Cave Paintings

It was not the lunch break that I intended to  have. I work in  a secure and controlled office. We have to swipe our i.d. badge to enter the room, the use of mobile devices from Kindles to Cell Phones are prohibited and the internet is locked down on all our computers. No, I do not deal with national security issues nor do I perform any specialized scientific experiments. It’s just that we deal with the human resources files for employees of a certain state and that state has been stung enough by the theft of its employees identities in the past that it now takes the protection of those assets very seriously. The result is that we  work in something akin to a bubble and our only knowledge of the outside world is via our intranet connection which only informs us of  deadlines for enrolling in benefits and which manager from our corporate headquarters across the pond just got promoted. This does make our lunch periods as a time when we get reconnected to the world outside our cubicles. I had just sat down to a lovely plate of pasta salad and chicken salad sandwich at a small neighborhood cafe, when the outside world caught up with me. I was not prepared to deal with what the  had been happening  since 9:40 a.m. Nobody was.

It has been nearly 10 hours since that horrific event in Newtown, Connecticut and I am no more prepared to deal with it now than I was the moment the event came into my consciousness. The past day has been an uncontrollable torrent of thoughts, emotions and opinions and every new bit of information that I am exposed to seems only to confuse and baffle me more. I feel the need to some how make some sense of what I am thinking, not out of some sense of egotism that I have some bit of wisdom that I can bestow upon the world but rather I feel the need to try to wrap my brain around this event for the sole protection of my own sanity. We are all like those ancient cave dwellers who, when faced with a hostile world that contained danger in every shadow and death waiting at their threshold, put pigment to cave well in an attempt to explain how they survived. I stand before my empty space of wall with by finger dipped in color and find myself ill equipped to communicate. After all, how do you depict an unfathomable sense of loss.

Newtown, Connecticut lies 1,012 miles from where I now sit at my dining room table and yet it feels like it is right next door. Is it just me or does, when one of these horrible events take place, the distance from your location to the scene of the tragedy seem to in no way insulate you from the feeling that it is in your back yard? I have never been to Connecticut but as the events of the day were relayed to me by various news outlets, I saw in my minds eye every overturned desk and the look of terror in every child’s face. Slowly, I began to realize that the school I was seeing was not the Sandy Hook Elementary of Newtown, CT but rather I was seeing the elementary school that my children once attended and the campuses that they now inhabit. The look of terror was not of some faceless stranger but rather it belonged to  the kids who are part of my life. I think that is why the distance is of no consolation because every parent, every teacher, every older brother and every interested adult knows that despite their insistence in our kids safety when they leave us, we are always on the precipice of danger from some unfeeling and unstoppable mad man. I say this not to strike fear in my own heart although that emotion is one that I have been constantly dealing with since this event took place. Instead, it makes me feel that we all have to find a way to deal with this, to try to understand “the why” and “the how” and to vow for the” never again”.

There is a certain fraternity among those of us who have been blessed to have children. We realize that it is not by  our own merits that we were able to be called mom and dad. There are far more honorable people than myself that, although desperate to have kids of their own, are prevented from having kids through the conspiracies of biology. This feeling among parents that to a small extent we have won a sort of procreation lottery leads us to spend every waking hour trying to keep our kids safe and feeling loved. We skip sleep, give up our last dollar, invite their friends including the ones we don’t like to parties and we change our whole schedules to accommodate their every need in the hope that they will one day understand how much they mean to us. I personally am as committed to my kids as I can humanly be and know that most parents are as well and it is this mutual appreciation of our role in our kids and their friends’ lives that gives us something in common with all other parents. It also makes the loss that other parents experience to be so hard to take. Whether it was due to a tragic auto accident or the slipping away after a long illness, there is no way that a parent can hear of the passing of a child and not feel that gut wrenching, paralyzing fear that someday I may have to feel the same. This feeling was visited twenty-fold upon us yesterday. I heard some parents of very small children hypothesize that younger parents would hurt more at hearing of the Newtown event because their kids are the same age as the victims and they hold a common feeling of the loss of the possible future these kids could have had. I  feel that the sense of loss is just as profound among those of us who have kids that have passed the age of the victims for we know in concrete terms the joy of every day since that age that our kids have given us. I will suggest that all parents feel loss today and we all have deepest sympathies for the nightmare that those parents a thousand miles away are experiencing. For all the events that those parents will never get to share again, I feel saddest about one that seems so trivial, picking up the kids from school.

