Tag Archives: Parenthood

Three Paragraphs of Near and Far

No doubt you read about the recent suicide of Alireza Pahlavi, younger son of the former Shah of Iran. Last week I had lunch with a coworker whose father had been a high-ranking minister under the Shah. His position required that he travel with armed guards and two cars, one a decoy. As a boy my friend kept “a string of polo ponies.” He was seventeen at the time of the revolution and the family fled to India where they spent ten years (“the happiest of my life”) before coming, finally, to California. It’s hard to imagine such irrevocable dislocations. I wonder sometimes about the circumstances of my own family’s removal to the colonies three hundred years ago. It can’t only have been for the delight of living in the then-wilds of New Jersey. I suspect that we kept very few polo ponies back in Britain.

If box office stats were drawn from movies screened in our living room, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd would still be the world’s biggest stars. Last week we premiered Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The Tramp’s improvised version of Leo Daniderff’s Je cherche après Titine was a big hit. Its first audiences, I think, had never heard Chaplin’s voice on screen before. This past weekend we also watched Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) for the second time. It’s one of my son’s favorites. The chase scene with the horse-drawn train car through the streets of New York, the Coney Island sequence, the taxi ride with Babe Ruth, the street brawl of blunt-nosed toughs and octogenarian Civil War vets: it’s as much an education as an entertainment.

I took my five-year-old daughter to the park recently. I watched her play a while and then we sat on a bench to eat apple slices and pretzels. She had just told me not to stand so near her while she was playing (“I might want to make a friend,” she explained) when behind us we saw a great blue heron, no more than a dozen feet away. We were mesmerized, in the presence of an alien intelligence. We admired the way it scanned the grass for insects and how it craned its neck at a wary tilt when a hawk passed overhead. The heron was about the same height as my daughter, and wearing the same color. It seemed to share her concern about my proximity too. I tried moving a little closer for a photo but it drew the line at about eight feet. I used that for a rule back at the playground and had no further complaints from Miss Gimmespace.

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Introducing Children to the Holocaust

I once met a woman whose job it had been to remove gold fillings from the mouths of the dead.  She was a small person with short dark hair and an accent, a younger friend of my grandmother, and it was by that gruesome occupation that she had survived the concentration camps.  I couldn’t shake the awful image of it.  I was eleven or twelve at the time; she must have been a girl about my own age then, turning over corpses with a pair of pliers in her hand.

My son worships Charlie Chaplin.  But he wasn’t sure, at seven years old, that The Great Dictator was a film he could appreciate.  I had explained to him that it satirized Adolf Hitler, a very bad man, and Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, which (I reminded him) two of his great-grandfathers had fought in.  “Maybe I should be a little older before I see it,” he said.  But we started the movie and by the time we reached Adenoid Hynkel’s macaronic speech under the banner of the “double cross” any hesitation had been conquered by hilarity.

He was baffled and disturbed, however, by the scenes in the ghetto when storm troopers marched through the streets painting ‘JEW’ on the windows.  They bullied shopkeepers and women and pushed and threatened Chaplin himself, in his role as the unnamed Jewish barber.  Why are they all being so terrible? he wanted to know.

I gave what could only feel like a weak explanation.  How, I wondered, does one go about introducing the idea of the Holocaust to a seven year old?  He knows something about the history of slavery in the United States, about President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the American Civil War.  But these things must seem far away compared to the horrible conflict that touched, one way or another, the lives of his parents’ own grandfathers.

We want to protect our children from damaging knowledge.  We also want them to understand the kind of world they live in.  The danger of the first is that we leave them defenseless in their innocence.  The danger of the second is that their souls are poisoned and they surrender later in life to that despairing notion Moses Herzog rails against in Bellow’s novel, that “the truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion.”

My grandmother’s friend never talked to children about the war, but she silently showed me the fading blue numbers the Nazi jailers had tattooed on her arm.  It’s less and less likely my children will ever meet survivors of the death camps.  But if there is a way of introducing the Holocaust to a child without at the same time depriving him of natural hope, perhaps Chaplin’s movie is it.  George Santayana wrote that “between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition.”  Chaplin, I think, is proof of that.

