Those Little Hands

Three angels, three red balloons In my twenties I was extremely disparaging of children. I viewed them as loud, selfish, obnoxious, energy-draining parasites. I’d cast aspersions at families for spoiling my meal by bringing their disruptive children to a restaurant clearly not meant for families. I’d secretly denounce parents who couldn’t stop their kids behaving like baboons in public.

The poorly-dressed, overweight, bleary-eyed dudes sauntering like emasculated eunuchs from their minivans, and frazzled mothers in sweatpants and stained shirts were horrific sights to my decidedly yuppie eyes. There was nothing to recommend having children of my own.

In my early thirties I jumped off a cliff to spite myself and had children. Twins, no less. Like most men, I repressed my ambivalence about the idea of kids and hoped for the best.

Sleepless nights, colic, croup, flu, fevers, diarrhea. Trips to the emergency room. Teething. Crying. Lots of crying, at the most inopportune time – at two, three, and four in the morning – then not at all while I was sleeping at my desk at work.

Everything about being a new parent was an affront, an insurmountable challenge. I was not one of those people seduced by the propaganda that fools would-be parents into believing in the unqualified bliss of children. I had low expectations going in. The reality at times felt worse, which I did not think possible. I chalked it up to the sheer physical exhaustion of caring for new-born twins.

When my children were three they were both diagnosed with autism.

Obviously, I was incredibly distraught. It forced so many changes in our family life, in our careers. Our aspirations for their future were hazy, but feeling grim. Children were beginning to feel like my life’s ruin. I became an impatient, self-absorbed, and sometimes caustic parent.

I was disgusted with myself, especially for how habitually I projected negativity in my mood into the manner I related to my children. I had been subjected to that myself as a child, and I vowed I would not repeat it. Then I found myself unconsciously repeating it.

I expended tons of energy to change, a process begun eight years ago, and continues today. My perspective has fundamentally altered, which in turn has transformed the way I parent my children. This doesn’t make me an amazing parent; I am just better than I was, and trying to get better.

I am more in tune with my own emotions, which makes me less rigid in outlook, more able to deal with adversity. Both are paramount for emotional stability when raising children, and for getting through the challenges in a typical adult existence. It seems flaky, but my consciousness was opened by my efforts.

Some of my old, hardened views about reality are either completely gone or really relaxed. As a result, a broader range of experience is allowed to enter my awareness than before, which is a welcome, if unexpected result. I imagine this to be similar to how a child experiences life as it comes.

Now, as I look into the adult world myself and others have created I can’t so easily ignore how tragic the view is. With my eyes a little more open I see adults who are too often indifferent, cruel, selfish, and greedy.

Joyous BubbleIt is the guile we each possess in our minds that has unleashed this state of affairs.

Guile is the capacity to act with self-serving, often malevolent duplicity. It shouts down the voice in our heart that wakes us to the suffering in our surroundings and compels us to reduce it or, at the very least, to not compound it.

Children lack guile. For a time, at least, they don’t have egos to necessitate its existence. Only when we parents begin to push our children to acquire certain specific identities, to adopt attitudes that are completely foreign to their hearts, do they begin to gain an understanding of its utility in their own lives.

Adults, on the other hand, possess guile in abundance. It is a central feature of the adult ego in an individualistic society; one that sends us all too close to the thin edge of sociopathy. It propels our wants to be craven, our motives self-aggrandizing, our actions toward the detriment of others.

Guile is the narrative the clever among us craft to make our transgressions appear principled and virtuous. We can explain, justify, or brush off ethical lapses, burying the malfeasance in our behaviour beneath layers of high-minded rationalizations. It is a by-product of a society obsessed with economic success to the detriment of our human spirit.

We adults lie, cheat, and steal, but in ways that make what we’re doing appear to be something other. We are “getting elected” or “increasing the bottom line” or “reducing our tax burden.” There is always the shibboleth of a greater good to lend an air of nobility to self-serving, specious motives.

On a day-to-day basis, most of us are not purposely engaged in misconduct. We’re just going about our day, the best we can. As we proceed, we step over the homeless, snicker at the poor, or blame the minorities for their role in being persecuted by those charged with protecting them.

All the denials and obfuscations we entertain allow us to believe the issues vexing our societies are beyond our capacity to influence. Somehow we cling to the delusion their prevalence does not say something contemptible about ourselves, who collectively have the means to address it, but do nothing instead. The lack of awareness ensures we will continue to hone our mastery of ways to exploit fellow human beings to fatten our wallets.

We are not all directly responsible for creating this reality. Yet we easily allow ourselves to be bribed, sweet-talked, or distracted away from applying our moral compass to determine our standing and change course if we don’t like where we’ve come. As we are lured further into the the gutter by the pursuit of greater wealth, each of us becomes less able to deny our agency in perpetuating the misery of so many others in our midst.

We are compelled by guile to defend the direction we are heading against appeals to change, perhaps spurred on by guilt for having ignored so much suffering to get where we are. It smothers our imagination with the notion that it is too late, or too naive to turn away from the only path we know.

Happy MeadowsThere is no greater exemplar for the place of guile in our collective hearts than the countless self-preserving reasons we postulate to justify the hoarding and concentration of our society’s wealth. Guile clings vigorously to ideas that legitimize the moral failings in organizing principles that countenance gross inequalities, and softens our judgement of the wanton acts that established this state of affairs.

We see those destroyed by addiction and mental illness left untreated and abandoned to wander the streets to fend for themselves. We possess enough to feed all the hungry mouths around the world, enough money to provide food and shelter for all the poor in our communities, and enough medicine to treat diseases we’ve licked for years. In spite of this, we choose not to share the fruits of our subsistence, allowing our wealth to be hoarded and withheld instead of used to alleviate the suffering of countless fellow human beings.

We act as though there’s nothing we can do to compel changes in corporate behaviours that too often undermine society’s non-economic imperatives: health-care, education, the environment, and human rights. By not including corporations in progressive tax systems, we effectively condone theft of society’s dividend for its investment in an educated, healthy, politically stable environment. Without any of these factors, which cost an extraordinary amount of money for society to secure, there would be no wealth to earn or to hoard.

Our withdrawal of compassion in helping the disadvantaged reflects a widespread belief their lot in life is entirely attributed to their own missteps and nothing else. This allows us to admonish the disenfranchised by touting punitive laws and policies directed at them. We criminalize, imprison, or withdraw economic supports for the underclass, addicted, marginalized, and downtrodden. The disenfranchised simply “slip through the cracks” of our collective consciousness, leaving us free to acquire more wealth and spend it feeding insatiable consumptive drives.

We focus on our careers to the neglect of our families and children; to the detriment of cultivating interesting, multi-faceted lives that include pursuits of passion as much as work. We do it because the personal wealth and status we enjoy with career achievements fulfils a deep-rooted, often emotionally pathological, ego-need. Guile makes it possible for those who put countless hours at work in demanding jobs to really believe it when they say “I am sorry I don’t spend any time with you, son, I am too busy working to support you” and not understand how readily a child sees through such duplicity.

