Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Letter to my son, five years gone

My friend Matt Mahady wrote this poem and sent it to me in 2010. Matt was born in 1972 and he died in the first week of 2016, of a heart attack. His son Sage died in 2005.

Hey champ
what's the news in your dimension? I got an invitation to write about you the other day from an old Gainesville friend he knew you when you were a little baby when me you and your mom were living in married housing scraping by on Pell Grant money and my part time job as a windowman staying together because we loved you even more than we hated each other and that's saying something (some day I would've told you the stories suffice to say we were children, so we acted like children)
anyway this invitation it shook my foundations upset my equilibrium like stirring up an iron pot of steaming gumbo and the liquid boils over and burns your fucking fingers but in the process you move what needs to be moved from the depths to the surface first I was disturbed and then I just put it on the back burner the way I put you on the back burner to survive not so much your memory but rather the memory of your death the horror of you blowing your fucking brains out on your mom and stepdads bed while they were at the gym and I was trying to call you not that I blame you you were in pain and this world is bullshit you were just a brave boy who knew too much too soon so don't think I'm not proud of you I always was and this didn't change that one iota
Whenever I wonder why you did what you did I remember how sensitive you were a child without skin this world this scheme of things as they call it the set up of this reality would have only gotten more and more and more excruciating and unbearable for you as time went on
and there aint no pill for that, lad believe me, I've tried them all this is just to say: I know how tiresome it all seemed to you I know how much you suffered scratch that, mini-me Truth is I knew but I did not know If I had had any real idea little man I would've done... what? I would've done something Shit I knew you were a moody kid but I didn't think the fault lines ran so deep
your mother loved you your father loved you your stepfather loved you she was responsible I was bohemian you got order and you got wonder
it was the best, I thought, of both worlds you had grandparents, friends, cool clothes and a PS2 you had all the material things I never had you were cool which at your age I never was part of me can't figure it out but the part of me that knows you knows it's that same part of me that knows that even though I was not guilty of your death that's not quite the same as being innocent you know I was going through some shit back then so I wasn't there for you in the way that I normally was in the way that you needed me to be I know I disappointed you more than once over those last 6 months and so really I blame myself for what happened the bottom line is: it was my job to protect you to keep you safe and I failed
the only thing I ever cared about in life more than my writing was being a good father to you was I a good father to you? You'll have to answer that question you're the only one who can my opinion? I suppose, yes, I was most of the time but not when it counted
anyway we've been over all this before the point of doing it all again is that now I'm going to put it in a public forum and label it poetry
I've been wrestling with the ethics of this ever since I realized I was going to do it usually when I write about you I only show it to a handful of people and the idea behind this is that you are sacred and therefore exempt from exploitation
every other experience in my life from painful break-ups to career implosions to random daily catastrophe I think to myself "hey, at least I can get a good poem out of this" I never wanted you to fall into that category you are too important you meant too much I didn't want to pimp your memory in this one thing in this one lousy fucking thing I wanted to not be a whore
on the other hand I'm compelled to share with the world how fucking special you were You were a unique and magical lifeform Who touched everyone you touched I was blessed by the gift of being your father I'd hate to let anyone forget you were the apex of my existence (my raison d etre if you'll allow me to be a douchebag about it)
“thought of you as my mounaintop thought of you as my peak thought of you as everything I had but couldn't keep”
And no one's ever seen me weep for you but I weep for you for a year after you died I'd squeeze the syringe and pray "God please kill me.... God, please kill me."
The grief was water It swamped my oars Until I washed up on the shores of strange and beautiful Moravia
Wish you were here, boy We would have had a real good time

Friday, June 14, 2013

Help Relaunch Rad Dad for Father's Day!

Hello Rad Dad Supporters!  Rad Dad is growing up! And I need your help to make it successful. Along with Hip Mama, Rad Dad is going to redesign its look to better reach more and more people!

Please consider getting a subscription, back issues, joint subscriptions to Hip Mama and Rad Dad, signed books, even a Rad Dad t-shirt or tote bag!

Please help spread the news: post it, share it, blog about it, twitter it, mail people about it.  I'm excited to see what will happen and I promise to keep Rad Dad "rad" as in "radical" and not "rad" as in "can we sell you something!"

And of course, please write for Rad Dad!



Friday, December 14, 2012

I Want to Write About Violence

I want to write about violence.

I want to write about violence but I don’t want to say anything stupid. I don’t want to say violence is bad. I don’t want to say guns are bad. I don’t want to say anything is bad. Because we all know it’s bad.

I want to write about violence because of the school shootings today in Connecticut. I guess that goes without saying.

I’m not really an emotional person. Friends don’t come to me for comfort. I don’t wear my feelings on my sleeve. I don’t cry easily. And so I surprised myself by being near the edge of tears for most of the morning; one or two of those tears might have even jumped the wall of my face. I surprised myself by walking to my son’s school and lurking outside the gates. It was a primitive, almost biological, impulse, and I gave into it. I felt ashamed as I did it. Ashamed of not being in control.

