Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breaking Down a Real Lemon

Imagine the following scenario:

A father and his five-year-old daughter head out to a basketball court at the local playground. He carries his regulation ball on his hip. She rolls her kid-sized version in front of her, occasionally kicking it to keep it moving. When they reach the court, the father shoots a couple of shots while his daughter proceeds to dribble her ball around the court with two hands. After a few minutes, the daughter says,

“Look Daddy.”

When he looks her direction she begins awkwardly batting at her ball with just her right hand, managing to dribble it four times before it gets away from her. After corralling the ball, she looks up proudly at her father. He smiles quietly back at her. Then he leans forward slightly and dribbles his own ball effortlessly back and forth between his legs.

“Neat,” says the little girl.

A few minutes later, the little girl runs over to the basket and stands directly underneath the net. Imitating the players she has seen playing on television, she starts jumping up towards the hoop, stretching her arms high above her head.

“Look Daddy, I can almost touch it,” she says.

Her father with the same bemused smile as before walks over to where she is standing. Then taking a large hop from just behind her gives the net a hard swat.

“Whoa,” says the little girl with a touch of awe.

Another few minutes pass, and now the little girl is standing at the free throw line. She bounces the ball a couple of times and takes a long look at the rim. Then with a hand on each side of the ball, she lowers it slowly down between her knees and sweeps it up into the air. Somehow the ball makes it up on top of the rim where it bounces twice and slips down through the mesh of the net.

“Yes!” shouts the little girl. “Look Daddy, I made one.”

Once again the father flashes that smile. Then he walks over to the top of the key, bounces his ball a couple of times, and nonchalantly puts up a jumpshot. The ball travels a perfect arc and drops down through the net without touching the rim.

“Wow, I wish I could do that,” says the little girl


Now, what do you think about this father? He seems like a bit of an asshole, doesn’t he? I mean, every time his daughter shows him something, he proceeds to do the same thing only higher, farther, or with more complexity. While he doesn’t go about this in a taunting way, these actions serve no real purpose but to diminish the achievements that his daughter has so proudly shown him. It’s not very supportive nor a particularly good example for how to build healthy relationships.

So, why is it that so many people love a children's book in which a parent is celebrated for acting in exactly the same way as our imaginary father on the basketball court?

The book I’m referring to is Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You. In it, two rabbits – an adult and a child – engage in a game of one-upmanship in their quest to say how much they love each other. The game begins with the little rabbit telling the big rabbit “Guess how much I love you.” The little rabbit then stretches his arms out wide and says “This much.” The big rabbit smiles, and, doing the same thing with his arms, says “Well I love you this much.” They then proceed in back and forth fashion through raised arms, extended legs, jumps, etc. until the little rabbit begins to fall asleep. At this point, the little rabbit presents his final claim: “I love you all the way up to the moon.” The big rabbit ultimately concludes the book by replying: “I love you all the way up to the moon – and back.”

According to the publisher this book has sold over 15 million copies and is published in 37 languages. The children's book review publication Booklist gave it a starred review and said about the book, “There’s not a wrong note in this tender tale.” Internet reviewers on Google love it (see these reviews)
Am I the only one who thinks the adult rabbit, like the father in the scenario I laid out at the beginning of this post, is a bit of an asshole? Aren’t the adult rabbit’s constant moves to up the ante on the little rabbit evidence of an ego that’s out of whack? Even when channeled through professions of love, this kind of behavior doesn’t feel particularly tender to me. In fact, it seems to me that the adult rabbit’s answer to the question of how much love it has for the little rabbit should be, “Not enough to restrain myself from besting your every move.”

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens in children's books all the time. (The young ape who throws a temper tantrum and gets what he wants in Jez Alborough’s Yes and the often blatantly antagonizing antics of Ian Falconer’s Olivia the pig are just two more examples.) The supposition of cuteness or silliness comes to excuse behavior in characters that we would find annoying, irritating, or downright intolerable in our own children or others with whom we live.

As a parent, I work very hard to model the behaviors that I want my children to emulate. This makes it incredibly frustrating to start reading a book with them and find that the very actions I am teaching them not to do are being celebrated as funny, amusing, or loving in the words and pictures of the book in my hand. It makes me wonder how many of these authors have children of their own.