Every parent has had to perform this feat at least once in their lives. The traffic is hellacious, disorganized and generally it involves sitting in a steaming car for what seems like an eternity waiting for some school official to walkie talkie your kid’s release to your car. When the kids finally finishes saying good bye to every classmate in the school district and opens your car door, it happens. In that moment between the whump of a backpack hitting the back seat and your first question about how their day was, you feel it. In that moment of silence, you know on a subconscious level that they are safe. Those last 8 hours since they left your presence has passed without harm, you relax just a little bit in knowing that once again you can be with them and talk to them and tell them that you love them. The greatest tragedy about that Friday morning at Sandy Hook School is that for twenty sets of parents, that moment is gone forever.

As hard as dealing with my own thoughts about this tragedy have been, the act of trying to understand why it happened and how to make sure this is the last time we have to mourn innocent victims of a senseless crime is nearly impossible. Clearly, we need to address the culture we live in. The pandemic of mental illness and its striking at the heart of our youth has to be addressed. We need to remove the stigma of talking about mental illness like it is some family secret and deal with the reality of what it is, a diagnosable, treatable medical condition that deserves the same attention as any other medical condition. Where are the colored ribbons? Where are the charity walks? They don’t exist because we continue to believe that it is weakness to talk about how we feel and we spend everyday saying things like ,” I am fine” and “Oh he’s o.k.He just has the blues today”. The common thread among too many of these shooters is that they have had conditions that were not diagnosed and/or undertreated. I know we can’t bring back those who have suffered at the hands of the mentally ill but perhaps if we can start as a society dealing with mental illness in a mature and scientific way then who knows how many lives we can save?

I have to admit that I not exactly feeling calm and pensive this morning. No, the emotions that we all have been feeling lead us to probably think most logically when dealing with this any other tragedy. This is definitely true of myself because the emotion I feel more than sadness is that of anger. This has pissed me off to no end. I am mad at the shooter for taking young lives. I am mad at my politicians who claim that we can’t talk about the root causes of these issues because the timing is inopportune. Most of all I am angry at the American culture that bemoans this tragedy but refuses to honestly address it and in just a few days will add it to the  laundry list of historical events that we should have learned a lesson from but didn’t. This is not about guns.

This is about boys and guns. I am a hypocrite. I have spent my life teaching my son that violence is not the answer, the lives of others really matter and to turn the other cheek. I have also allowed him to play video games that  feature firearms and the use of those to kill digital representations of human beings. He has a Nerf arsenal of guns and other spongy weapons. I even got him a b.b. gun last Christmas. Now, my son is a peace loving boy. He would never hurt anyone and even when faced with a bully at school, took the intimidation as opposed to striking out in anger. But I am only fooling myself if I don’t realize that the prevalence of guns as entertainment in his life doesn’t cause him at least some sense of moral confusion. Now I have to do my job as a parent and find a way to temper those confusions with guidance. I am not going to make some empty promise of him never playing anything violent  again because I do believe some of it serves as an outlet for the aggression that otherwise would be internalized to himself or unleashed on others. What I am going to do is explain to him the difference between the fantasy and reality of violence. I am going to stay  in the room  with him when he plays and if I determine that it has become too much, I am going to turn it off. Basically I am going to do the job that parents are supposed to do. Most of all I am going to talk to him about how he should treat other people and the value of all life.

