Sunday, October 28, 2012

Family Man

There once was a man with five children. He adored his first son, the one with sunlit curls and blue eyes who came along when the man himself was still young and full of hopes and dreams for the future. He sent the boy to the finest schools, bailed him out when he got into a little mischief now and then, introduced him to well-connected friends who helped him get a start in business. That boy is still his pride and joy. To this day he gives him little gifts to let him know he is cherished.

The father tells himself he loves his other four children. He says so to his friends. As the years passed, though, he began to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility for so many lives. And as he has got older, and saw more of life, he began to realize that it was they, not he, who were responsible for their successes and failures. He even convinced himself that they would be better off if they were not raised in privilege. So he did not send them to fine schools or help them get starts on their dreams.

The family moved around, and some of the public schools attended by the other four children, two boys and two girls, were decent. Some were places where you could get a good education if you applied yourself and didn’t get distracted by the kids who weren’t ambitious. Good discipline, he thought. But even he realized that other schools, like the ones in the heart of one big city where they lived for a while, were not. That urban school was rough, even he had to admit that. He told himself his two sons who were in high school there would benefit from the gritty experience. He said it would make them tough, prepare them for life.

What it did was prepare one to be a drug addict and the other to drop out and go searching for himself, like he was some new-age Woody Guthrie or Steve Jobs or something. Both are still looking for work. For now, at least, Medicaid is paying for rehab for the one who made bad choices that started with hanging out with stoners. The father tried to warn him, but the boy wouldn’t listen, and after all a man can only do so much with a headstrong kid.

That was all years ago. He hasn’t seen either boy in a while. He’s closer to his girls, at least one of them. The oldest seems to be turning out all right. She’s a model of some kind. He thinks she’s in L.A., although she doesn’t stay in touch as much as she used to. It’s too soon to say about the princess, which is what he calls the youngest. They’ve moved back to the suburbs now, so the school she attends isn’t rough or dangerous. She wants to be a doctor, she says. She’s a serious little thing. He thinks the state college has a decent pre-med program, but she has her heart set on going to a fancy school, like her oldest brother. He says he can’t afford that kind of spending anymore. She’s determined, though. Maybe she’ll get a loan or a grant. Or maybe she’ll be a nurse.

He’s not that religious. He goes to church and he puts up Christmas lights, but he doesn’t believe anything is God’s plan. He might say he does when trying to comfort someone to whom something terrible has happened, but he doesn’t believe it. He believes in self-reliance. He’s tried to raise his children that way, at least that’s what he tells himself.

Once in a while, when his daughter who is still living at home, the one who wants to be doctor, gets upset about something and asks why he did so much more for her oldest brother than for the rest of them, he says that he had more money then. What about the country club you joined last year? she demands. He tells her that’s for business, but she acts like she doesn’t understand. Then he tells her that even if he had gone to public school her brother would have come out on top. That’s the kind of man he is. So can you, he tells her, and he believes that, even when she gets upset, kind of hysterical, if you want to know the truth, and won’t speak to him for long periods. Maybe she’ll find a good husband is what he usually thinks at those times. That would be the best thing for her.

So that’s the story. Now that you’ve read it, I have a question: Would you like for your children to be raised like that? One given so much, the others left to fend for themselves? Maybe not, I’m guessing. Then how about all the children in the country? Is that the way we should be raising them?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Man's Choice

I know plenty of men who had to get married. We had a little epidemic among my friends in the sixties. Abortions weren’t legal. You did what you had to do.

Then came Roe v. Wade, and I thought: Thank goodness. We can make a mistake and get a second chance. We can have a choice about whether we are ready to be fathers. A choice that doesn’t involve putting a child up for adoption and feeling guilty about never seeing him for the rest of your life, for not doing your duty as a father and a man.

I’ll admit that abortion is an easier choice for a man than for a woman. When I was a young man, in the years when Roe was decided, I didn’t fully understand the psychic cost for the woman, or at least many women. I see better now that some women who have abortions live for the rest of their lives with that same guilt I would feel about abandoning a child to adoption. There are no easy answers here. We’re talking about the beginning (or end) of life. The prime directive for the species. There is nothing that is more important, or evokes more emotion.

But when a child is conceived by a man and a woman who aren’t ready for it, choices must be made. Make a sharp turn on the road of life or leave the baby behind. It’s easy (for me) to see how terminating an early pregnancy could be seen as the best among bad choices.

Abortion is seen as an issue for women. Their bodies, their choice. But it is an issue for men as well. Most young lovers, after they recover from the shock of the positive pregnancy test, sit down and talk about what to do. Before Roe, that meant, from the man’s perspective, either doing the honorable thing or in effect telling your girlfriend good luck with that. Roe gave men and women another choice, one that, while it shuts the door on one potential new life, re-opens it for two others.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Myself, My Mate, My Life

I found myself wondering the other day about the Darwinian roots of self-esteem. Why are we self-aware? And why does our self-image matter so much? My guess is that we developed our neurotic self-focus for our personal entertainment: otherwise Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld would be just a couple of nice Jewish boys looking for work.

A cursory survey of the scientific literature indicates that high self-esteem is adaptive, that it helps those who have it be the ones who spread their genes. If you think well of yourself, you go after the most desirable mate. If you think you’re up to them, you take on the challenges that lead to success.

It’s sort of like nature’s vote for the football captain for prom king. That might be fine if we had not somehow convinced ourselves that the prom is being held not just once a year for a couple of years in high school but every day. Each morning we awake to another day of not being prom king, of perhaps not even having a date for the dance.

