Category Archives: Parenting

A Toast To My Parents’ 50th

Years ago, long before my own marriage and the advent of my family, I posed a question to my father. I was twenty-something, full with the prospects of those potent years, and looking ahead – though not without some concern for, as I put it, “the direction the world was going.” At the time, I was imagining all of the usual stuff: a wife, kids – creating a family for myself in my own family’s image. But the world had just bested 6 billion humans and I queued with a kind of youthful idealism on overpopulation as my chief anxiety.

As it seemed to me, and as I explained to my father one night after dinner, there wasn’t enough space for all of the people who were already here. How could I, in good conscience, consider starting a family and adding a few more hungry bodies to the planet? They would just eat up more of our food, breathe up more of our air, produce more waste. Why would I add to the burden, the overcrowding, the misery of the world?

My father regarded me for a moment – perhaps he was considering where to begin or how to explain what he wished had been more obvious to me. After a moment he said, “You know, raising a family is everything. It is what humans do. If you don’t have kids you are not even in the game.” It was one of the best – and most straightforward – pieces of advice my father has ever given me.

My own marriage is 15 years old now and continues to be the most pleasing endeavor of my life. I have three beloved children and a daily sense that I am fully – often too fully – in the game. And I feel that I owe more than I know or can name to the example set by my parents. Like the concentric rings on the surface of a pond that begin with an event, a fish rising or a stone thrown, and expand and grow more subtle by the moment, until eventually they encompass, invisibly, the entire body of water, I am nurtured and moved by the long and continuing collaboration of two people who made the decision to marry 50 years ago. It is an enduring legacy, evidenced by me and my brothers and our families. We are all ripples in the pond.

With this I honor my parent’s 50 years of love and marriage, perseverance and compassion, challenge and growth. Thanks for the example and for encouraging me to get in the game.

Worldly Acolyte

All my life I have been collecting things. Some of my earliest memories of what it felt like to be me are of gathering and pondering families of similar stuff.  I felt, somehow, and still do, truth be told, that in collections of similar things, even in the act of collecting them, there was something true to be found.  And it wasn’t materialism, far from it; mine was not nearly so sterile a practice, and I didn’t covet, although I have certainly fallen ill to that green affliction from time to time.

The commonplace things I gathered were not for wealth or status, not for show, and I had a hard time explaining to people, when they noticed, why I had a pocketful of stones.  Or an arsenal of carefully carved wooden staves that had been covertly harvested from neighbors’ yards.  Or a varied display of locks I had picked up here and there when they had come within reach. I once found a large ring of tarnished and corroded keys mislaid in the woods around my childhood home.  There were dozens of them.  I felt I had struck it rich.

My father, an architect, once brought home an impressive collection of outdated Formica samples.  Hundreds of them.  Magical tiles, already arranged by color or texture on a silver beaded chain.  “No one – no one in the world has this!” I thought.

It was like praying.  The youthful devotion of a secular acolyte to worldly phenomena.  I hunted the value latent in everyday things.

I see the same affinity in my own children, though the expression of it is quite naturally individualized in each of them.  My son, in particular, likes to collect special things in his pockets.  Rocks, significant Lego pieces, at one time Pokemon characters, but he has grown beyond those now.  I sense he is not so fickle as I, a quality that will serve him well in life.  Whereas I remember gathering a new category almost daily, he likes to hold on to things over time.  He is slow to change and quick to appreciate and understand the essential worth of a worthless thing.

His bedroom is perpetually a mess, as you might imagine, but it is nearly impossible to dispose of  any clutter.  Because it is not clutter.  Everything is special, magical, of incalculable worth – and sometimes of hidden, perhaps ineffable value, which I find frustrating beyond end.  I confess I fantasize of one day stripping the place when he isn’t looking, though I know it will never happen.  I could never do it.  It would be like pulling a hermit crab from its shell.

He knows as well as I, there is truth to be found in collections of everyday things and in keeping what you find.

“Weapon Rentals” – a day in the life.

This comes courtesy of my neighbor Tim.  Brilliant!

