Friday, April 29, 2011

Bums of Santa Barbara

Chris was about nine and we were on our way to dinner on State Street on one of our first visits to Santa Barbara. At the outside patio at Borders Bookstore a group of homeless men had commandeered four or five tables. Some had big backpacks and sleeping bags rolled up nearby. They were mostly white, mostly the age of veterans of some decades-ago war. They looked like a group of old warriors planning a mission against the society that had abandoned them.

Two were playing chess. One was a gaunt middle-aged white man with tattoos as weathered as his face, and the other was the only black man in the group. He didn’t look like the others, and not just because he was black. He was bigger and sleeker and better dressed, wearing a black shirt and a black leather cowboy hat with silver medallions around the brim. He was both beautiful and slightly terrifying. He was carrying on a running patter with his opponent and flirting with two young women who seemed to know him and who slowed as they passed by to give him ample time to embellish his flattery.

Chris stopped to watch the game. He stood very near the table. Meg and Nick and I hung back a bit, and while Chris watched the game I watched him and the man in the hat and the hard scruffy men gathered around the tables like gulls at the beach.

At the beach in Santa Barbara.
The evening air held the soft coolness of that morning, when I had taken Chris out to try rollerblading on the beach bikeway. He had wanted a bathroom break and we had gone to a public restroom that was almost on the sand. It was early, and men were still lying in their sleeping bags under the palms. As Chris was going into the restroom, a couple of men with pale, wind-burned faces who looked like permanent beach residents were coming out, swearing like sailors, talking so vulgarly and with such an edge of anger and hostility that it made me feel protective of Chris, even though they weren’t talking to him, even though he probably wasn’t paying any attention to them. As if I had just been appointed beach-decorum police, I told them to knock it off. Not the brightest thing to do. One of them came over and asked what my problem was. I said something imprudent, again, and he said “Seriously?” in a way any man would understand to mean “Do you really want me to slice out your liver right here?” My heart was racing with the need to run or kick him in the balls, and my mind was racing with the image of Chris coming out of the bathroom and finding me bleeding on the concrete. While I was considering how to manage a dignified retreat, the other guy tapped his friend on the shoulder and said “Come on, let’s leave the tourists alone.”

That was my introduction to the bums of Santa Barbara. This was their little piece of paradise, not mine. Even the charming patio area outside the bookstore had now been turned into their private lounge.

When the game was over, the skinny white guy scooted his chair back from the table and put his hands on his knees and sat shaking his head. The big man in the hat began setting up the black pieces in front of him. The knights looked like they had ridden in from another set entirely. One of the pawns was headless. When he had finished, he looked up at Chris and asked if he would like to play. I wasn’t so keen on Chris settling into a homeless encampment, but the man had a surprisingly kind face. His voice was deep and gentle. He didn’t seem to want to know what my problem was.

For his part, Chris didn’t hesitate. He sat down and started setting up the white pieces; the loser of the prior game chuckled to himself and pulled up another chair to watch. The big man extended his hand and said his name was Mason. Chris’s hand was small and pale in Mason’s rough mitt. Chris said his name and moved his king’s pawn two spaces. Mason responded with his king’s pawn and they each made their first three or four moves with quick precision, as if they had been choreographed, which in a way they had, both players trying to gain control of the center of the board, moving their troops into position for the coming battle.

Meg and Nick and I stood around watching for a while. I felt a little self-conscious just standing there gawking, but I also felt proud that my very young son was playing chess against a grown man and, although I hate to admit it, proud that he was playing chess with a homeless man, among other homeless men: Some of you may not want us in your paradise, but we are bigger than that. We are not consumed by your rage and bitterness. We don’t think ourselves too good to sit down with you. We are not afraid of you. Which, of course, I had been that very morning.

Watching them play, listening to Mason’s gentle banter, watching the attentive way his last opponent followed the game, I began to see the chess board and not the homeless men. It was getting to be past time for our dinner reservation, and yet I hated to take Chris away from the game, so I suggested that the rest of us go check in at the restaurant, which was directly across the street. I thought we might get an outside table where we could keep an eye on Chris while giving him some space to do his thing---he doesn’t like to be hovered over while he’s playing, at least not by me. I pointed at the restaurant and said he should join us there when he was through playing. Mason looked up at me and smiled and said, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”

We got a table and our drinks and ordered dinner and Chris and Mason were still playing. Long game, I thought. I went back across the street to check on him, with the excuse that I wanted to make sure what we had ordered for all of us to sample and share was all right with him. It turns out they were already on their third game. Mason had lost the first two and had asked for re-matches. Chris had been beating me for a year by then, so I felt Mason’s pain, especially when it became obvious from the positions on the board that he was about to lose again. I stayed and watched the end of the game and told Chris it was time to go. He would have stayed, and Mason would have kept playing.