We engage in small talk revealing nothing meaningful about ourselves or demonstrating that our range of concerns is very deep; that it genuinely encompasses the well-being of others. We embellish our successes, hide our failures, self-consciously conceal the breadth of our true humanity from others. We employ shrewdness, charm, and inauthenticity to gain the good graces of those instrumental to our aims and dismiss the rest.

Our apprehension to reveal more than the shallow surface of our lives collectively sustains the impression we are all happy and thriving, a facade that further alienates the legions who suffer; who feel ashamed, foolish, and flawed for their inability to create their own happiness. It compounds their desire to isolate and detach from others, and prevents them from reaching out for help. A society that disdains the unfortunate, singles them out for scorn as the authors of their misfortune, and ignores their concerns because they are powerless to compel our attention is an uninviting place to turn for those in the struggle.

These observations make me ashamed of the adult world many of us go about raising our children to become a part of. If this is adulthood, I say “No thanks.” I want out. This place is brimming over with guile. We grown-ups are way more rotten and misbehaved than children but worse: we have convinced ourselves we’re acting on principle.

I want a seat at the kids’ table, please. They know how to own-up when they’ve misbehaved, and say “I’m sorry.” They may be untamed, but they still lead with their hearts, which leaves them free to behave as genuine human beings.

Street SoccerChildren know the intrinsic value of fun and actively seek it out. The intention behind this motive is pure and honest. It adds something tangible to the human condition because it is energy expended in search of joy, a pursuit that does not purposely detract from anyone else’s experience of life and more often seeks to include others in the search.

A child’s emotions are raw, and they connect to them without the filtering we adults too often employ to temper the fear of confronting our feelings honestly. A child cries heartily when they feel pain, anger, frustration or indignity.

Children don’t desire objects or experiences to “get ahead.” They are moved to action by their intuition which quickly apprehends the genuine appeal of something they’ve come into contact with. A child knows when she is in the presence of beauty and truth, and does not consider reasons why she should not indulge the experience to the fullest. Their intentions arise as they apprehend reality through unadulterated eyes. Their actions to seize experiences that touch their heart is the most pure demonstration of love we witness in the world.

Because children do not repress their feelings, they are free from the cynicism we often employ to narrow the intensity of our experiences – good or bad. They don’t minimize or belittle their disappointments to guard their self-esteem, because they do not possess a concept of self. They immerse themselves in joy, and are not too embarrassed to express their delight in the moment.

When a child is angry at something you’ve done they let you know. They’ll repeat their displeasure again and again until they are certain you understand. You will know where you stand in their eyes at that moment and then, the issue will be done with. Your fundamental character will not be castigated, you will not be subjected to a passive aggressive campaign of sabotage fed by resentment over a grievance that was felt but not aired.

A child doesn’t turn sublimated feelings into rationalizations that harden their heart, foment ill-will in the mind, and steal away mental energy required to face certain hardships. They inherently know, as they endure something that brings immense pain, that it will end and be balanced by something equally joyous later on. They will not be deterred from bringing the shift about themselves, nor will they diminish their gratitude if serendipity delivers it to them. Their innate ability to be fully immersed in the intensity of feeling, without rationalizations to qualify their experience of it, is what makes them resilient.

A child doesn’t pretend to be something they aren’t and is not afraid of who they are. If a child wants to dance, they’ll dance without concern for how well or poorly they do it. If they want to be silly, they are silly without self-consciousness. When they’re excited, they fill the world with their enthusiasm and could care less if others share it.

When a child sees another cry, they can’t help from feeling disturbed, which doesn’t make them turn away. They naturally enquire to learn what has gone wrong. They try to console or comfort the aggrieved, without being limited in their compassion by the idea “there’s nothing I can do, I’m just a kid.” They know intuitively that doing nothing is to tolerate the suffering of another being, which is why they always intervene. The gesture itself goes a long way to minimize the insult because it alleviates the isolation we sometimes feel as we suffer.

Children are amazing human beings, raw and unvarnished as they may be. We adults should be so lucky to possess a shred of the innate wisdom of a child. If you filled up a theatre with five year-olds from around the world, there would be no better proof that we human beings are one and the same regardless of creed, race, or economic status. If we cared to look, we would be immediately disabused of the falsehoods we’ve relied upon to divide, rank, and organize our adult lives.

It is this insight, this perspective, that I am grateful for. I would never have learned to see the world with less atavistic eyes, had my love for my children not possessed me with the energy and will to find a way to change my view. For this reason, I am forever indebted to them; to all children. We should worship them for the infinite human potential they embody.

It occurs to me now I’m not just a parent to my children. I’m their biggest fan, and most eager student. I am here to guide them away from practical dangers and to sustain their lives until they can do so on their own. I am not here to shape them in my world view.

My children have taught me the shameful mess we have made from the gift of human life. The emotional damage we parents inflict on our children can reveal deep fissures in our own psyches. Their sensitivity to the ways we relate to them holds a mirror to the remnants of cruelty, anger, or fear in our hearts that escaped our notice. The reflection of our worst selves unwittingly trampling on their innocent spirits is nearly impossible to ignore. For me, the lesson was a watershed in my emotional development, and profoundly humbling.

If we still care about humanity, we would apologize to our children for all the indignities the guile we’ve allowed to grow in our minds has unleashed, and we would set about to make amends. Since we are unskilled in behaving with basic goodness, we must pay close attention to the standing of the world’s children. Their collective well-being is the most reliable measure of success we possess.

We adults had our moment as avatars for the human race, and we got it dreadfully wrong. It is time for our children to plot the course from here on out. Humanity’s tainted virtue on earth is redeemed when our hearts and minds are guided in their actions by the wisdom in those little hands.

I sometimes receive heart-felt apologies from beleaguered parents when their children are being difficult in a public place. I remember that feeling when my children were small – embarrassment and anxiety that my kids were ruining someone’s day. How things have changed since my days as an obnoxious upstart adult.

More than once I’ve replied to the parent “don’t be silly, and do not fret at your child on my account. They’re honest and real about how they feel, and I don’t mind.”

Playing in the rain in Bangladesh

Remember These Open Arms As You Grow Old, My Sons

I was sitting in a coffee shop the other morning when I was swept away by the blissful energy of a woman and her four-year old girl as they breezed past. The girl danced circles around her mother’s legs, clutching two teddy bears that outsized her tiny arms. The sweetness of her pink rubber boots and twee voice doused the shop of bleary-eyed, earnest suits with candy-coating.

I watched enviously as she lapped up her mother’s words “whaddya want kiddo?” I jumped earnestly along with her as she screamed ‘muffins, juice, cake pops, banana bread!’ My temporary refuge from e-mails and five-alarm fires at the office seemed a sad existence in relation to the unrestrained joy of mother and young child.

The thought was bittersweet. Momentarily I was transported in time when my boys had their first taste of apple pie and ice cream, making humming noises ‘mmm,mmm,mmm’ as they stuffed their faces. I remembered falling asleep with them on my chest; each of us drifting off to the sound of the other’s heart beating.

I sat in stillness with my coffee half-raised to my mouth as I tried to siphon whatever droplets of glee I could from the mother-daughter exchange. It occurred to me my eyes were welling up.

L-O-V-EMy kids were young like that once, they hung off me like a jungle gym. They danced around my legs, clamouring for nothing more than my undivided attention. For the most part they got it, but now I wish I’d been less annoyed by the constancy of it at times. Back then I couldn’t imagine how emotional I would feel as I do today, seeing this mother and her child.