The common thread that runs through every mass shooting is the same, some male and a gun. The preponderance of young males with firearms has reached epidemic proportions and its not just a mass shooting at a school that should make us realize it. Just in my medium sized city this week we have had at least one gun incident every day and whether this is a shooting over a drug deal gone bad or at the hands of a madman in CT, the fact is that this has got to stop.  We have got to stop wringing our hands at the mall shooting at  Clackamas Town center and then forget about the gun violence that goes on every other day in the shadows. How many women must be killed at the hands of their abusive husbands?  How many kids must be shot playing with their parents guns? How many teenagers must be shot at gas stations because their music was too loud before we start to honestly address the problem? This is about more than guns. Its about guns in American. Switzerland trails only the U.S. in gun ownership but has a gun crime rate that is so low that its is statistically untraceable. So it has to be about more than guns but that doesn’t mean its about less.

This is not about the Second Amendment. It is also not about the government kicking in doors and confiscating hunting rifles. We need to get to a stage in our politics where we can actually talk about guns in our society in a way that is measured and reasonable. Why must it be all or nothing? Can’t we address the reality of the world we live in, even if it doesn’t jive with whatever catchy little slogan our political allies like to hide behind? I am sorry but guns do kill people. There are bad people in the world and they are going to use whatever means is at their disposal to harm other human beings. We should require that they have to extend a little more effort than walking up to the sporting goods counter at Wal-mart. I understand there is a role for guns in society but we have to realize that the proliferation of guns has less to do with constitutional rights and more to do with the profitability of gun companies. Glock’s profit margins are 68% per firearm, not a bad margin. I am not saying that gun companies should be run out of town on a rail, but that we have to be honest about some of the factors that encourage gun ownership by many who frankly are not the most responsible. We also have to eliminate both sides of the extremes. A gunless culture would not guarantee a world without violence and neither would a society where every citizen is packing heat. We have to find some reasonable middle ground between Nazi Germany’s example and that of Dodge City.

The ultimate solution would be a society that values all human life and would pass those values along to its children. Since we seem to be far from accomplishing that perhaps we should limit, not outlaw, some of the weapons that make the taking of that life so efficient. This is the point where usually the N.R.A point of view will be expressed that it is only the armed general population that keeps our country from being run by tyrants. I find it odd that an organization that puts such stock in the Second Amendment simultaneously puts such little belief in the remainder of our Constitution and its provisions that are in place to prevent such tyranny. There are two problems with this view of guns as the only way to keep the oligarchs from marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. The first is that even if this argument had merit it is vacated by the fact that the majority of its advocates seem to be more obsessed with whether two homosexuals can get married and the religion of our current president than they do with making our nation a better place. The second is just basic military theory. Do you really think that a military that possesses nuclear submarines and F-22 fighters is really deterred by a collection of hunting rifles? The true fact is that true, reasonable and consistently applied gun laws may not cure all ills but it may just help save a few lives and isn’t that the ultimate goal?

Well, it appears my space on the cave wall is nearly full and although the thoughts I express are only my own, they have allowed me to start to get a handle on the events of a Friday I am not soon to forget.  My hope is for healing to those affected by this event…. and those affected are all of us.

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You gotta have friends…..

 

I have enough friends.

It inevitably happens.When ever my  friends and I get together  and the liquid libations start flowing it is only a matter of time that we start discussing the bigger issues in life. This usually disintegrates into just a venue for each of us to hurl insults, make jokes and generally say strange things for entertainment purposes only. These usually begin with a question. Chicken or the egg?  Democrat or republican? Tastes great or less filling? Paper or plastic?Butter pecan?(I choose pecan) However, every once in a while one of these conversations turns into one of those unanswerable questions that are really fun to discuss in that depending on how you answer it reveals , at least for a moment,  who you really are and what do you believe in.  And since every one of us are parents in some way or another, the question arises,” Are you your child’s friend or are you their parent?”