I don't think "people" are violent. Most people are not violent. We all carry the potential of violence inside of us, but most of us never realize that potential, never really want to, though we might fantasize about violence. I know the scientific literature, because I read the literature as part of my work; those studies are in my head right now like background static. The literature says most of us avoid violence at all costs. Most of us must be trained to take life. And people who learn to kill people must first learn to see people as targets, not people. Killing other people is unnatural.

I’m talking about healthy people. I’m talking about people who love, who hurt, who worry about other people. But not all people are healthy and not all people are healthy all the time. Sometimes, I am not healthy.

In my worst moments I have forgotten that other people feel as I do, and I've forgotten that they deserve respect and dignity and understanding. I have had too many of those moments. Those are the moments when I allow the other me, the one I hide, the Mr. Hyde that everyone hides, to reveal himself. Most of the time my violence has taken the form of words. But I have, in my life, hit and shoved people. And afterward, it hasn't seemed real. I have had to struggle to own those unreal moments. And when I do, I am ashamed. Ashamed of not being in control.

Just like all of us, I have been the target of violence. Guns have been pointed at my face. I've seen people beaten and shot, and I have stood by in confusion and animal fear. I am ashamed of those moments as well. Those moments when I was helpless. When I was not in control.

There are people I know who believe in violence as an act of control. Most people believe in some form of controlled violence, believe that violence can be controlled, believe that violence can be used to bend others to our will. They believe we need police, they believe we need well-regulated militias. Some people think we should arm teachers, and then, finally, schools will be safe. That we will be in control. Some people I know believe in revolutionary violence—in rising up against our oppressors, in destroying anyone who stands in the way of the peaceful world we want to live in. They have theories, elaborate theories. They believe their theories of change will control the violence of the change.

It's not my purpose to disagree with the theories. I’m not going to say we don’t need police or militias or bloody revolutions or even armed teachers. I don’t want to say that violence can’t change things for the better or that we should always turn the other cheek. I would certainly fight in defense of my child, though I would do so incompetently, incompletely, ineffectually. If a police officer stood between my child and a person with a gun, I would most certainly want the police officer to kill that person.

And yet I’ve also wished violence on my child. I have, and I think that makes me average. I am not willing to say that those parents who claim to have never wanted to strike a child in anger are liars. But I will say with some confidence that most parents have, at some point, wanted to strike a child. They've known that anger. That drive to bend our children to our will through violence. Most of us have lost control, if only for a moment. And after that, the shame. Many of us know that shame. Of having lost control.

Now we’re at the root of the thing I really want to write about. My child. I want to write about violence and my child. I keep envisioning the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. I can’t get those pictures out of my head. Again, the loss of control. Again, the shame, my shame. I couldn't do anything to protect those children. If it had been my child, I wouldn't have been able to protect him.

I’m not going to disagree with your theories of violence. You can keep your theories and I’ll keep mine, for the moment.

But I want to write about violence because I want to remind myself of something horrible. Which is that our violence cannot be truly controlled, once we allow ourselves to be violent. And that violence, when we give it permission to exist, lives by its own rules. That violence doesn’t give a fuck about our theories of state and revolution and emotion. That violence, in fact, doesn’t give a fuck about us. Violence wants only to live and it lives by eating us alive. In the face of a monster like that, we are all small. We are all helpless. We are all children.

That's what I wanted to write about violence.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Patchwork Family: Rad Dad 23 -- order your copy now!

Patchwork Family
Reflections on divorce and the passing of time

We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.
Stephan Elliott

June 5th 1969

My story technically begins on June 5th 1969.  The day of my birth. 
I used to try to recreate the particulars of that day in my mind.  Here’s what I’ve been told: my mother in the hospital, alone.  My grandparents waiting in the hall beyond the delivery room doors.  My father hundreds of miles away finishing up the last few classes of his junior year in high school. 
No matter how I tell it, it feels like such an incomplete story, so instead I search for other beginnings. 
Perhaps the story begins nine months earlier. 
But the story of my conception is something I have to invent.  I imagine asking, ‘mom, do you recall the weather on the day you and my father created me?  What were you wearing?  What time of day was it?  What did you feel like moments after?’
So instead, I tell it this way: in northern New Mexico, mid-September, it can be hot, the final clutches of summer, or it can be brisk, the first punches of fall knocking summer into memory.  It was late in the evening.  The sky clear.  There is a lake just outside of town with picnic tables.  Let’s say, it happened there.
Why should I ask my mother? It’s my story after all.  Do I want to know her answers, her version of the story of my origins?
Maybe she can’t remember details because they were like bunnies, one hot tryst blending into another.  Maybe it was an ugly experience for her, fraught with guilt, shame, coercion; perhaps my origin is a regret she still bears, perhaps it was an accident.
So I rewrite and reinvent the facts, the narrative, but no matter how I tell it, I can’t avoid certain outcomes.  I was born, my father was absent, my mother eventually left the state and his family behind.  
Somewhere in all that, my story starts; it’s what leads to the story of my family now: three kids, an ex-partner, some great years together, some painful ones, some regrets, some anger.  But there’s more to it than that.
I tell stories to try to make sense of it all, to explain how we got from there to here.

