Out of the Game, Into the Diaper Aisle

Russ, do you remember when we first got into this business? We said we were gonna’ play the game like we had nothing to lose.
~ Danny Ocean

It’s hard to pick a favorite character in Ocean’s 11, isn’t it? They’re all crooks, of course, and certainly not role models for our young’uns, but still an affable bunch, and curiously sympathetic. I’m convinced that the likability of the “eleven” is the main reason the film is such an enduring favorite and eminently re-carl_reiner_brad_pitt_oceans_ele-1watchable, over and over again.

In our most recent family screening (“family” minus the wee ones, of course – affability only goes so far), the standout character for me was Saul Bloom, a veteran con-artist recently retired. In one scene, Danny Ocean expresses his hope to recruit Saul for one more big caper. “We need Saul,” he tells Rusty, his partner. “He won’t do it,” Rusty replies. “He got out of the game a year ago.

Out of the game – meaning out of the crime business, out of the craziness and thrill of setting up marks, pulling off jobs, and living on the lam. Saul got out of the game and took up a respectable, domesticated life instead. “I got a duplex now,” he says at one point. “I got wall to wall and a goldfish. I’ve changed.”

Saul came to mind when I heard an NPR interview with Nathan Deuel recently. Deuel had been a reporter in the Middle East during the Arab Spring uprisings, and he wrote a book about his experience living there with a young family. At one point, Deuel responded to a question about how he balanced his work with the responsibilities of fatherhood, and he made this comparison:

In some ways I was so kind of humiliated by all the simple things I had to do like…figuring out what to do with my daughter’s dirty diapers in Istanbul. At the same time, Tahrir Square in Egypt is exploding and there are there are these exhilarating, wonderful things that I feel tangentially a part of, but my duties at the end of the day were to make sure this 1-year-old was happy and learning how to walk and clean and safe and warm.

That’s it! Nathan has gotten out of the game and discovered the secret of dad-hood: Kissing exhilaration goodbye, and learning to thrive in a land of poopy diapers.

We’re never great at this, which is why George Gilder could write so convincingly of brutish men requiring the civilizing influence of marriage and family life. Yet, even when we get married and start raising a family, an ongoing submission of the will is required or the civilizing effects won’t take. Without that submission, we wind up bitter and frustrated, and probably divorced – like the central figure in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle as described by Sam Sacks:

Volume two alternates between Karl Ove’s life as a husband and father and the circumstances that led him to leave his first wife and marry his second. Its most memorable episodes involve the pram-pushing indignities that bourgeois parenthood inflicts on a man possessed by dreams of grandeur and “invincibility.”

It’s true: Pram-pushing and diaper-changing are hard to reconcile with dreams of grandeur, which is why we have to surrender our dreams of grandeur.

Instead, we embrace diaper DisposableDiapersatKrogerculture and its accompanying formation in humility. No grandeur in wrangling wet diapers, that’s for sure, and nothing exhilarating about making midnight diaper runs to Kroger’s. Instead, the diaper aisle and the diaper pail are the dad’s equivalent to St. Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service,”

in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow.

And it’s only the beginning, of course – next up, potty training! Meanwhile, cool stuff is happening in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and you’re home, keeping tabs on your toddler’s fluid intake and toileting schedule while scrambling to get the lawn mowed and the bills paid. Not exactly exciting stuff, yet the ideal classroom for training in selflessness. Deuel put it this way:

I have to tell you that the birth of our child completely changed me. I found myself worrying more and seeing some of the dangerous — or perhaps adventurous if you want to be charitable — things we used to do; I was no longer attracted to them because I had like this tiny, beautiful human being who needed us.

And here’s the odd thing: It’s unlikely you’ll ever be attracted again to your old life of danger and adventure, whatever form it took.

Striving to be a decent father changes us in ways we could never anticipate: Our priorities change, our interests, our passions. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll tell you what. When the kids start growing up? When they’re graduating from high school and going to college? You won’t start pining for Istanbul and grandeur. Instead, if you’re like me, what you’ll really miss is the diaper aisle, and you’ll get nostalgic every time you pass it by.

I haven’t been down one in a long, long time.

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Fatherhood.gov? Really?

