Saturday, June 30, 2012

Be A Patriot, Not A Dick

I used to love a good boozed-fueled political debate.  Then a girl I wanted to date, marry, and possibly impregnate informed me I was not being patriotic, I was being an asshole.

Politics and cigarettes are the vices I gave up in order to see The Girl Who Would Change My Life naked.  Smoking was a walk in the park.  It's a far greater challenge to keep from engaging in political combat.  In retrospect, however, I believe those arguments were killing me at a more rapid pace than Parliament Lights.

Passion has the potential to make politics great, but it's also what inspires otherwise polite and agreeable gentlemen to speak in ways that suggest they are irrational knuckleheads.  Far too scarce are political opinions steeped in pragmatism and common sense.  Commonly shared political opinions tend to be bold, exaggerated, and passed down from generation to generation.  Show me the loud-mouth asshole stirring up a political argument in a bar, and I'll show you someone whose father was a loud-mouth asshole that enjoyed stirring up political arguments in bars.

The generational nature of political beliefs carries a certain weight when you become the generation dispensing lessons, rather than receiving them.  Many parenting lessons are simple - baseball is awesome, firecrackers are dangerous, and school may suck sometimes, but unemployment sucks worse.  Do your homework.  Politics is different.  Our country operates almost entirely in gray areas, but the national political narrative is constructed in the black and white of a two-party existence.   

The only bearable way I see to handle this education with my son is to check politics at the door and focus on patriotism.  

Despite what he may see on television, radio, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and every platform that gives access to an opinionated blowhard, neither party is more patriotic than the other.  That's lesson one; there are so many reasons to love this country, don't make the mistake of believing your reason is more valid or righteous than others.

Sleeper Cell

My son lives in an amazing country.  He is going to have privileges he won't even know are privileges because he was lucky enough to be born here.  He will also come to find out that because he was born in this country, in this era, political rhetoric is going to be entirely unavoidable.

The late comedian, George Carlin - a great American I will teach my son about with complete bias and appreciation - stated the degree to which you believe someone is an asshole is directly related to your physical distance from that person when you make the discovery.  When you see a guy giving the checkout girl a hard time at the grocery store because a special didn't ring up properly, you're inclined to say - under your breath - to the person next to you, "that guy's kind of an asshole."  Meanwhile, when a political analyst is beamed to your television from a studio 1,000 miles away, you stand and yell, "WHAT A FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!"

The internet has given everyone the ability to share their bold opinions from the safe distance Carlin references.  The result is an overwhelming amount of negativity, misinformation, and incendiary trolling on social media.  Instead of giving these people the 42 comment threads they desire on their Facebook page, I will encourage my son to close the browser and do something productive.  Any act, great or small, that positively impacts those around you, is the truest form of patriotism.  Snarky remarks about poor people or warmongers on social media may draw a crowd of like-minded people, but they accomplish nothing.

When he is old enough, we will look back at some of the seminal moments that shaped our country, and for those in my adult life, I will do my best to explain their meaning without bias or prejudice.

When showing him images and video of George W. Bush delivering his iconic speech from Ground Zero, we will not discuss the political implications.  It is easy for conservatives to give an explanation of a great man in, possibly, his greatest moment.  To speak of a leader picking up a wounded nation by displaying the courage and confidence of a wartime president.  For liberals, it is easy to launch into a tangent about non-existent WMDs and the politicizing of a true American tragedy for years following.

I will pass on the hero worship, as well as the bitter cut-downs.  There will be no description of America's greatest moment, nor will there be a back-handed Dark Knight-themed compliment about not being the hero we deserved, but the hero we needed at the time.  Instead I will talk about a traumatic time in our nation's history, and how in a sensational moment, an imperfect man elected to lead a nation of imperfect citizens, perfectly captured the sentiment of a shaken collective.  And we were better for it.

We'll watch Barack Obama's victory speech without talking about healthcare reform or controversial Chicago pastors.  When my son asks me about the outpouring of raw emotion from the tens of thousands of people in attendance, I will not launch into a speech about the end of racism.  I will also refrain from derogatory commentary attributing their tears to the realization that retirement was no longer an option in socialist America.