This question has always perplexed me and as I grow older it is still no easier to decipher.  My parents, however, faced no such doubt as to their answer. They were my parents first, last and always. Maybe it was just the generational differences. I have often heard that each generation is twice as smart and half as strong as the one that preceded them and I cannot argue with that statement. When I was a kid, there was absolutely no doubt as to who was calling the shots. As my mom was a stay at home mother she had the misfortune to have to spend her every waking hour with me and I understand how miserable that can be. Hell, I only spend half my time with me and I want to kick my ass. Mom also grew up in the era of discipline. She was never abusive but did believe in the biblical adage,”Spare the rod, spoil the child”. She believed in it so strongly that she actually had a “spare” rod in case the one she was using broke. Now mom never used corporal punishment in a way that was cruel nor inhumane and it was necessary to use something other than just words with me, because as my wife can fully confirm, I’m not real good with the whole “listening” thing. It was always surprising to my childhood friends…er…hoodlums… that such a small woman could be so good at keeping my Jethro Bodine sized self in line. How? The answer was simple. Hand speed.

My mom was a little 5 foot 2 woman from the mill towns of North Carolina but she could move her like Sugar Ray Leonard. If every house is like a baseball team, my mom was definitely the Designated Hitter.  My mom could be driving down the street in that aircraft carrier on wheels that they called a ’75  Chevy Impala, while my sister and I were riding in that backseat begin enough to run a 5k in and the minute my sister and I begin to fight, and we always fought, mom could reach back and smack us both so fast that we never saw her hands leave the steering wheel. She took these skills outside the car also. When I was in elementary school, she was the neighborhood champ in both “pencil-break” and “slaps” four years running. She was a lot of fun to grow up with and she kept me from becoming that wild little animal that every young boy can be. She was strict and fair but had one flaw. My mom was really naïve.

For the adults   out there that grew up in homes with strict but naïve parents you know that means. It means do whatever you want to, just don’t get caught. And boy, did I do some stuff. Since the statute of limitations has not expired on some of my more reckless adventures and due to the fact that I would rather not record my activities for fear of losing future job opportunities, let’s just say that my (frequently bloodshot eyes) chronic “Pink-eye” condition that I developed while in high school was not viral in nature. My need to not get caught also created a certain need for me to be,shall we say, flexible with the truth. Let’s face it. I was a one man Thespian association. While my actor friends at school were rehearsing their lines from Grease and Death by Chocolate, I was at the house successfully explaining how the 125 cigarette butts in the yard were not the result of a party but rather the left over evidence of an extremely pushy door-to-door salesman.

The basic picture that I am trying to portray is that my parents were parents. They were in charge. They had all the answers and they already knew all the questions. They had mom and dad tattooed on their souls. So,why do I always feel that any time I have to make a parenting decision for my own kids that I should be wearing a paper hat and a name tag that says,”Trainee”? I know that I say “I don’t know” so much that until the age of three my daughter thought that was my first name. I want to raise my kids and guide them through life with authority and conviction but the truth is that everyday there is some situation that arises that is too complex and too life changing to just make on the basis of “cause I said so.” Not that I want to be my kids’ buddy, but I want them to understand that I am just as imperfect as they are and if I make a wrong decision that I need the same kind of forgiveness that they get when they make a mistake.

This complexity is not constant. I do have a defined sense of what is right and wrong, what works in our house and what doesn’t and how the decisions that everyone makes defines ,not only who they become, but also has a lasting effect on all the people in their lives. I don’t accept disrespect from my kids. I don’t allow my kids to harm themselves or others. My kids will not be “fighters” nor “bullies”. They will do and say the right things regardless of the popularity of it. I am in control and I give my kids guidelines but it is just so hard to see myself in the classic dad role that to me should be reserved for my and my friends’ fathers and the dad on any sitcom filmed in black-and-white.  This continually bouncing between the two roles of friend and parent seem to be just a natural progression of how my ideas and ideals have changed throughout the years. If life is a football game, then I unfortunately go to the replay every chance I get to make sure I made the right call and all too often,” After further review, the play on the field is overturned and Tearle will be charged with a time out.”

