The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

Parenting As Refuge From Writing

Writers who are parents love to complain about how parenting takes up writing time; so many great books, essays, plays, short stories, screenplays and the like remain unwritten because caring for a child is time-consuming and emotionally draining. Other members of the writer’s tribe–or sometimes the same folks–will readily admit that parenting provides great material for writing. So many reflections on the art and skill and science of parenting; so many confessions of humility; so many observations of grace and candor and existential discovery in the presence of unsullied human innocence (within which occasionally lurks a id-driven monster of desire and ill-formed reason), the child.

The original complaint about the pressures of parenting on writing time contains within it a disguised acknowledgement of one of the greatest reliefs it provides the writer: distraction from the task of writing. For if there is one thing the writer needs more than anything else, it is the excuse for not writing. Your avowed vocation and calling and passion and obsession is writing; why then, do you not write? Why, instead, do you do everything but write? Every writer has faced this question; and parenting provides a wonderful apologia for not writing.

For parenting is the most perfect form of procrastination devised for the writer: its tasks are innumerable, and always make their presence felt; it is work that carries positive moral weight; a parenting task well accomplished is guaranteed to provide a certain varietal of deeply satisfying validation. And so the writer who is confronted with a blank page, a disordered passage of text, a jumbled and incoherent argument, finds suddenly, relief at hand. Put down the pencil or push away the mouse and keyboard and head for the childcare section, there to immerse yourself, if lucky, in the adoration of a child, and in the pleasures of someone else’s achievements vicariously enjoyed. And there is no guilt here to be found or reported. Why did you stop writing for the day? I had to take care of my kid. There just is no arguing with that.

The clever writer-parent has found the right sort of relationship with parenting: plunder its experiences for story ideas and material; complain about its demands as an explanation for diminished ‘productivity’ and failure to complete all those half-written drafts tucked away in folders marked ‘Drafts’; but most importantly, use its availability as psychological comfort from the anxieties and terrors of the unfinished writing task. Your child awaits, perhaps the gratitude of your partner in parenting; there really is no downside to giving up writing in favor of parenting. There is, of course, the risk of regret–“I coulda written so much if I hadn’t been so busy attending to domestic minutiae”–but that is quite easily dispelled with the honest acknowledgement to oneself that writing is pretty unpleasant work at the best of times, and that if we had any choice in the matter, we’d take up something far more rewarding and enjoyable. Like parenting, occasionally.

 

Letter To A Young Girl

Dear A__,.

The decision to have you, to bring you into this world, was not an easy one; your mother and I agonized about it a fair amount. We went for it in the end because we were excited to see how our lives would turn out with someone like you in our lives. Our decision was the correct one; we cannot imagine life without you, and you have changed us for the better in many ways. All isn’t smooth sailing, of course; I regret that this world into which you’ve been born is not in better shape. Climate change is real; fascist political movements are on the rise all over the world; patriarchy is fighting very, very hard to maintain its power. And that’s just three of the many things that makes this world a worse place than it needs to be. I’m not a very optimistic person; and so I think that things will get worse before they get better. Still, there is plenty of occasion to cheer, and to offer me hope for what lies ahead of you. Here are the two biggest factors in my optimism–such as it is.

First, the world is still beautiful; you’ve seen some of it thanks to our family trips but there is so much more; literally, a whole world. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’d like to think I’m exposing you to enough to whet your appetite. You like climbing, and I’m hopeful that you will keep it up–literally–and go to all those airy ledges that always seem to have the best views of the world below. There is much to see, much to explore; and if the big bad guys want to take away this wilderness from you, then you have a good battle to fight  waiting for you. It’s a good cause; you could do worse than to devote your life to keeping the outdoors wild and beautiful for future wild kids like you.

Second, young people are angry and politically organized. Just yesterday, a young and dynamic woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a primary election–she is going to be the youngest woman elected to Congress. She spoke up for the communities she represents, putting their interests front and center; she did not compromise or triangulate; she spoke clearly and fearlessly; and she inspired many to come out and support her. You don’t have to emulate her; you don’t have to run for Congress; but you should learn from her that sincerity and passion and honesty will take you a long way even as many around you will try to tell you to be insincere and dishonest.

So, there it is. You don’t get an inheritance other than a a beautiful world and some beautiful people to share it with. Oh, there’s tons of trolls and ogres as  well; they’ve got their eyes on the prize too. But what kind of adventure would life be if there weren’t any ‘wild things’ to take on and best at their own game?