That was the beginning of something like a friendship between Mason B. Mason, an ambiguously housed man, and our family. Mason had dreams of doing children’s television programing, but he made his living as a street musician. He was a pretty good blues singer, and a showman. Every time we came to town, usually a few times a year, we would look for Mason where he would be playing his guitar and singing at the farmers’ market.

One year we bought Mason a new chess set. The boys wrote a note on the back of the board and signed it. When we couldn’t find him to give it to him, a friend told us he was in jail on an old assault-and-battery charge. I called the local prosecutor to see what the deal was. He said Mason was unstable and had a history of violence.

The next summer Mason was back at the farmers’ market. We gave him the chess set and he handled it like it was gold. We listened to him sing and in between songs he told us a little about his problems with the local gendarmes. The Santa Barbara police were fascists, he said, who persecuted the homeless to keep Santa Barbara looking like Disneyland.

A few years later, we lost track of Mason again. Afraid he was back in jail, I asked around. It was worse than jail. He was dead. He had gotten cancer and died quickly. It was shocking, really, for all of us, to come back and find him just gone like that. I realized then that I had known so little about him. The one thing I had known, though, the thing that was most important to me, was how he would treat my sons.

After we moved to Palo Alto, I took Chris up to San Francisco to try his hand at playing chess on Market Street. He was sixteen by then and had a closet full of chess trophies. I had seen a story in the San Francisco newspaper about a man who set up a dozen chess boards every day at Fifth and Market. The crowd that came to play and watch was an unlikely mix of Zen masters and street punks. Anyone could play. By custom, the looser paid the table fee, a dollar a game.

Street chess in San Francisco.
Some of the old men looked like they had been playing on that broad brick sidewalk all their lives. Others, younger and tougher, might have been taking a break from knocking over a convenience store. We stood around watching the games, and when a place at a board opened up, Chris sat down. The young black man he was going to play stayed slouched in his chair, his long legs splayed out under the table, as he picked up one black and one white pawn and wrapped them in his hands and held out his fists for Chris to tap: black or white. I watched the start of the game and then, still practicing not hovering, walked around and checked out a few other games and finally bought a soda from a market nearby and stood leaning against a wall near the old man who rented the tables, twenty yards or so from Chris, close enough to see but not to watch.

Men came and went, players, kibitzers, friends, accomplices. Either they didn’t notice me or I didn’t look like The Man, or maybe they just didn’t give a damn, because some of what they said to each other if repeated to a jury would have been good for five to ten. The distinctive aroma of weed wafted by once or twice. I didn’t get the impression that any of them were homeless, but they were all definitely at home on the street.

Chris and the young man were playing speed chess, using a timer that gave each of them a very short time to make each move. Turbo chess. You have to think fast, more react than think; it’s easy to make a fatal mistake. They were playing intently, the young man not slouching now as they both leaned aggressively toward the board, smiling, talking a bit of trash, making their moves like thrusting spears. Every once in a while one of them would laugh out loud. After about an hour, Chris got up and they shook hands and he came over to where I was. From the big smile on his face, I was expecting him to tell me he’d had another Mason B. Mason-like triumph. But not this time. The guy had cleaned his clock. Chris said he’d been close in one game, not so much in the others.

So, what is it about chess and people on the street? It’s a funny game for a homeless man with violence issues or a tough city kid, don’ t you think? The game of kings, it used to be called. Whatever you think about who you’d expect to be playing, it’s a great leveler. Your chess game is only as good as your mind; and your mind is as good as your chess game.

I can’t tell you how many bums I’ve ignored over my lifetime, how many more I’ve wished I just didn’t see. I don’t know whether to give them money or look the other way. Or hand out cards saying I give regularly to the local food bank. Some Thanksgivings Meg and I take sandwich bags of turkey and dressing and twenty dollar bills to homeless people in the park. Other times I’ve called the cops on some scary lunatic who’s raving at passersby. And yet, when I see a policeman hassling someone with a suitcase and bad hair who has taken up residence on a sidewalk bench, I am apt to go all civil libertarian: Wait a minute, he has a right to be here, this is America. I’m a mass of contradictions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been uncomfortable just walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. How many times late at night I’ve crossed to the other sidewalk to avoid a group of young men in hoodies.

