Monday, August 31, 2015

A Clump of Kids

My wife was visiting a friend for the weekend. Friday, I had a clump of kids at our house. (That's the new term, at least for me. You know: a flock of birds; a school of fish; a murder of crows; a clump of kids.) There was going to be a sleepover. The girls were not invited to stay for the sleepover with the boys, in case you were wondering, but I did invite them to stay for dinner.

Pizza, you know... You just have order another one. I like simplicity. (I also drink "Afternoon Tea" in the morning. I'm crazy that way. Carpe Teaum.) Also, I like that the guy at our local pizza shop actually calls me "Goombah."

As the kids gorged themselves on besauced and becheesed carbs, I retreated to the adjacent room with a few purloined slices to watch a TV show. They were loud. Very loud. The presence of girls who are my sons' friends -- and who are delightfully rough-and-tumble with the lads, woods-tromping and ball-throwing and all that -- can really crank up the ambient decibels, let me tell you. I put on the "closed captioning" so I could follow the peril of Captain Archer's Enterprise without yelling at the kids to, as they say in Bugs Bunny gangster cartoons, "shet ep."

Yeah, it was a tad frustrating. They were really loud and I felt like a bit of a prisoner in my own home, but they were having a great time being ridiculously silly. And loud. Not sure if I mentioned how loud they were being.

As they finished demolishing the pizza and they were moving the party out to the back yard, one of the girls said to one of my sons, "Your family is really nice."

After dark, out in the yard for a marshmallow roast (read: waving around of flaming sticks in the dark), it hit me again, as it often has: being a parent, in the eyes of those who are committed to never being parents, seems like too much sacrifice of personal space, time and silence. It is a sacrifice of all of those things. But I am not the first philosophical type to point out that sacrifice can pay a fee to one's heart: The next day, after their friends left, my sons said, in unison, "Thanks for the sleepover, Dad." Hugs followed.

And it's not too shabby to hear one of your sons' friends say, "Your family is really nice." I want my sons friends to want to hang out at our house, now and into the future. If you have to ask why, you don't keep up with the news...

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How to Raise an Unhappy Child

Yesterday I saw a video of a child -- maybe seven or eight -- throwing a tantrum in the back seat of his mother's car. I won't post it, because it enrages me when parents intentionally violate the privacy and dignity of their own children. (I've visited that idea before.)

What struck me about the post -- it was on Facebook -- was the responses that took such a harsh view of the kid; comments that said he needed to be smacked and put in his place with a good beating for being such a little brat. Now, it's true -- the kid was completely flipping out and pulling his mother's hair and even grabbing for the wheel. I understand the reactions people had, but what bothers me is that no one had the initial reaction I had: It's his mom's (parents') fault. The discussion under that video prompted this post, from me, on Facebook:
How to raise an unhappy child: Allow child to get away with bad behavior over and over; then, finally put your foot down; then, when he flips out in frustration that his usually successful tactics aren't working, hit and humiliate him so that everyone admires how you "laid down the law."
(Ego among peers can lead to so many parental mistakes...but that's another post.) 

Tantrums worked for this kid, probably all his young life. In this video, the mother proclaims, weakly, a few times, "I'm the mom..." as the boy gets more and more riled up. Talk about a clear illustration of your ineffectiveness; to have to say that...and to threaten posting his behavior on YouTube... Awful. 

It is not fair, to the kid, that his mom, out of nowhere (and very likely prompted by the awareness that a video was being shot) decided to finally be firm with him. Of course, this was a convergence of things; it seems, in the video, that he is going somewhere he doesn't want to go -- maybe to the doctor's or to school. Now, the mother is forced to not give in to a tantrum, even though she has done so in the past. 

So the question remains: Does "the little creep need to be smacked"? Maybe or maybe not; it depends on your philosophy on hitting kids, first of all. But, if he does "need to be smacked" I would submit that it is the fault of his parents that he needs to be smacked. I think we all understand that but hate to admit it...

There is a treacherous line between personal responsibility and parental responsibility for a child's behavior. One person on Facebook said "he chose to act this way." There does come a time when one has to stop blaming his or her parents for his or her own flaws. (Some people never stop doing that; I know a few.) What we sow as parents grows, though. There's no denying that. But this is a little kid, still. He chose to act that way because he has been rewarded for acting that way. 

As for tantrums...if you want your kid to keep having them, let him "get away with it;" or, worse, still: give him what he wants because of it. But don't have the audacity, later, to throw up your hands and act as if it is a circumstance beyond your control; because, if it is beyond your control, you allowed it to get there. (I can list many things my sons do that are my fault. Now I am correcting those things; I would not have had to if I had done the right in the first place.) 