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Marginalia, no.103

No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.

~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

For weeks now my children and I have been arguing whether humans are animals.  I insist that they are.  They disagree, and disagree.  And strongly disagree.  They raise their voices, get red in the face and slam their little fists on the table.  I explain that humans are, after all, classified as mammals, among the primates, and that even though we are (I admit) animals of a special sort and not like the others in some very important ways, we’re still animals.  “People are NOT animals!” my son will say.  “Monkeys think it’s okay to fling poo around but people know better!”  As if that proves anything.  People fling poo of one sort or another too, of course, but I don’t want to disabuse him of the notion of human decency just yet.  Sister is squarely in brother’s court.  Even if she sometimes thinks me “so very wise” (as she put it the other night), she seethes with righteous fury: “No, Papa!” (she’s actually yelling) “PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, AND ANIMALS ARE ANIMALS!”  Faced with such violent dogmatism I almost want to relent, if only to keep the peace.  But then who wouldn’t really rather be an animal?  If it meant, just now, that so much less would be expected of me, nothing strenuous or heroic, that I could curl up by the fire with a book and sleep late every morning, then I say – Sign me up.

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Suffer the Little Children

What people believe is a measure of what they suffer.

It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished Peter De Vries’ book and I still can’t bring myself to begin another novel.  I pick here and there at Chekhov stories, at Montaigne and Emerson and DeQuincey.  I read magazines.  But in between and throughout the day I return again and again in my mind to The Blood of the Lamb.

My father used to say so, and having been a father myself now for six years, I suspect it’s true: Until you have children of your own it’s impossible to understand the burden of heartache that comes with parenthood.  It weights your steps like leaden boots.  It bounds your vision in every direction.  It colors every thought.  It groans perpetually in the nerves and in the marrow of your bones, sharp, but vaguely sweet.

That people are ever able to survive the suffering and death of their children is incomprehensible to me.  I think about the quote above and I think about De Vries’ own loss.  The Blood of the Lamb is more than a tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.  It’s also very much about faith, and the death of faith.

I wonder why he didn’t write ‘love’ instead of ‘believe.’  In its power to evoke it, love seems almost a form of suffering in its own right, and it’s not hard to imagine that the more objects you give your heart to in a world of universal transience, the more you open yourself to pain at their inevitable loss.  But he didn’t write ‘love.’

Perhaps he meant that the more we suffer, the less we are likely to believe; or, conversely, that the more things we believe, the more we are bound to suffer over them.  Or perhaps he meant that the particular things we believe (religiously, personally) grow naturally out of our individual fears, as a way of counteracting those fears and pushing them – and the psychological suffering they entail – farther away.  But I don’t think so. 

I wonder, instead, if De Vries was simply saying that we suffer according to the terms of our personal creeds.  The believer in Self, then, suffers specifically in terms of the self; the believer in Nothing in terms of the void; the believer in a personal God in terms of close acquaintance with unobliging omnipotence.

What does it mean for a believer in Love (as every parent must be) to suffer in terms of love?  Maybe The Blood of the Lamb is De Vries’ answer to that question.

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Notes for a Universal History of Tobacco

My wife had a teenage crush on James Dean. She confided it to her father who latched onto the idea and bought her anything he could find bearing the beloved likeness. Grateful for his generosity, she came to regret sharing that bit of information. Her bedroom was slowly transformed. James Dean books and videos, mugs, and knick-knacks colonized her shelves and the tops of her dresser and nightstand. Wall décor of her own choosing was exiled farther and farther into the corners with the arrival of each new poster. By the time she’d outgrown her infatuation, she was the reluctant priestess of a shrine dedicated entirely to the perpetual adoration of the Rebel-Without-a-Cause.

It once came to the attention of my father-in-law that I enjoyed an occasional cigar. Soon they began to multiply in my hands. I was given two or three at each visit. He returned from a cruise to Puerto Vallarta and presented me with a dozen Cubans he’d smuggled through customs, for which I thanked him heartily. But his inclination to give me cigars soon outpaced my inclination to smoke them. I had a raucous bachelor party’s supply of them in my sock drawer pining away for the flame, desiccating for lack of a proper humidor. Then one day I came home from work to find a package waiting. I opened it and discovered inside a veritable Wunderkammer of gloriously banded and beribboned cigars of all shapes, sizes and varieties: Cohiba, Cu Avana, Man o’ War, Gurkha, Indian Tabac, Rocky Patel, La Flor, Joya de Nicaragua, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann, etc. He’d found a deal too good to pass up. There were over seventy-five in all.