But I can tell you this: Mason B. Mason and the chess players on Market Street made me ashamed of my reflexive stereotyping and the cynicism and fear it fathers.

There are crazy people out there. Drunks and addicts sleeping in the parks. Tough kids gathering on tough street corners. Dangerous people. Desperate people. But some of them are chess players. Some of them wanted to play chess with my son, and he with them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I don’t know how to write about this, or even if I should, but I’m annoyed and a little sad and don’t know what else to do. What I want to say is this: “Kids, don’t listen to us when we mock you. Don’t listen to anyone who does that. We’re the idiots. Not you.”

Would you wear this hat?
I read a political essay on KQED, the local NPR affiliate, the other day, so naturally as soon as it aired I started reading the comments. They were all fine, except for one snarky one, to which I posted a snappy rejoinder. Bring it on, baby.

So that I wouldn’t feel completely egocentric, I read some of the other essays. They were all thoughtful. The one after mine was by a sophomore in high school who said that in the results-oriented world he inhabits the quest for knowledge for its own sake takes a back seat to careers that make concrete contributions. He's working hard to try to be a doctor or engineer, someone who could see the fruits of his labor in real time. He said he wouldn’t mind making big money too, something he thinks is not possible in pure science.

From many of the comments on his essay, you’d have thought he had revealed a fool-proof way to cheat on the SAT. He was accused of being greedy and of “gaming the system.” He was told by one commenter, in what almost seemed like a threat, that the commenter had friends on the admissions committees of all the Ivy League schools and the boy would never get in.

What the hell! This is a sixteen year old kid who is working hard to get good grades and hoping to go to a good college and succeed in the all-American way, and who, by the way, has taken time out to write an essay for NPR, to join the public discourse on education and its goals. And he's attacked by adult males. I just don’t understand it. Why the vitriol? It makes you wonder whether life has disappointed them to the point that they just can’t see past their cynicism.

Then I leave that website and see a news item about two fourteen year old girls in Minnesota who committed suicide together, apparently because they could see no other escape from the bullying they were subjected to by some of their classmates. OMG, as they might have said.

Bullying by schoolmates is not new. It’s cruel and we need to do the best we can to stop it and to give kids a safe place to go when it happens to them. But bullying of kids by adults is right up there with sociopathic serial killing, as far as I am concerned. And that’s what those comments on that poor boy's NPR essay amounted to: bullying.

Kids think in extremes. That’s why they come up with all the good ideas. And plenty of bad ones too. Trying to corral them into our cultural and intellectual framework like they were domestic pack animals running wild is wrong. Let them run, for God’s sake. Most of them will end up in the pen with the rest of us soon enough. If we’re lucky, a few will discover greener pastures for us all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Visit From Dad

My father came to visit me this afternoon. I was sitting in a coffee shop, staring off into space, thinking about what to write, half-listening to the two girls behind me talking about their boyfriends, when he came walking in the door. The sun was glaring off the windshield of a car in the parking lot and at first I thought it was a trick of the light, but it was him. He looked just the same, a little older but not much, and maybe even that was more a failure of my imagination than an actual change in him. He pulled up a chair and sat down like he thought I would be expecting him.

What do you say to a man you haven’t seen in so long? A man you worshiped as a boy, but who turned out to be someone different than the father who raised you. Not different to you, but to others. Different in a way that was not so much hard to understand as hard to accept.

“Hey,” I said. I thought I might look a little flustered. “You should have whistled.”

We had this family whistle, passed on from grandfather to father to son, three notes---up, down, up---like you might hear from a songbird. When one of us whistled from across the golf course, other golfers would think it was a mockingbird or a dove. Only we knew what it was. A love song.

“How are you hitting them?” he said.

“I don’t get out much anymore. I miss playing with you.”

“I’m thinking of getting new sticks. Something lighter. What do you think?


“How’s your mom?”


I thought he might look away at my bluntness, but he didn’t. I don’t know why I thought he might. He never had.

“She made it another thirty-five years,” I said.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Camels. Unfiltered. Coffin nails.

“You can’t smoke in here.”

He shook a cigarette out of the pack and thumped one end on the table to pack down the tobacco. I wondered if he still had the silver zippo lighter I’d given him. He held the cigarette between his fingers but made no move to light it.

“You were pretty tough on her,” I said.