I'll tell my son that every four years we hold an election, the results of which upset nearly half of those who voted.  But regardless of how you feel about the man in office, one of the pillars of America's greatness is that any child - even you - have the opportunity to one day hold that office.  Unfortunately, there were multiple generations of Americans who felt excluded from that dream, and this moment made them believe otherwise.  Those people were crying because dreams are that important.

I want my son to love his country unapologetically, and I don't want him to fear speaking his mind when compelled to do so.  I just don't want him to be a loud-mouth asshole starting fights, based on a bumper sticker or Facebook status worth of political knowledge.  That's not being patriotic, it's being a dick.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Making The Case For Violence

Almost daily, I fantasize about socking teenagers square in the nose.  In fact, I believe one of society's greatest failures is the taboo status attached to beating the ever-living piss out of a 16 year old, regardless of how badly the little asshat is begging for it.

Early Wednesday morning the internet caught fire in the wake of an excruciating ten minute video of New York schoolkids verbally abusing an elderly bus monitor.  Various mainstream media outlets have since picked up the story, and by week's end the woman will almost certainly be making the morning talk show rounds as a new twist on a growing national narrative on bullying.  

What is wrong with these kids?

I have a theory.

Nothing keeps people in check like the fear of physical harm.  That was true 100 years ago and it will hold true 100 years from now.  If you take that chip from authority figures, it falls directly in the lap of the very people that need checked most.  It is this "who watches the watchmen" dynamic that has long made the school bus a petri dish of youthful douchery.

Bullying has always existed.  The school bus was no picnic when I was a kid, and the rural Iowa community I grew up in was Mayberry compared to New York City.  What concerns me about this particular incident is the victim is a recognized authority figure.

That is what keeps new dads up at night.  We want our sons to be sweet, compassionate, and peaceful without becoming a target for bullies, while instilling a strong, quiet confidence to counter the pack mentality that transforms otherwise decent children into the bullies we mean to protect them from.

It's clear what has to be done.  We must teach our sons to kick ass.  Not just figuratively - as in one who kicks ass at long division - but literally, as in "hey, that kid is being unspeakably awful to the sweet old lady on your school bus, rather than document this for your Facebook page, go kick his ass."

It is important that we establish some ground rules.  These skills we intend to develop are not to be taken lightly.  The last thing the world needs is another hothead running around picking fights for sport.  Our children's violence shall be tempered and righteous (read: Norris, Chuck).

If we discourage any and all violence, there are two likely outcomes.  One, only rule breakers will develop the wherewithal to leverage the fear of physical harm.  This leads to one jackass kid with inept or absent parents terrorizing his community from the back of the school bus.  Unfortunately, this will also be the teenager getting laid regularly, until he impregnates some poor girl, thereby launching her to MTV Teen Mom stardom.  I hate to spoil the ending fourteen years in advance, but the kid named after a car, whose "dad" is an aspiring...can't really tell...ends up being a shithead.

My wife makes me watch the show...

The second potential outcome is scarier yet.  Just kidding, nothing is scarier than the idea of your teenage daughter getting knocked up by a total spare and having MTV compound your problems by giving her the fame bug.  I'm sure all famous actresses get their start by documenting their quest for a GED in Chattanooga.

"A dialect coach?  Nah, you don't sound that southern."

But back to the bus.  There is a negative consequence to the anti-violence stance that can be devastating, even in the absence of an ill-fated star turn on MTV.  There is the distinct possibility we could succeed.  The only thing we need less than one bad apple running the show, is nobody running the show.

The New York school bus incident wasn't the result of traditional bullying, it was a collection of kids that don't spend enough time wondering, "is there a possibility this could get me punched in the face?"

If the first kid to make an off-color comment to a defenseless elderly woman would have received a Chuck Norris roundhouse to the ear, I have a hard time believing that situation escalates to newsworthy status.  