I could never have known how insufficient memories are as a surrogate for the experience. I wish I’d made more efforts to soak it up, especially now that their mother and I are divorced; the time I have to amass more wonderful glimpses of their childhood before they grow old, halved.

My kids are twelve this year. In no time their mother and I will lose the honour of having exclusive reign over their heartstrings. What an honour it’s been. I know I shouldn’t cling to the idea of their childhood; they’re still my children, no matter how old they get.

But I can’t help it. They’re not little children anymore. They don’t dance around my feet. It’ll never be the same. A part of me wishes that phase could have lasted forever, but the deepening voices, soaring heights and hair in places only adults possess it mocks my selfish fantasies.

As teenagers they will look to the outside world in friends, achievements, and experiences for feelings of efficacy, security, and validation. It fills me with trepidation for them as I recall how often in my teenage years I wanted to curl up in a ball to avoid the tyranny of days overflowing with lessons in humility. I also remember feeling a strong urge to look away from the tether of parents and family to figure out on my own how to keep my chin up, even with egg all over my face and my fly undone.

The view of that arduous journey into their own lives is heart-wrenching from where I stand as a parent. I want to be their biggest booster as they run into the murky world to carve out their niche. It feels somewhat forced.

Yay. Yaaay! YAAAAAY!

They’ll be teenagers soon!

Meh.

I feel like the head cheerleader rooting on a band of thugs shaving off my arms with a pocket-knife to steal my watch. I don’t really want teenagers. No offense, but I am no fool. I know they’re just not going to be ‘into me’ – their parent.

Well, metal has nearly hit bone. The glistening, unconditional twinkle of my little boys is already sometimes tinged with traces of skepticism. They’ve found things to interest them that have nothing to do with me. On days I drop them at school my kids turn and run at the sight of my lower lip quivering. ‘Rotten, good-for-nothing zit-faced friends drawing them in,’ I think to myself. ‘Who needs friends? Friends are unreliable,’ I quip, half-heartedly under my breath.

When did my kids become such turncoats? What a couple of ungrateful jerks! Then I catch myself being a childish ass, punching air, kicking dirt in a futile bout of frustration. My twenty-three year-old self mocks me for having become a soccer mom, and a wallowing idiot.

I have my reasons for being disconsolate at times: when it’s not my weekend with them and I can’t tuck them into bed for another five days. I can’t laugh them to sleep with armpit farts or tummy zurrberts. They barely fit in my arms any more – and soon I will fit better in theirs. They don’t get jazzed about movie night like they used to.

Just today I said “HEY KIDS WANT ICE CREAM!” and they both said, ‘nah, it’s too early.’ Too early?! It was noon! Three years ago I’d have had to hire a cowboy to lasso my kids so they wouldn’t run in front of semi-trailers and city buses to get to the ice cream store.

Now, there’s things on YouTube they’d rather watch. Alone. In their room. Without dad around. I’ll bet they’ve already discovered porn, probably by accident. But still. Girls. A formidable foe who lurks, who will steal the affections of my homies away from the one who matters most. Me.

My babies' not-so-little feet.

My babies’ not-so-little feet.

The sparkle in their eyes as they looked up to me has, at times, turned to an exasperated roll of the eyes. They don’t have to look up, either. Part of me wonders if their respect for me wanes as they watch me struggle with their drift away from childhood. Then I realize, I don’t care, and continue crying because I know I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to just let them frolic into the world of adolescent throngs who crudely mimic the craven, selfish, conformist habits of the adults around them. I worry about their emotional well-being among peers who lack ethical scruples; who can’t temper the cruel excesses of the individualists’ creed rammed down their throats by our culture. It’s in my bones as a parent to believe their emotions will be safeguarded only when shrouded in my arms.

And yet, I am also aware that, for all my good intentions, I may have already left deeper scars than a bully or an unrequited love could ever leave. I didn’t mean it, unlike those rotten kids out there. I was winging the parent thing, for the first while at least, until I realized I needed to educate myself.
I think I’ve come around now. I hope their memories betray them, because there are truckloads of mistakes to hold against me, to tar me as a hypocrite, should I forget myself and over-react to something they’ve done that’s out of line.

The little girl in the coffee shop makes me aware that my children are still on the fringes of a blissful world of childhood innocence, but on the cusp of stepping with both feet into the jungle that kicked the shit out of me. I want to spare them the perils in that journey. I want to keep my lovely limbs right where they are: safe and happy.

Yet I realize they can’t broaden their perspective of the world if their father is clutching them tightly to prevent them stepping in with both feet. They can’t fully savour the wealth of experiences the world has to offer if I’m still taunting them back toward their childhood with ice cream and Sponge Bob re-runs.

My mind is defiant as I am confronted with the reality I have no choice but to let them go a little. The age-old rift between parents and teenagers crystallizes as I consider this. I resent the fact they’ll seek influences elsewhere and won’t automatically see my opinions, tastes or ideas as necessarily authoritative.

They’ll have tastes and preferences that won’t mirror my own. Already my son loves Katy Perry. How did that happen? Doesn’t he know his father hates pop music because it sucks? Then I remember: he’s twelve. Katy Perry to a twelve year old boy is more than just about music, isn’t she?

My children are going to make mistakes and feel chastened by the consequences as they try on various identities to learn what works best for them. As I watch them struggle to succeed or blissfully jump into abject failure it will be hard to stop myself from stepping in and taking over. I’m like any parent, I’d rather avoid seeing them fail, but this sentiment too easily transforms into me trying too hard to manufacture their success. I’ve already had to stop myself doing tough homework assignments and science projects for them. Man, I hate seeing them struggle. 

It is hard to watch from the sidelines as my child slips on easily-spotted banana peels, but I know from my own upbringing in a family of nascent critics how profoundly the hand-wringing undermines a child’s feelings of autonomy. It doesn’t matter that the advice, constructive criticism, or other moral support is well-intended.

They begin to internalize too much interference as implied criticism. The risk is they’ll come to second-guess themselves. They will lay blame for planting the seeds of doubt about their own instincts squarely on the over-bearing parent. That could come back to haunt me, so I need to learn a little hands off.

A few years ago my son came home from school intimating he was having an issue with a bully at his school. In seconds my mind was filled with ideas of kicking the shit out of the kid, shoving my fist in his father’s face, and enrolling him the next day in the Kung Fu class I taught. The wisdom of non-violence from my Buddhist practice was easily brushed aside by the vision of my child suffering at the hands of another.

The one thing I didn’t do was simply ask him how he felt about the situation and what he wanted to do to resolve it. Thanks to my son, that would-be bully is, five years later, now in his circle of friends, while I still look at the kid with a hairy eyeball.

The experience was the first time I realized the volatility of my emotions where my children were concerned. It gave me extreme insight about how empty the parental invocation of “doing what is best” can be tainted by projections of my own childhood angst onto them.

It’s startling how old wounds you thought had healed burst open as you find yourself reliving some torrid chapter of your childhood through something happening in your child’s life. Next thing you know, you’re reacting as your thirteen year old self in the same situation, not as the parent of a child who may see things totally differently. 