He just looked at me. He had this way of looking at you with just his eyes. His head would be almost bowed and he would look up, as if from reading, and all you could see would be his eyes. They were blue and cold. He wasn’t cold, at least I didn’t think so, but his eyes were, or not his eyes, exactly, but the unrelenting way he looked at you.

“She wouldn’t even come to the hospital at the end,” I said.

He worried his unlit cigarette, touched the end of it to his lips and then lowered it.

“Do you know why?” I said.

“She was in a pretty bad way then.”

“Susan. That’s why. Susan.”

“Susan was a good doctor.”

“That had nothing to do with it.”

“What happened to Presenting Italy?”

“I told the importer we couldn’t take shipment. I told her you were dead.”

“Did you go back to Florence?"

“I took Meg to Harry’s bar to meet you. We had those little cheese sandwiches. We toasted you with Campari tonics.”

“Would I like her?”

“We’ll never know, thank God.”

He laughed that way he did, a series of quick little sneezes. I always thought it was a cool way to laugh, even emulated it myself when I was a boy. It sounded like a pig routing around in garbage.

“You probably don’t remember this, but when you couldn’t talk anymore, you had me hold up a board of letters and you pointed to them to spell out what you wanted to say.”

He watched me steadily. I remember watching my own children that way when I thought I might know what was coming and wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it.

“The last thing you spelled was ‘Jesus.’”

He cocked his head slightly. I thought I saw a flicker of a smile, but he was sucking air through the little gap in his front teeth the way he used to, and maybe it was just the way he set his mouth to do that. His lips were pale.

I waited, but he didn’t speak. He never went to church. I never did either. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to ask him now if he had found religion in those last hours. If he had seen Jesus. If he had asked him for forgiveness. Of course, Jesus had nothing to do with it. It was my mother he should have asked for forgiveness. Not just for Susan. Not even for all the other women I found out about gradually over the years after he was gone, the ones who came around looking lost, looking like they needed someone to whom to confess. I don’t know if they saw my father in me. I don’t look like him.

He said he had to go to the bathroom. I pointed to the corner where it was and he got up and went there. He was wearing a grey Harris Tweed sport coat, even though it was very warm outside.

I wondered what he would say about my mother when he returned. He had always made me feel something was wrong with her, that that was why she got so emotional, why she had to go off to that hospital for a few months the summer I was fourteen.

She lived the last thirty-five years of her life alone, growing stronger each year. By the time she died, she was the mother I remembered, the one who drove me to Florida where my dad would be stationed in the Navy. We rode in an old Dodge and the windows were all open, the radio playing loud, and she was singing. I was five. I kept holding my little blue woolen cap out the window, watching it flap in the wind. It blew out of my hand and she stopped and went back for it and brushed off the dirt and gave it back to me. We got going again and I held it out the window. She laughed and told me she wouldn't stop again. It blew out of my hand, or maybe I let it go, to test her, to test myself. She didn’t stop. She didn't scold me. She smiled at me and patted my bare head, as if to reassure me that she understood my need and respected it, even if she could not indulge it.

When Dad didn’t come back after a while, I went to the restroom and knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, harder. I was wondering if he was all right. I called out to him, tested the door. It was unlocked. No one was in there. The bathroom smelled like cigarette smoke, I thought, but that could have just been my imagination.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Post Pajama-Day Stress Disorder

It was nearly time to leave for preschool, and Nick was still in his pajamas. I had made him a good breakfast---with fruit, always with fruit---and he was eating slowly, pouring syrup over his French toast, rubbing his fork around in it, like he had all the time in the world before we had to leave. I told him he had better hurry, that he still had to dress. He looked up at me over a dripping forkful and said it was pajama day.

Pajama Day
Now, you have to understand, I didn’t know Nick as well then as I do now. I knew little boys aren’t always paragons of veracity, not because they mean to do anything wrong, just because the truth doesn’t always fit into their plans, and they haven't yet figured out that in the long run they can get away with more if they tell the truth most of the time and save the tiny distortions (or whoppers, depending on your point of view) for really important escapades. I assumed he just didn’t want to hurry through breakfast or maybe thought it would be larky to go to preschool in his PJs. He was, after all, showing his theatrical tendencies by then.

Like any sensible dad, I made him dress and took him to preschool, a lovely little church school with teachers who all looked like the Virgin Mary. And Yea Verily, it was Pajama Day. All these little towheads running around in fuzzy bear slippers and nightshirts. To Nick’s credit (and this is the way he is to this day), he didn’t say “I told you so,” but I was so ashamed for doubting him, and for the prospect of his being subjected to the ignominy of being over-dressed (a particular shame of mine, having grown up in the very proper South before moving to L.A.), that I rushed home and got his pajamas for him.