"So yeah I know it's kind of a hard sell the cars drive by pretty fast and they're not sure what we mean by "weapon rentals" they kind of look funny at us but as I was telling my friend Amy you never know when you might need a weapon even on a nice day like this I mean things just happen and you know if for some reason all of a sudden you needed a weapon for some reason how convenient would it be if there were a stand or something like right there you know what I mean? omg I mean you have no idea what the boys are like in this neighborhood they are so stupid they're always hiding and running around like idiots and sometimes you just want to hit them with a stick you know? you have no idea what it's like to be a girl up here do you like my necklace?"

The boys running up in the background is my favorite part.

Ah!  Summertime fun.

A Teleological Look at the Apology

It is important to know that an apology, first and foremost, wants to have an effect.  An impact.  That is its reason for being.  It seeks to change something, to improve a relationship between people in the optimistic hope that moving forward can be better, more satisfying, and more secure in a shared understanding of why what went down went down and where people’s intentions lay.  In that way, it is an invested gesture; the apologist is invested in the idea that the future can be better than the present or the past.  The apologist cares.  That’s why you don’t hear people say, “It’s doesn’t matter, but I’m sorry” or “I don’t care if you believe me, but I’m sorry.”  Such phrases harbor inherent contradictions.

So, my first point is simply that an apology, unlike other rhetorical forms, wants to have an effect, and if it doesn’t, it is worse than meaningless, it is a failed gesture.

And that is also why the apology bears a teleological examination – because its function and its purpose are more important than its form and more important than its logic.

The word apology is a combination of two roots: apo- from the Greek meaning away from or separate and –ology meaning the study of or really speech that.  So, an apology is speech that separates or moves away from.  Language that distances the speaker from the act or the decision or whatever it is the apology is for.  The key here is that an apology, at its root, is a rejection of past behavior.  The apologist is saying, “That isn’t how I want to be moving forward” or “I wouldn’t do it that way again.”

My second point is that an apology distances the apologist from past behavior.  It does not embrace the past.  It rejects it as wrong.

So, an apology can’t embrace or accept the state of things and reject it at the same time.  In this light, the phrase, “I am sorry, but that is just the way it is” stops making any sense at all.  I know it is a commonly uttered sequence of words, and it does express something, but it is not an apology.  In fact, it is a ducking of responsibility, a sugar coating, and a failure to stand up to the difficult reality of the situation.  If that is simply the way things are, it may be painful, but coopting the language of the apology to ease the pain is inappropriate.

Similar issues exist with, “I am sorry, but that’s the way I am” or “I am sorry, but we have always had a hard time communicating” or “I am sorry, but you are going to have to get used to it.”  Not one of those is an apology because they all embrace the way things are.

At this point it should be obvious that conceits like “I am sorry, but I had to do it” and “I am sorry, but you made me do it” don’t function as apologies, either.  Again, something is expressed by such phrases, but it is more akin to blame than contrition.

“I am sorry” is best when it stands alone.  No buts.  And really no explanations.  Sometimes an explanation can be helpful in understanding why something happened, but that is a separate issue and it needs to be addressed separately.  It is fine to ask, “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking” or even to offer, “I want to tell you what I was thinking” but that, too, seeks to incorporate what happened into some logical, meaningful context, as if to say, “I am sorry for what happened, but it had to happen for these reasons” or “There is a perfectly good reason for what happened.”

And so, my third point is simply that apologies are not logical and they make no alliance with reason.  They are fundamentally about emotional healing.  The desire to give an explanation of one’s actions is a compulsion of the apologist, not the one to whom the apology is given.

The apology is about ownership.  To be credible and effective as an apology – to bring about a change in an relationship between people – the apology needs to express ownership of decisions or actions.  In some sense this is just a reiteration of the previous points, but it is also the core understanding.  An apology has to say, in some way, “I broke it, and I want to fix it.”

This is a key understanding and critical for the apologist to feel in its fullness.  In issuing an apology, one must be able to answer the question, “What did I break?”