I’ve got to keep my eye on that raging bull. I had a lot of emotional wounds that took a long time to heal. I had a lot of well-deserved “fuck you’s” left unsaid. I don’t want to be the roll of quarters in my child’s fist swinging at MY old ghosts. I don’t want to use my children to become masters of my own failed aspirations.

I also have to assume my children will experience hardships of the nature I faced differently than I did. They aren’t miniature versions of me, after all. I think I’ve done a bit better than was done to me in establishing the foundations for a more balanced emotional reaction to life’s undulations.

I’ve been a warm father. I tell my sons I love them every day. I think it’s etched in their mind. I think they’ll deal better than I did when shit hits fans along whatever path they’re on. It’s quite possible they won’t even see some of the things I perceived as horrible in quite the same terms. I was a bit of a brooding child. My kids aren’t. I hope I had something to do with cultivating that lightness. We will have to wait and see; and hope.

It’s disturbing to me to have to fathom these issues. The first time I can’t fix their mental anguish with a Slurpee or a night of popcorn and Kung Fu Panda my heart will die a little. There have already been some hurts for which there is nothing I can do but listen and lean in with a hug. Things like the divorce of their mother and father, the tearing to pieces of what they understood as a ‘family.’

This is when I am awash in the desire to stop time. To somehow keep them like that little girl in the coffee shop; to see to it they stay forever small enough to remain in my arms where I can protect them. I want to be the ultimate fixer for their problems, which is relatively easy when a child’s biggest problem is that they misplaced their teddy bear.

There are bigger problems ahead, and it scares the living shit out of me. I’ve got to be brave. I’ve caught myself already inadvertently seeding their relatively blue skies with storm clouds of negativity that stem from my childhood, not theirs. I’ve got to buck up.

But I never want them to go so far into the grown up abyss that they no longer feel the warmth of my unconditional love for who they are breathing them forward. I don’t want them to be seduced by ideas about the world being indifferent, harsh, and cruel.

I never want them to be far away from the promise of a parent’s non-judgmental presence when it is needed most. I want them to know there is no place better than my open arms to take refuge, should the need arise. Little children can’t even imagine another place aside from their parents for solace, but as they grow older, the urge to resist that impulse grows out of the need to cultivate independence.  

Shadow Monsters

This idea – independence. The lie our increasingly Social Darwinist culture breeds in young adults; especially young boys like my two sons. We are inter-dependent. Those who are ‘self-made’, who believe they are independent don’t realize how much their self-reliance came on the backs of others. I don’t want those others to be my innocent children.

The rest of us take the idea of independence too literally, trying to deal with life as if we really believed it necessary to do so alone. It’s bollocks.

Everybody needs someone else. That is the beauty and the bane of humanity.

I hope to instill in my sons the innate wisdom of the little child in this regard; to keep them habituated to looking in the right places for warmth and love to ward off life’s rougher edges. It doesn’t have to be me, although I hope it is. It just needs to be someone who genuinely has their best interests at heart.

Children have no qualms about seeking out mommy and daddy when they’re in despair. Adults need that kind of presence in their lives. I want to be that presence in my boys’ adult lives. 

Some parents joke about when their kids will leave the nest. It’s no laughing matter for me. I want my sons to always know there’s a place for them with me, no questions asked.

I don’t want them to forget the feel of my arms around them as they grow old and fly away. So I will go now, and hug them, hoping to make it impossible to forget.

Screw the Rod, Spoil Your Child

I’ve seen a lot of parenting articles posted by ‘friends’ on my facebook newsfeed of this ilk that purport to offer advice on how to raise ‘respectful’ or ‘responsible’ kids by basically being a total jerk to them. With this British nanny’s five reasons as to why we modern parents are destroying our kids I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I feel a strong urge to change the dialogue about this subject because it involves the world’s most vulnerable people. There are so many children victimized by genuinely dire circumstances, and so we here in the fortunate parts of the world should use the luxury afforded by our relative security to raise well-balanced children who desire to change the lot of those who suffer.

It bothers me as a parent of two special needs kids to think they are growing up alongside children being raised by parents and nannies who treat them like they aren’t entitled to have feelings or desires of their own because they are too imposing on the parent. The risk is that children raised in such environments will become adults who lack compassion for the unique challenges my adult children will present. They will be too emotionally damaged themselves to understand or care about the needs of others.

This idea that ‘coddling’ a child will turn them into ‘spoiled brats’ necessitates a hard-ass parenting style to prevent that happening is one I find gravely disturbing. If you take this tack, what you’ve set out to do is wage a systematic campaign of insensitivity against an extremely vulnerable, powerless, and emotionally un-developed human being who depends on you, the parent, to be the one most sensitive to their every need.

You can call it whatever you want – toughening up for the real world, teaching life’s ‘realities’ – whatever. The reality is, to unleash this approach requires that you, the parent, be the blunt instrument your child most frequently encounters in life. And it will suck to be you, as much as it will suck for your child, when he has to face the real life challenges that arrive in adolescence after having been emotionally beaten down by parents intent on “teaching respect” in the years prior.

A child subjected to this parenting approach won’t be emotionally capable of facing the hard knocks of reality. They will most likely be thin skinned adults with a big chip on their shoulder who handle adversity poorly and lash out at others for their feelings of insufficiency. They will feel at a deep level that the world is unfair and cruel – which it can be, at times – because the lesson was given harshly at a tender age when they weren’t able to integrate their emotions into a more established, confident, self-concept. They learned it at an age when they were still really on the fence about whether Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real.

A parent should not be the one to ‘toughen up’ their child who is possessed of these emotional sensibilities. The lesson in toughness should come later when there’s a more solid identity to ensure the child’s psyche isn’t de-stabilized by the infinite number of threats it faces in adolescence. The tough lesson should not be given at the home, at least to the young child, because there are so many of those lessons in the playground of life.

The home should be the place where the landing is soft at all times. If the home is also tough, the child learns there is no escape from things that cause emotional trauma. That lays the foundation for serious emotional insecurity. It is absolutely horrifying to think there are legions of parents out there who don’t see what is, to me, an obvious reality. We parents need to go back to our childhoods for insights on how to raise our own children to be certain we don’t sub-consciously repeat parenting tactics that were most damaging to our own emotional development.

Think about it, where did your philosophy of parenting come from? If you don’t believe you have a parenting philosophy, think again. You do. It is that of your parents because that is what you learned, even if, at a conscious level you disavowed it. When faced with the immense emotional burden of raising a child without a manual, your parent’s methods will be your default. That is, unless you’ve taken specific steps to educate yourself on the subject of parenting and child psychology; or have done a shitload of therapy or other self-exploration aimed at gaining insight – and control – over your own emotionally unintelligent behaviours.

My insights on this come from my own adulthood meditations on growing up as a child in a family of adults who took the approach hailed by nanny and applied it too often indelicately from the time my sentient memory began. It was an emotionally cold, distant family possessed of two deplorable British inventions: the stiff upper lip and a belief in the sacrosanct nature of ‘manners’ rooted in aristocratic, ethnocentric ideas of ‘propriety.’