I know the case for situational violence isn't universally popular.  Just remember, when your teenage daughter comes home with a positive pregnancy test and an MTV camera crew, you can't sock her asshat boyfriend in the nose.  

I think it's best we cut him off at the school bus and save you the frustration.

"Hold my bottle, I'm gonna go settle this..."

Friday, June 15, 2012

An Open Letter From Dad to Dad

Dear Dad,

For years I believed you had all the answers. I believed you were a superhero. For crying out loud, I even believed you were a defensive driver with a sparkling record.

You sneaky bastard.

Now that I have joined the tribe called Dad, I have reassessed the position. At best, we are skilled actors. At worst, terrified frauds. Fatherhood is not an all-knowing powerful state, it's a high stakes improv class. On this stage, failure to execute a scene on the fly doesn't get us heckled, it results in physical or emotional pain for the person whose overall well-being is the success metric of our own legacy.

I finally get it. I finally understand your joy, your pride, your love. Most of all, I understand your fear. In the face of that fear, I hope to display half your patience and courage. 

Armed with a new perspective, I don't want to simply wish you a Happy Father's Day. I want to give you two gifts I have denied you too often - appreciation and apology:

I am sorry I didn't earn your support often enough, but thank you so much for always giving it anyway...

Thank you for saving newspaper clippings of my accomplishments between the ages of 5 and 18. I am sorry the six occasions I appeared in the paper between the ages of 19 and 22 were not merit-based...

Thank you for helping shield me from the gory details of divorce when I was too young to understand them. I am sorry for not seeking your side of the story when I became old enough...

I am sorry for putting all my energy into being an average baseball player, while underachieving in the classroom. Thank you for making me feel like a superstar by never missing a single game...

Thank you for helping me settle into my first home. I am sorry my friends and I absolutely DESTROYED that place. Thank you for working around the clock to help fix it back up when the party finally ended...

I am sorry you were given the task of delivering the news to Ben and I when Mom took her life. Thank you for being there for us every single second since...

Thank you for talking me out of towing my car behind a moving truck that I was hardly qualified to drive in the first place. I am sorry I used the truck to move to a city with such awful traffic...

Thank you for having all the answers that mattered. I am sorry I suggested you aren't a superhero in the first paragraph. You are every bit the hero I hope to be to my son.

Happy Father's Day.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rock of Ages

Pete Townshend of The Who once did an interview in which he gave a very simple explanation for the drama, infighting, and eventual break-up of successful bands.  When individuals evolve personally and professionally they often have increasingly less in common with the friends of their youth.  Members of a successful band are expected to collaborate with friends in adulthood on a shared wavelength that, in many cases, hasn't existed since high school.  It would be unnatural if these collaborations didn't occasionally end badly.

I've never been mistaken for a rockstar.  Sure, I've been overserved at a townie bar and stepped to the mic to help a local band "bring it home" (said help was not solicited).  And in my early twenties I knew a guy that knew a guy whose cousin was friends with a dude that once smoked a marijuana cigarette.  Inhaled and everything, I understand.  Shameful.

When the majority of us reference rockstar, we are likely referring to an energy drink or quality parking spot at the mall.  But whether you rip ice cold guitar solos for The Who, punch a time clock in a factory, or type away in the florescent wonderland of the Corporate America cube farm, everyone can relate to the changing dynamic of friendships that accompany age and evolution.  The older the friendship, the more complicated the dynamic.

When you live in the area you grew up, your strongest friendships remain relatively consistent.  The life experiences are similar.  The music evolves and the tour schedule changes, but the band stays together.  Moving across the country in search of new and different opportunities feels kind of like leaving the band to work on a solo album.  People question your motives and talk about how you've changed, but it's not ego or Yoko, it's the natural distance between an individual on their 15th and 30th birthdays.

Every trip to my hometown has shed an increasing amount of light on how far my old friends and I have grown apart from one another.  I have spent many long drives after weddings and holidays reflecting with my wife about the growing disconnect.  No ill will, no hurt feelings, just rapidly decreasing common ground.  Like a band pleasantly reuniting for public appearances, but never breaching the topic of picking up instruments or getting back in the studio.