  • If you feel that nothing was broken, you will be drawn to apologizing for another’s feelings, which is patronizing, as in, “I am sorry you are upset” or “I am sorry if you felt you were wronged.”
  • If you feel that you didn’t break it, you will be drawn to locating the responsibility elsewhere, which won’t have an effect on the one to whom you are apologizing, as in, “I am sorry, but I had to” for some reason.

Notice that the important question to answer is “What did I break?” – not “Why did I break it?”

My last point is simply that an apology functions by accepting ownership of one’s roll in breaking or damaging something, not by explaining the circumstances.

The really hard implication to this is that if you feel like you didn’t break it, you have no business apologizing for it.  Life and the daily interactions between people can be painful, but there are other, more potent salves in certain circumstances.  The apology is not to be overused or misused in the wrong situations.  It is a very specific tool, not a cure-all.

And it will be meaningless if it comes in the form of “I am sorry for what I did, and under the same circumstances I would do it again.”  It can’t say that, it can’t sound like it is saying that, it can’t even insinuate that what happened was inevitable.  An apology is a rejection of the past and a hope that the future will be different.

And just know that an apology that begins, “I am sorry, but…” will never succeed.

How does the apology qualify as a live encounter?  Because, fundamentally, the real apologist confronts himself in real time, weaponless and without armor.  When we apologize we are Oedipus realizing that the scourge of the land is himself, we are Gilgamesh realizing that he killed Enkidu, not the gods, and we are Odysseus realizing that his own arrogance has cursed him.  The only dragon we every slay is ourself, and in so doing we achieve greatness.

What Are Grades For?

Apropos of nothing the other night, my son asked me one of those questions.  He was clearing the table, just lifting my plate, and in that off-hand way that 12-year-olds have of innocently asking complex questions in expectation of simple answers, he didn’t even pause.  “What are grades for?” he said, and walked my plate and fork and knife into the kitchen.  I heard the dish clatter into the sink a bit too hard, but didn’t react to it; I had frozen up.  Seized.  Completely.

It wasn’t quite the, “Where did I come from?” question, but for a family of independent school educators, it lacked none of the gravity, none of the complexity, none of the challenge.  I knew it was one of those questions first because I was instantly aware of the myriad possible answers, the tangle of directions this conversation could go, pathways it could take, and what was at stake, and second because my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”

I didn’t know what the right speech was, but I felt myself begin, at the speed of thought, to evaluate costs and benefits, permutations, possible outcomes, effects on future conversations, effects on my son’s sense of self worth, and my estimation of what my son wanted to know.  What was he asking, anyway?

Was he asking, “How should I think about grades?” which is a good question and not one any teacher or parent should gloss over or take for granted.  If we don’t help our kids think about grades, they will arrive at their own conclusions, and in some cases spend years unlearning them.  One student I know was 40 years old before he ever heard and believed, “You write well” from a teacher.

Was he asking, “How do my teachers think about grades?” which is harder question and fundamentally speculative outside of the realm of field-of-education-wide generalizations.  But a good question, nonetheless.  One well worth asking several times a year.  As a teacher I can tell you that how teachers think about grades is variously variable in certain small but not insignificant ways by student, by quarter, and by assignment.

Was he asking, “What effect do grades have on my life, what will they do for me, or to me?” which is a question that immediately provokes the protective parent in me, the part of me that casts the world as buoyant and wants my son to see it as a playground.  This part of me wants my son to try hard, to learn well, to play, to commit, and to savor childhood and adolescence and adulthood and middle age and the later years even unto death.  Living under the threat of another’s judgement dampens the joy of play, of learning, of life.

Or was he asking, at some level that he is not developmentally ready to acknowledge, the really insidious question, “Are my grades me?”  That is, are grades a comment on me or on my work?  I know this question to be far more complex even than that.  Grades can be a reflection of a student, a student’s work, a teacher, an assignment, a home life, a mood, a social situation, a clash of cultures, a time of life, even a conversation in a morning carpool.  We live some of our best moments as teachers when we ask, “What else is going on in this kid’s life?”