Summer 2012

There is a scene in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, in the midst of some revelry during the storm, the father leans back and looks at his child sitting off to the side, watching the adults play, and he asks: ‘did I ever tell you the story of your conception?’  It seems clear that he has, many times, but the child looks on waiting for the story, eager. You can see it in her eyes.
My children get that same look.
Their mother and I have been separated for years now.  My youngest child probably remembers little of us together.  The way we used to love each other, the way we cared for each other.  I asked her recently if she did, and she shook her head no and then asked me:  ‘do you?’
It was a strange question I thought, but then, I realized the profundity of it.  For me at least.  Do I remember?
I do.
I used to believe I told the stories of my children’s beginnings for them, so they could know where they came from, that though their family has changed and evolved, they were always loved, fiercely and without question.  But I tell these stories for myself as well. 

September 1997

Ella, you were born so quickly I barely had time to cry.  Your mother wanted the Cadillac Birth, she boasted months ahead of her due date.  After two natural births, she wanted to get the drugs!  We’d high-five each other.  What the hell could I say; I simply tried to be supportive.
We waited to the last minute to prepare for your birth.  In fact, it was on the day of our hospital tour, your mother noticed weird contractions; she assumed it was just Braxton-Hicks or something.  Eight hours later we were back in the hospital, being wheeled into the delivery room, and it was then she was told she was too far along for drugs; you were coming.
And you did.  It wasn’t until I held you and touched your cheeks that I cried.  And you joined in as if on cue, screaming and crying with such determination and anger, a lot like how you are today. 

September 2005

We sit all the kids on our bed one night in September.   It’s there we tell them their mother will be moving out in a few weeks.  It’s then we explain our family will be changing dramatically.  Life will be changing.  Our son nods like he understands.  Our middle daughter just sits there.  Our youngest immediately starts crying.  Then we all do.  It’s the first and last time we all cry, together, as a family.

Sometime in 1980

After my mother found a place to live in another state, after my brothers and I started new schools, after we struggled to fit into our new neighborhoods and make new friends, my mother one night handed me the phone; it was our father.  We hadn’t seen him in a few months.  He told me then that he would not be moving in with us like we were promised when we first moved.  He was going to remain thousands of miles away in Hawaii but he’d come visit soon.  My mom stood off to the side and couldn’t really look at me.  I passed the phone to my younger brothers.  I walked to my room trying not to cry.  It’s all I really remember.

September 1990

I have told this story many times before.  But it bears repeating.  Making family is not something that just happens.  It’s a choice; it takes intention, dedication, perseverance.  I sat in my car idling at the first intersection I came to on my way to get food for my girlfriend who was back at our house trying desperately to breastfeed our first child.  She was twenty.  I was twenty-one.  Somehow that is important.  Perhaps it explains why I sat there wondering what to do.  Perhaps sitting there, I thought of my father and the distance there always seemed to be between us.  Perhaps, I remembered my mother’s face as I left her room that night, her look of anger and shame at not telling us the true story of our family’s break-up until it was too late, her silence her only apology.  Perhaps, I thought of the look on my girlfriend’s face right after our son slid from her body, the wide-eyed look of a person who just discovered the answer to so many things.  Whatever it was I thought of, I decided then, right there, that I would not let my fear of fucking things up prevent me from trying to make this family work.

October 2005

We gathered all the kids together in their mother’s new living room.  Her face a mask of apprehension and fear.  I choked down my anger at feeling left behind, at the fear that my family was breaking.
Families don’t break, I told myself. Over and over.
I gathered them together.  I put a candle in the center of us.  I asked my partner, the mother of my children, the woman who was now choosing to start something new, to light her match, the long stemmed strike-anywhere kind.  Then each of the children lit theirs, and then I did.  We all lit two candles, one for her house and one for mine. 
By the candle light I could see the kids’ faces, both sad and unsure, but in the orange glow, I could see they felt safe.  We all looked at each other and then blew out the matches.