I am here to tell you fans in the peanut gallery today that this approach can irreparably damage a parent-child relationship. At the very least it can keep it strained for a really long time. This, in addition to putting a stake in the heart of an adolescent’s budding, non-existent self-esteem and leaving it in tatters well into adulthood.

If the stern approach is not implemented with utmost caution and insight – and at the appropriate time in a child’s life, it will backfire and turn a child into a resentful, insecure adult teeming with ill-will. This accounts for the stunted, posturing, repressed emotionality of most men in male-dominated cultures; those who had the ‘toughen up’ lesson applied way earlier than it should have been in their lives.

Most parents, most adults, don’t seem to possess the degree of self-reflectiveness to get the ‘hard knocks’ approach to teaching the art of living right. That is the nuance which is missing in the nanny blog, and which I find most disturbing. The damning logic in all of these “spare the rod, spoil the child” approaches is the unqualified belief that any given parent – one assumes, because they are an adult – is emotionally equipped to raise a child. Most adults genuinely believe they have their bigger emotional problems licked, which is sad on a human level, but also a contemptible farce when such delusions are the springboard for parents who aim to whip their children into “respectful” adults.

It is my observation that many adults in our culture are profoundly emotionally stunted, psychologically unaware beings. This is through no fault of their own. They probably had shitty parents. And that is why, as a rule, I believe it’s better for today’s parents to err on the side of being more lenient when confronted with their child’s emotional excesses (ie misbehaviour) until they’ve got a good grip on their own emotional hot buttons. This reduces the chances, although only slightly for some of us, of being a total asshole to our children.

The process of becoming a better parent has to start with a little bit of honesty about where we’re stuck emotionally. It’s my observation that most adult egos have a difficult time doing this kind of soul-searching. It requires a loosening of the certainty our egos have fashioned to get our psychological selves through all the shitty things that belie the craven world of adulthood. It also gives the lie to the firmness in the ground from which the heavy handed parent imposes his worldview upon his children.

In my family, to the degree my ass was spared the rod, which I am grateful for, heaps of verbal lashes criticising my conduct, grammar, clothes, hairstyle or any choices that were actually mine were dished out in its place. And the problem with this approach, which I detect in the nanny’s article, is the absolute and total disregard for viewing any of the parent-child situations from the child’s perspective. Why might a child have a tantrum? According to the nanny and all the parents who solemnify the tactic of hectoring children, it’s because they are an insolent shit who needs to be put in their place.

This reinforces what I consider to be an illegitimate and profoundly disrespectful philosophy of parenting; one that totally dismisses the individuality of a child, the likely reality that the world they see is vastly different than the one their parent, or any adult for that matter, sees. No matter what we wish as parents, we cannot ever expect our children to be miniature versions of ourselves and then set about a parenting campaign to effect that outcome.

The ‘sippy cup test’ the nanny outlines is pretty pedestrian in illustrating the doomed parenting of the times but is symptomatic of a deeply disturbing logic. For example, what if my teenaged child is gay? What if his best friend commits suicide? What if he has mental illness? Has been experimenting with drugs? These real-life dilemmas in an adolescent’s life may in fact raise emotions that are equal in scale to the “sippy cup” or to any number of other “whimsical” emotions in the early years.

I wonder how the child whose parent has been telling them “no” to their every “whim” from a very early age is going to feel about approaching their parents in these situations later in life. The “whim” of a child is in the eye of the beholder. Constantly referring to a child’s expressions as a “whim” is problematic because the child doesn’t see it as whimsical, especially if they are three. To frame every “childish” complaint in this way says something daming about the parent making the inference. It says, ‘I AM A DICK.’

In my mind the nanny is just basically telling parents to take the stand “fuck you for wanting something different than what I decide you want, you little Queen of Sheba.” It’s extremely demeaning to a child’s self esteem to immediately dismiss their wants in this way. Every bloody adult in existence has similar preferences, which in many cases are equally whimsical. To immediately deny a child their wants in a punitive way all the time is to teach the adolescent and adult of tomorrow that they aren’t entitled to the things they want; things like success, happiness, or a good career. It is the basis for extremely low self-esteem.

The nanny, and all the “don’t coddle your child” fans are suggesting parents are being slaves when they accommodate what are, in the eyes of an adult, “whimsical” needs. But a child’s expression of a “need,” even if small, may be something to take seriously. It warrants investigation, negotiation and patience to discover, not immediate dismissal simply because of how the need was conveyed.

I want my child to know, without any doubt in their mind, that I, their parent, am one person in this entire world who respects them absolutely, will give them unconditional love, and be there to support their emotional needs. To a two year old, that sippy cup could be a real emotional need, not just some phlegmatic outburst for a capricious reason. Until I take the time to figure out exactly, it’s not right to assume it is what I think it is and shut it down.

Later on in their life, when they begin to see the world coming at them with knives from all angles, maybe it’s important for a child’s self esteem to know there’s one corner of the world where someone has their emotional back. They will be secure in this feeling because, as a child they were showed support consistently when it was called upon and not immediately dismissed as “whimsical.” If my kid wants an aubergine sippy cup with dancing bears on it because bears make him feel happy, fuck it, they’ll get it from me. And I’ll make sure over time they learn to ask nicely for things they want without believing it’s necessary to apply the lesson in a single stroke.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time. As they grow to be adults, there will be fewer people in the world willing to do so. Be their best friend, but also be their kind, constructive, and generous teacher as you impart them as best you can with the skills needed to survive the many undulations in life, good and bad.

The nanny’s point about manners and respect raises my ire to an extreme degree. When I was a kid I’d say to myself “why does my grandmother think it’s okay to be an asshole just because she believes it’s important to hold my fork properly.” That’s the problem with manners or respect. The stuff of these principles, again, is in the eye of the beholder. Except the approach to teaching is determinately less flexible, and too often expects a child to immediatly apply the lesson, as if they were a mini-adult. This actually creates and reinforces feelings of disrespect and resentment, which undermines the project of creating respect and virtue.

The lesson may be learned, but it comes at a high emotional cost on many levels. Consistently kind, unceasing repetition of the basic message is my sense of what it takes to effectively teach a child something they’re having difficulty learning. To an adult ‘manners’ is fairly concrete. To a child it is extremely abstract. Punishment is not the way to imprint the desired behaviour in a lasting way, even if it works in the immediate sense. It breeds contempt for the way adults can be absolutist in their beliefs in what are, to a child, a bunch of very arbitrary ideas.

The flawed way nanny and her drill-sergeants address the issue of teaching manners will undermine efforts to have children internalize far more important lessons required of well-socialized adults. For example basic ethics of conduct and relating to other human beings. The message will lose its legitimacy not because of its content, but because of an emotional aversion to who delivers it.

Children have eyes, ears, and brains. Unless the kid is a vegetable, they will see a majority of the adults who harshly impart these lessons failing to conduct themselves above the same bar they’ve set for their children. Any parent who gets drunk in front of their child loses a serious credibility test in this area. Any parent who has said anything to their child of the variety “do as I say, not as I do” or whose actions contradict the messages of propriety that are brow beaten into their children will also lose their credibility.