I know one thing: Never, ever use humiliation as a "parenting" tool. You will pay for that, later, I guarantee you. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Invisible Horizon

To transcend the world is to row out from the shore, but not to put out to sea forever. Putting out sea forever is death. Transcendence is rowing away from the shoreline and rowing back in when necessary -- coming back in for supplies and for necessary human interactions.

Mostly, transcendence is living on the water, within sight of the land, but floating on the bosom of the hissing, sparkling, salty enormousness of the wine-dark ocean. One cannot stay on the water, but if he manages to spend more and more time there, most of his life is gently rocked by the rising and falling of the water, and he is peaceful and ever aware of the unimaginably huge limitlessly gentle power of the Universe. That peace is the best thing in life, but it cannot sustain life. Time ashore is necessary...

...but travels between sea and sand require crossing the breakers, both heading in and out, and sometimes one gets wet and sometimes the boat is capsized. Travel between the place at which one is in the world and the place where one is of the world can be treacherous and riptides lurk there, unseen but deadly.

The Sage knows that he must stay aware of his position. He must know when it is time to stray farther from the strand and when it is time to come back to the land for the fresh water of necessity.

After a lifetime of practice, the Sage might even be in control enough to take the final journey on his own terms; to row and row on the last day, out toward the horizon, and to disappear...out to sea, forever. Not to throw himself into the water and sink, coughing and convulsing in panic, but to close his eyes and will the boat silently away to the invisible horizon.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Two God Concepts

The range of people's --what? -- "God concepts" often staggers me.

Over the past three days, I have seen two things that have underscored how differently people can see the universe.

I was reading an article by Neil Peart, the drummer of the legendary prog rock band Rush (who is a fine writer as well as a groundbreaking drummer). He referred to the too-early death of another drummer who was just reaching his peak and he commented: "And people think there is a benevolent God." I certainly don't begrudge him this opinion; he did suffer the loss of both his wife and young daughter some years ago. How would we feel under similar circumstances?

Right after reading this, however, I exchanged emails with a person I know who is older and who is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. She is having increasing difficulties. When I mentioned that I have been praying for her, she said that she thinks the prayers are working; she went on to relate that her goal is to walk around her dining room table four times per day and that the other day she managed fifteen trips around the table. Imagine. It brought tears to my eyes.

I don't know how to feel about the idea of faith or lack thereof being related to individual breaking points, but the connection is undeniable.

Ansel Adams

Monday, August 17, 2015

Lark or Nightingale? (Who Cares?)

As I get older, I become more aware of a feeling of alienation. The paradigms that were once familiar seem to disintegrate. The things that would have been "outrageous" become "no big deal." I suppose this is natural, to some extent, but I can't help feeling that people of my generation have seen quicker and more extreme shifts in mores, morals and societal concept than many others in human history.

So it goes, I suppose.

Still, sometimes it's hard to adopt an "it is what it is" attitude -- especially when I think a change I see is insane. Or potentially harmful.

My son, who is thirteen, just related a story to me about what he had heard about a friend's behavior at a "sleepover." It was nothing outrageous. Just a slightly gross practical joke; the boy had put his socked foot into the mouth of a sleeping friend. The sleeping friend, I learned, however, was a girl.

Parents are allowing their daughters, at the age of thirteen, to "sleep over" at the homes of boys of the same age. Absolutely absurd, in my opinion. If you disagree with me, you really might as well not say anything, because my belief is unwavering on this one: it is foolish and irresponsible to allow teenaged kids of the opposite sex to spend unsupervised time together overnight.

An exasperated Facebook friend, when I posted about this, suggested that this is all a byproduct of the "new genderless society." What a sad idea. But she has a point. The lines between the sexes are becoming more and more...dotted.

I do find it interesting that young people, in recent times, seem to play in groups of both sexes. I never played with girls when I was a kid. My sons have two very nice girls that they play with. In the high school in which I teach, there are groups of good friends composed of girls and boys and their friendships often seem very sweet. I have to wonder, though, if the lack of conceptual separation is such a good thing.

I like the way I saw girls as I was growing up. They seemed mysterious to me; a better class of people, in some ways. They walked in a glow of bright colors and enchanting scents and they shared secret jokes that just were not for boys to hear. They were poetry and we were prose. They were melody and we were rhythm. My mother taught me the usual things: respect, honor and all that. My dad exemplified how to be a gentleman (talk about your anachronistic ideas...).

