Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Long-term parenting strategies

Janet forwarded a link of discussions from parents who were starting to lose faith in the more gentle approach to discipline forwarded by Dr. Sears in his many books. The arguments people put forward tend to run along this line of logic: "I used gentle discipline, but then I felt like I wasn't in control, so I went back to 'toeing the line' with my kids, and things got better."

My response follows:

There are, of course, a few unspoken assumptions that we tend to carry into our parenting, usually in direct proportion to how seriously we take it:

1) If I do the right thing, there will be no chronic conflict.
2) If there is chronic conflict, I must be doing something wrong.
3) If my child displays tendencies, characteristics, or behaviors that I dislike or disapprove of, it’s my fault.

In psychological terms, we make ourselves the “locus of control” – we tend to believe that we have complete or near-complete control of our child-rearing outcomes, or at least theoretical control, i.e. if I was a perfect parent then I would get a perfect outcome.

This is a recipe for neurosis. In fact, I believe neurosis is clinically defined as trying to control things that are outside of one’s control.

Don’t get me wrong; we have a lot of influence, and it’s still our job to address whatever is going on with our kids. But, as they say in Doctor Detroit: “I didn’t say it’s your fault – I said it’s your problem. You deal with this.” We have to cope with difficult behavior in our kids sometimes; that doesn’t mean we have to immediately take the blame for it. But I think the reason many parents jump ship from the AP/NVC philosophy is because of what is called an “agency fallacy” – they assume that the challenges they face are the result of what they did, when it could be a variety of other factors.

Human beings are forever giving themselves more credit for outcomes than they deserve. This is why successful investment managers believe they are brilliant when in fact, according to all available evidence, they are merely lucky. Long-term success depends on a consistent approach, diversification, etc., but sometimes it’s hard to tell the long-term winners from losers. And, as with everything in life . . . there are no guarantees. You can do everything right and still wind up broke. But you play the odds.

We are investing in the long-term potential of our kids. We can’t judge the approach by the results of this quarter. And we could do everything right, and still wind up raising the next Hitler. There is, inevitably, a certain amount of faith involved.

Harry Potter and the Foreshadowed Christ-Image

Warning: Mega-spoilers for those who haven't read all the Harry Potter books (all three of you), especially if I turn out to be right about the last one.

Janet sent me this recent news tidbit:

Stephen King and John Irving to Rescue Harry Potter?
Before a charity reading at Radio City Music Hall on Tuesday, authors John Irving (The World According to Garp) and Stephen King (Carrie, Cujo and a buttload of less interesting books) beseeched fellow headliner J.K. Rowling not to kill off Harry Potter. "My fingers are crossed" for the boy wizard, said Irving. But Rowling made no promises. In fact, what she did guarantee is sure to further unnerve fans of her inordinately popular series of novels. "I think some people will loathe [the conclusion]," she said, "and some people will love it, but that's how it should be."

There isn't a writer alive who wouldn't like to have the immense readership of J. K. Rowling. Nonetheless, she's in a tough position right now, because her career is utterly defined by Harry Potter. It is entirely possible that she's sick to death of Harry Potter and really ready to move on to something else. (I don't know if she is, but really, seven years is a long gig, and eventually you have to run out of steam.) But how can she stop, when everyone with a pulse is waiting for the next book? Well, one tried-and-true way of breaking out of a typecast role is to kill off the character.

And it's not like we haven't seen it coming. Trelawny was always laying it on thick with predictions of Harry's demise, and we've had a few occasions where she turns out to be correct. And after the demise of Dumbledore in the book five, what do you do for an encore? How can it get any more serious than that?

It will, of course, be a tragic and noble death. Harry's done enough to deserve that. (Well, so did Dumbledore, but the jury's out on whether his death is a complete tragedy, or the masterful last-ditch strategem of the greatest wizard of all time.) So . . . what circumstances could force Harry to necessarily die in tragic heroic fashion?

Harry Potter must himself be the final Horcrux.

All these intimations of Harry carrying some of Voldemort's powers (Parselmouth, etc.) and his psychic connection to Voldemort can that he's carrying a part of Voldemort with him. And once the whole Horcrux thing was explicated in Half-Blood Prince, it becomes really freakin' obvious what that part must be. So, in Fight Club fashion, Harry will find that the enemy is himself, and that the only way Voldemort can die is for himself to die. And since Dumbledore has led the way, being willing to lay down his life for the cause, Harry will do the same. (Harry is, after all, "Dumbledore's man.")