This is the point in the post where the polemicist, having defined his target and explained the reasons for his outrage, makes some call to action – a boycott, a letter campaign, a new series of children's books. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. You see, I still have a copy of Guess How Much I Love You on our bookshelf. My mother gave it to me while I was in college and as such I have some sentimental attachment to it. In addition, I have come to find some value in having it around. As I sit and read through it with Polly and Pip, I get to engage them in a discussion about a complex social interaction and the types of reactions it generates. I get the opportunity to talk about the adult rabbit’s constant one-upmanship and why someone might find this annoying or disagreeable. I get to present Pip and Polly with alternative choices that both the adult rabbit and the little rabbit could have made to get the same point across. I get to add some texture and depth to the examples I try to present them every day.

As such, while I would never be inclined to give “Guess How Much I Love You” as a gift to anyone and I frequently wonder what kids learn as they read it, I am glad to have it on my bookshelf. Sometimes it takes seeing some of the wrong ways of doing something to make the right ways make sense.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Playdate with Ernest Hemingway

In the morning Jack arrived for the playdate with his three kids. Jack made a lot of money, but this didn’t impress me. You shouldn't think it impressed him, either, but his job got him lots of free booze and so he was happy about that. He gave some to me as he came in the door with his boys. It was in a crisp, new carton like the kind I usually saw behind locked glass cases. “Our best stuff,” he said as I took off my kitchen apron. He pointed out some spelling errors in the warning label on the back of the bottle. “According to the Sugeon General, this beverage may be harmfil to pregant women.” A common problem when you’re French and have to write copy for an American liquor distributor, I thought.

Jack sold liquor to support his family. Americans think this is uncouth and unseemly. That is because Americans don’t know how to drink like the Europeans. Jack bought all his booze in France where they know how to drink like civilized people, on cafĂ© terraces in the spring on Boulevard des Capucines next to old men in berets and fascist litterateurs and expat Princeton boxing champions who don’t want you to know they are Jewish. The French learned how to make wine from monks. The monks made this wine and it was all they had to cope with the fall of the Roman Empire. It was also good for coping with playdates. Later, the European Union was built by a cognac salesman. That was something I planned to tell my kid, as soon as he got old enough to ask me what it was that I drank for breakfast every morning. 

Jack and I punched each other in the face a few times the way we had on the Italian front and then turned the kids loose. Junior was shy that morning. He was unsure what to do because most of his friends were girls. They were all quirky little blondes and all very cute, and they liked him because he didn’t smash things or run around like a blinded toro the way the other boys did. That’s the way he was. The little girls let him play with their hair and let him pull their hoodies down over their eyes and taught him how to scream with a nerve-cracking high pitch like they did, and I hated that. But this morning he stood back and held my leg. This is why I wanted to teach him how to box, but he was still too young for the punching bags. Jack’s kids spread out like a special ops force equipped with toy-detecting night goggles.  They found every toy box Junior had and opened them and spread the toys in bits and pieces all over the area rug so that soon they were all mixed together and I would have a tough time not sucking them all up into the vacuum cleaner later that afternoon. Junior looked up at me and said, “Daddy, this is boring.” 

“Get back in there, kid,” I said. Junior was good with girls but if you gave him half an hour he could fit in with the boys too. After a while, when Jack and his three boys were gone and I was straightening the art on the walls and pulling the colored pencils from the ceiling, he would tell me he really liked having lots of cousins, which is how he said that liked playing with boys. Most of his cousins were boys, which is why he said it that way.

It got quiet after a little while and I went upstairs to see what was going on. Junior was on his parents’ bed with all the boys, and they were sitting quietly flipping the pages of books or stacking cards or pushing a small ball up the front of a pillow and waiting for it to roll back and hit them in the face and make them laugh. They had made some art and had glued little wooden colored sticks to the pages and Scotch Taped them to the door, which was closed. This meant that Junior’s parents’ bedroom was now the 'Boys Club' and you could only enter after knocking. 

“Knock knock,” I said.

“Who’s there?” Junior asked from behind the door.

“Cargo,” I answered.

“Cargo who?” Junior asked again.