When my grandmother slurred her words as she lambasted me for having my arms on the table like a barn animal the words “fucking hypocrite” were swishing in my mind. In addition, seeds of resentment were planted and would blossom an internal rebellion against all putative authority figures who appeared later in my life. In this one respect, I’ll agree with the nanny. Kids aren’t stupid, and they will instantly sniff out the hypocrisy in how their parents or any other adults approach the fine art of dealing with their “misbehaviour.” The harder the lesson is given, the harder the child will be in adjudging the parent who gives it.

I could write a book about how insidious this ‘teach manners and respect at all costs’ approach is. As a child I’d sidle up to fucking trees and random strangers just to fill the vast void of feeling and affection withheld from me because the adults treated giving a hug like it was giving away a kidney. At the same time they dished out criticism and hectoring like they had orchards of the shit growing in their back yard. A child learns some profoundly dysfunctional ways of coping when subjected to that kind of insensitivity from those who he looks to for feelings of emotional security.

This and the many similar articles of this variety that celebrate spanking and have stained my newsfeed tout a parenting style totally discredited by the massive scale of maladjusted adults today. These are the adults who are being prescribed anti-depressants in record numbers, who are drug/gambling/shopping addicted, craven, greedy, dog-eat-dog individualists that are very nearly bankrupting the world because of their pathological need for validation and self-worth in transient external achievements.

This is the generation raised by baby boomers who were busy climbing their ladder and immediately saw the extraordinary, time and energy-saving benefits in relinquishing the agony in assuming the role as patient, forebearing parents and assuming the role of benevolent dictator instead. For them the edict ‘I am the parent, you are the child, I am the boss’ was the rule of the day and that lack of patience made their mode of relating to their children often caustic, capricious, reactive and inconsistent.

The nanny’s point about the village raising my child is idiotic in today’s world. If a bus driver wants to kick my child off his bus for misbehaviour, fair enough. However, it’ll be a frosty day in Sudan before I give carte blanche to random strangers to impart “life lessons” to my kid.

You know why? Because some of them will be dipshits who apply the nanny logic in their dipshit way. Or, it will be some bitchy tiger mom treating everyone like they’re a piece of shit if they don’t do what it takes to get into Harvard. Or it will be some posturing, sabre-rattling drill-sergeant trying to create mindless drones who march in formation to any old wank who’s higher in the pecking order. I cherish my child’s well-being enough to assert that it is not okay to allow them to be subjected to the reams of adult neurosis posing as principled admonishments of their ‘misbehaviour.’

I do not trust the legions of emotionally imbalanced adults out there to make that call. I barely trust myself, but at least I am their parent. If my kids are out of line, which because they are human beings, they will be, I will punish them. But you, random-adult-in-the-village-purporting-to-raise-my-child will not. If you do, I will punish you.

I’d rather teach my child to know what it’s like to be given respect by an adult so they know it when they see it and know disrespect when they’ve been subjected to it. If they’ve been respected by their parents, they won’t over-react to being disrespected in the world. Teaching a child to be obedient to any schlub adult who enters their life is teaching them a lesson in the antithesis of self-respect. It teaches them that they don’t have a right to draw a line in the sand that represents their self-respect.

The point is to withhold the knee jerk tendency to allow yourself as a parent or a village of random strangers to punish whatever you believe is misbehaviour in a child. It’s important to take the time to uncover what is really beneath their conduct. Yes, this is true even when the outburst is in a public place, and yes, even when it’s probably embarassing to you.

Do not let your own adult fears about the judgements of random strangers sway you from principled parenting, so that you then unleash acts that demean your child. Acknowledge their feelings and teach them to express them in a way that others can understand and appreciate. Use these situations to teach a child that it’s okay to be angry, excited, or bored, but to be constructive in conveying those feelings more effectively to others. This can only be achieved with consistency and time, rather than with an emotional sledge hammer wielded to achieve the  learning objective in a single blow.

For most children, it sucks to be in any number of meaningless places of import in an adult’s life they get dragged to by their parents. As parents we have to take some responsibility for how our children respond to situations we ourselves created that are unpleasant for them. This is not putting my child’s needs before mine, as nanny laments in her blog. It is being a little more self-reflective about the consequences my actions have on my child. It is suggesting that my child gets a say in things too, because I respect his feelings about things, and acknowledge that it is okay if they differ from my own. It is not putting all the responsibility for perfect behaviour on my child, especially in situations that any insightful adult should know a child may not take kindly to.

We have to be respectful to our childrens’ needs by being honest with ourselves as parents about whether our expectations for how they handle things are reasonable. In many cases, our ‘high expectations’ for their behaviour are just high-minded veils for the hope that our kids don’t call us out for the crappy things we invited into their existence. Things that we did, for which they had no choice and pay an emotional price – like divorce, our emotional baggage from our childhoods, our work-a-holism, our bad day at the office, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s not fair to expect a child to approve of all our choices if we don’t let them have a single one of their own. That’s why, as nanny laments, fathers run across the zoo to get their kid the drink. It’s a small gesture to say ‘hey, I was out of town last week ‘providing’ for you, so here I will honour you for making you worry about my absence.’

This is more in tune with what concrete thinkers need for emotional balance. Children cannot relate to the abstract nature of a concept like “toughen up” or “be courteous.” To any adult these are easy to understand because we’ve been through life. But a child hasn’t. They only really can relate to the actual means by which the “lesson” is instilled by the parents in the situation at hand. It requires utmost delicacy and kindness, rather than sternness and shrillness in meting out the lesson, which young kids will often interpret as “why is mommy being unkind to me?”

If I were to punish my child’s reactions because I had unrealistic expectations in these situations I would be a total jerk. I know from my own experiences that a child raised by the jerk parenting style will harbour deep resentments about having been punished for expectations that were absolutely unfairly put upon a child. An emotionally vulnerable person subjected to that kind of treatment risks turning out to be a cynical adult because the most important people in their formative emotional years were the ones constantly treating them unfairly.

The child raised in this environment won’t become a respectful, well-socialized adult with an intrinsic understanding of what should and should not motivate, limit, or justify any extremes in his behaviour. That requires the ability to process strong emotions intelligently in situations where they run high. This isn’t achieved when, as a child, your parent punished or belittled your strongest emotions under the assumption you were being ‘misbehaved’.

It is incredible how so many adults, like this nanny, make the mistake of punishing emotions because they are instantly perceived as ‘misbehaviour.’ It has the result of re-inforcing a child’s belief that emotions are bad, which makes them repressed and stunted in their emotional development. Sadly, it is also a sign of very poor emotional acuity in the adult who repeatedly cannot understand there are raw emotions beneath all misbehaviour, particularly those of a child.

It is a tempting delusion for parents to believe this drill sergeant shit works on emotionally undeveloped, vulnerable human beings, as children are, but we all know deep down that it doesn’t and we should stop. Even though it can be taxing on our energy as parents to give space to our kids to be pissed off, confused, overwhelmed or otherwise out of line at times it’s important they be allowed to feel entitled to their emotions, but that they must learn to process them more constructively.

As parents we have to be honest about our own emotional radars to to this as well. I am sorry fathers, most of us really fall down in this area because we were all trained to repress our emotions. As men, we are not in tune with our own feelings. When I see a father being hard-ass to his kids, I see a projection of his own unresolved emotions about being treated in hard-ass fashion by his own parents. That isn’t a parenting philosophy. That is a rote perpetuation of extremely insensitive behaviour. It’s thoughtless and takes inner work on ourselves as adults – and not on the ‘behaviour’ of our children – to change. It requires a change in your perception of things as a parent.