I have a feeling he just wanted to know why we do it, why we give grades at all.  You know, like, whose idea was it?  And if that was a part of his question at all, I am proud of him for asking it.  Because it is not obvious.  And the question itself is born of confidence.  There is a confidence buried in that question, “What are grades for?”, that acknowledges that they may not be necessary for learning, that learning and grades are somehow separate.  Learning can happen whether we get graded or not, and so, what are grades for?  In that light, it is a beautiful question.  And he asked it on his own.

But asking a question is a vulnerable act, an unstable position, full of potential and possibility.  The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, either opens a door or closes it.  The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, determines future experience.  Incidentally, I don’t overthink every question my kids ask me, just the important ones.  This one had high stakes.  Hence, the moment in which my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”

And I didn’t know what the right speech was.  I just knew this was one more time when, as a parent, I couldn’t panic.  I wasn’t allowed to telegraph the small terror I felt at the prospect of saying the wrong thing.  (Some day, I am going to do it.  I am just going to fall, over the edge, into the abyss of blissful honesty.  I am going to surrender to the terror of the responsibility of constantly being in command.  I am going to abandon myself to the peace and freedom of not knowing, not needing to know, not having to support the facade of being a responsible parent.  On that day, my daughter will ask me, “Papa, what should I do with my life?” and I will say, “I don’t know.  I didn’t even know what to do with my life.  Most of the time I don’t even know what I don’t know about what I should be doing with my life.  I think I don’t know the answer to your question, but I am not really certain of that.  I don’t really know whether I know or not.  What should you do with your life?  You are doing it.  Right now.”)

Some day, that is my planned freak out.  But not today.  So, what to do as my son cleared the table and waited for my response?  Many rhetorical devices jumped to mind.

Should I lead with a question?  “Why do you ask?” (Which is, in most cases, just an evasion, a parry to buy time.  No help in this case.  The cavalry was not on its way.)

Should I lead with an affirmation?  “That’s a great question.”  (Which tends to portend an examination of an issue’s complexities and I wasn’t at all sure that was the right speech in this instance.  Or that I could sustain an examination of an issue’s complexities.  The long way around the block seemed risky at best.)

Should I probe?  “Well, what do you think?”  (Which tends to be my default setting as a generally socratic teacher.  No good.  I was, in this situation, aware that I was not being asked as a teacher but as a parent.  This challenge should be met head on.)

Other possibilities.

Should I dismiss?  “Grades are meaningless.  Don’t even think about them.”  (Not my style or even in my comfort zone.  And not true.  My son would see through me and I would probably break out in a rash.)

Should I make it seem absurd?  “Grades, in the end, are the only thing that matters, the only thing that endures from your school experience.  Your grades will be the only thing anyone ever looks at to judge you as a student, as a learner, and as a person in middle school and beyond.”  (Not as inaccurate as one might think.  Dangerously believable, but certainly not the message I wanted.)

More than anything else I wanted to tell the truth.  I was desperate for it, in fact.  In moments like this, when my kids ask me real questions, I am not as cerebral as I am intuitive.  My intuition has gotten me in trouble in the past, but I rely on it nonetheless.  I trust it, and my intuition runs toward telling the truth when it matters.  But the truth about grades is multifaceted, and my son didn’t have that much time; the table was almost cleared.

So, I gave him two sides to the issue that, together, I felt could potentially capture the whole complexity.

I said, “I can tell you what grades are suppose to do, and I can also tell you how they are sometimes poorly used.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Grades are supposed to be an objective, judgement free, evaluation of a student’s performance, not of a student, himself, but of what he did, his actions, the degree to which he satisfied the assignment and learned what the teacher wanted him to learn.  In that way, they are not supposed to be a reflection of you as a person.  They are supposed to be an accurate reflection of what you did – and that can be influenced by a million things.  How you are feeling, whether you got enough sleep, whether your natural style learning fits whatever the assignment asked you to do, whether you were absent that day, or distracted by something else.  In that way, grades are supposed to give you a sense of how your teacher thinks you are doing.  And with that information you can make changes in what you choose to do as a student – if, that is, you are particularly interested in learning what your teacher wants you to learn.  If not, then your grades won’t reflect your learning necessarily.  They will only reflect the degree to which your goals mesh with your teacher’s goals for you.  That is how they are used well.