“Car go honk honk, “ I answered again.  They tried to muffle their laughter but I could hear them. I knew I had said the right code, and if you didn't open the door after someone gave you the right code, things could get really bad.

Then the door opened, the way it does when you know the password to get into one of the speakeasies on Clark street. Little Solomon was in the middle of the bed holding the ball he had been rolling up the pillow. His forehead was red and I could tell that this was where the rubber ball had hit him when it rolled down from the pillow. But the rest of face was flushed too. He gurgled something I didn’t quite make out so I asked him to repeat it. He gurgled again more clearly and then I understood. I shouted down the staircase to Jack.

“Hey Jack, Solomon says he needs to go potty!”

Jack bounded up the stairs three at a time the way he used to when we had dodged the fascist bombs in the mountains of Andalusia. He took Solomon into the adjoining bathroom and sat him down on Junior's plastic potty. He lifted little Solomon like a bag of flour with one strong arm and pulled Solomon's shorts off with the other, lowering him slowly onto the plastic throne to make sure the boy was positioned properly. It was a warm spring day but I hadn't opened the windows yet and so soon Jack started to sweat through his plaid shirt. Little Solomon did his job and a few seconds later the whole third floor smelled like a stockyard. 

Something about the smell made me want to run away the way I always wanted to run away from the stockyards but I knew this was weak so I stayed with Jack. The smells made you want to escape but you had to stay put otherwise you would never be able to look anyone in the face again. I remembered the times fishing with Jack in the Upper Peninsula, when Jack had pulled up a big northern and had it thrashing on the line out in the middle of the lake and I'd reach into the back of the canoe for the net, the two of us working in silent understanding without saying a word and doing what needed to be done in perfect balance so the boat wouldn't swamp. I handed Jack the wipies.

"Do you just throw the dirty ones into the trash can?"

"Yeah, that's fine," I said. 

"The bowl is kind of a mess. I wiped it up with the wipies. Do you do anything else to clean it?" he asked.

"Don't worry, I just swirl a few drops of bleach with some warm water and use a brush to clean the bowl. You can just wash Solomon's hands and I'll take care of the bowl."

"Thanks," said Jack.

"No problem," I said.

We went downstairs when we were done with little Solomon. The boys were ready to go outside now so we found some soccer balls and put all the boys into their windbreakers. For the first time that year the air blew warm and even though the grass was still brown and the trees were still bare you could already see the first buds and knew that soon spring would come. We came to the square in the high sun of mid morning and I rolled the soccer balls down onto the grass. I watched the boys run away from me, kicking up the dust leftover from last winter, chasing after the soccer balls like a herd of bounding antelope racing trains across Nebraska.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Immanuel Kant on the Golden Gate Man-Ban, or, a Philosopher's View

Immanuel Kant would have had no reason to apply for membership with the Golden Gate Mothers Group, being a "small, frail bachelor" without children.

He certainly would not have been interested in strollercising, although his form-fitting 18th century breeches might have gotten him through a few spin classes before falling apart. He most certainly would not have made a pass or leered at any of the moms, being far too North German Protestant for that sort of behavior, but also believing as he did that sex should be confined to marriage and engaged in strictly for the purposes of reproduction. And he had some very fine and feminist things to say about the evils of objectifying the female body.

Yet even if these credentials were enough to get him into the Golden Gate Mothers Group, the solitary and humorless Immanuel Kant would probably have freaked out enough moms to get the group's man-ban reinstated.

But these are all hypotheticals. The point is that Kant would have had no personal interest in joining this group, though he would disapproved of its ban on men, and this on purely ethical grounds. That is basically my position, too.

What are these purely ethical grounds? Fortunately, I don't have to lay them out, because another dad blogger (Backpacking Dad) with far greater knowledge of the philosophical tradition already has. It's worth a read for its concision and comprehensiveness.

The idea is basically this: looked at from any of three contending frameworks for ethical evaluation -- the Kantian, the Utilitarian, and the classical (Aristotelian) framework of moral virtue -- the GGMG man-ban does not really pass the test. BD writes:

I think the policy banning men from joining the Golden Gate Mothers Group is philosophically weak. It doesn’t seem defensible on any of the classic moral grounds, and it would be very difficult for someone to adopt a consistent moral perspective on the world that included this ban as a specific element.

