innocence and helplessness that demands “train me”?

Hiding from our enemies
Life today is more complicated than learning to hunt and to hide from our enemies (at least I think it is). Playing a mean jazz piano works with the opposite sex. As does having the athleticism of Olympic swimmer. Perhaps the training that is necessary to survive has merely evolved as the world has changed; and the frantic pace of that change lately has made us ever more desperate to help our children be good at everything, because you never know what the next great survival skill may be.

But a young fox whose mom or dad accompanies him on every hunting expedition may never learn to do it himself. And if training becomes the end itself, when does the actual living take place?

By and large, my children have come to their passions accidentally. I say accidentally because they were almost never things I signed them up for. As a child, Nick loved Legos; Meg and I loved anything that kept him happily occupied, so we bought him enough to fill a bathtub. He sat in his room and built the fabulous contraptions of his imagination. When he got to the sixth grade, still playing with Legos, a friend invited him to join him in a robotics competition, and suddenly the things he got to build came out of his bedroom and trundled up ramps to put out fires or thwart other robots from making goals. He’s studying computer science in college now, with a particular interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Chris got a checkers game when he was three, then Connect Four (kind of 3-D checkers), then a little wooden chess set, a bookshelf full of chess trophies, and a lifelong love of the game. I think Cord still has his first camera, the one he used as a photographer on the college newspaper, the one that set him on the path to taking way too many, albeit excellent, photographs of his own children.

Maybe I’m just lazy, but I don’t think we need to devote or lives to training our children. At some point, earlier than we might like to admit, they want (and need) to train themselves. There is a lot of social and scientific debate about all this now, about how kids learn, about the extent to which a child’s developing brain needs unstructured play; and I can see in my own experience that children (mine, anyway) like to do what they like to do. Sometimes it’s things I suggest, more often it is something I never would have guessed.

And why should they be limited by my imagination? I’m an old fogey, by comparison. The race is to the swift and the bold, and for the most part that means the young. They are the ones who see over the horizon. It is their future they are seeing, after all.