October 2012

This is my story. 
I was born on June 5th 1969.  I am a father of three.  But there is more to it than that.
I have a large extended family, a network of friends and a loving girlfriend.  I’ve learned now that family is not static, not limited to one or two or ten possibilities; family is nebulous, shifting, consensual.  It’s difficult, can hurt, can push you out of your comfort zone.  Family is the stories we tell to give ourselves roots, to make connections, to foster new possibilities. It’s a patchwork quilt, a collage of hushed conversations, a montage of fading memories.  Family continues to grow and change.
Here’s an example, a new story I am working on.
My son decided to leave, needed, I think, his own space from his mother and his father.  He lived a year in NYC and now has returned to his own apartment in west Oakland.  We hang out weekly, sometimes sharing a beer, sometimes eating a meal, generally talking about the Oakland Raiders, but slowly we are moving towards more personal, difficult subjects.  I am trying to close the distance between us.  I want to ask him what he remembers of his youth, of the way our family used to be, of the way it is now.  What all these things mean to him?
I want to hear his stories.
Just as, someday soon, I hope to hear my daughters' stories, who will be embarking on their own journey in a few years.
In fact, I can’t wait to hear the stories they tell of what family means to them.  And just as I have my own story, the stories they tell will be their own.
I’m sure their beginnings and endings and what it all means will be so different.
And shocking. 
And surprising.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Atonement. In the Style of the Talmud


On what is this mishnah based? On this, that it was told to Moshe at Sinai, “Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict.”

Rabbi Shimi ben Ashi stated that in order to avoid afflicting the fatherless, it would be enough merely to avoid them and to let them be. But neither by taking an orphan girl into his household is a man afflicting her. Both actions are therefore allowable, as neither cause affliction. The man in this case is not in violation of a commandment.

Rabbi Simeon ben Gamiel said that it is insufficient simply not to afflict. One must also do justice to the orphan, as it was told to Moshe before Israel was to cross the Jordan, “for YHWH your God lifts up no face in favor and takes no bribe, providing justice for orphan and widow.” One must do justice, beyond mere avoidance of affliction. But can one do justice without love? This mishnah is in contradiction with itself. It is because YHWH loved the fathers that we must love the stranger, and not afflict the orphan. We must therefore also love the orphan. If the man does not love her, then he is in violation of a commandment.

But when must this affection begin? Can one understand Torah by reading only a single line? If such knowledge is impossible to acquire, then is it allowable not to feel affection for the daughter on the first encounter? Or is it only requisite upon entrance to the household, for as it is written of the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, “whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him.”

On this matter Rabbi Yosef ibn Eleazar has it on the word of Rabbi Isaac, who heard a case in the vineyards of Jabneh, of a man and woman given possession of an infant girl by minions of a foreign State. Also present in the chamber were the families of four foreign daughters, all of the same nation, who had likewise been given possession of infant girls fifteen years before. The parents asked that they might attend the girl’s handing-over that day, so that they might see as witnesses that which they had lived themselves but now knew only as memories. The new parents were given the infant girl. She was placed in their arms and wailed, and the documents of the distant state were sealed with red ink.

The witnesses began to wail, but the father did not. “You did not wail, as we did fifteen years ago when we received our daughters. How could this be? Your heart is hard like a turnip,” they berated him. 

Rabbi Simeon held that he failed to love her, and must atone for this lapse through all the seasons until the day he began to love her.

Rabbi Shimi b. Ashi held that the reason he did not wail was because prior to that moment, she had not existed as his daughter, and it is impossible, it is idolatrous, to love that which does not exist. To do so is to love an image in one’s head. As it is written, “for you did not see any form”. Take care, “lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, in the pattern of male or female.” Surely, this is what these families had done before they received their own infant girls. But how could the man hear his daughter until she called him, as she did by wailing? Only from that moment could he begin to love her.

R. Samuel ben Nahmani asked if the man did not from that moment maintain his daughter, as he already maintained a son? Indeed he did, answered R. Yosef. Both he and the mother maintained her equally with the son. 

R. Samuel expounded on the words of David: “Happy are they that keep justice, that do righteousness at all times.”  Is it possible to do righteousness at all times? This, explained our Rabbis of Jabneh, refers to a man who maintains his sons and daughters while they are young. This refers to a man who brings up an orphan boy or orphan girl in his house.

Rab Simeon asked, but how did he treat her in the first year? Did he lose patience with her? Did he raise his voice? Did he fail to console her, even were she inconsolable? Did he feel in his heart as if a stranger had lodged in his home and deserved less than his firstborn son? Did he allow his anger to overcome him? Did he resent the added burden of care that she imposed upon him? Was he at times rougher with her than he should have been? Did he add to the woe of an orphan girl, offending the father of the fatherless? Rab Yosef, who had it from Rab Isaac, stated that the man had done all of this.

Rab Simeon stated that this man has sinned. If he does not repent he will feel the wrath of the Lord in the measure that is reserved for those who offend him most gravely. “For they will cry, cry out to me, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword.”

But, it could also be said, could it not, that as one learns to love in the same way as one continues to study Torah, so one learns to love only as one studies the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the brother. It is certainly true, as Rambam said, that in this case we must do more than obey the negative commandment to avoid affliction. We must obey the positive commandment to excel ourselves in our treatment of one whose “soul is very lowly and whose spirits are down.” With her the father “should speak only gently, he should treat her only respectfully, and he should not pain her body through labor nor her heartss with harsh words,” no matter be she rich or the spouse of royalty. Rambam is clear that man's deeds which we have listed are a violation. But how does the man feel now, after the first year? If he has come to love her, then he may excel himself in his treatment of the girl. He may then repent, and submit his name for inclusion in the Book of Life. Has he come to love her, such that he may say, as the Lord said to Ezra, “Thou canst not love her more than I do?”