Who cares? Well, Backpacking Dad, being a philosopher, and apparently one versed in ethical philosophy in particular, cares about whether the rules we live by can be rationally grounded. Since most of the rules we live by require consensus in order to be adopted, it's not a bad idea to be able to make arguments for them based on an explicit system of reasoning. That's what he tries to do.

Backpacking Dad's first critique is from the Kantian perspective, or an analysis based on the application of Kant's philosophical version of the Biblical 'Golden Rule,' what Kant called the categorical imperative. Can one apply this rule in all cases in a purely disinterested way?  Not really, because to do so would mean that, if it were moral for every group "promoting the comfort and security of new mothers [to exclude] men from their groups," no men could form such groups, because they would have to exclude themselves.

(Another way of testing the ban from a Kantian perspective would be to ask, "would I will it that all groups, in order to promote the safety and security of their members, be able to exclude at least one type of individual of their choosing?" I'd like to hear BD's appraisal of this formulation, which I think is the defense most likely to be employed by the GGMG. It seems that it would run into all sorts of headaches in terms of how, if universally applied, it would be possible to guarantee that every "type" is guaranteed its own group and access to the same numbers of groups, when it may be likely that some groups find themselves the objects of multiple exclusions.)

BD walks through two more evaluations, one from a utilitarian and another from a classical moral virtue perspective, more or less failing it on both counts. I'll skip the moral virtue evaluation, since I don't think it will make sense to most people, my own Kantian self included. From the utilitarian, or 'greatest good for the greatest number' perspective, the man-ban runs into quantitative difficulty in that the overall good it is intended to advance -- the security and comfort of women -- is likely countervailed by the harm it does to men who are rejected, children who are denied enrichment, women who would like to join but who disapprove of the ban, and the skewing of social capital and resources away from these and other individuals.

Not being of Utilitarian persuasion, I think this sort of cost-benefit analysis is itself morally troubling, although this is how most public policy actually gets developed. But granting that within the Utilitarian framework, a case could be made that past injustice and discrimination against women could be cited to justify the present exclusion of men, BD argues that the man ban would still be problematic because it is such a blunt instrument:

[W]hat is the rule that is really being forwarded by this specific ban? Is it really to reduce male oppression? Then why not let unoppressing males in? Is it because it’s too hard to tell who they are? Why not have a probationary period? The blanket ban, at the least, seems like a nuclear solution to what might be a severe problem, but not one that cannot be addressed through less discriminatory policies.

What's this? So here we have what strikes me as the core of a reasonable and constructive proposal that forces the GGMG to answer for the harms of its exclusionary policy, while offering a way out through a series of more refined admissions tests. Instead of declaring men to be just beastly and banned from the outset, the GGMG is asked to put out some rules and a process that define what is acceptable behavior and what will get people (men) kicked out if these rules are violated.

That, it seems to me, is far more seemly than a justification for exclusion that is made on the grounds of  "your children will be excluded because we feel uncomfortable bitching about our husbands not helping with childcare when you are next to us helping out with childcare."

Then, at least, organizations like the GGMG may benefit from the advantages of enrolling non-beastly dads and their children, which is one of the best ways to ensure that the friends and children of non-beastly dads are themselves even less beastly going forward into the next generation.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Parent with a Penis? Can't Join the Golden Gate Mothers Group

I saw this in the New York Times today, and it struck me as, er, outrageous. And worthy of note, especially since Jeremy investigated just this kind of discrimination not too long ago. Here we have a mothers group that is 4,000 members strong, collects more than $300,000 in revenue annually, and formally discriminates against men. Surely the fine readers at Daddy Dialectic will have something to say about this organization -- competing for parenting space, as it does, in the very heartland of dialectical daddyhood.

The story profiles a married gay father of one. But it's not this fellow's sexual orientation that impedes his best efforts at parenting. It's the plain fact that he's a man.

This young banker, who didn’t want his name used because his employer has a strict no-news-media policy, would hardly seem the sketchy type that a well-meaning private club would bar.

