Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jose's Excellent Adventure

I have some casual pals at Starbucks, where I like to write. One of them is, like me, a father and a grandfather. He reads my blog once in a while and we talk about our kids. Not much. Just in passing. Today he told me that one of the baristas, Jose, is about to become a father. Jose was behind the counter and my friend said loudly, in that jovial way of comradeship, that he and I should take Jose under our wings and give him the benefit of our combined wisdom as fathers.

I had a kind of instant flash through all the things I might say and what came out was "Run." Jose, going along with the laughter, said that occurred to him, but he stayed. His baby is due in June. He's in for a ride, one we've all taken, as parent or child, or both, and yet one that is unique to each of us. Call it the ride of life. After all, what is life all about if not perpetuating the species? Today we don't use such a clinical phrase. We say life is all about family. Certainly it seems to get that way from time to time, especially those times when you would rather be alone. Maybe just to have a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom without being on high alert for incoming.

Of course I was kidding when I suggested that Jose run. It's a male cliche. A mandatory joke about the yoke being slipped over his young neck. Fatherhood changes you forever, no doubt about that. Most of us say the change is for the better, but maybe Darwin makes us say that. Maybe we don't have any real choice in how we feel about being fathers. 

So now that I'm not joking around with Jose, terrifying him, what would I say to him or to any new father.

1. Join a feminist group. Be active in feminist causes, especially workplace equality and childcare. The main thing you have to do as a father is be there. Nature takes care of a lot of the rest. You can be there more if your partner shares roles with you, both work and child-care. This has the added benefit (which pays off in numerous ways) of making your partner happy. Indeed, as things now stand in our culture, you will be seen as a saint. Try not to abuse your halo.

2. Take a deep breath. The biggest mistakes of fatherhood are made when we're angry. Go for a walk. Cool off. You can't teach a child to be loving and patient by being the opposite.

3. Let him fail. Follow the maxim of the technology world: "Fail early and often." Techies know we learn from our mistakes. Tech venture capitalists don't even want to invest in someone who hasn't failed. Children are the world's best at making real-time course corrections. But you have to let them make mistakes for them to learn. Don't expose them to danger, but don't be overprotective. And start young, when the failures don't mean they won't get into college. By that point, they will have learned the lessons failure teaches and you won't have to hire a tutor to write their college essays.

4. Be there. I said that already, but it bears repeating. All the rest will come naturally. You'll give her what you have to give and she'll know she's loved. That's the foundation for everything. Your job is to get her ready to go off on her own. She needs to feel safe and valued, respected and loved. She'll figure out the rest. You can teach her. You can tell her stories. But mainly she'll figure it out herself as long as she knows she's on solid ground at home.

That's all. The rest is just the way we live. Be a soccer dad if you want. Camp out. Take him to ball games. Whatever you want to do. What you do with him doesn't matter. It's the doing, the being there, that makes all the difference. 

How do I know all this? What makes me such an expert? Simple. Look down the list. I've done every one wrong. I've learned from failure. Maybe that's the only way. Or maybe Jose will be spared the big mistakes and only have his own small ones to look back on with regret. That would be my last bit of advice, I suppose. What I tell myself anyway. Do your best and don't look back. Don't beat yourself up when you slip. Get up and keep trying. That's one of the best lessons you can teach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intellectual Blood Sport

When I was a boy, my father used to lecture me. They were pull-up-a-chair-and-get-comfortable-this-is-going-to last-for-a-while events. He would repeat himself over and over, as if I were deaf or insensible (which, a short time into the ordeal, I usually was), or as if by sheer repetition I could be made to see the wisdom of his point of view. I don't think I ever did--see the wisdom of his views--which is my loss, to some extent. He died when he was fifty, and I twenty eight, and still, decades later, not many days go by when I don't wish I could revisit some of those debates. I don't know whether I want to say "I understand better now, Dad" or "You understand better now, don't you Dad?" Probably both. It's likely we would pick up right where we left off.

In fairness to Dad, his lectures, the real stem-winders, were usually saved for my teenage-boy transgressions, not politics. He was a brilliant doctor and a libertarian. When he died, he hadn't managed to pay a good amount of back taxes. I don't think he thought he government was really entitled to them. Those were the ninety-percent-marginal-tax-rate days, and at those rates, he was probably right. But whatever your father's politics, most boys have to go the other way. At least ones like me. It's all part of breaking free.

I went to law school at Vanderbilt and we kept up our debates until he died, not long after I graduated. He told me once (the nicest compliment he ever paid me) that he wanted to go to law school so he could better argue with me. He may have admired my sophistry, but I don't think I ever convinced him of anything. Except maybe that it was fun to spar around about big issues.

Flash forward. I'm at dinner recently with my father. A kind of second-coming of him, anyway. Same boyishness. Same charm. Same good humor and parrying wit. Same bedrock conservatism. This friend and I have been going round and round for a few dinner parties on the usual political flash points. He's socially liberal, like Dad was, so it's mainly fiscal issues and the proper role of government that we wrestle over, just like Dad and I. And like Dad, this friend is polite enough that from time to time I actually think I'm bringing him around. The dinner table is no place for a fight and the wine lubricates the discussion, but then I send him an email link to a column by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or some other redistributionist and my friend bares his teeth. Oh, dear! He does have big teeth.

He thanked me recently for not giving up on him, which was a charming way to ask why the hell I am so stubborn. Good question. Why indeed? I told him I learned persistence from my father. My father's political views don't live on in me, but his ability to cling to them doggedly, to rationalize them, to see the facts that support them and not the ones that don't, to say the same thing over and over, certain that the cretin to whom I am speaking will eventually have an intellectual epiphany, does.

