Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Here's the deal

If you hear something late at night,
some kind of trouble,
some kind of fight,
just don't ask me what it was.
--Suzanne Vega

What I want to know is
Are you kind?
--Grateful Dead

Im'a get medieval on your ass.
--Pulp Fiction

Especially those of you who know that I'm a Twit know that Mama and I were planning a trip to Uganda. While we were there, 3B's Grammy was going to come here and take care of him, but Grammy now has to look after her own mother, so she's unable to babysit 3B. Mama will still go to Uganda on Sunday--she's running a meeting there; I was just tagging along--and I'll be solo daddying it here for a week or so.

It was difficult letting go of the expectations we had built up, but it's the only choice, because this is the deal: we look after our children and we look after our parents.

I've been thinking about this deal and the other deals we make with each other quite a bit since reading MetroDad's thoughtful rant about people who don't abide by the deal. For many reasons, I agree wholeheartedly with his verdict for those who can't, or won't, keep up their end of the deal, but at the same time, I can't endorse it either.

I agree with him because ever since 3B was born, my view of humanity has changed. I used to define people by their characteristics, perhaps by the associations they made, and by the actions that they took. Since having 3B, however, I can't help but view everyone as someone's child--born with unlimited potential, deserving of every opportunity, always imperfect in this moment and striving to be better in the next.

As I interact with them, I can't help but ask myself, "How will they report me to their parents? What would I say if 3B told me someone treated him the way that I'm treating this person?"

And so, given the beauty that 3B was born with, if he ever told me that someone had abused him in any way, my first reaction would be anger, and I'd want to unleash my anger without restraint on whoever had hurt 3B. And I don't think my instinct would be to give them the luxury of taking one for the team themselves. My instinct would be to get medieval on their asses, and never let up.

I can't even read those stories about people who lock kids away, beat them, starve them to death, and so on, because I get an image of someone doing those things to 3B stuck in my mind, and it makes me clench my fists, grind my teeth, and imagine how I'd avenge the hurt they inflicted.

But, as I play out this scenario in my mind, I stop when I remember that whoever might have hurt 3B would be someone's child. If I beat up on them, I'd be abusing someone's child. And, after all, might that not be how we got to this point? Isn't it the case that violence begets violence, and if it doesn't stop with me, where will it end? And, if I exacted my vengance from a perpetrator, would I be the person who my mother and father wanted me to be? How would doing that care for the memory and legacy of them that I carry forward?

Just as I can't read those stories about child abuse, neither can I read stories about the torturing of an adult without thinking of how that man or woman's parents must feel to hear that the beautiful child they had nurtured to adulthood, protecting them along the way from all manner of perils great and small, had come to be broken and suffer so, especially at the hands of another, with the malice and forethought that entails.

(What we all often forget is the fate of those who perpetrate torture. Those who command them to do it generally have clear consciences and sleep peacefully, dreaming of Hop on Pop, but those who have to lay their hands on another with the purpose of breaking them apart often are mentally and emotionally broken themselves by the work. Mom, Brother #2, and I toured the Gevangepoort at The Hague, where some folks who we share a name with and who we may or may not be related to were tortured and killed. One was broken with hammers on the rack, in an effort to force a confession from him that never came. When his brother arrived to recover him, they assembled mob literally tore them to pieces. It's said that the process of attempting to force a false confession from a man with a set of hammers ruined the man who committed the brutality. I can't imagine that our sense of collective humanity has changed so much in the last 400 years that contemporary torturers aren't affected similarly.)

None of this means that I don't support taking child abusers out of circulation. That's also part of the deal: if you can't, or won't, look after children and parents, you don't get to play the game. I understand that it's possible that some abusers don't feel they can control their actions for various reasons--they've only ever known violence, they have a physical addiction that leaves them out of control of their actions, and so forth.

But I don't care. You break certain rules, you don't get to play the game.

OK, but then what? If we're not lining these people up against a wall with bandannas and cigarettes, what are we doing with them? If it's true that it takes a village to raise a child, what do we do for these children, who have grown up to prey on their own or others' children? Or, are some people beyond repair?

(And what do we do for those who we commanded to defile others? Who we taught to prey on their fellow humans, to tear them apart by their weakest parts? Are they beyond repair?)

Those questions all assume a negative. A more positive way to answer the same questions is to determine what we can do to love and shelter our children and parents. In our specific case, relating to Mama's trip to Uganda, that translates into allowing 3B's Grammy to look after her mom, who recently had a stroke. This means that I'll stay home to look after 3B. On the one hand, doing this contradicts some of the feelings that I've had since losing my own Mom, which Dave Eggers summed up fairly accurately:
On the one hand you are so completely bewildered that something so surreal and incomprehensible could happen. At the same time, suddenly the limitations or hesitations that you might have imposed on yourself fall away. There's a weird, optimistic recklessness that could easily be construed as nihilism but is really the opposite. You see that there is a beginning and an end and that you have only a certain amount of time to act. And you want to get started.
--Dave Eggers

On the other hand, those feelings can quickly drift into an egocentric selfishness, and it behooves me to remember that spending a week focusing on 3B as a boy and me as a dad is exactly one of those acts that I want to get started on now that I'm so painfully aware again that there is only a certain amount of time to act.

Besides, this is deal. And it's a deal that I love more than I could have imagined possible.