Yours with many hugs,

Papa

The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

A Complex Act Of Crying

I’ve written before, unapologetically, on this blog, about my lachrymose tendencies: I cry a lot, and I dig it. One person who has noticed this tendency and commented on it is my daughter. She’s seen ‘the good and the bad’: once, overcome by shame and guilt for having reprimanded her a little too harshly, I broke down in tears as I apologized to her; my daughter, bemused, accepted my apology in silence. Sometimes, my daughter has noticed my voice quiver and break as I’ve tried to read her something which moved me deeply; the most recent occurrence came when I read to her a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–as I began to tell my daughter about the first time I, as a teenager, had experienced the King legend in a televised documentary. I had to stop reading, hand over those duties to my wife, and watch as my daughter heard the rest the book read to her. And, of course, because my daughter and I often listen to music together, my daughter has seen me respond to music with tears. On these occasions, she is convinced that I’m crying because I’m ‘so happy!’

In recent times the song that has served to induce tears in me almost immediately is Chrissie Hynde‘s cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘I Shall Be Released‘ at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1997. (Here is a music video of the  performance; the audio can be found, among other places on Spotify.) No matter what, whenever my daughter and I have sat down some evening–in between dinner and bath and story time–to watch and listen to Chrissie Hynde put her unique and distinctive touch on Dylan’s classic (ably backed up by one of the best house bands of all time – GE Smith and Booker T and the MGs among others), tears spring to my eyes. I’m not sure why; the lyrics are powerful and speak to release, redemption, deliverance, and salvation; it is almost impossible for me to not, at this stage, read so much of the song’s message into a promise of kind directed at my way, at my particular ‘prison’–of the self and its seemingly perennial, unresolvable, crises and challenges. Something in those lyrics–and their singing by Hynde–seemed to offer reassurance, kindly and gently, and with, dare I say it, an existential love for all fellow human sufferers.

So I cry. And my daughter notices. She is both delighted and ever so slightly perplexed; this is her father, a fount of both affection and discipline, a man who struggles at the best of times to find the right balance between gentleness and firmness. She is curious, and so lately, when we play the song, she takes her eyes off the screen to look at me instead; she is waiting for me to cry; and on every occasion, I have ‘come through.’ Now, the song has acquired another dimension for my daughter; she wants to play it so she can see her father cry because he is ‘so happy.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that my feelings are a little more complicated, and besides, it is true, I’m almost ecstatic as I begin to cry, to feel a little more, and to see my daughter break out in a huge smile.

And so now, if I listen to this song by myself, either on video or audio, I cry again, but something has been added to the song: my daughter’s reaction to it, to my crying. Its emotional texture is richer, more meaningful now; now when I listen to it, I see her turn to gaze into my eyes, looking for the first hint of moisture that will tell her that Papa’s reserve is no more. And I know that years from now, when I listen to this song again, I will cry again, because its lyrics will not just carry their original emotional resonance but also the memory of those days when I used to watch and listen to it with a five-year old girl, now grown older, wiser, and perhaps less inclined to spend such time with her father. That knowledge makes these moments even more powerfully emotionally informed; and yes, even more tear-inducing. A welcome situation.

Keep Your Child Safe: Direct Them To Women If Lost

In Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin De Becker writes of the safety rule–for children–described as ‘If you are ever lost, go to a policeman”:

Here’s another popular rule that rarely enhances safety….All identifying credentials…are above the waist….A young child cannot tell the difference between a police officer and a security guard….I don’t believe in teaching inflexible rules because it’s not possible to know they’ll apply in all situations. There is one, however, that reliably enhances safety. Teach children that if they are ever lost, Go to a woman.

Why? First, if your child selects a woman, it’s highly unlikely that the woman will be a sexual predator….Next…a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe….The fact is that men in all cultures and at all ages and at all times in history are more violent than women.

This is a pretty damning piece of advice, resting on an equally damning evidentiary foundation. Think about it: when giving advice to your child on how to look for help when they are lost, you don’t need to specify–in your directive to your child that they approach a woman for help–a policewoman, an older woman, a younger woman, a black woman, a white woman. Any of these will be, on the odds, safer than any man you could specify as a type. Look for a woman; you will be guaranteed that you will find a ‘safer human being’ than a man. An escaped female convict or criminal of some kind might be more dangerous than many men, but the relevant odds still make it the case that the advice under consideration retains its rationality. Look for a woman, and you are at least partially on your way to safety. There are no guarantees, of course. Women rob, rape, and kill too; but we act on the basis of probabilities and the probability is that your child–if helplessly looking for succor–will be safer with a woman than with a man.

I’m not sure how men, as a gender, can, need, or should respond to this kind of claim; it isn’t clear to me what form such a response could take. Still, at the least, this should induce some kind of reckoning–men have, through their actions over the years, made themselves into the more dangerous gender. I read the passage above as a parent, and I did not hesitate to internalize its advice and transmit it to my daughter. She knows, that if she is ever lost, she should go looking for someone that looks ‘like a mommy.’ That was the only specificity we could add to the advice and we qualified it with ‘if you don’t find a mommy, find a girl.’ We still did not tell her to approach a man, and the fact is, we won’t. It’s just too dangerous to tell my child to ever trust any kind of male stranger; even if she is lost. She should hold out for a woman.