Talking to my friend is enough like talking to Dad that I love it. Occasionally hate it. Love it. It's sport. And not. When I was a boy, when my father was alive, the issues we discussed were still abstractions to me. Now that I see the consequences, in human terms, of the choices we make as a society, it's getting harder to to enjoy the sport. I feel an increasing need to slay my gladiatorial opponent. The trouble is, he's as fit and well armored as I. What does that mean? Am I doomed to ceaseless combat, or should I exit the coliseum and just let everyone else get hopelessly bloody in what seems to be a never-ending conflict, our country's version of a religious war?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn Me Loose and Set Me Free

I remember when I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Ah, bittersweet passages. After the elections yesterday, I guess I'll have to give up another of my fantasies: the belief that America, deep down in its heart of hearts, supports a progressive political agenda.

I have an old Merle Haggard song in my iTunes library called "Big City Turn Me Loose and Set Me Free." Merle sings the role of a man who "quit his steady job" and "left the "dirty old city" and wants to be dropped off "somewhere in the middle of Montana." He's "been working every day since he was twenty" and "doesn't have a thing to show for anything he's done." He says, "you can keep your retirement and your so-called social security," as long as you set him free. If he's penniless, I guess that would be free to live off the land like the old pioneers. And to fend for himself when he gets old and sick. 

I can understand the romantic notion behind such a choice. And if the man Merle Haggard sings about wants to make that choice for himself, fine. This is a country that jealously guards our freedom as individuals to decide how we want to live.

The Republicans want to lower my taxes, reduce limits on my ability to promote exploitive financial schemes and kick as many people as possible off the dole and out of subsidized health care plans. As long as I don't look around at the suffering they will create, I'll be better off.

So why am I so sad? That's the right word for it. Not angry. Maybe wistful. There are some things I just cant do anything about, and America's shift back to its conservative/libertarian roots is one of them. I don't like it any better than I did abandoning the Tooth Fairy. I was practical then. I'll be practical now. But I am diminished by the loss of something I so joyfully believed in: the notion that most of us want a political system that strives to level the playing field of opportunity and that looks after those that don't succeed there. A system that, when times are tough, offers the same kind of almost magical hope as a holiday toy or a few coins under a pillow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dangerously Bored

Raise you hand if you're bored. Raise your hand if you think you have a touch of attention deficit whatever. (On that second one, my hand is definitely up.)

I'll bet you've seen that most-emailed NYT piece about how ADHD was a good thing back when we were all hunters. It only became a liability when we settled down to grow crops. Before baguettes and tortillas, a little restless curiosity and a smidgen of thrill-seeking went a long way toward putting dinner on the table. These days, with no wild beasts to ward off, we're hunting Ritalin instead. It takes a boring man to tend a boring crop.

But that need is still in there, isn't it? That dream of something new, something daring. This leads to many ill-advised behaviors. Also to hangovers. It's the chief cause of bad personal decisions, like marital infidelity, and bad political decisions, like our periodic urge to throw the bums out.

This new guy is so cool. He'll be exciting. Not like that putz Im stuck with now. Political demagoguery is like tequila. It makes someone you should know better than to fall for look beautiful.

It's election day. Tonight we'll be sucking on limes and dancing on the tables. The hangover will come later. OMG, this one looks no better than the last one. No, wait, now that I think about it, he's uglier. What was I thinking?

I'm a Democrat. I'm an Obama man. I was so excited when he won. I bought all the hope and change stuff. The difference between me and many Americans is that I'm still excited about him. Well, excited is not exactly right. Satisfied would be more like it. Still committed. As in good personal partnerships, even as the passion heats and cools and (hopefully) re-heats, the love remains.

Many want a divorce from Obama. His fellow Democrats running for re-election in red or purple states, even some blue ones, are saying they never much liked the guy themselves. He's under political house arrest. His nose is pressed up to the mullioned windows of the oval office like a loyal dog who has been left behind and doesn't understand why.

He has disappointed us, many say. He has made us look weak on the world stage. He broke his promise to close Guantanamo. He broke his promise to be a president of peace not war. He broke his promise to bridge the partisan political divide in Washington. He passed that terrible health care bill that let all those deadbeats get insurance partially paid for by our tax dollars.

Pick your poison. Everyone has a gripe about Obama. He's not Mitt. He's not Hillary. He's not Elizabeth Warren. He's not even himself, at least not who we thought he was.

He leaves his clothes on the bedroom floor. He spits his toothpaste in the sink and doesn't rinse it. He doesn't share the housework. He never brings us flowers. We think he's bored with us. 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we're so over Obama: the national divorce rate is fifty percent.

Maybe the new lovers we take today will turn out to be the loves of our lives. It happens. More likely, they'll spit toothpaste in the sink too. The thing is, if you want to build a relationship, if you want to build a life together based on mutual interests and commitment, with little shots of spark now and then, you have to stick with it. You can't be starting over all the time.

The problem is that often we don't know what we want in a partner, in life or in politics. We keep searching. And the searching means changing. And the changing means we don't make much progress toward building something enduring. You have to be patient to build something that lasts. We're not very patient.

Personally, I'm not disappointed in Obama. He's pretty much what I expected he wold be. Absolutely what I expected from a policy standpoint. I might have wished he'd have the political magic or cunning to be more effective in working across the aisle, but oh, well... At least he stuck to his ideological guns. Maybe he didn't shepherd through as much of the progressive agenda as I'd hoped he would, but he held off the revanchists.

There is danger in impulsive behavior. There is danger in the ennui that precedes it. We know that, but still we go to the party and order shots and look around for something new. We can't help ourselves, apparently. When we settled down to farming ten-thousand years ago, we left ourselves without daily outlets for our need to be reckless. Since then we seem even to have forgotten that the need lives on within us, and that, when it comes to setting a long-term political agenda, it's not doing us any favors.