What I like, sadly, isn't that important, in the grand scheme. But, in a recent conversation with a friend of a younger generation, she mentioned that she was always the "friend" of a boy who would say: "I wish I could find a girlfriend like you." And she would think (if she was interested in the boy): "So...what about me?" Alas...

...the friendly familiarity they shared had erased (or somehow disqualified) the romantic dynamic.

When young ladies spend the night with young men, the dynamics become, at least, the dimming of the sparkle of mystery, or, at worst -- and most potentially costly -- the passions of proximity. True, Romeo and Juliet do not exactly serve as models of self-control and rationality, but what poetry would the Bard have conceived about two teenagers who hook up at a sleepover?  With their parents snoring away upstairs?

ROMEO: "Lark or nightingale? What difference doth it make? Thy parents will cook us breakfast or a midnight snack."

Quite a bit more prosaic. I don't want my son's lives to be prosaic.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Is It Still Okay to Prefer?

Is saying what you prefer the same as saying that the things you don't prefer are wrong? I never thought so, but everyone else seems to think so.

Saying what you prefer is not necessarily a value judgment. We live, however, in a world that is just waiting to judge and that immediately dismiss anyone with an opinion that does not fit the groupthink positions that it attempts to force everyone into. The result is that people don't say what they think -- or even what they prefer for fear of a figurative mob lynching.

For instance, I do not prefer women who are "tough" in the traditionally masculine sense. I prefer more traditionally feminine women. There are some who would love to label me a sexist for this and there are others who would try to gently explain to me that I just don't really understand how I am contributing to a social structure that is designed to keep women subordinate. While I appreciate their attempts at educating the ignorant, white, middle-aged male that I am, I respectfully submit that they should pack up their radio talk-show acquired bag of sociological observations and beat it.

As a heterosexual man, I find no attraction to, say a Ronda Rousey. She is a beautiful woman, but I do not prefer women who beat up people. This ability she has is, athletically, impressive, but it is not a quality I prefer in a woman. Her profession and hearing her talk about beating up her opponents are enough to destroy any chance of my having been attracted to her. (Like she cares.)

Notice that I have not once said that it's not okay for her to fight or for women to act any way they see fit. While I don't have a right to condemn or stop their behavior, I have every right not to prefer it.

There are lot of other preferences I have that would serve to illustrate my point, but the one above popped into my head after having seen a video of Rousey talking trash about an opponent in between montages of her posing in bikini.

And, you know what? I think, even in the traditional sense, that women are and always have been every bit as "tough" as men. That doesn't mean we all have to be "tough" in the same way. I prefer for men and women to be different -- equal but different. This is not the same as asserting that the world is getting it wrong; just that it is getting it the way I don't like it to be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Three Days With Milton and Henry

On long car rides, my sons will typically ask to play their music on the stereo. I like that, because it kind of leans against the old cliche of the kid slipping away from his outer world into the insulation of ear buds or headphones. And for me, as a dad, sharing music is every bit as important as sharing meals as as family. (My older son's epiphany on one car ride: "Dude! Music sounds so much better on speakers...)

Framed in a picture, it is still pretty Renaissancy.
King Henry VIII getting the party started
with Queen Catherine of Aragon
On the way home, yesterday, from a three-day family jaunt into Pennsylvania, I stopped for gas on a rustic state road in Manheim. As we headed off toward the PA Turnpike, my younger son -- he's eleven -- asked to put his music on. He'd selected a film score play list of the masterful John Williams and of the less-masterful-but-still-pretty-good Harold Shore. I was pleased. both with my son's taste and with the "score" to our scenic car ride.

[Speaking of my son's taste in music, which is not typical for an eleven-year-old, he once got angry when Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" came on in the car. What angered him was Gilmour's solo: "Why do they have to ruin everything with the sound of some fake instrument that's all loud and obnoxious." I believe he may have been channeling my dear-departed father, and I was both pleased and displeased (I love Gilmour's playing) -- but more the former than the latter. The boy loves orchestral music!]
My younger son cheering on a battle
in his newly-acquired medieval hood. 

As the sun started to set, we traveled, heading home through the rolling green hills of what is a truly beautiful state. When the Shire theme in the Lord of the Rings soundtrack played, my older son pointed out that "they could have filmed The Lord of the Rings here -- the Shire parts." He was right. It was a beautiful setting and I was more than happy to drive along the the orchestral strains of Harry Potter and LotR and to think back over the previous three days...

Day one was the "PA Renaissance Faire," which I now go to just for the boys, who enjoy it, especially my older son who is now amassing quite a collection of historic weaponry. (A few years go, we bought him a handmade Welsh longbow -- he and I like to do target archery together -- and this year, he became the proud owner of a working, handmade crossbow.)