Rabbi Yosef ibn Eleazar affirmed that yes, as he had himself been told by Rabbi Isaac, the man had come to love her thus.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Summer Before Kindergarten. Loosely in the Style of Gertrude Stein

Bus Stop

This is the big time now, we must become adults now, he and I, less he than I for like him I have been for some time now a child again. But this is the big time, getting up and getting going, going to someplace where they will not wait, to the bus stop of the school bus where the system says you shall be there and the system will not wait because that is the system’s weight. No more waiting, you shall be there, five hundred thousand others are at the bus stops and who are we that they should wait for us when we have failed to get there? Not like preschool these morning times that are coming, not like yarn shops, no napping Irish Setters no ladies counting skeins when you come on rainy days to browse and think of lovely colors. I forgot your inside shoes once and went home to get them, I forgot your lunch bag once and went home to get it, and in minutes I swung along this happy link between your bright room and ours.

Driving to Camp

Driving to camp, not your first camp but your second camp, not the close by one but the far away camp. At one end of this road is a house it is our house, with some books and furniture and lamps that in the morning pull the corners towards the middle of the house, and at the other end is another house, a different house, with three Chinese ladies and no lamps but ceiling lights and dirty walls like dirty walls in China but installed in this other house which is where the road has its other end. There is a lady there and two girls and one of them is beautiful, taller than she should be, so tall there is nothing else besides a perfect face, a face so perfect I wonder why no one has taken it why it is in this one single house on one single street at the road’s other end. 

Talking on the Road

The future is in this fact that because we drive we also talk, unless we listen to Lady Gaga. Because after the driving you will be gone, with these women or those women or any other women who are the women who teach you, as I taught you five years running until we turned you over for the days and pull the line in slowly only in the afternoons again, not too fast again, too many questions makes you drop the hook again, but slowly, until you follow the thread again and tell us of the day and drop your stories one by one into the bucket that sits where we used to spend our time together.

South Side North Side

You ask why we are driving and why the driving is to the North Side from the South Side and not the South Side from the North Side. The North Side has the yarn shops and the bakeries and the Lego Store and the Chinese camp with its beautiful girl and the mezuzah on the door of the house at the end of the road, and the South Side does not have these. Because once upon a time South Side people moved to the North Side is what Mama said and you ask me why and I say because once upon a time new people moved to the South Side and the old people didn’t want to share. Share what you say their neighborhood I say why you say because the old people refused to live beside the new people I say why you say because the new people were black I say. I don’t mind it, you say. I am happy to hear that for a while but it doesn’t change the driving and it is still all very complicated.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Want it all? Try saying "thank you"

“Having it all” has been trending for two weeks, ever since Anne-Marie Slaughter’s blockbuster essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” went online at the website of The Atlantic magazine.

“It’s time to stop fooling ourselves,” says the Princeton professor and former State Department official. “The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”

Feminist commentators on her essay have been quick to say that men as a group need to pick up the slack at home. “The problem isn’t that women are trying to do too much, it’s that men aren’t doing nearly enough,” writes author and activist Jessica Valenti in The Nation, citing a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that working women still do the bulk of housework and childcare.

I don’t quarrel with their arguments or their facts. But what’s missing from critiques like that one is an acknowledgement of how much men have evolved in just three generations.

“Men are changing very rapidly,” feminist historian Stephanie Coontz once told me. “In fact, as a historian, I have to say that they are changing, in a period of thirty years, in ways that took most women 150 years of thinking and activism.” According to every single study, men today do more dishes and bring more kids to school than their fathers and grandfathers ever did.

Enter the awkward concept of gratitude. It’s awkward because many women frankly resent the idea that men should be thanked for doing the work they’ve always been expected to do. The resentment is personal and it’s political. It’s personal, because every woman who comments on these issues has had a man in her life that didn’t do his fair share. And it’s political, because the debate is fundamentally about the balance of power between men and women as groups. In fact, research shows that men will withhold gratitude as an expression of power over women.

“We should be grateful for anything that makes our lives easier,” says my friend Suzanne (not her real name), who is now divorced. “But at the same time, I’d grit my teeth because he was a big hero for doing a sink full of dishes.”

All partnerships have a division of labor, but Suzanne felt as though her specific labors had been imposed on her. Millions of women feel the way she did. This creates conflict, of course, but it also interferes with practicing fundamental relationship skills like gratitude. (Other skills like forgiveness and empathy are important, too, but here I'm just focusing on gratitude.)

Why should that be a problem? Because study after study shows that gratitude is essential to marital happiness. Suzanne didn’t just resent that her husband was a big hero for doing what she did every day. The bigger problem is that her daily work was thankless, and even denigrated by her husband: “If dinner wasn’t perfect,” she added, “he’d whine about it.”