I’ve never forgotten that day. No, more than that, I can still feel it. Ridiculous, isn’t it? And it’s not just that day. There was the time Chris had a bike accident on his way home from school. He was riding on the sidewalk and got hit when he crossed an intersection. He didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault. I was the one who’d suggested he use the sidewalk for safety. If I had told him to ride in the street, would the car have seen him? Would he have been safer?

Nick is the child who cured me of spanking. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I swatted my kids once in a while. Nick just wouldn’t put up with it. He was about four when he told me it was wrong to hit someone. The way he looked at me, and the moral clarity of what he said, was withering.

I still remember my mother coming after me with a belt and me jumping up and down like it was game of skip rope. She was the sweetest woman in the world, and I'm sure she didn't crack more than once or twice, when I no doubt richly deserved it, but when I grew up I used to tease her about it. After my gentle but firm scolding by Nick, I realized how cruel I had been to her, how much she must have hurt for that loss of patience in a lifetime of kindness. My grandfather said to me once that some days he lay in bed and regretted every mean thing he had ever done to his children.

There is something about being so completely responsible for a little life that is almost too heavy a burden to bear. Not in the bearing, but in the putting down. When you’re in the middle of the struggle, there’s little time for recrimination. There’s always a new day, a new set of decisions, a new chance to do your best. But when you lay the burden down, when they go off to college, say, you have time to think about it all, and that’s when the second-guessing creeps in. If only…

I’m having a light case of that now. Chris and Nick are just off to college and the aloneness is setting in. Meg and I are busy and happy, but there is no little boy to fix breakfast for; that part of my life, which was so much of it, seems far away. The memories are sharp and clear, but they don’t refresh as often. To be in that life, I have to be in the past, and for some reason it’s hard for me to go back there without wanting to have done it better. It was my job to keep them safe and help them be the best they could, and every failure, even the little ones, comes back to me in memory with the same gravity of a Jemima Puddle Duck dithering away from the nest while the fox eats her eggs.

There is hope, though. I no longer have those feelings about my first three children: Cord, Grant and Ashley. They’re all well into adulthood, in Cord’s and Grant’s cases with families of their own. It has been many years since the last of them went off to college, many years since they started making their own decisions about their lives. At first I wanted to help them decide what jobs to take, that sort of thing, but they wanted to make their own choices, and they did. So began the process of liberation, for both child and parent.

These days, when something bad happens to one of my grown children, I feel empathy, concern, but not guilt. It has been a long time since I thought about whether making them rake pine needles in the back yard was a form of torture banned by the Geneva Conventions, as Grant maintained. A long time since I wondered if my neglect was responsible for the death of their little black and white Dutch rabbit.

So now the waiting begins anew. I have only to be patient. As the years go on, Chris and Nick, strong young men off to make their way in the world, will free me from my melancholy by gently resisting my feeble attempts to guide them. Caring for them as if they were still children is a burden I would gladly take up again, but one I know I must set down and walk away from.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who's Your Daddy?

John Boehner…apparently.

He even reminds me of my father. The same blue eyes. The same love of golf and the tan that goes with it. The same smoking habit. The same urge to break out the austerity lecture. Every time I see John Boehner on television, I feel he’s about to tell me to go to my room.

Conventional Wisdom
Like Speaker Boehner, my father was a sharp dresser who liked a good party. Socially and politically his tastes ran more to Mad Men than Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. I can’t say he was never an idealist, but by the time I got to know him he was pretty conservative.

Looking back, I’d have to say that he was a libertarian. Which is not to say he was ungenerous. He didn’t charge patients who couldn’t pay. We got a lot of hams and homemade preserves for the babies he delivered. He was happy to press a twenty-dollar bill into the hand of a man who needed help, but he resented paying taxes to enable the government to do the same. I wish he were still alive so we could revisit our old debate, the central debate in the country today: how much government should we have, and what should it do?

The American Dream is an accident of birth. Those not born into circumstances that offer a chance to take root and grow are likely to dry up and be blown against the back fence with the rest of the litter. John Boehner grew up sweeping out his father’s bar. He knows how to work. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he has lost sight of the fact that he had a chance to work at all. His life might have been quite different if his father had been a daily patron of that bar instead of the owner.