My constant reevaluations are most pronounced in the way I view myself as a parent. My wife and I started dating at age 18 and even after we became serious we swore that we would never get married but we did. We swore that we would never have kids but we did. Once we found out that we were to be parents we talked seriously about how we were going to raise them. We decided we were not going to be the authoritarian parents both of us had. We were going to be the cool parents. No rules. Just do what feels right. Give the kids all the freedom they want and they will be happy and never have a single care. We were going to let our kids drink at the house(just no driving, OK?) let them smoke weed if the wanted to( its no worse than tobacco right?) date whoever they want and if they wanted to have sex, no problem just do it at home so at least we would know they were safe. This was a solid plan and we were quite proud of how open-minded our plan was. Then one tiny event happened that side tracked the whole affair. It was called my eldest child’s birth. From the moment we saw how fragile this wonderful human being could be , and likewise her brother who came a few years later, our open-minded plan was treated like that sixth grade photo of me in the clogging club outfit, it was buried behind the garage and never mentioned again.

It’s not that we became those typical straight-laced ’cause I said so ‘ parents but just that we understood the value of having guidelines to keep the kids safe and freedoms to keep the kids happy. I have never quite understood why the whole parent or friend thing has to be so black and white. We make the rules in our house, but we do so with the understanding that kids need to have the room to grow and live and experience life without unnecessary limitations. That is the principle difference. My parents and other strict parents wanted their kids to fear doing wrong but we want our kids to love doing right. Every holier than thou parent that tells you about “spare the rod” also needs to remember the verse about “fathers not provoking their children to anger”. It’s a slippery slope but one we as parents must ascend every day.

Some people of a more conservative nature may wonder why just being a parent isn’t enough. The question is simple but the feelings involved are complex. The way I see it, we are raising our kids to be free thinking human beings who use rational thought and reasoning to guide their lives. When I  tell my kid to look both ways before crossing the street because I have the experience of knowing what could happen when they don’t,  they need to trust my authority as their parent. However when I recommend pursuing a certain crush they have or guide them into an experience they are nervous about I want them t0 realize that as their friend I want them to be happy. That balance between keeping them safe and keeping them happy is why I have such a hard time figuring out which role I actually am.There are two more reasons to let your kids know you like them. First of all, they are the ones that will be picking out your nursing home when you get old, so you might want to make sure they don’t have any axes to grind from the time you wouldn’t buy them the My Little Pony they wanted when they were 6. Secondly, and most importantly, if your kids know that you love them not because you gave birth to them but rather because you value the type of person that they are and honor their interests and personal likes and dislikes, you will open yourself up to sharing a world of experiences which is better than any dream you could have.

So which is it? Am I their friend or am I their parent? Can I like my kids even when they disappoint me? Can I have fun with them even though I have to be the responsible one? Does my experience make me their ally or their authority? I guess the answer is that I am not really sure and it would take years to actually reason the correct answer out. Unfortunately it’s almost 3 o’clock……..

And I have to go pick up “my friends” from school.

 

Hey Kids: Time to get yer learn on

It must be the holiday.

I have noticed something very peculiar about today. There is a almost reverent silence enveloping the neighborhood. Every adult , and especially parents, seem to have a smile on their faces and a skip to their step. The traffic is far worse than it was last Monday and yet I don’t hear anyone complaining. It can’t be the weather, it’s a humid rainy day. There was hardly a line at the Starbucks this morning and I have yet to run into a single insolent teenager all day. The incompetent employees at the local grocery store that I have seen since June, are no longer there. Maybe it’s because it’s National Lemonade Day. That must be it. That would explain the sour faces on all the kids I saw hanging out on the corner this morning. Yes that’s definitely it……..unless………It just might have something to do with today being the first day of school. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that it is probably not the lemonade.

I used to love the first day of school and now even though I haven’t been to school in over a decade and a half, I am not counting Driving School and that Anger Management class, I still love the first day of school. The first day of school used to mean that I had on new school clothes and some kicking shoes. I usually had a brand new haircut and a feeling of superiority that came from the piles of clean notebook paper as of yet unchewed pencils. But I have to admit that now that I have kids, I love the first day of school even more. For those kids out there: #1 why aren’t you in school and #2 I must inform you something that your parents probably never told you.