The Renaissance Faire has fallen far. Very far. In fact, if not for the boys, I would never go again. When I went twenty years ago, it was very much an escape -- it felt like a journey back to Renaissance England. I was never a dresser-upper or very much of the Dungeons and Dragons set -- though, to be honest, I have played -- but I remember the quiet historicity of the place. I remember the gravel "streets" of the town (now asphalt) and the actors who'd wander and engage the visitors (the actors have since become performers) and I remember the efforts to keep the place an experiment in Renaissance re-creation. Dollars were called "pounds" (though I don't think they were using pounds sterling in the Renaissance...) and turkey legs were called "mutton legs" and they were one of the few things available to eat. Every vendor did a decent British accent (in fairness, most of them sounded like poor Scottish brogues, but that was okay -- they were really trying) and the expectations on the employees were high. In fact, one day, I saw a girl I had been in a band with in one of the stage shows. She saw me and directed me to meet her behind the stage area. This was because she wanted to talk to me without an accent and she would have gotten in trouble if she'd been seen. Even the guys who directed the car-parking wore costume and did accents back then. There was no amplification and no recorded music played anywhere. If you had to use a credit card to buy something big, the characters referred to it as "Master Card or Lady Visa."
My favorite: "Wildcat,"against the green of Pennsylvania. 
This is all out ye olde window, now. Only the performers are in costume and hamburgers and fries, as well as cheap plastic weapons abound. None of the vendors even try anymore. Sure, the shows are fun to watch and the jousts are just as cool (despite the recorded strains of the Skyrim music having replaced three trumpets and a tympani player) but it is no longer an escape. It's a theme park. I'm glad the boys like it, but I wish they could have seen it in ye olden days. (Though, if you go, do go see the bowyer and her partner. They are one of the last bastions of historicity in the joint.)

After a long day, it was a sunset ride into the delightful town of Hershey for a stay in the sprawling Hershey Lodge and for a few days in the amusement park. We all like roller coasters; what can I say? (Here's my roller coaster/life theory from before, if you're interested. I still feel the same.)

The smoke stacks of the old Hershey
factory with the excellent wooden coaster
"Thunder and Lightning" in the foreground.
The town of Hershey was the classic factory town, built for and around the workers; even the amusement park, itself, was originally created by Milton S. Hershey as a recreation place for the workers. Now, it is simply an amusement park near the Hershey factory and it's not the factory town it used to be, but it is still a nice place to visit. The park is beautiful, unlike ones nearer to us, in New Jersey, like Six Flags "Great Adventure" park. Hershey park has plenty of trees and shade and it has a feel of being "settled in" and welcoming, unlike Great Adventure, that seems to have slapped up some rides for the sake of rides. Maybe it's the history aspect, but Hershey feels like a place to be, not a place to visit. The visitors at Hershey are also generally more civilized than at other places, too, but some make you wonder...

Farenheit, which I rode twenty
minutes after eating eggs Benedict
-- with nary a retch. Now who's a man? the kids -- aged around, maybe 10-15 -- who were yelling "Oh my f#($*%& God" at the top of their lungs while waiting for a ride to start and who, as we left the ride, were "skating" with their sneakers on the wet pavement, bumping past people and walking over to the duck food dispensers and violently yanking on the mechanisms like...well, like animals. Like untamed animals.

I have tried, over the past years, not to be too critical of kids who are rambunctious. I believe bad kids can grow up to be good people and I even believe my kids may be too well behaved; that we have been a bit too strict with regulating their public behavior. I openly admit that. But to raise children who behave with absolutely no comportment or sense of propriety or regard for those around them is just wrong; in fact, it is socially irresponsible. Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping one of the sneaker-skating brats would have hit a dry patch on the pavement and taken a header onto his teeth, so I won't say that...

Then, we went up into the "Kissing Tower" -- a revolving circular cabin that rises up to some three-hundred feet to give passengers a good view of the surrounding area and, along with the ride, you get a recorded lesson about the history of the town. It would have been interesting, if I could have heard it over the incessant, self-centered babbling of the people around me. (I am sorry for being perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, but...people used to listen to stuff like that when I was a kid and it kills me when people talk over it. )

Other than that, though, the people at the park were so much better than the Jersey crowd.

Driving home, though, through the twilight and to the backdrop of the lazy summer strings of Shore's beautiful Shire theme, I felt the peace that comes with having gone and seen and having spent each day's energy in pursuit of nothing but entertainment. Three days of that is plenty, though, but it was all worth it if only for the rare fun and comfort of nights in a hotel room with the entire family, the grownups reading  by the overhead bed lights and the youngins lying in their beds either reading or softly giggling and whispering over the beeps and blips of their handheld games.