The only thing that's still fuzzy is the details. Did Dumbledore know? Did he suspect? Will Ginny preceed Harry in tragic death, a la Trinity in the Matrix finale? Will Snape be redeemed? And, most of all . . . will anyone read Rowling's next series?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The kick-the-dog war

You know how it is, when someone is working on something really frustrating . . . maybe they're trying to assemble an unyeilding piece of furniture, or twist out a screw with pliers because the head is stripped . . . and with every yank and tug, tools drop, curses are barely contained under one's breathe . . . and then a dog comes bounding up and knocks right into the whole affair. And in one explosive burst of anger . . . YELP! the dog gets kicked.

Somehow, Lebanon seems like the dog that got kicked. I can hear Israel's therapist now: "MY! Such ANGER! Does someone need to vent a little bit? I mean, really, we must address all these lingering issues with your suicide bombers, or it's going to keep coming out in these inappropriate little border wars."


The AP Backlash

I keep hearing in various media outlets a certain resentment of parental attention to kids. There are lots of pundits who say that we're "way too focused on our kids," "coddling their every need," etc. etc. So that every time you hear anything about someone doing something with their kids, someone immediately invokes phrases like "helicopter moms."

And yet, on the other hand, I hear from the AP folks who look around and see nothing but massive parental neglect: kids parked in front of TV and videogames, infants dumped in daycare, family meals a long-forgotten tradition.

So who's right? Are we a culture that's spending way too much attention on our kids, or a culture that's not paying enough attention?

Wait, kids, you're both right: it's a floor wax, AND a dessert topping. Lots of parents are neglecting their kids . . . and, in their guilt, anxiety, and/or ambition, they put too much of the wrong kind of attention on their kids. They schedule their kids into leagues and tournaments . . . instead of just letting them go outside and play. They hire mentors and coaches . . . instead of just reading to them at night. The buy them tons of games and toys . . . when all they really want is just to play with Mom and Dad. They don't do things with their kids, the do things to their kids. And (worst of all) what they think is being "supportive" is really just a thinly-veiled form of vicarious ambition: "I just want little Joey to have every opportunity to be great."

And why is all of this happening? Ultimately, I think it's because we've lost our patience. In our busy, hard-working, ambitious American adult world, we define ourselves by what we do . . . and listening to a five-year-old natter on about Little Gibbon's adventures doesn't feel like doing something. We don't want to wait 18 years to rejoice in their worldly success: we want to see them "getting ahead" now. Our culture has forgotten the proper way to parent because, frankly, it's boring. In that sense, parenting is akin to meditation: it might look like doing nothing, but it's the most strenuous doing-nothing you've ever not-done. All that is required is attention, presence, perseverence . . . and yet our bouncy little monkey minds can't stand it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cooling Off Period

This evening, after supper, took the kids outside, ostensibly to water some plants that were wilting in the heat. But Malcolm was so excited he jumped into the way of the hose . . . I think he wanted to see if his swim goggles would protect his eyes from the spray. Pretty soon we were all taking turns chasing each other with the hose. We came up to the porch soaked and generally happy, and Janet brought out watermelon.

The respite in sibling conflict was so nice I decided to keep it going. We did baths separately instead of together . . . they can't fight if they're not together. They even managed to do some careful negotiations over toys: Malcolm gave up the favorite fox in exchange for a snow globe and a dinosaur to be named later.

I remember that my twin brother got along much better with my parents after he was out of the house a few years. Sometimes less is more.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Parental Anger

I am continually amazed at how angry I can get at my kids. I have never been so angry at any other human being in my life, nor have I ever lost my composure on such a regular basis. While I have been guilty of occasionally lapsing into a tone that can only be described as "shrill," I've never been explosively angry in my life. And yet, on a near-daily basis, I now find myself blowing up.

So, what is the button that's getting pushed? It used to be repeated acts of defiance . . . you know, when you tell him not to make another peep, and he says "peep" . . . that sort of thing. But I've almost got that under wraps now. I can laugh at that sort of thing, or maybe just sigh and put a hand on him and push him gently off to his room. But what really gets my goat now is the bullying. There is something absolutely infuriating about seeing a stronger person preying on the weaker; I know this is a universal sentiment, because practically every popular movie made in the last twenty years introduces you to a villian by showing him (or her) humiliating one of their victims. Within two minutes you are just dying to jump on the screen and knock his lights out . . . so you feel really good when the hero knocks their lights out two hours later. And Aidan seems to have mastered all kinds of bullying skills . . . he can reduce his brother to screaming just by leering at him a certain way, just by quietly threatening to take something away. It makes my stomach churn even now to think of it.