As a parent I believe it is crucial to win the respect of my children by treating them with respect first, not by asserting my authority over them as I see fit. This starts by not automatically invalidating their emotions with expectations of ‘behaviour’ that are inappropriate for children. Children are never, ever going to rightly be viewed as mini-adults and should not be punished for failing to regulate their emotions effectively as if they were.

In my experience, very few adults are able to effectively regulate their emotions. Ironically, this is most evident in the things parents tend to discipline their children for and the methods they choose to do it. It takes an extreme level of honesty and self-reflection to come to terms with that reality as a parent; the degree our children really do act as a lightning rod for our own emotional blind-spots. I’d recommend parents heed their own dictates and be the tough grown ups they badger their kids to be when they are faced with that fact.

Instead of just letting the chips fall after subjecting your kids to the shitty side effects of your own emotional hang ups, apologize to your kids when you’re out of line. Acknowledge that you are learning how to relate to them as individuals who are evolving every day in their unique way.

But YOU, the parent, have ALL the responsibility for demonstrating exemplary behaviour to them and NOT the other way round. Remember that. If you mete out punishment for an infinite number of random principles your concrete-thinking child cannot fully comprehend, your child will see YOU as ‘misbehaved.’ He will punish you later. Or worse, he will punish the world by being a greedy, bombastic, tyrannical, un-self-reflective douchebag in adulthood.

The badgering approach to child-rearing is extremely irresponsible given the reams of literature for the lay parent on how detrimental it is to a child’s emotional well-being. And it is just plain stupid, mean, and cruel. So cut it out. Do it for the sake of your children and those who will be the leaders of the next generation.

The world demands a change in human conduct, so be a mindful parent who is an agent in promoting beings who are emotionally capable of harmoniously cultivating such change. Start now by abandoning the temptation to be an unkind tormentor to your child on the pretense you’re raising a ‘respectful’ adult. Do not make a principle out of insensitivity towards your child, because it will perpetuate the same brand of pathological, unenlightened, self-serving adults who have put humanity in the sorry state it is today.

A Place for Smiles – Even if Contrived – Among the Snowflakes

(Written December 2013)

This time of year it’s hard work fending off despondency because of the dreary weather. From October to March, it’s mind over matter to stop the spirits from being iced-over in a city where the weather is brutally cold and the winter season is endless. Many days I have to chisel a cheap smile on my face to mask the disdain for existence that easily freezes over any sunniness in my mind.

For inspiration, I summon up my eight-year old self at Christmas. I remember savagely ripping into a big parcel from “Santa” only to learn it was an 8-pack of socks and underwear from some family prankster whose focus on ‘practicality’ in gift-giving seriously tanked their reputation in my greedy mind. My first instinct was to throw the tube socks into the fireplace, but cooler heads prevailed. I knew I’d be getting a bike or something awesome once I’d trudged through the crappy gifts and mustered up the guile to utter some saccharine niceties that would mimic genuine appreciation.

But the need to feign gratitude before the onlooker adults in my family inspired some Oscar-worthy performances, and the method-acting skills I honed then have served me well, especially at this time of year when punch-drunk buffoonery and sugary small talk make me want to grab the plate of shortbread cookies on the ‘down-low’ and stuff my face with fattening christmas grub in quiet solitude.

So, I’m trying to stay focused on the positive, even when crappy things happen, because at best I am a B-list actor and I think the forced smile looks more creepy than convincing. The other day I took a gander in the mirror and thought, ‘Is someone tugging on your balls or is that a smile?’ It made me realize how badly I need experiences to produce the real thing, and fast. Lately I’m freebasing chocolate to keep my head above emotional water and it’s turning me into a zit-faced, jumpy junkie, which would be awesome if I was thirteen, but I’m not, so it sucks.

Oh yeah, it's so pretty, picturesque even, right? Wrong. Imagine it's Monday morning, you open the door dreading the meetings and petty office politics and douchey office people and this (THIS!) is what you wake up to. Imagine this every day for months and picturesque just doesn't do it justice. Fu*king insane ... That's more like it.

Oh yeah, it’s so pretty, picturesque even, right? Wrong. Imagine it’s Monday morning, you open the door dreading the meetings and petty office politics and douchey office people and this (THIS!) is what you wake up to. Imagine this every day for months and picturesque just doesn’t do it justice. Fu*king insane … That’s more like it.

I do yoga at a time of day when only bakers, cab drivers coming off shift, and 7-11 clerks are awake. This morning a guy wearily sauntered into the studio struggling to remain erect as he scouted the room for a spot to practice. Zombie-like, he walked right across the back end of his soon-to-be neighbour’s mat just as he was coming out of a handstand and got clubbed in the head. I’m glad he laughed it off, because I was feeling happy inside, relieved to know I’m not the only one who’s been clocked by flailing yogis because it’s too early to be alert. The Schadenfreude made the remainder of my practice feel light and free even when it wasn’t, which it usually isn’t.

The city was being blanketed by mounds of falling snow. As is my custom, I was daydreaming at work, staring out the window wishing my cubicle was anywhere other than in a building in a city smited by God. Then I noticed an 18-wheel transport truck spinning its wheels on an icy patch of road at an intersection. He was going nowhere. I could see the hand gestures of the drivers in the cars behind him saying ‘what the heck!’ or something of that nature. No matter how many arms flailed pointlessly as they did nothing to help, and no matter how many curses were leveled at that truck, it just didn’t move. It was stuck, like me in my dead-end job in a crappy cubicle, except the only one casting aspersions at me is my twenty-two year old self who would want to shoot the me I have become. He’s a douchebag anyway, so screw him.

There was a woman in the food court who sneezed six times in quick succession. After each sneeze, an older gentleman sitting at a table nearby, a stranger to this woman, said “bless you.” She said thanks, and laughed with slight embarrassment. She had a funny, cute little sneeze, like a two-year old girl mimicking a train. It was like, ‘choo-choo-choo-choo-choo.’

But the sneezes reminded me of my long-deceased grandfather, whose sneezes started many avalanches in the Rockies and scared the living shit out of me when I was a kid. For years I wondered why I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. It struck me then that it wasn’t because I was a neurotic, anxious hypochondriac who always had a symptom eerily similar to a form of terminal cancer, or because I imagined there was a homicidal toy doll in my closet taunting me with inexplicable sounds at night. I was jumpy because of my grandfather’s violent sneezes, which erupted randomly and sounded like a man screaming in terror from being hacked by an axe murderer.

I just applied for a personal loan to consolidate some old debt. My banker called me today to ask about two delinquent accounts on my credit report. I’ve learned that, in the eyes of a lender, I am bottom-feeding pond-scum. My credit score is seven, thanks to some random bank screw up. My rage turned to daydreaming about trips to escape the cold I could have taken with the twenty-five grand I allegedly bilked out of creditors. Then I smiled, knowing there’d be no trips this winter because the financial fuzz planted their dope on the wrong guy, which meant I’d be stuck in my winter gulag.