What has been especially amazing about fatherhood are the unintended benefits.  The way you view everything in life is shaped indirectly by the way you view yourself.  When you become a father and do the requisite soul searching, you begin to analyze all your relationships a little differently, including old friendships.

We recently spent the weekend with one of my lifelong friends and his wife.  As you can imagine, when 30 year old guys have been friends for 25 years, they've been through some ups and downs.  The phrase "like a brother" is generally overused, but it is appropriate in this case.  There have been hugs, shoves, shit-talking, and heartfelt praise.  The phrase "like a brother" is only appropriate if you love someone, but have, on more than five occasions, wanted to wring their fucking neck.

The fact that our friends are expecting their first child made the visit especially unique.  I expected the weekend to be fun.  We always have fun.  What I didn't expect was for us to meet each other for the first time.  It turns out Gabe's Dad and the Father-to-be have a hell of a lot in common, and not just that we think Dwayne Wade is a goddamn poser.

Fatherhood has the ability to motivate a man to actively demand the best of himself.  In a weird way, I think our best qualities are the same we display as children, before things like greed, jealousy, and Captain Morgan come into our lives and turn us into adults.

After a great weekend with friends, I am excited to see what the future holds for some of the relationships I had begun to consider strictly in past tense.

We may never collaborate on a new album, but I will treasure the jam sessions.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Striking The Balance of Personal Growth

Few events create an environment of complete emotional concession. Everyone remembers the shared experience immediately following 9/11. We were in such a fragile emotional state we abandoned our selfish inclinations and embraced community like never before. These are beautiful times, but they aren't meant to last. If we allow a rogue citizen to steal a parking spot without threatening physical harm, even after we have waited patiently and applied the turn signal to make our intentions known, the terrorists have won.

Becoming a parent has a similar effect. You emerge with a redefined purpose and the strongest feeling of unity imaginable, which in turn leads a grown man to say things he never could have imagined just a few short months ago:

"Absolutely, Baby. Let's go to Hobby Lobby."

When you're about to become a parent, people say, "your life will never be the same, it will be so much better!" That is correct, with one exception - every single second spent inside Hobby Lobby feels like the Seventh Circle of Hell when you have a baby in tow.

Unless your hobbies require floral arrangements or acrylic paints, there is a better than average chance this particular lobby is not your cup of tea to begin with. Women utilize the store for their floral, craft, and scrapbooking needs. Men utilize the store to decorate the doghouse they reside in because while their wife was visiting her parents, they drank beer and watched football all weekend instead of getting the house picked up...which was the one thing they had to do...and that shouldn't be too much to ask...

The euphoric high of fatherhood nullifies many of life's annoyances, but it couldn't make me enjoy Hobby Lobby any more than empathy could make me pull for the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. Sometimes you have to be confronted with something you despise to realize what a ridiculous emotional waste of manhood you've been, and inspire you to locate those testicles you haven't been putting to use.

I believe it was the moment shortly after Gabe finished his bottle and spit up all over my shirt that I was struck with this moment of clarity. As I pushed my son around the store, weaving in and out of elderly people, middle-aged women on a mission, and other men toting children and wondering how they got here, I caught my reflection in a lovely white lattice mirror.

"Holy shit, I look terrible and I know how to identify a white lattice mirror!"

I immediately found my wife and started hovering over her shoulder, a surefire way to tamp down the enjoyment of mulling a fabric purchase, thus getting us to the check-out counter while she plans a return trip without us.

I know I am too domesticated to get all the way back to the pre-baby version of myself, and that is probably a good thing. I'm happy to lend a hand around the house, and I actually don't mind watching televised singing competitions, like the rest of the old people that shop at Hobby Lobby.

Personal growth is all about balance. The next time Summer wants craft supplies I will just drop her off and take Gabe to the nearest sporting goods store. And if someone tries to steal a parking spot while wearing a Yankees hat and scrapbooking, I'll feel completely justified kicking the shit out of him.

It's all about balance.