“It’s James Dean all over again,” said my wife.

That was a number of years ago. I don’t smoke cigars anymore. The day of my last cigar I’d driven to a vista point in the hills to light up one of my rich, chocolate colored Gurkhas. Watching a group of retirees pilot remote controlled single-prop barnstormers over the parking lot, I lost track of my puffing and gave myself a severe case of nicotine poisoning. To keep from retching and passing out I had to lie down on the grass, breathing deeply, sweating and shivering for an hour before I was able to stand up. After that, I swore off smoking. The thought of it turned my stomach.

I admit, however, the romance of tobacco. It’s more than just the Hollywood glamour of monochrome swirls on celluloid. Tobacco smoking is a quintessentially Western Hemisphere pastime with an ancient pedigree. While the Achaians set fire to Troy the Anasazi were pleasurably smoking the tobacco leaf. While Norman knitters were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry, Mayan sculptors were carving petroglyph images of pipe-smoking priests. And of course we’re all familiar with the peace pipe’s ritual use among North American tribes, to aid meditation or symbolically seal pacts and alliances. As a member of a family with more than ten generations on this continent and in whose children some measure of Native American blood is mixed, tobacco smoking is for me a quiet way of illustrating my personal allegiance to the New World.

It wasn’t until smoking was popularized in Europe that it met with any objections. England’s King James I was perhaps the most famous early detractor. He instituted a 4000% tax on tobacco to stamp out the barbaric practice. He considered it, as he wrote in his Counterblaste to Tobacco, a “filthie noveltie,” a custom that was

lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.

Which is about as subtle as most of the anti-smoking rhetoric peddled these days. But despite King James’s prescient estimate of the health dangers of smoking, the prohibitive taxes and the Counterblaste failed. Soon afterward the crown saw its mistake and turned the tobacco trade into a lucrative government monopoly.

If I’m a failed smoker it’s not because I haven’t tried. In the years immediately following college and well before the Affair of the Chocolate Gurkha, I strove to become a cigarette smoker. German-made Botschafter cigarettes were my favorites, but I lacked the budget and requisite capacity for addiction, and anyway didn’t like the way it made my fingers smell. Plus, with mass-produced cigarettes one has all the toxic additives to worry over and the guilt about second-hand smoke. Add to that the taxes on cigarette sales in the United States (which are fast approaching King James levels again) and it’s a wonder anyone bothers at all.

I was given one more chance to be a smoker, however, and I kept it up for little while. My son inherited his grandfather’s compulsion to gift me with tobacco products. For Father’s Day one year he insisted I ask for a pipe as a present from himself and his sister. His Papa, he thought, ought to be a pipe smoker. (He wanted me to grow a beard too; eventually we figured out that he was modelling me on Charles Ingalls from the Little House on the Prarie books.) I told him I might prefer a professional massage, but he begged me to ask for a pipe instead. So we marched into the local pipe shop where I presented myself at the counter:

“I aspire to being a pipe smoker,” I said, and pointed to my son. “Or at least, he insists.”

I was fitted out with a handsome Savinelli briar pipe, a bundle of cleaners, a three-function Czech pipe tool, and a mild custom blend of tobacco which, to the nose, was something like a pleasantly drinkable Cabernet: vaguely sweet, somewhat leathery, aromatic as light incense. I gave the pipe its maiden smoke on the balcony with my children and their mother looking on. I packed the bowl and lit it. My son was laughing with excitement. My daughter called me a dragon each time I belched out a mouthful of smoke. The traces of nicotine danced away in my head and sang pleasantly. The light of the setting sun took on a hue of linseed oil as it filtered through the willows. The oleanders bobbed in a light breeze and the doves cooed softly from a neighbor’s roof. I sighed, relaxed, and suddenly, briefly, there it was: the potent, happy mystery of being human, of being alive.