I don't think Aidan is particular unusual when it comes to such stuff. He actually has a very strong relationship with his little brother, and I find it just as exhilerating to see them laughing and having a good time together. But the versatility of his ability to torture his sibling is mind-boggling.

I know, know that the AP thing to do is to give Aidan enough of what he needs so that he can find it in himself to give Malcolm what he needs. And it would be so easy to take Mal's side so often that Aidan starts to feel left out of the love . . . but it's sooooo hard.

The Indian Runner

After Janet finally read the blurb on The Ice Storm, and realized that wife-swapping was involved in the plot, she conceded that it was a bad idea. So she pulled out The Indian Runner instead, which turned out to be quite good.

Who would have thought that Viggo Mortensen could play a homocidal charming asshole so well? After seeing the Rings trilogy and Hidalgo, I thought he was an actor comfortably tracked into the heroic, leading-man, good-guy-but-no-saint typecast. Now, I realize all those superlative things I kept hearing about him in the DVD extra-feature interviews is really true: he's a brilliant actor.

(Warning: spoilers follow.)

Kudos to Sean Penn for being able to have a taut, emotion-filled conflict between two brothers without either of them so much as punching each other, much less having a fatal show-down in Old West style. When we saw the opening car chase, ending with protagonist Joe Roberts shooting down a perp on a highway, I felt for sure the movie would be book-ended with him shooting his brother. But instead, Penn takes the high road; he never dilutes the dramatic tension by gratuitous violence, or really any on-screen violence at all. While we hear about a number of violent events -- Franky hits his girl, Franky busts up a bar, Mr. Roberts kills himself -- we never see the actual violence. What we do see, and Penn makes a point to dwell on this, is the after-affects of the violence. Joe doesn't just hear that his father is dead -- he touches the blood and stares at it. We don't see Franky get busted up in the bar . . . but we do see him wake up, stuck to his pillow by his own blood. How wonderfully remarkable, that someone still is sensitive enough to watch the effects of violence, and not be so preoccupied with the cause.

I think the only reason the movie was set in the 1970's was so we could see everyone, both good guys and bad guys, smoking like chimneys. There's an awful lot of screen time devoted to smoking, and it's clearly intended to tie together Franky and Joe, and Maria and Dorothy. The film stays on message: it's not about injustices visited on some and not others, but about the reactions two people can have to their circumstances. What sets Joe and Franky apart is not their circumstances, nor their history, nor even their overall temperament -- its the view that they take of the world, and the meaning (or lack thereof) that they derive from it.

Janet, ever the AP mom, asks herself: "What happened to Franky?" That is, what was it that made him turn out so bad, and could anything have been done about it? I think the movie gives some clues . . . at one point Mr. Roberts says, "Where does he get it?" and I knew, in that moment, that he had gotten it from his father. You don't see it at first, since Mr. Roberts seems calm, philosophic, and sympathetic . . . but later you hear, ever so subtly, the contempt that he has for Joe for working for the same government that kicked him off his land, and his suicide shows his willingness to opt out of life rather than face it. Whether nature or nurture is unclear . . . but, as Carl Sandberg said, "This storm now didn't come out of nowhere . . ."

There's a lot more in the movie to unpack . . . I still don't know what to make of the symbology. Franky is tattooed with swastikas and SS lightning bolts, and a Confederate flag hanging in his boyhood room (which maybe I could just roll with, if this was South Carolina, but it's freakin' Nebraska) . . . and, in stark contrast, Joe is married to a Mexican woman, something his father admits he didn't approve of at first. Maybe there's some kind of message about race relations here, but I'm more tempted to believe that it's just there to maintain the aura of darkness around Franky. And all the "Indian runner" mythology . . . what the heck was that about? I mean, it's all good stuff, but it feels so extraneous to everything else about that story. The only thing that fully redeems it was the Tagore quote at the end: "The birth of every child is a message that God has not yet become discouraged with mankind."

We get the message. Love redeems, even when it can't save.