But he and his husband are men. As such, they and their little boy are personae non gratae at the Golden Gate Mothers Group, which since its founding in 1996 has grown to an organization of 4,000. Members must live in San Francisco, have children younger than kindergarten age and be mothers — of the strict-constructionist female variety.

The group, which takes in revenue north of $300,000 annually, mostly from dues, is by far the dominant parenting organization in town. (The latest census data show only about 40,000 young children in the city.) G.G.M.G. offers three core benefits to members. It acts as an information exchange, where pediatrician recommendations, hiring of nannies and admission tips to private preschools are particularly popular topics. It negotiates discounts for members at local retailers and service providers.
So shortly after taking home his new son in February, the banker sought to join the group. “Everyone who knows about it talks about how great it is,” he said in an interview.
He was rebuffed. An e-mail signed by the G.G.M.G. Membership Committee informed him that “to be a member, you must be a woman.”
What's most sad about this, is that this man's son -- not the most disadvantaged little boy, it is true -- nonetheless is the one who will miss out on the the benefits of getting to drool and slobber around thousands of other infants and toddlers. His primary caretaker is a guy, so he won't get to hang with these kids. Which demonstrates that this organization is not about kids, it's about their mothers. Exclusively. And that is a problem.

I simply don't buy the premise that first-time mothers have such special needs that they need an organization that makes it a point to keep men -- the fathers of their children -- out. For the first five years of their childrens' lives. In fact, I think it's weird. Resonant of the convent in Cyrano de Bergerac. How many kids will grow up thinking it's normal for their moms to have all this stuff going on for them, without their fathers around? Admittedly there are a fair number of male barbarians in circulation, but I don't think this is the sort of affinity group they would be pressing to crash en masse.

But even if they were, it would probably be good for them. And everybody else, even the moms. Unless living in a heterosexual arrangement as a parent is something analogous to a the schizoid world of a certain Victorian anthropologist, famously amenable to his crew of south sea islanders by day, and  disparaging of them in his diary by night.  In fact, I'd think more male-female mixture is exactly what we need. Because everything about this group -- and there are smaller versions of it all over the place -- reinforces the idea that 'men just don't get it', that 'men are scary' or that they somehow mess up the vibe of parenting, especially in its early stages. When in reality, all it's really based on is that -- men usually just aren't around.

If men really do cramp your style, Golden Gate Mothers Group, if we all really still live in a world of separate spheres, then I suppose all that earlier bother about letting women into the evening club, or letting Tiger Woods onto the golf course, or gay couples into the courthouse, was really just a waste of time.

Friday, April 01, 2011

I'm Bored

This post is about boredom. Because of the subject matter, it may also be boring to read, so if that's a problem for you, go back to Facebook or the activities of your otherwise exciting life. For those fellow bored parents who remain, let me state the problem: I'm bored.

Boredom is a taboo topic of modern parenting. I'm bored right now, and I've been seriously bored quite a lot lately. This seems like the kind of thing which, if said too loudly among prospective parents, might lower the rate of human reproduction and adversely affect the future of the species. No one wants a boring job, and parenting is certainly a job that is often boring. But there's a kind of general rule that you just don't go there. Instead, you suck it up and go release on Facebook. Maybe you post some vapid pictures of your kid, get some ":-)" and some "♥♥♥" feedback, and take that buzz to bed with you instead of another shot from the bottle of Bacardi that you're about to run out of anyway. To confess to boredom, or to whine about it, is to give hostages to all sorts of enemies who would be happy to devalue parenting for all sorts of reasons, most of them not in the best interests of children. For me to mutter, "How f*cking boring," or "God I'm bored watching this crap on TV" or "I can't wait for Mama to get home and relieve me of this utterly boring sh*t Junior is making me do," suggests that I don't love my kid, that I'm not infatuated with everything he does and says and thinks and eats. Parenting is not for anyone with a brain, anyone who has seen the world, parenting is for nannies, etc. All bunk, of course. But knowing that doesn't help me with the fact that, as I said a moment ago, I'm bored.

