Opinion

Park Job of the Weekend

Tuesday, 18 May 2010 07:30 AM Written by

(and of the sabbath)



I don’t know what’s more maddening: that the big, stupid Yukon was parked atop the curb; that it was parked along a yellow no-parking zone; that it was parked between, and so partially obstructing access to, a pair of funeral home driveways; or that it was parked all of those ways so its inhabitants could attend Sunday mass at Sacred Heart Parish.

What Would Jesus Do?

He’d tell you to park that damned thing somewhere else.

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Baby's Got a Gun!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010 01:49 AM Written by

If you believed all of the political campaign ads we've been swarmed with (last night, I swear to you, I felt like Tippie Hedren), you would know I am busy deciding which man to choose to tell me what to do with my body and whether or not it's a good investment to splurge on that Berretta 92 I've been fancying.

Last night I had a dream nightmare that Daryl Metcalfe was elected Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. Within a few years, an infantry (pun intended) of gun-toting toddlers were taking over the Commonwealth. I've had stranger ones.

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Thinking and Wondering and Worrying

Monday, 17 May 2010 05:51 AM Written by

(and parenting, sixteen years on)

The best bit of parenting advice my mother ever gave me, one that’s served me well these past sixteen years, was simply this: use common sense and follow your own instincts.  

This advice assumes, of course, the listener possesses common sense enough to produce instincts worth following — an assumption as blind as it is foolhardy, if the malfeasance that these days passes for parenting is any reliable indicator. Mom will tell you she had no such concerns about me, and that she always knew I would make a good father. I wasn’t so sure.

I’d always been capable and comfortable and confident — maybe a little too much so — in most things I did. I was happy and accomplished and reasonably successful, a guy blessed with some God-given talent, some great direction from wonderful parents and teachers, and a determination to work and try and keep trying as long as it took to get something right. But staying up late to prepare a lecture or polish off an essay was one thing; staying up late and getting up early and never, ever taking a moment off from providing for the physical and emotional and spiritual health of another human being was quite another. The task was so great, so daunting, so vaguely and unimaginably ludicrous, that I may as well have been readying myself to swim across the Atlantic Ocean or build a skyscraper with my bare hands. 

Parenting seemed to me a task that both demanded and precluded perfection. You knew you couldn’t possibly do it, at least not as well or as right as you wanted to, but here you were trying it anyway. And it seemed like the best you could ever hope to achieve was a fine and noble failure.

There were diapers to be changed and bottles to be filled. Baths to be given and pediatricians to be chosen. Bums to be wiped and circumcision dressings to be (oh-so-carefully) changed. Clothes to be bought and books to be read and trips to be taken and burps to be coaxed and games to be played and scrapes to be healed and shots to be given and antibiotics to be measured and all sorts of bodily fluids to be cleaned.  

And that was the easy stuff. The read-and-react, stimulus-and-response, gotta-do-it-so-you-better-just-get-down-to-it stuff.

You could worry that you didn’t feed him enough (he was only five and a half pounds at birth, after all). Or didn’t wipe him well enough (is that rash your fault?). Or that he was too hot or too cold or too fussy or too gassy. That he might be sick and getting sicker. That, thanks to a nerve-fraying, soul-sucking roto-virus he caught just after his first birthday — when he couldn’t keep anything down, and he threw up on you eleven times in thirty-six hours, and you were certain that one or both of you might die if it continued much longer — you might never keep even the Pedialyte down or the suppository up, and you’d have to take him to the hospital whether or not you had time to change or shower or get the vomit out of your hair.

It was the stuff you just did and didn't have a lot of time to worry about, because it all happened so often and so fast that it was more or less out of your control. And so, should anything go wrong, you couldn't really take the blame; you were just along for the ride, and who the hell had time to think anyway?

Then one day you’re driving up Fifth Avenue, and another car swerves into your lane and cuts you off and makes you jam on your brakes and sigh in disgust, and before you can get back to speed, an angelic little voice from the backseat says, One asshole pass my car!, and you realize, through a haze of pride (you’ve never used that sentence in your life, so your three-year-old has already begun to master syntax and sentence grammar) and disgust (language acquisition aside, your three-year-old just said asshole) and joy (your three-year-old is tremendously smart and acute and active and perceptive for his age) and fear (you stopped swearing in front of him months ago; what else has he picked up and absorbed and retained that could one day come back to haunt or embarrass you when you least expect it?) and confusion (so what does this mean for him, for you, for everything you thought you knew about his development?).

But at this point, you’re used to the fear and the confusion. Because you feel them all the time.

How do you know when he’s old enough to watch tv? To play on a computer? To cross the street without holding your hand? How do you know when it’s okay for him to jump in a pool or leap off a swing or run down a slide without getting hurt? How do you know when to say yes, when to say no, when to think about it some more and make the decision later?

How do you find that balance between treating and spoiling, between permitting and indulging, between protecting and over-protecting? How do you know when he's old enough to go to a hockey game, to stay home alone, to see Jaws or Alien for the first time? How do you decide when to let him drink Pepsi for dinner? To go to sleepaway camp? To walk around Forbes & Murray with his friends?   

What’s the best way to do or say or explain something? When is too late? When is too soon? How much is too much? Why must these simple acts of love and devotion be always be so damned complicated? How do you know, once you decide any or all of these things, that you made the right choice? That you didn’t just make some boneheaded decision that will hurt him now or that might hurt him later or that could, in the long run, scar him for life and make him resent you forever? 

You don’t. You never do. And you probably never will. At least not for certain, anyway. And that’s what makes it all so maddening.