“Well, what do you think of it?” my wife asked.

“Not bad,” I said. “Not bad at all.”

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On Children’s Books

One of the richer returns of parenthood is the welcome excuse to reacquaint oneself with children’s books. There are the old crowd-pleasers, of course, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Kipling’s Just So Stories, Dr Seuss, Curious George, Madeline, Babar and all the wonderful little books by Beatrix Potter (my daughter sleeps with a copy of Mister Jeremy Fisher every night). There are other books too, some of which you may only vaguely recall or never read as a child, but which specially impress you now that you’ve trudged a certain distance into the long fog of adulthood.

Among these I would include Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances stories, several of Margaret Wise Brown’s books (including Little Fur Family, The Runaway Bunny, and her Noisy books), Wanda Gág’s marvelously illustrated Millions of Cats and The Funny Thing, some of Sendak’s more obscure pieces, Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, all of William Steig’s books, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and James Marshall’s George and Martha collection.

The children’s books you are happiest to read now that you’re an adult aren’t always the books your children prefer to hear, however. Steig’s child protagonists (in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, and Zeke Pippin, for example) are always being abducted by bandits or prepared for supper, or transformed unexpectedly into dumb boulders atop which the wolves howl hungrily through the winter snows. Which is scary stuff. And when it comes to books of poetry, they had better be illustrated. Luckily, my copy of Stevenson is chock-full of pictures, so that when I get to my favorite lines in ‘Travels’:

There I’ll come when I’m a man
With a camel caravan;
Light a fire in the gloom
Of some dusty dining room;
See the pictures on the walls,
Heroes, fights and festivals;
And in a corner find the toys
Of the old Egyptian boys,

they’re nicely matched with an ink line drawing of infant Victorians in dresses yanking the beard of Pharaoh and hugging a mummified cat. It’s sufficiently weird, anyway, for a three-year-old to puzzle over awhile as you appreciatively reread the lines.

James Marshall’s George and Martha books are as much fun for my son and daughter as they are for me, and they deserve to be more widely known. George and Martha are hippos named, curiously, after Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -only they get along much better. Each of the several George and Martha books contains five small vignettes, some of which are no longer than a couple pages. Each makes a fine little monument to the author/illustrator’s genius. My kids’ favorites include one in which George practices his fibbing, and another in which Martha attempts, with mixed results, to guilt George into giving up sweets by taking up cigar smoking herself. Marshall, it happens, was one of Maurice Sendak’s friends and was only fifty years old when he died of a brain tumor in 1992. I wish I had known his books when I was a kid.

I knew Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, however, and loved them as a child almost as much as I do now that I’m approaching fogeydom. When my kids were younger I had the opportunity to read Frog and Toad stories several times a week. My favorites include one in which Frog is ill in bed and Toad offers to keep him company and tell him a story. Frog likes the idea, but Toad can’t think of a story to tell. In an attempt to cure what sounds like a bad case of writer’s block, Toad walks back and forth on the porch, without any luck. Then he stands on his head, but still no luck. Then he pours cup after cup of cold water over his face. Finally, enraged, he rams his head into the wall. By now Frog is feeling better and Toad is feeling terrible. So they swap places and Frog asks if Toad would like a story. “Yes, Frog, if you know one,” says Toad. Frog then proceeds to tell him a funny story about someone who wanted to tell his friend a story but couldn’t think of one…

In another story, Frog gives Toad an envelope full of seeds so that he can plant a garden. Toad drops them into the soil and tells the seeds to start growing. He stands there awhile but the seeds don’t seem to be listening. He repeats himself, louder: “Now seeds, start growing!” Still nothing. This goes on until, his patience exhausted, Toad screams at the seeds and jumps up and down, commanding them to start growing. Frog comes running and explains that Toad’s seeds are probably too scared to grow and that he needs to give them time and let the rain and sun do their work. Toad feels wretched to think he might have scared his seeds, so he tries a different tack:

— He reads them stories and poems
— He sings to them
— He plays music for them
— He stays up with them night and day, which is hard work

and eventually his seeds begin to grow all on their own.  Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good description of parenthood.

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