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.
~ Winston Churchill

You know that scene at the beginning of Mrs. Doubtfire? Robin Williams has just been canned, and he goes home with a carload of party goods and throws a neighborhood shindig for his kid’s birthday. Then, Sally Field comes home and ruins everything. What would you expect from a Flying Nun, right?

robinAnyway, we’re all supposed to grumble and side with Robin Williams and mutter disparagingly about Sally Field—that she’s too hung up on budgets and propriety and responsibility and grown-up stuff like that.

That’s what I thought back when I saw it long ago—back before marriage and seven kids and a mortgage and a fleet of run-down vehicles that average 100,000 miles each and break down with a remarkable regularity.

Turns out, Sally Field was right. We all need a Sally Field in our lives to set us straight—to tell us to get it right or get out, and then back it up with action.

And when I say “we,” of course, I mean guys.

My friend Nick sent me an article link from Cracked magazine the other day: “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” by David Wong. It was a shocker, in two ways. First, knowing Cracked magazine from my youth, I thought it was going to be an article about something scatological. It wasn’t, although it’s most definitely not family fare—somewhere between PG-13 and R, I’d say. Actually, make that a solid R.

The second shocker was that, despite the rough language and raunchy images, it was a remarkably profound, even wise, bit of writing. I read through it once, forwarded it to my oldest son, and then read through it again. It’s a gem.

Wong’s thesis is basically that life is hard, get used to it, and get off your duff. He has no patience for whiners who keep wishing for a job or a girlfriend or a life. Wong tells them—us, or rather, me—to shut up and go do something to make those things happen! It’s great advice. It’s Flying Nun advice. Frankly, it’s dad advice.

Now, cut to my drive home recently: The radio is on, the classic rock song fades, and a cheery PSA materializes—sounds like a commercial for the Mormon church, or maybe a cholesterol drug or something. Turns out, it’s Uncle Sam advertising something called “fatherhood.gov,” a website promoting responsible fatherhood.

What?

Really. I heard it, I promise: For more information, go to fatherhood.gov.

Wow. I mean, the PSA was sweet, and it’s emphasis on fathers being involved and engaged with their children could make a difference with some guys. And I checked out the website—lots of good stuff and good ideas there. That’s all to the good.48a358b02b3c375fed2223270c084e58

But “fatherhood.gov”? Give me a break. By the way, there is no “motherhood.gov.”

I have enough experience with bureaucracies to know that fathers don’t rate with our “gov.” When the “gov” is involved, official correspondence and forms are always addressed to the mom, and dads seem to be tolerated and included to the degree that they make a nuisance of themselves.

The real kicker is the exclusion of fathers from vital decision-making when it comes to their children. And when I say vital, I mean vital. Dads have zero say in the ultimate fatherly function of protecting his children, for moms are granted exclusive rights when it comes to deciding whether their unborn babies live or die. Men have no say. None.

But that’s besides the point. What I want to emphasize here is that a federally sponsored effort to promote responsible fatherhood could never promote the kind of advice that David Wong provides. But that’s exactly what our kids need today—at least my kids do. Yes, they need me to play catch with them in the park, and maybe tag and hide-and-seek. But they also need me to tell them to quit whining and get to work.

That assumes that I’ve quit whining myself and have gotten to work—also something the feds can’t exactly promote in a PSA.

I can’t locate it right now, but somewhere in our Rubbermaid bins is an old Luann comic I saved that sums all this up nicely. It’s entitled, “The Difference Between Moms and Dads,” and the first panel shows Luann complaining to her mom that she has a sore throat. The mom responds by insisting that Luann stay home from school and get into bed, where she’ll be pampered and catered to all day. The second panel shows Luann making the same complaint to her dad: “My throat’s kinda sore.” His response as he’s heading out the door is brief: “Mine too. Suck a lozenge.”

That’s fatherhood in a nutshell. Can fatherhood.gov sell that? I don’t think so.
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Syria and My Boys

It’s appalling to me, appalling to me, that we spend two or three or four weeks debating whether to create a whole new category of war called humanitarian war, rather than dealing with our own problems and trying to solve them.
 ~ Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla.

Syria is suffering. The situation is dire; the stakes, high; the consequences of our choices, maybe catastrophic, maybe not. Who knows?