Of course, Mom, who not only had eyes in the back of her head, but who could also see into the future, knew this. Years ago she told me, "I always thought that you'd make a great house husband." And perhaps to remind me of this, she came to me in a dream the night we decided that I wouldn't go to Uganda. Or perhaps she came to comfort me as I realized that I'd be thousands of miles from Mama for over a week, because sometimes even big boys want to hear their Moms tell them it's going to be OK, it's all right, just go to sleep now.

Or maybe she was telling me that I really shouldn't have left those dishes in the sink overnight. Didn't I know that I'd just have to wash them in the morning?

Yeah, that was probably it.

Whatever it was, I'm hoping that Mom finds her way back to me when Mama's gone, to help me sleep through the night. And here's hoping that all the hurt, lost, and lonely children around us find someone to kiss them, lay them down, stroke their hair, and watch over them.

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  1. Anonymous1:19 PM

    I think we've forgotten that deal in this country. We don't take care of our kids or our parents very well, on the whole.

    I hate that I live 3000 miles from my parents. What will I do when they need care? I'm glad that we live in a time when it is easy to move to a new place, to make a new life somewhere else. But what about the family we leave behind?

    I think it takes some advanced thinking and feeling to perceive that every one of us was born someone's child. It's easy to condemn others, even to physical punishment or death, if we can distance ourselves and forget the offenders' basic humanity.

    I think we can only be fully responsible for our own actions. So while it's great that we vote for peaceful candidates and donate to peaceful causes, peace really does begin at home. How do I treat myself and those around me? Am I teaching my children to be nonviolent? It's fine to work toward a distant future where we have no capital punishment and no war, but, as you said, there is only a certain amount of time to act.

  2. Wow! This is a wonderful post. You made me think about some things that I have really considered before - every person is someone's child, despite their horrible actions.

    I hope you and 3B have fun playing together while Mama is away. Sorry about the Uganda trip.

  3. Speaking of Uganda's leaders and their fetishes for cartoon violence . . .

    I'm with you, really with you, through just about the whole thing: Yup, everyone is someone's baby, and parents and kids take care of each other, as do brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews and everyone in the village it takes.

    Except . . .

    Except I really do have to make the one exception. Just the one, and really just because of the day you pick to bring this all up.

    The guy who writes the tax forms.

    I understand, governments are there to protect and to serve and to honor and obey and so on, and the grease for that machine has got to come from somewhere. I do understand. And I'm not saying I love the guy who extracts the taxes, but it's his job, and it's part of the system, and without him we don't get libraries and Velcro and Tang and the Internet and all kinds of other products of R&D taxpayers sponsored.

    But the guy who writes the forms. I mean, it's bad enough we have to pay the taxes. But to write the forms that way--and the instructions--isn't Hell saving a special room for that guy?

    That's my two cents. Over there, in the sack on the table with everyone else's two cents in it too.

    Happy April 15th!

  4. Brother Papa, 3B has loving Aunties and cousins who would love to take care of him when you are out of the country, just drop across the river and you can leave him with us here in Washington. I am glad you have your priorities straight, and you are looking out for your son.

    I remember your father's mother complaining to your mother about how one of her helpers had to take time off to take care of her mother in law. I think she missed the point. Mom took care of her anyway.

    Mr. J: I think if fewer people had their fingers in the pot, tax forms might be simpler. The complexity comes from trying not to tax our friends too much, and everyone else as much as we can. Just ask Congress.

  5. Anonymous11:59 PM

    Amazing post, my friend. Your thoughts mirror my own on so many levels. So many things to say that I don't even know where to start.

    But essentially, i think we're all learning that parenthood has taught us that making the world a better place starts with the little one you have in your own home.

    It also teaches you so many other things. Like how many children don't have the support and luxuries that our own children have. That life is short and it's our moral responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. And that bad things happen to people who don't grow up in a loving, caring household.

    I could go on and on about the rest of your post as well. However, I'll keep it light and end this comment by telling you that spending some great quality alone time with your child is a gift. I think you'll enjoy it immensely. Carpe Diem, my friend.

    And as always, safe travels to Mama!

  6. Amama: Yeah, we've forgotten a lot of deals in this country. Hell, I've forgotten a lot of deals when it's been convenient for me. Fortunately I've got 3B to keep me honest.

    Christy: I'm glad you liked it. All the credit for the deep thoughts goes to 3B.

    MrJ: Actually, if you're going to engage in a monetary transaction like depositing pennies in a sack, Uncle Sam would like you to report it on this form here. Be sure to complete the accompanying schedules and worksheets and include the appropriate documentation of that transaction.

    So, technically, while you deposited two cents, Uncle Sam took one of them to pay for maintenance and regulation of said sack. If you want your contribution to total two cents, you'll have to deposit four cents. However, this will put you in a higher bracket, meaning that you will have to deposit more pennies, which will again put you in a higher bracket...

    And yes. I'm all about clean interfaces, so yes, I'm fairly sure that there's a room waiting for that guy at the bottom of the down escalator.

    CAGirl: It's going to be a little difficult to get into Washington before we leave town, so if you could come over to pick him up, that would be great. See you soon!

    MD: As I wrote to Christy, I owe the deep thoughts to 3B, but I owe the inspiration and motivation for writing this post to you.

    You're right. Every minute I have with 3B is a gift. I'm forever grateful that I live and work in a world where I can have so much time with him.