“Sometimes grades are used not so well.  Sometimes they are used to categorize students into groups – like eggs or beef or something.  Grade A medium,  grade AA large, grade D but fit for human consumption.  In that sense, they give people ahead of you, admissions folks and teachers at schools you might get into, a way to label you as fit for a certain place or not.  It is a way packaging students and directing their flow through school.  The A and B students go here, the C and D students go there.  Maybe you can see the problem with that.

“The key is to realize and remember and believe that your grades are not you.  And that they reflect what you did as much as anything else that contributed to how hard or easy it was to do it.  Does that make sense?”

I thought I might have been over his head at that point, but as usual my son got it.

“Yeah, it’s like when my teacher says, ‘You could have tried harder.’  How do they know that?  Sometimes I try as hard as I can and my teacher says, ‘You need to try harder.’  And I can’t.  I hate that.”

“Right,” I said.  “You know how hard you tried.  And really no one else does.  Only you.  And sometimes your teachers will be wrong about that.  But you know in your heart how good you are, no matter what your grades are.”

The next thing he said was appropriately 12 years old.  “Can we have dessert?”

No Time to Stand and Stare

There had been rumors circulating in the neighborhood for some time.  “Have you seen the owls?”  There is a core of us up on the ridge who are fairly nature-oriented.  You know how that is.  I mean, who isn’t nature-oriented?  And yet, some just aren’t.  But for a few of us working the land and raising animals and insects in the open space, news of a nest and a clutch of owlets is enough to mobilize.  Not necessarily strict bird watchers, not one of us, and yet visions of nature and views of the truly wild promise a deep-seated thrill and a sense of connection we can’t get any other way.  So, when word got around of a mated pair of Great Horned Owls with a nest, we organized for an outing to see them.  My daughter had been to see them before with neighbors so she was our guide.  She knew where to stop, where to stand, and where the communal binoculars were hidden for any and all in-the-know to use and to replace, camouflaged with some sticks and grasses.

There were others there, stopped by the trail when we arrived after a mile’s hike on the fire road.  We weren’t the only ones to come in search of young owls.  My daughter slipped right into her appointed role, producing the binoculars and directing people she had never met to the best vantages for viewing.

The owlets were bigger than I expected, like fully grown owls, only fuzzy.  The nest was large and haphazardly constructed, not something I would expect to last the season.  My daughter, she is ten, informed me that these owls have been returning year after year but they make a new nest each year.  (How does she know this, I wonder?  And yet, it is time for me to stop asking that question.  She knows what she knows.  That, now, has to be enough.)

There seemed to be two birds occupying the nest (reports were that there were three), but one young owl, completely shrouded in pale lanugo fuzz, stood vigilant watch.  Our dog, a large, Landseer Newfoundland, was clearly a most curious sight as the owlet watched the dog wherever it wandered.

I knew the mama wouldn’t be far – these owls hunt and fly at night, sleep and roost during the day – but she wasn’t in evidence, not near the nest, anyway.  And then, as an apparition, there all the time, she was there.  She was perched not far away, and yet far enough to survey the scene from an appropriate vantage.  She watched her nest and her young, maybe hoping to gain some sleep in quiet moments – who knows? – but vigilant to the goings on of her brood.

It was unexpected to see her there, perched on her branch, just watching.  I thought the chances remote.  And yet, when my eyes lighted on her, it was sudden and unmistakeable.  Her tall tall, stately bird form, perfectly placed, seemed inevitable.  Where else would she be?  She belongs.

We live in Marin County.  We live in San Anselmo.  We live in a neighborhood in which houses occupy quarter-acre lots and power polls run wires that hover over the roads, blotting the sky.  But nature is here, not far, nesting and perching in the open spaces that surround our neighborhoods.  It is there and it waits and watches.  Most of the time we don’t see it.  Our attention is drawn elsewhere by other things, things we consider more urgent if not more important, and so we manufacture the illusion of separation.  But it is just an illusion.

I amused myself thinking of, perhaps, not having seen that mother owl.  She was watching, her nest and us.  How often does that happen?  I thought of a poem I had read recently and taught to my students.

Leisure by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep and cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.