Standing in the Rubble

Two months ago, near the start of the Libyan revolution, I read this paragraph:

Gaddafi, clad in brown robes and a turban, spoke on Tuesday evening from a podium set up in the entrance of a bombed-out building that appeared to be his Tripoli residence hit by US air raids in the 1980s and left unrepaired as a monument of defiance.

And I immediately thought to myself: No, that’s not right at all.

I was considering the image of all that rubble, all that damage left on display, and I understood that there is nothing defiant about flaunting your damage. Maintaining that rubble was an act of blame, not “defiance”.

That rubble could have been bulldozed; a park could have been built. The stones and space could have become a new thing. But taking away the damage takes away the memory of the act of destruction; if there is no wound, then the impact of the original strike is diminished.

Rebuilding is the defiant act. It shows that the damage was inconsequential and that we remain unfettered. We are still growing. Your act did not make us stumble. What you did, did not matter.

To maintain our damage is to maintain blame; it says to the aggressor, “Look! Look what you have done! You are guilty, and here is the proof, and I will never let you forget it.”

The only persons we are defying are ourselves.

Passionate Wisdom

UPDATE (June 13, 2011): The author of this story has come forward admitting that it is a hoax. Although the story loses some of its appeal without the lustrous shine of a “based on a true story” tag, I hope that the underlying message of my commentary still stands.


An out lesbian in Syria is visited by goons in the middle of the night, and her father stands by her, defends her, and ultimately sends them away in shame:

 

“And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here.”

All of us, as good parents, would share the same sentiment; we will defend our children with ferocity.  But this father goes a step further: he defends her with passionate, lucid eloquence:

So you come here to take Amina. Let me tell you something though. She is not the one you should fear; you should be heaping praises on her and on people like her. They are the ones saying alawi, sunni, arabi, kurdi, duruzi, christian, everyone is the same and will be equal in the new Syria; they are the ones who, if the revolution comes, will be saving Your mother and your sisters. They are the ones fighting the wahhabi most seriously. You idiots are, though, serving them by saying ‘every sunni is salafi, every protester is salafi, every one of them is an enemy’ because when you do that you make it so.

“Your Bashar and your Maher, they will not live forever, they will not rule forever, and you both know that. So, if you want good things for yourselves in the future, you will leave and you will not take Amina with you. You will go back and you will tell the rest of yours that the people like her are the best friends the Alawi could ever have and you will not come for her again.”

When our children are threatened or hurt or bullied it is our instinct to be warriors. We will fight others to save our own. But this intelligent man modeled a different parenting path: calm, passionate wisdom saved his daughter’s life.

Papa Tips #5: The Explicit Handoff

Ah, family life.  Just the three of you, gathered together, curtains drawn against the world, building your new little life together.

Being wise parents, you understand the importance of continued personal development.  You make sure that you have time together and apart — even if apart means being in the next room. So while one of you is tickling the baby, the other is tickling the ivories or tackling a novel.

So, let me set the scene:

You’re curled up in your favorite easy chair, finally getting into that thick tome you’ve been eying for the past month.  Your partner is there on the rug with the child, who is contentedly sucking on various appendages.  All is at peace.

You read for a while.  You look up. Baby is still content. Partner has wandered off — maybe a bathroom break.  Time passes.  Baby is happy. You hear the unmistakable clack of the keyboard from the next room — partner has probably been sucked into the Facebook vortex.  But baby is still contentedly contemplating the existence of a cardboard tube, so all is good.

Then baby starts to make some noises. You can see that some fussing is around the corner.

You glance at the doorway where your partner has disappeared. She hears the noises, right?  Is she coming back?

Baby is definitely looking for some attention. I mean, you were right in the  middle of this chapter and she’d been talking about taking care of the baby for a bit so you could start in on this book and where did she go?

Baby is amping up the fuss and is about to break down. With a frustrated glare at the still-empty doorway, you shelve the book and descend to the carpet.

This kind of scenario can happen all-too-easily.  You’re both there, you’re both parents, you’re both responsible.  But everybody needs and deserves time to be their grownup selves again.  In fact, you should work to explicitly give each other the quality non-baby time you need.  But it’s all too easy to wander off when baby is happy, only to find that you’ve burdened the other parent when baby inevitably breaks down.

The solution? The Explicit Handoff.

It’s easy: whenever official responsibility for baby’s care changes hands, acknowledge it.  Something like, “I’m going to go poke the internet for a bit, okay? Can you be on duty?”  This is especially important on weekends, when everyone looks forward to a change from the weekly schedule and fitting in all the relaxation and errands and chores can be a challenge.

Just like Papa Tip #4, this is one of those simple practices that can head off a source of low-level frustration.  Although, unlike the previous Papa Tip, I’m actually serious about this one.

 

Papa Tips #4: Use Your Accent

You’ve had your baby. You’ve gotten through the first week or so, and maybe even a routine is starting to re-emerge from the chaos.  It’s just you and your partner, building a little family in your little home, and all is sweet.

Your partner deserves a little quiet time, so you take babbling baby into the next room.  “Hi baby,” you say, “how’s my little baby? Whatcha looking at? You enjoying being alive? How about those hockey playoffs?”

“What’s that?” Your partner yells in from the next room.

“Nothing,” you reply.  “Just talking to the baby.”

Concentration / Relaxation

Concentration / Relaxation

You’ll hear a disgruntled grunt from the next room as your partner tries to resume the train of concentration/relaxation he or she was previously riding.

This scene will repeat itself over and over. The introduction of these one-sided conversations will lead to a bunch of were-you-talking-to-me-no-I-was-talking-to-the-baby-okay-fine-then exchanges.  They’re mostly harmless, of course, but it’s one of those minor little annoyances that can plague the first few months of parenthood.

Fortunately, there’s a way to get around them: use an accent!

That’s right, adopt an accent while talking to your baby.  French, Cockney, Jersey — the choice is yours. Just be sure to pick something that is clear, distinctive, and consistent; that way your partner will immediately know when your babble is directed at the baby.  Not only will you clear up all this confusion with your partner, but your child will grow up to sound charmingly foreign!

Okay… actually there’s no way around this. You’ll get used to it; I just wanted to warn you.

My Advice to My Sister on the Night Before She Wed

“Don’t be so in love with the idea of your marriage that you forget to fight.”

My sister and her fiance ... fighting.

That’s right, fight. Fighting is certainly an exercise in communication (although, granted, perhaps not the most efficient or effective communication). But even more importantly, fighting is an exercise in trust and honesty.

It takes trust to show someone your ugliness, your disappointment, your envy and frustration and annoyance. Just taking the step to reveal this says to your partner: “look, what I’m about to say is going to piss you off. But it’s important and I trust you to handle this message”.

No couple is perfectly aligned. Not every feeling is going to be appreciated. But if you’re afraid to express your feelings honestly because of conflict, then what kind of relationship do you have? If you don’t trust your partner enough to be angry at each other, what does the future hold for you?

So fight! Trust your partner enough to communicate honestly, no matter where the discussion leads. It just might save your marriage.

Plus, I hear that make-up sex is amazing.

Taking a Five-Year-Old to Paris

Ruby and I returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient and amiable travel partner.

Me, Ruby, Sparkly Tower

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting … but I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Headstands in the Park

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much.Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s … it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and Buckingham Palace, and the Crown Jewels and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as

Eiffel Tower with Nana

well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what a real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

The Mona Lisa!