The place of gratitude in marriage was explored by none other than UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who created a concept cited in Valenti’s article: “the second shift,” which suggests that working women go home to sinks full of dirty dishes to do. Hochschild came up with another catchy phrase, “economy of gratitude,” which turns up much less often in feminist commentary. Her theory says expressing gratitude for the labor of your spouse is more important to marital happiness than the precise division of labor. It’s not just who does the dishes; it’s also who gets thanked by whom for doing the dishes.

Researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey put Hochschild's “economy of gratitude” theory to the test in a series of focus groups, interviews, and surveys of heterosexual and same-sex couples. They “found evidence that gratitude isn’t just a way to mitigate the negative effects of an unequal division of labor. Rather, a lack of gratitude may be connected to why that division of labor is so unequal to begin with," as they write in "Love, Honor, and Thank."

So when a spouse expresses gratitude to an "under-performing" partner for picking up his socks off the floor, he's reminded that it's not fair that she's usually the one who does that. "And since people who receive gifts typically feel obligated to reciprocate, this insight can lead the under-performing partner to offer 'gifts' of his own by contributing more to household tasks. In addition, the over-performing partner is likely to experience less resentment and frustration once her efforts are recognized and appreciated."

Thus expressing gratitude does not necessarily perpetuate inequality, as some fear. Instead, it can help make relationships more equal. Unfortunately, the research suggests that men are worse than women when it comes to being grateful. This makes for an emotionally lethal combination: tradition imposes housework and childcare on women, and then individual men forget to be grateful for their wives’ contributions—a habit that might have a lot to do with maintaining their own social power. As psychologist Robert Emmons notes in his essay, "Pay it Forward":
It has been argued that males in particular may resist experiencing and expressing gratefulness insomuch as it implies dependency and indebtedness. One fascinating study in the 1980s found that American men were less likely to regard gratitude positively than were German men, and to view it as less constructive and useful than their German counterparts. Gratitude presupposes so many judgments about debt and dependency that it is easy to see why supposedly self-reliant Americans would feel queasy about even discussing it.
While the research evidence for this idea is scant, it personally resonates with me. Averages don't tell us much about individuals, and certainly there are men who are better at gratitude than women. But I have struggled to weave gratitude into my life, and so do many men I know. So if American marriages need more gratitude, that change should start with men. Guys, I’m begging you: Go home tonight and thank your wife for everything she does. Be specific; the "meta-thanks" won't work, because it doesn't show that you recognize the contribution as a unique and personal thing. Here, just watch this video:

So, should women be grateful to men for doing the dishes? My own answer is yes and no. Yes, individual women should express gratitude to the men in their lives for what they do, for the sake of positive reinforcement and marital sustainability. But no, I don't think women should be thankful to men as a group for changing so much in recent decades. They could have and should have evolved earlier than they did, when women started taking jobs in large numbers.

This brings us to questions of power and how it shapes gratitude, which has been the subject of recent lab experiments.

One 2011 study by Yeri Cho and Nathanael J. Fast paired two study participants and asked them to perform a task together—designating one the supervisor and the other the subordinate. The results were fascinating, and have useful implications for marriages. They found that gratitude from supervisors made subordinates happier, of course. But they also found that supervisors who had been challenged in any way by their subordinates were more likely to turn around and insult that person.

This is a dynamic that defines many marriages. If a wife challenges her husband’s competency at home—“Don’t you know how to sweep a floor?!”—the research suggests he’ll end up denigrating her own contributions, a vicious cycle that might be depressingly familiar to some readers.

To be fair, men aren’t the only ones who forget to be grateful. It’s commonplace for full-time caregivers—usually (but not always) women—to forget to thank breadwinning spouses—usually (but not always) men—for their efforts and sacrifices. Supporting a family is hard, especially in hard economic times, and can entail intense stress and deferred dreams. Even two-income couples, whose members are theoretically facing similar stresses, can fall into the ingratitude trap: They become too busy to see or appreciate what the other is doing.

Indeed, gratitude must go both ways to be effective. It’s the role of the spouse to serve as witness to their partner’s life. Gratitude tells the spouse that they are being seen, that their sacrifices and struggles are visible and honored.

But interpersonal power imbalances are pernicious in another way: They make us cynical about others’ motivations for expressing gratitude. In a study published in January of this year, M. Ena Inesi and colleagues ran five experiments testing how power shapes gratitude. They found that people with power tended to believe others thanked them mainly to curry favor down the line, not out of authentic feeling. This cynicism, the researchers found, made power-holders less likely to express gratitude to people with less power. In marriages, this gratitude corruption also led to lower levels of marital commitment in the more powerful spouse.

The bottom line from these and similar experiments is clear: Having power makes you less grateful, which just exacerbates power differences and all the resentments that go along with them. But expressing gratitude can help break that vicious cycle and change the balance of power. For me as a man, this amounts to a persuasive feminist argument. Power inequalities cut us off from genuine and necessary human feelings like gratitude—and that can push us a little further away from the possibility of happiness. It follows that it’s in our interest to act against power imbalances.