In the years when the young John Boehner was learning to read and write and my father was building his medical practice, John Kenneth Galbraith was writing The Affluent Society. In work as relevant today, Galbraith noted in 1958 that much of our economic thinking was still governed by what he called Conventional Wisdom (he coined the term), notions that arise out of very different economic times but persist because of the interest of the establishment in preserving the status quo.

One such bit of Conventional Wisdom was that government, long the province of rapacious kings, was not to be trusted. Government was at best a necessary evil, at worst “a malign tendency against which an alert community must exercise eternal vigilance.”

This suspicion of government persists. And yet, as much as we may long for a simpler time of hobos asking for handouts at the back door, many of the complex problems facing us today can only be dealt with by a central body through which we act collectively. Just as we would not expect private citizens to build roads and dams and schools, we cannot rely on social Darwinism---the survival of the fittest---to build a civil society that addresses the needs of all of its members.

Government is our bastard child, but like it or not, we have come to depend on it to do much more than keep us safe. We look to it to provide the nexus, the honeycomb, if you will, in which we can work and thrive.

How, then, should we deal with our public servants? Does it make sense to condemn and belittle them? Any parent knows the answer to that. Any businessman or woman knows that to motivate performance one must set goals and provide the resources needed to realize of those goals.

In the case of government, this means choosing how much we want to help our fellow citizens. We can be humane or we can be heartless, but we must choose. When we stop participating in that choice, we risk losing not only our moral compass but our liberty.

And after we have chosen, who should pay for the things government is to provide? The answer to that is so simple it seems hardly to need expression: those who can afford to. If we are trying to help the less fortunate, it doesn’t make sense to tax them. The government coffers must be filled by those who have money to spare. They may not like it, but they are the only practical source. If we let them convince us that it is not fair for them to pay more, the only choice is to cut back on our goals.

Our democracy permits us to play Robin Hood. We can tax the rich to aid the poor. Some argue that this is un-American. Nothing could be further from the truth. This country was founded by settlers who looked after one another. That is how they survived in this wild new land. What would be un-American would be now to abandon our heritage of generosity and selflessness just because the people who need our help today don’t all look and dress the same as we do. The poor are part of us as much as any Jamestown colonist. They came on the same ship of hope.

In my boyhood days of sneaking out the bedroom window to carouse at night, it never occurred to me that the window might be locked when I came back home. My parents made an investment in me, because they loved me, of course, but also because that was what a parent did. Those of us with money and political power are the parents now. It is up to us to find a way to help our children, all of them. It is up to us to see that no one is locked out of the bedroom.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Pride of War

The rebels in Libya are in retreat again. Qaddafi’s tanks are bearing down on them. A boy of seventeen has come to fight with the rebels. He has only a knife. When asked how he will fight a tank with a knife, he looks heavenward and says Allah will show him the way. The reporter asks him if his mother knows he is there. She does, he says, smiling. She is proud of him.

I couldn’t help wondering how I would feel if he were my son. Would I be proud that he was going off to die? Would I think his death a necessary step along the way to freedom from tyranny? Instinctively, I think not. Losing a son who is still a boy would be too great a price. But if I were there, if I had lived under that oppression, I think I would feel that boy’s same desperate and reckless passion. I think I would fight. I might even be proud to have my son, even one so young and naive, fight with me. With knives, if that’s all we had.

The interview with that boy warrior was aired on PBS, in a segment in which a man and a woman, both intellectuals, debated whether the United States should arm the Libyan rebels. The man said yes. He said Qaddafi would kill them all otherwise. He said that with such a man there was no chance of a negotiated resolution. Pacifists, he said, think wolves are vegetarians.

The woman was no pacifist. She was from Liberia, where Charles Taylor ruled so ruthlessly. She knew tyranny. But she argued that it was one thing to seek NATO air strikes to protect civilians, and another to give arms to the civilians we are trying to protect. To children. There are uprisings in many Arab countries now. Will we send arms to them? She believes that something closer to a peaceful overthrow of a dictator is possible, a kind of strangulation. We should freeze his assets. Cut off his funding. Without money he could not last.

Both speakers made their cases well. Both were passionate and pragmatic. I don’t have a strong feeling about which one was right in this particular situation, but I do know that child soldiers are not the way forward. We have seen that in other countries in Africa in the past. Are seeing it still. We saw it in China with Mao’s Red Guard. Hitler’s Youth. When children fight the battles of their fathers, the damage is not just to them and those they kill, the greater damage is to the soul of civilization.

War, if it must be fought at all, is for adults.