Your parents don’t like you during the summer. Yes they love you year round and they provide for you in the month of July as well as they do in October but the truth of the matter is that you are very unlikeable creatures during the Summer months. When a parent has to leave for work at 6 am and sees you in your room snoring away, they don’t like you. When you tell them how you spent all day playing video games and texting your friends while they were busting their butts working for some a*hole boss so they could pay for the electricity that you are sucking up at an alarming rate, they don’t like you. When you tell them how bored you are, they don’t like you. When you are still wearing your pajamas at 4 in the afternoon, they don’t like you. Most of all, when the living room is a wasteland of opened video game disk containers, crumpled chip bags and half-drunken soda cans, they really don’t like you. And when they come home and they first words out of your mouth are, “I am glad you are home because I am hungry”, they are dangerously close to telling you how much they don’t  like you. But they suddenly it happens, they look at the calendar and realize it is time for school to start and the parents know that all is going to be o.k.

I know that some kids don’t believe that their parents like them more when they are at school than during the summer. However, consider the following:

  • When do you get new shoes, when school lets out or when it starts?
  • When during the Summer did your parents insist on taking you to buy you new clothes? Just a guess, it wasn’t July 4th.
  • Do your parents buy you new backpacks, lunchboxes and calculators in June or in August?
  • If your birthday is at the end of summer, why do your parents have a party? Because they have gone the entire Summer without killing you.

Kids need to understand the complex sociological reasoning behind why they send you to school. Yes, they do want you to learn and be active participators in our democracy. They also want you to use your bedroom at some point in their lives and if your illiterate ass is still living there at age 42, that makes this highly unlikely. But, it’s much more than that. You see, having kids is not that different than having a dog. You are both are helpless when little, make a mess everywhere you go, and are far too noisy for our liking. The principle difference is that if the raising of a dog goes awry, almost anyone will step in to take them off your hands and take care of them whereas with a child it is basically a “no refund or exchanges” situation. So knowing this you have to understand that school is basically a sort of Westminster Dog Show for human beings. We take the kids. Give them the best bloodline we can. Get them clean and presentable. Teach them a trick or two and just hope to God that they don’t humiliate themselves or us. Saying your kid is an honor student and well-liked by his peers is pretty much saying he won “Best in Show”.

So we send the kids off to be with other people. We have taught them to close their mouths when they eat, to say “please” and “thank you” and just hope that they have listened at least once out of the thousand of times that we have told them that we love them and hope they make good decisions. The hardest part of kids growing older is that we are forced to abdicate so much of the control we had on the first day of school when they were younger. We used to be able to walk them to their class on that first day, scope out which of the paste eating nose pickers we wanted our child to avoid and care fully introduce our kid to their teacher as we silently gave the teacher a look that says,”This little human being is the most important thing in my world. Because of him, I went through 28 hours of labor, have cleaned up vomit and other assorted messes at 2 in the morning and have not had a good night’s sleep since George W. Bush’s first term. If you make him cry, I will kill you.” But as the kids get older, you are basically a money dispensing taxi driver. You role is to deliver the child to school and avoid being seen by any one under the age of 18.

So, the first day comes and it always brings such excitement. That afternoon the kids are a bubbling fountain of how great the teachers are and how weird all the other kids are. They tell you how this year is going to be the greatest ever and how they can’t wait to go back tomorrow. Quietly you chuckle to yourself how this story will change once actual schoolwork begins but for now you let them enjoy your day. Their first day is happy and so is yours but then……somewhere in the back of your mind you feel it. That ominous sense that this won’t last forever. The time will come when there will be no more first days of school for you. A time when they will drive themselves to school or the morning when that breakfast on the first day will be in a dorm in some faraway city. Today was my twelfth first day of school as a parent and I know that I don’t have too many more left. But, I will keep enjoying them while they last. And even when there are no more first days of school with my kids……..

I am going to buy them new pencils anyway.