The only small solace you have — and it’s not much — is that the bigger, messier, scarier stuff (like concussions and CAT scans, high school and girlfriends and driving lessons) are still a long way away.

But then, one day, they’re not.

I'm fond of telling clients and students that good communication is a command of choices at every level, and that the best way to make those choices — of structure, organization, diction, syntax, even punctuation — is to imagine, and then to try and understand, all the potential outcomes, all the net gains and losses and subsequent complications of them, and then to choose the one that works best and makes the most sense for you. I am also fond of reminding them that, while there are always a few clear and obvious wrong choices, there are also precious few clear and obvious right ones. There are degrees and measures and nuances of right — if I use this anecdote in the beginning, I have a great grabber; if I use it in the middle, I can re-hook and re-energize my audience when they’re least likely to be listening to me; if I save it for the end, I have a pathos-driven clincher that will make my conclusion resonate long after I’ve finished speaking; one is rarely better than the others, but they are different and so too are the results I'll gain from them — and so there are degrees and measures and nuances of returns.

This is also good advice for us to give our children. And, perhaps, for us to give ourselves as parents.

Because if we are indeed defined by our choices, then we're really defined by our consequences. And if we, whether as parents or as children, are going to be defined by our consequences, then there can’t possibly be a guide or a manual or a set of instructions. Because every child and every parent and every family and every situation are different. Because every choice comes with its own set of rules and laws and logic, with its own set of benchmarks and measuring sticks and metrics, and so, like most things in life and love, is not an absolute.

Each one is a pure and defiant and often maddening relativity, a judgment made for one particular child in one particular place at one particular time. You can calibrate the distances and measure the crosswinds and try like hell to project a destination, but in the end, all you really need is a little patience, a little temperance, and a whole lot of faith in the sudden and simple and often incomprehensible workings of your own inner compass. You aim, take your best shot, cross your heart and your fingers, and wait to see where it lands.

It would be great, I used to think, if kids came with a manual, a simple little instruction book like the kind you get with a computer or a tv or a toaster oven. Some flow charts, some FAQs, maybe a little troubleshooting guide in the back. A few simple rules, a couple of diagrams, and a bunch of directions you could follow whenever a solution wasn’t perfectly obvious. (Should I let him play in traffic? Well, I can handle that one. But what if he wants to stay out after dark and play basketball with his friends at a public playground a couple of miles from home in the summer when the temperature is over 80 degrees? Then what do I do?) You could buy or download a new edition every couple of years — The Toddler Years, The Middle School Experience, High School Parenting for People Who Feel Dummies — and everything would be easy. Or at least easier. Because you’d give or pay or cut off any one of your most precious body parts to get the absolute right answers, just one time, if only so you didn’t have to come up with them — and thus take full responsibility for them — yourself.

You can, of course — and if you’re smart, you do — consult parents, friends, pediatricians, random people on the street, and, in the early years, all those What to Expect? books. But in the end, you know they’re still a bunch of perfectly imperfect, trial-and-error, working-without-a-net types just like you.

My Mom, whose thoughts and advice on these matters are as close to unfailing wisdom as you are likely to find, and who steadfastly believes you can’t learn to be a good parent by reading a book any more than you can, say, learn to be a good teacher by talking to a school board member, once reminded me that The people who need the manual wouldn't bother to read it. And the people who would read it don't really need it anyway.

If she’s right — and she usually is — then maybe being aware of the questions, maybe just thinking and caring about the differences, is enough. Maybe that’s all you really need. Maybe that simple awareness and maddening concern are sign enough that, yes, you’re doing things right no matter how you do them, as long as you do them. And care to do them.

Maybe the most important part of doing a good job as a parent is just thinking and wondering and worrying about being a parent. If there are no right or easy answers, then the tough questions are everything. And as long as you're willing to ask them, maybe they're enough. Maybe they're all you need.

Which is good. Because as a parent, they're all you ever get. 

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Breast is Best

Monday, 17 May 2010 02:12 AM Written by

Dear God. This is where we are, America?

If you have a problem with public breastfeeding -- I suggest you do what the African-American woman advises at the end of the ABC News clip: educate yourself. And if that still doesn't work? Get therapy. Not an option? Then here's another one: get over it.

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For Adam

Sunday, 16 May 2010 08:15 PM Written by

(a birthday haiku)

First son, suddenly
sixteen, he reminds us that
love always grows up.

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Notes From a(n Unstable) Friday Afternoon

Friday, 14 May 2010 11:49 AM Written by

(wiping the nose of my mind)

For your consideration: another curious collection of thoughts, reactions, and observations that didn’t make it into a full-length post this week...

• So the Birthers are about to become the Social Security Numberers? How long before they become the DNAers? 

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Potter's Wield

Thursday, 13 May 2010 02:34 PM Written by

(sympathy for the pens)

Let’s just say that it’s been a really busy day, and that I’m still recovering from post-elimination stress syndrome, and that I’m not going to get around to a full-length post today.

But let’s also say that the best and funniest (and damned sure cheekiest) email condolence I received today came from City Paper Editor Chris Potter, who offered but a simple inscription (Oh, man. That was awful.) and a thoughtful, touching image file:



Never let it be said that those alternative media types lack a sympathetic heart.  

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Anthony Hardy Williams

Thursday, 13 May 2010 10:33 AM Written by

Inspiration credited to this guy.

Poor Tony Williams, oh mercy!
Santonio shirt? No gramercy!
Willy wants to be gov
but he ain't gettin' love
The PA man needs a new jersey

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