We get updates, analysis, and speculation around the clock, and from folks far more knowledgeable than me, so none of that here. Instead, I’m writing as a dad—specifically, a dad of sons. It’s my boys that got me thinking about Syria, and now I’m scared, sad, and angry.Syria-Civil-War

First, the scare. My 18-year-old recently sent in his Selective Service card, so he’s all signed up for the draft. I know that a draft is about as unlikely as a spontaneous peace in the Levant, but I still got spooked when he dropped that card in the mail slot.

The Pentagon routinely insists that they prefer an all-volunteer armed forces and that they don’t want conscripts, but Selective Service is still in business, and the laws compelling 18-year-old males to enroll are still in force.

Consequently, there must be some consideration in Washington that a draft may be necessary someday—that we’ll get embroiled in so many conflicts that there simply won’t be enough volunteers to fill the gaps.

The President promises us that there will be no “boots on the ground” in Syria, but once we drop the bombs, everything’s up for grabs. I’m scared because it looks like we’re going to get locked into yet another war at a time when young men (and women, for that matter) are in shorter and shorter supply. Could another war or two exhaust our stock of volunteers? Is a draft possible?

Even if a draft is only a remote possibility, I want our country to stay out of the way of other people’s wars as much as possible. That’s not isolationism; that’s just a dad talking. What’s happening in Syria is horrendous, but it’s happening in Syria. I grieve for Syria, and I pray for Syria. Nevertheless, I would not want my own son to have to kill and risk being killed on behalf of Syria. That’s just the plain truth.

Then there’s sadness. My 13-year-old is a football fanatic and a dedicated student of the game. And when I say student, I don’t just mean stats and records and scores. He’s really a student of play-calling and game-planning—a self-taught tactician, and an astute observer of strategy. He loves to play on the field, but he also loves to play in theory, and he’s never more animated than when trying to explain to me why some quarterback or coach did what he did.

His passion for tactics and strategy makes me think he could excel in the study of military science. That, along with his disciplined character and respect for authority, might incline him to pursue a future in the armed forces. But I would never encourage him to enlist—not now anyway.

The men and women rising to the political top these days—the decision-makers, both Republican and Democrat, who send our troops to war—show an appalling lack of judgment regarding the use of  military force. I don’t trust any of them to make prudent, lawful decisions about when to put our sons and daughters in harm’s way. The politicians have got an abysmal track record, and I’ve strongly urged my children to avoid enlisting in any capacity.

Finally, the anger. My nine-year-old son is an eager third-grader who loves to read, ride his bike, and hang out with his friends. He also has Down syndrome, which makes him a statistical survivor. About 90% of babies with Down’s are aborted in this country. It might even be higher than that. It certainly is higher than that in parts of Europe.

The chemical attacks and indiscriminate slaughter taking place in Syria is rightfully condemned. It’s awful and sickening. It has to stop. The same could be said for the attacks on the unborn and the slaughter of innocents that legally takes place in our own communities every day. Then there’s euthanasia and mercy killing. Then there’s capital punishment. All human life is sacred. Killing is always a tragedy. Our outrage and sorrow extends to every occasion when human life is intentionally targeted and cut short.

popeBut returning violence for violence only perpetuates the madness. There must be another way. There must be.

This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!
~ Pope Francis

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Growing Up for Grownups

Coming of age movies areduncan about adolescents, right? And we still watch them after we’ve left coming of age in the dust because, what, we’re nostalgic? Or we hope to get some insight regarding our own adolescence and the crud we went through growing up ourselves?

These were the thoughts rumbling through my head the last few days as I’ve read the reviews of The Way, Way Back, the coming-of-age movie de jour. It’s about Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old with a distracted divorced mom whose boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), is an unmitigated jerk. The Way, Way Back is up to 87% on the Tomatometer, receiving lots of raves from reviewers and ordinary moviegoers alike. It sounds terrific, and I’m thinking I’ll even pay full price to see it as soon as I can scrape together the cash.