The thing about boredom is that, because you're bored, you're afraid that anything you write about boredom will by definition be boring, revealing that you are in fact a boring person, and deserving of your fate. So I've held off. Until now. Because I don't care anymore. Partly this is because I'm over 40, partly it's because I'm really bored. Perhaps I can take satisfaction in knowing that, in about nine years, it will be my son's turn to be bored out of his mind by everything that has to do with his father, family, and the home we provide him. At that time, rather than be personally hurt, I will instead savor the payback for what I am enduring right now. But nine years is a long time to wait.

So I'm trying to figure out what's going on: why the sense of boredom has become acute at my fourth year into the parenting stint? Am I tired of my job? Has it lost its novelty? Am I just played out as a parent? Is it really just over? Or is this just a phase, a plateau that has my son and I cruising across the family version of rural Indiana? Despite all my past bloggery in which I waxed lyrical about jungle gyms and long walks and soccer class and preschool moms and diaper genies and everything else, the one thing I haven't touched on is how very often, how defining and foundational, is the experience of utter boredom.

I say this all while knowing, by virtue of hard-earned wisdom, that the one constant thing about both parenting and life is that all things change. Was the infancy thing hard? Immensely. But it was over in a heartbeat. My son will spend far longer with gray hair pushing me in a wheelchair than we ever spent changing his diaper. So maybe we are driving through Indiana now -- or, God forbid, Kansas, or West Texas -- but eventually if you drive far enough, you hit the Rockies, or West Virginia, and things get interesting again. But right now, to pursue the analogy further, we are driving through rural Indiana, and there's not much to listen to on the radio.

So why am I bored now, while I wasn't when Spot was six months old? At six months, he was an all-consuming project, and nothing else mattered. My individuality was like a well-charged car battery that could run all the auxiliary features for a good long while before going dead and needed a jump. And frankly, the novelty was sharp. It truly was a new world, and I enjoyed entering into it.

But here's the crux: this was all before Spot could talk, before he could express his own view of things, or act with any degree of independence. That has all changed, and Spot, now become Junior, is a semi-automaton, capable of thinking and talking and doing quite a lot, though a lot of it not quite all the way. This, I have determined, is the source of my boredom. Imagine walking a dog. Not for half an hour three times a day, but all day. You've got an animal on a leash, you want to let them sniff around, entertain themselves, read the book of the world in the litter of the sidewalk, you pick up their poop and intervene when they start trash-talking the dog next door -- all this for about 13 hours. It would be nice to instead open the back door at around 7 o'clock in the morning and then check back at lunchtime, but that's not how it works right now. The leash has me hooked to the dog as much as the dog is hooked to me. So I am, more than at any point previously, in his world most of the time.

And after a while, as fascinating as it has all been, that gets boring. Junior can't find something in his toy box? He calls me from upstairs while I'm on the computer. Junior gets hungry? He lets me know from upstairs, once I've gotten back to the computer. Once Junior is well fed, he now feels a bowel movement coming on. Again, he lets me know from upstairs, and I ascend to help facilitate. In all these cases, Junior is able to handle a part or most of the process of finding a lost toy, feeding himself, or taking a dump and wiping his ass, but not all. And so I live la vida interrumpida, a life of fragments. In fact, right now, as I write this, I am leaving Junior upstairs to his TV and Lego's, feeling moderately guilty that the Nickelodian Moose is subbing for me as primary caregiver so I can share this all with you. Four times now, Junior has called down to me, "Daddy, are you done working?" and four times I have replied "Hell no, leave me alone! Can't you entertain yourself for an hour?"

When he was an infant, I could strap Junior into my Baby Bjorn and head off on my rounds. Some feeding, some attention to matters of hygiene, and all was well. Now, he is so burgeoning with thoughts, with the most astounding and surreal and hilarious musings on language and reality, endless questions that must each be answered (a point of principle for me), so full of commentary that must be processed, that a much larger portion of my brain is now used to deal with him than before. Subtract the much-missed naptime break, and add the ability to verbalize his needs without the ability to fulfill them, and you have the roots of my predicament.

So I thank you, gentle reader, for providing me with an excuse for diverting myself for a little while. But I can tell, from the nervous, rhythmic hopping I hear on the floor above, that Junior feels the need to visit the potty, and so my prosody must be cut short. Until, that is, the next installment, when we meet together as writer and reader again, perhaps when Junior and I are at least on the border of Indiana and Ohio, somewhat closer to West Virginia.