I hate my hair. I hate my neck. I’ll never be as good at that as she is. Sometimes the result of all this angst is comic, sometimes tragic. My question is this: is it worth it?

Sure it is, you say. You don’t want humans in the next evolutionary cycle to be a bunch of homely losers, do you? I don’t know. Maybe. Or perhaps better put: why should I be miserable just so the species can advance? Hell, what with global warming and deforestation, we’re not going to have a home for the prom king and queen of the next millennium anyway, so why get all twisted up with self-doubt just for their benefit.

What would we be like if we didn’t worry so much about what others think of us? The first consequence might be that we would quit worrying so much about what we thought of ourselves. Where would that leave us? Would we become unwashed slobs? Would we lose all ambition? Is there a way to stay clean without having to choose from among a hundred humiliating shampoos, none apparently intended for the mousey, thin, frizzy hair we see in the mirror?

I don’t have to tell you about the collateral damage of the self-esteem wars. The drinking, depression, anger, despair. It seems to me that the many are paying a high price for the benefit of the few, the grown-up prom kings and queens. High school is forever, it turns out.

I have a feeling, though, that even the prom kings and queens feel inadequate. There’s always someone prettier or richer or smarter. Looking out into the world and comparing yourself to what you think you are seeing is like looking at a photograph of a poor boy and his mother and thinking you understand what is in his head or hers. You might be right about a small slice of it, but there’s no chance you’ll get most of it.

And you’re not any more likely to be right about what others think of you. Not even people you think you know well. Not even people you think you can trust. Tactical deceit is also adaptive.

Within the bounds of courtesy and propriety, then, perhaps it’s best not to worry about it. Not obsessing about what others think of you is a different thing than not caring about what you think of yourself. How others see us and how we see ourselves may be linked in our evolutionary biology, but one thing our adaptations have given us is an ability to know that and to separate the two things.

We are the only ones who know ourselves: the ornate richness of the grand aspirations we want to share; the blackness of the thoughts we want to hide, the ones we hope are nothing more than nightmares. Amid the daily cacophony of slights, snipes and gripes it is easy to get caught up in the terror of self-doubt. At those moments, a graceful retreat from the field of combat may be in order. A withdrawal to a place quiet enough to hear what the Bard meant when he said: To thine own self be true.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Staying Alive

My brother David called a few days ago to say we buried our father thirty-eight years ago that day. David is a sentimental guy, and he knows I am too. We talked a little about what it might be like if Dad had lived a full life (he would be eighty-eight now), and how we might be different if he had. Then David told me this story:

As close as we're likely to get to the Gates of Paradise
Earlier that day he had taken his new driver to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls. He was terrible. He hit hooks and slices and shanks and worm burners. Not a single good shot. He thought to himself: I can’t quit on this note. I’ve got to get a few more balls. He marched toward the place where you buy balls, but on the way he saw a half bucket of balls that someone had abandoned. So he hit those. And he hit every one perfectly.

So he says to me: “Anniversary of burying Dad. Me hitting terrible shots. A half bucket of balls appearing magically for me to try again. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

And I don’t think so either. Dad was forever tossing a ball down for us and saying hit another. I can see him now emptying that half bucket of balls out for David and standing back to wait for him to try again. David said he could see it too, and in his version Dad had a little half smile.

I’m not a big believer in ghosts, or anything supernatural, but I believe in the healing magic of memory. I believe that a warm touch from someone we love stays on our skin for the rest of our lives. Are they looking down from heaven or out from within us? Does it matter? The important thing is that they are still there.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Farming Crops, Tending Sheep

My mother went to her grave wishing her children would get along better. There were times when she gave up on our being friends and would have settled for a truce.

We weren’t close in age. In some ways we had different childhoods, almost different parents. The one thing we shared was growing up in the court of a king by divine right, our father. We never knew whether a day would bring feast and finery or a trip to the Tower. Looking back, one thing I regret is that I left home and saved myself and left my brother and sister tiptoeing around the castle.

Later, after the monarch died, his emotionally battered queen limped along as best she could. For my part, I stayed away. I should have done more to help her, and when, in the last years of her life, I did do more, my brother and sister no doubt saw my swooping in and taking over her financial affairs as a metaphorical killing of the fatted calf for the prodigal son. Or maybe it was worse that that: maybe to them it seemed like the return of the despot king.

The first man born of a woman murdered his brother, they say. I see sibling anger everywhere, but I’m not sure I really understand it. Our brothers and sisters are the people we first love. What goes wrong? Perhaps the demon that possesses us is the obvious one: jealousy. Perhaps it is simply the natural order of things, especially among men, to want to knock off the competition for mates. Whatever the cause, there is a stubborn durability to problems among siblings. In some ways it is that resistance to healing that, like a festering open wound, does the greatest damage.

Mom has been dead for four years. Lately a kind of gentle, defenseless peace has settled over me and my brother and sister. I am grateful for that, and for their forgiveness. I am sorry that Mom is not alive to see it, but perhaps the last parent has to die to free the children from the competition for her love.

My sister tells me about her career plans and how my niece and nephew are doing. My brother tells me about the new golf driver he’s thinking of buying. We talk about how they’ve changed the golf course we grew up playing. He’s the only one I talk to who knows how hole number three used to be laid out. I can tell him how I remember hitting the big tree on the far side of the driving range and know he can see its spreading limbs as clearly as I do. Somehow that reassures me that it really happened, that it’s not just another of so many things I wish had happened.

They say that when we get older we begin to journey back through our past. My brother and sister are the last people alive who know my past almost all the way back to its beginning. If I don’t have them to talk to, I’ll be making my journey alone.