No doubt it’s a wistful hearkening for days of yore, but I’ll still fork over to see these kinds of movies—like Mud earlier this summer and Super 8 a couple years back. They do tend to be associated with summer, which is itself evocative, and my guess is that most of these films probably premiere in the summer months as well. Coming of age, warm weather, vacation—they all seem to go together.huckleberry

It’s a genre with a noble pedigree, including standouts like Breaking Away (1979) and Stand By Me (1986), but, really, they’re all just rehashed Mark Twain, at least the ones about boys. Alienation and separation from parents (especially dad) is a mainstay, and the assumption of a task or mission, usually involving danger, provides narrative scaffolding. Usually there’s a replacement father, and often a love interest, but the heart of every coming of age story is the protagonist charting his own course—Huck Finn setting off down the Mississippi with a runaway slave in other words. It’s a familiar theme, and The Way, Way Back, from all reports, does it justice.

So, with all that in mind, I watched the trailer, and…I got all choked up.

“Really?” my wife asked me when I showed it to her. “That made you cry?” My teens were incredulous as well. “He sure is going soft in his old age,” is what I imagine they were thinking as they shook their heads. No matter; I admit it: The trailer made me cry—yes, just the trailer. If you’re a parent, especially a dad, maybe it’ll make you cry, too

Here’s why, I think.

The introspection that films like this often inspire in the middle-aged and their elders is backward looking, and often fruitful and needed—we think back, we reflect, we process, we sigh. The producers and marketers know this, I’m sure, and they tailor these movies as much for people like me looking back as for actual coming-of-age adolescents looking forward. After all, it’s about ticket sales, isn’t it? Hit as many demographic groups as possible!

Yet there’s something about The Way, Way Back that makes it forward oriented for both audience demographics, despite the title—at least based on the reviews and the trailer. I saw lots of screwed up adults in the clips, but even that short two and a half minutes radiated joy and vitality and an overarching hope that somehow Duncan would be OK, that he was going to do just fine despite the parents and grownups in his life.

For me, an insecure parent haunted by regrets and doubt, who knows he’s made lots of mistakes he can’t undo, and who is clumsily trying to make up lost time by grasping at family living like a desperate rock climber grasping at belays and fissures—for me? Even that short trailer was a blissful reminder that it’s not all up to me in any case. My wife and I are players in the lives of our children, and critically important players at that, but we’re still only players—there are others.

And the other players aren’t always the ones we’d expect or choose, another note this film apparently (I’m guessing here) gets right. Sam Rockwell plays Owen, a unselfconscious wounded healer free of ambition who becomes Duncan’s surrogate father. “You gotta’ go your own way,” Owen tells Duncan, “and you, my friend, are going your own way.” He builds up where Carell’s Trent tears down, and Owen pointedly reminds Duncan’s mom, “You’ve got a helluva’ kid here.”

A bonus big plus is that The Way, Wway-way-back-rockwellay Back avoids peddling a feel-good story in a neat two-hour package with an unrealistic horizon. “You don’t see too many movies about the importance of fathers, and they’re rarely done this well,” writes Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Rockwell is the good father figure, and Carell the awful one, but Carell is too sensitive to play a total monster.” In other words, even when we screw up? It’s redeemable.

Pope Francis gets at this in his new encyclical—the idea of marriage and having kids appearing like a huge gamble that’s still doable to the degree that it is infused with love, particularly Love from the source.

Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person (Lumen Dei, 52).

“Possible,” “sustains,” “enables,” “helps”—these are words of hope, not surety. Marriage and raising kids is not math,  it’s not a lab assignment. It’s a messy adventure filled with risk and reward, for which we’re all ill equipped, and we’ll muck it up time and time again. No question.

It sounds like this movie, though, offers a heaping serving of perspective on all that, and can provide us paranoid parents with just the right dose of insight into how God can fill in the gaps we can’t prevent in our children’s lives. Not much of a revelation when you think about it. He gave us the kids and put us in charge for a while, but they’re His. God loves them more than we do, and He’s more than capable of caring for them when we fall short.

So, all this from a handful of reviews and a single trailer? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe it was just an exceptionally good trailer. Perhaps. Let’s say that’s the case, and I never get a chance to see the movie itself, and this whole post is an embarrassing exercise in presumption and hauteur.

Look, my kids are getting older and college is on the horizon for them, and the time is slipping through my fingers like water—not sand, mind you, water. If a 2-1/2 minute trailer can jostle my sullen spirit and restore my confidence in Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” then so be it. I’ll take it. And maybe I’ll save the $7 for a different movie another day.

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