We can do that through our votes and political activism, I believe—it’s policies like flextime and paid parental leave that will best help women advance in their careers. But we can also make a small, positive contribution in our own homes by just saying “thanks.” It might not be equity that we as men are striving for, though that should be a goal and might be a glorious byproduct of this struggle. Instead, our greatest rewards will come in the form of meaning, authenticity, and, yes, happiness in our homes.

This originally appeared on the website of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Father's Thoughts One Year After Adopting his Daughter

'The Island Pagoda'
from Foochow and the River Min by John Thomson

I knew of Fuzhou before our daughter was born there. The city’s name hung in the air of my father’s study when I was small, together with the smoke from his pipe that curled around other names I heard spoken there: Tientsin, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, Hankou, Nanjing. Interesting names, having something to do with his work, but also printed over the old postage stamps he collected in rows of black binders, names spelled in different European languages – Foochow, Futschau, Fou-Tchéou – and stamped over the images of European sovereigns who cleared the way before everything affixed to them.

One year after bringing Mei Mei home from the once treaty port and now affluent modern city of Fuzhou on China’s southern coast, memories like this take on new significance. They are a link to my daughter, a rationale for why it is I who am her father and not someone else, in the absence of any knowledge of who her biological parents were. After the first traumatic months – the gorging and recovery from undernourishment, the surgical removal of rotten teeth and the repair of a cleft palate, the fearful howling and tentative attachment, the rotation of various therapists through the house on a weekly basis – after all of this, something akin to normalcy has settled upon our household. It no longer feels like we have a boarder on the third floor, a small Queequeg coated in layers of dust whose pointed teeth were carved by cavities rather than a Maori chisel.

I begin to consider all the ways in which our daughter now fits ‘naturally’ into our family and its history. I return to my philatelic memory and wonder, was it pure coincidence, that I knew about Fuzhou and treaty ports long before I knew about other things? Or that we would one day travel there to adopt our daughter?  My first sense is that it is coincidental, without a doubt. Families are matched with children from across China; we could easily have been called to a place that had not been a treaty port and that I had not heard of when I was small.  My frail effort to establish some sense of ‘deep’ paternity with Mei Mei, something besides the legal kind that is embedded in all her documents, is no more than a mythopoetic effort to compose a few harmonies from a mass of moderately random experience.

Perhaps this is my attempt to create the kind of link, the sense of connection, that is unselfconsciously affirmed whenever a child is said to resemble a parent, or a grandparent, or to have a certain trait that is reminiscent of how so-and-so used to tilt her head, how she used to laugh, or how she used to notice this-but-not-that about the world. In all of these ways we claim direct physical embodiment of our ancestors. They are, in a sense, inside of us forever. A state of holy communion that has long been the objective of ritual: when we consume the divine, we are at one with it. We are not alone.

This sense of belonging probably won't be available to Mei Mei.

Then again, obviously we are surrounded by people most of the time. Why limit oneself to the ancestors and their embodiment in our DNA? As I have learned from my uncle, who has been slowly but steadily tracing out our ‘family tree’, it is tempting to be selective about who we identify with among our forebears. When for a brief moment it seems as though a great great grandfather was a learned rabbi, a man respected by his community, or that another was a dandy, a cosmopolite and worldly success in the constrained world of the Czars, I become excited. I become less so before the photographs – a majority – of less distinctive though no less closely related folk. 

Not only that, but the complexity of descent over more than a few generations quickly becomes boggling, and the notion of ‘family’ empties of meaning as the general promiscuity of the human race becomes evident in the ever-ramifying branches of each single ‘tree.’ I strongly suspect that few people care much about knowing their ancestry beyond their mother, father, and grandparents – the people they have personally known in their lives – because to go further back makes the arbitrariness of our kinship structures plain.  

So my philatelic connection with Fuzhou may not be so meaningless. Or, at least, no more meaningless than my (fictional) claim to be descended from a grand rabbi in one line, rather than a serial embezzler in another, or any number of similar choices of identification. Perhaps I carry something that was part of them; but I also choose among them like so many books, some of which I wish to read, and others, not. 

Mei Mei doesn’t have quite the same selection of books to choose from. A wing of her library was destroyed when she was orphaned. But multiple wings have been added since, with the prospect of still more to be built in the future. There are many volumes at her disposal. Whether she will grow to be more concerned with the ones she has lost, or with the ones she has gained, I can't predict.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

On The 20th Anniversary of Riot Grrrl

Then: It did not hit me like it did the women in the crew. For them, it was an (albeit lily- white) explosion. It was a profound shifting in how they publicly expressed culture. I noticed it in bits and pieces. The women who once where the backbone of our ‘zine making and distribution empires, now could not be found to bum a ride to Insty-Prints to make copies. They used to emcee—introducing the bands. They now had bands of their own, and they were playing better and with more ferocity than the dudes they once supported. It wasn’t like it was an all out gender mutiny. It was not a split, but a forced reckoning—we had to notice the girls. They were no longer support staff to the indie/punk-culture male ego DIY-industrial complex. They were Riot Grrrls.