[By the way -- I learned, on a placard in the park, that, in one work week, today, the Pennsylvania Turnpike sees more traffic than is did during the entire year of 1941. Crazy.]

PA sunset on Route 322. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

From Leaning Bricks to Flying Buttresses

I will start with this statement: Technical complexity or even technical facility are not necessarily the measuring sticks for artistic quality. Simple art can be beautiful; a technically limited artist can do a good thing.

Cathedral builder. 
Usually, though, great art is both complex and technically sound.

Now that I have said that, I have to voice my frustration as a guy who has spent his life in pursuit of musical excellence: being a musician in a world of non-musicians can be incredibly frustrating. The reason for this is that the average person understands so little about music; music is a mystery to most in a way that visual art, literature, theater and even dance are not. The average person understands the core of what is happening with these arts. Music is more ethereal.

A good comparison, in terms of my incredulity about the music that impresses the non-musician, would be this:

It's like being an architect who knows how to design cathedrals who sees a group gathered around a man. The  crowd is agape with appreciation; they titter about how great the man's architectural sense is; how innovative his work is; how great his accomplishment is. When the architect gets close enough, he looks at the man's work and sees that the fellow has taken two bricks and leaned one against the other. The architect knows this is nothing, but the crowd does not; they are amazed and mystified.

Of course, this would never happen, because people understand enough about architecture -- they, after all, live in buildings -- to see that leaning one brick on another is no big deal. People do not, however, generally understand enough about music to make this distinction. (If you can't tell me the notes in a C Major chord, you can't even lean two bricks together.)

Brick leaner. 
This is not to say that I haven't enjoyed the aesthetic of a brick leaning upon a brick. I often like music that is simple. Again, complexity is not the only measure of artistic worth. But it is frustrating to think so much about craft and to learn so much over a lifetime just to see work with less dedication and/or craft get equal or greater recognition than more adept work.

I know many feel that no one has the right to say what is great and what is bad when it comes to art. We all just like what we like. Okay. I can't stop anyone from liking something, no matter how aenemic I might think it is. The problem is, though, that I know if people understood even a little about music they would probably quickly change their opinions.

Imagine you finished running a marathon and everyone ignored you in favor of a perfectly healthy guy who walked across the room to toss his soda cup into the trash. I've  already gone through hundreds of pairs of running shoes, so...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Taken: Sublime Simplicity

Last night, as a result of my older son's beseeching, we re-watched the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson.

Only limited spoilers coming, so don't worry. You know from previews that Neeson's character is a retired special agent and his daughter is taken by sex traffickers while she is on holiday in Paris. Neeson (now famously), tells one of the abductors, over the cell phone:

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career -- skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you; I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you; I will find you, and I will kill you."

It occurred to me, last night, how good it is to watch a film whose morality is so black and white and whose protagonist is so perfect at what he does. When he delivered those lines last night, I found myself welling up. 

If you do it the right way, it is hard to be a "real man." Being a real man is defined many different ways and, as you might expect, my definition contains a lot more than being able to go around -- as an Amish woman in Witness describes it to Harrison Ford's character --"whacking people," but that definition of mine does contain toughness. But, to be able to have full and unfaltering confidence in your ability to "whack people" who try to hurt your child...? That's just sublime. 

Sure -- to be that guy is a fantasy. It's a movie after all...but, what a fantasy. It's a Rocky thing: an ideal of traditional manhood stripped to the primal. All dads want to protect their families from harm. The difference between all dads and Neeson's character is that all dads have doubts and weaknesses. It's nice to wade in the pool of total confidence, if only for two hours.

It's also nice to watch a film in which the character is not conflicted or morally questionable. Again, it is an escape from reality; real people are morally conflicted and questionable at times and my fiction writing teachers spent years reminding me not to write characters who are all good. I suppose, also, it can be argued that anyone who kills as many people as Neeson does in that film can't be all good, but, when he steals cars or kills people, it is in order to stop his daughter from being sold into forced prostitution. That's a pretty good argument for "crossing the line," if you ask me. 

When I watch Indiana Jones shoot a guy who is showing off by flipping around a sword he intends to kill him with, I think, Hmm. That was questionable, if very darkly comical. When I see Liam Neeson electrocute a guy who abducted, drugged and sold his teenaged daughter, I smile the smile of the guiltless and I sleep just fine.  

Taken is a heck of a dad-catharsis. We need stuff like that from time to time. Not everything  can be Pride and Prejudice, nor should it.