Well, not exactly Riot Grrrls. Many of the women of the crew were waiting for a critical race element that barely manifested. They were Riot Grrrls, but they were also young women of color. Many of them had a difficult time reconciling the two. They were at a crossroads between bell hooks and Bratmobile, having a difficult time discerning which had the greater pull, and which would be a more useful politics for their futures.

Needless to say, this played havoc with trying to hook up. Tattoos, Doc Martens, and being surly were no longer enough. To step correctly to a woman, we had to be versed in women-centered politics and cultural implication. We just couldn’t know about certain bands or artists, we had to know why they were important. And if these bands or artists had even a tangential tendril of misogyny dangling, they got the boot. They were excised from the new cultural-canon, only to be spoken of in whispers of disgust.

This new reality forced me to understand what a feminist-politic meant. Having grown up in a profoundly matriarchal environment was not the education you might think. It was a given that my aunts, mother, and the over-boss that was my grandmother were running shit. It was just how it was. But when confronted, or asked for support, I had no idea what I could do to back up this phoenix rising among many of the women in my life. But I would learn. I had to learn. I had to act. It was Revolution Girl Style Now, for real.

I do not feel that I am in any way qualified to talk about what feminism is. What I am qualified to impart is how I learned to be an effective ally (and eventual feminist). This consciousness transformation was not as hard as it sounds. I started with a few simple rules:

-  I removed woman/girl-demeaning language from my vocabulary. This was the most demanding piece of my transformation. Hate and disrespect is so insidious because it colonizes your language, and reifies their negative influences every time you speak.
-  If anyone around spoke disrespectfully to or about women and girls, I’d speak up. If speaking up didn’t work, I’d knuckle up.
-  I shut up and let the women in my life be the experts on their own existence. I followed their lead to address their needs.

I still follow these rules to this day—well, I don’t knuckle up as much as I used to because my ally vocabulary is light-years more sophisticated than it used to be. But I will put foot-to-ass if I need to.
In retrospect, I can experience the effects of the Riot Grrrl explosion as advanced training in how to be a good partner and a good father to my daughter.

Now: I’m writing this circa twenty-years since my initial encounter with Riot Grrrl (and three days after my daughter’s fourth birthday). I write this with an aching nostalgia. There was an urgency that popped off back then, a sense of kicking norms in the crotch and striking out into wholly brand new territories. New maps of expression were being drawn, a new language being spoken. I don’t feel that now. My daughter came home one day singing Justin Bieber, talking about wanting to be a princess, and knowing who Nicki Minaj was. Are you kidding me? What happened to all the Bodysnatchers, The Selecter, Bad Brains, M.I.A. that I’ve been feeding you? I felt all of who I was, whom I wanted my daughter to be, spill out into a murky puddle of senseless pop stool. I know she’s only four, but still.  

Warrior training starts young.

It is a very difficult parental realization when you have to come to terms with the idea that your children are people. People with her or his own wills, desires, and tastes in everything from food to the culture they consume. Parents are also in constant battle with the influences that your kid runs into when you are not around them—when there are at school, at friend’s homes, or child care. You can expose them to all you want, but they are in charge of whether or not they give a damn about your recommendations. This was a bit disheartening. However, I no longer have to worry about this, or about going overboard with trying to expose her to all of the things that I think are vital and necessary.

The only two things that I have to do are act and speak with respect and integrity. My only mission is that every word I utter, every action I take, affirms her as a girl, but does not lock her into being so. She sees and hears how I speak to her mother, and the other women in her life, and finds comfort and solace in this. I am in no way a saint. My latent misogyny can flare up from time to time (usually when I’m not in love with myself or jealous of my wife’s accomplishments) but I think I walk the feminist ally line often enough because my daughter will tell me how different I am compared to other daddies. She says this with a smile and a headbutt. No more validation is needed. My daughter shows me daily that what I say and what I do matter to her. She reaffirms that I am having both an affect and effect on her life.

While she may have ripped my musical heart out by singing Justin Bieber, she repaired it—instantly—by singing “Monkey Man”...the The Specials version. Here is a different accounting of what I mean:
Once upon a time, my daughter wore dresses. Nothing too frilly, or pink, or taupe, just nice little sun dresses. Then, as she got older and started to have a say in what she wore, and the great dress-rebellion of 2011-2012 began. After showing her photos of her in dresses (and noticing the turned up nose as she perused the pictures) I asked her, "Why don't you like dresses anymore?" With no beat missed, she stares at me, "How am I supposed to save the world in a dress? I need a bow and arrow and a tiger." Revolution Girl Style Now. For real.