Thanks to the bank conspiracy, looks like there's only going to be one beached whale for this winter getaway.  The world has been cheated the sight of my pasty brown belly.

Thanks to the bank conspiracy, looks like there’s only going to be one beached whale for this winter getaway. The world has been cheated the sight of my pasty brown belly.

I put my coat and book to hold a comfortable chair as I waited in line for my coffee. From the lineup I saw an old lady casually lift my coat, mitts, hat, and book – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the way – and plop them on the side-table as she snuggled into my chair. What gall! Some very non-Zen thoughts swirled around in my head – nasty things about old people, dementia, elevator farts, walkers, and that ilk.

After cursing she and her great-great-grandchildren, I decided I’d just say “You’re welcome, ma’am” followed up with a dramatic lifting of my things and a histrionic huff as I turned on my heel. That’d send a message. As I prepared my coffee, dreading the quasi-confrontation I crafted in my mind, she stood up and went on her way. Yeah, that’s right, old lady. You’re lucky you left because I was gonna say something.

My autistic son loves the mandarin oranges that come out only at this time of year because the dog sleds delivering supplies to my arctic wasteland are in full operation. I have to keep my eye on him to make sure he doesn’t sneak too many before dinner. We do the dance like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Because I was shoveling snow I didn’t set up my ACME “Catch the Crook” monitoring kit to alert me to his orange pilfering (That is, I forgot to remind my other son to rat him out).

When I came in the house I had to avert my eyes from the massacre. Orange peels, Nutrigrain Bar crumbs, Fruit Roll up wrappers, and empty juice boxes strewn about with reckless abandon! It was a classic binge by his sugar-craving body. I padded the walls, hid the sharp objects, and waited for my beautiful son to turn into the Tasmanian Devil when the sugar kicked in. Then I made a sign reading, “That’s All Folks” to hold up to viewers as my lousy parenting skills sent me plunging to the canyon below.

Me and Wile E, hapless parenting schemes sending us plunging to the canyon floor like home-boys.

Me and Wile E, both having to execute our ill-conceived, hapless schemes to see our endeavours through, the abjectness of our failure sending us plunging to the canyon floor like dim-witted home-boys.

It’s Christmas, which means I’ve been indulging in countless pagan cultural rituals to celebrate a seminal event like the birth of Christianity’s namesake. On the plus side, the workplace has been particularly turgid this year, which will prove sadly entertaining once the booze starts flowing. Tonight I watched a Christmas movie with my kids, which was dripping with moldy, smelly cheese. In the movie, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a dowdy, suburban empty-nester whose neighbours terrorize she and her husband for the blasphemy of going on a cruise instead of drinking the Christmas Kool-Aid like the rest of the lemmings on the block. Uggh.

Until, that is, a scene where Curtis appears from a tanning bed wearing a skimpy bikini that leaves little to the imagination as to her ‘chest area’. Before I knew it, I was instantly brought back to my eleven-year old self watching the movie Trading Places in which Curtis peels off her shirt to reveal the younger version of that chest area. Just like that, my chestnuts were roasting on an open fire, stoked by the same awe and wonderment of pre-pubescent hormones at the sight of boobies. And the smile that adorned my face was neither false nor forced, but very real indeed.

So, on this cold, wintery day I was reacquainted with my capacity to smile at random little things. In yoga I wasn’t laughing at another’s misfortune, I felt a sense of unity with that stranger, who was human, and capable of stumbling just like me. A machine gun sneeze transported me to sleepovers at my grandparents, and fond memories of a grandfather who was my idol. I was patting myself on the back from a couple of big work victories until the cosmic glitch that tanked my credit score brought me back down to earth. The lady I cursed for momentarily borrowing my seat made me see the dangers of casting aspersions at total strangers; of seeing how crusty I can be if I’m not careful.

My autistic son will do what he does, whether it makes me look good as a parent or not. As long as I’ve kept him safe from harm, it’s best to keep that perspective. But I’ll hang on to the wooden stakes, blank signs and marker for the next time I’m plunging off a cliff because I was dumb enough to try and harness a child who’s meant to be free. That much became clear when I saw JLC’s well-aged boobies; when the bliss of childhood wonderment freely ran through my veins, and it was good.

Still Smells Like Teen Spirit – Part 1

Spirituality and religion weren’t a big part of my upbringing. Emotionally, the adults in my family didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves or do a lot of group hugging. On the whole we were mostly a content family who were close, but distant. The stiff British upper lip and Protestant work ethic were prominent paradigms in my family’s psychological makeup. We tended to deal with deep, emotional issues by avoiding them with playful distractions or repressing them under pails of gin. We didn’t brood about the world’s ills, and weren’t prone to incurable bouts of melancholy – at least none that a good party and a trip to Florida couldn’t cure – so religion wasn’t much use to us. We may have been as emotionally deep as a wading pool, but we had a zest for life and knew how to be happy. The Bible was a downer.

Passion was most apparent when it came to discussions of business or politics. Cursing union nut-jobs, deploring socialism, and grousing about business seemed to evoke the greatest amount of fervour in my conservative, mercantilist family. Metaphysics were for lazy, floundering intellectuals who were putting off life and had too much time on their hands. In the eyes of my grandfather, a WWII vet, the king of drifters was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a Westmount lothario born with a silver spoon up his arse who never worked an honest day in his life. The closest thing to religious dogma in my household was the belief that Trudeau was the Devil in a cravat.

My ancestors did have deep religious traditions. My grandfather’s family were among the founding families of New England who fled Britain to pursue their faith free from persecution. Letters written by my great-great grandfathers to their children are loaded with scripture and religious offerings of comfort and solace. There was obviously a time when religion and spirituality were a formative presence in Saunders family life, but their importance fizzled out some time around my grandfather’s generation. The Depression, two World Wars, the Holocaust and family breakdown seem to have provoked the 20th Century loss of faith in the Saunders family.

When I was a kid, golfing, cocktails, and brunching with our fellow indifel WASPs at the country club were done with conviction. We were bon vivants, and didn’t think Jesus was interested in joining the party. On Sundays we took a pass on the body of Christ, noshing instead on belgian waffles, goose liver pate, quiche, crepes Suzette, and breakfast links at the country club buffet. The bar opened at 11 am, prompting tongue in cheek quips like “It’s noon in Toronto, ha ha”. ‘Gin martini, pronto!’ my grandfather would exhort.

It was a surprise when the idea of attending St Luke’s Catholic school for boys was proposed to me. I assumed religion was absent from our lives because the institution was disdained. The desire to see one of the Saunders family’s own immersed in Catholic school seemed a bit unusual, maybe even a little hypocritical. I didn’t put much stake in the term, but I was well aware that, in the eyes of even a nominal Catholic, we were unmitigated heathens headed straight for the fiery gates of hell. I feared repeated dousings in holy water by classmates shielding themselves from biblical plagues and lightning strikes wrought by a vengeful God smiting me for my apostasy.

Through my Italian and Irish friends I acquired a mish-mash of distortions about the infantile nature of Catholic superstition. Their idea of religious allegory was totally fucking ridiculous. I had serious reservations about a religion that went to such terrorizing lengths to get little kids to believe. It shouldn’t have been so difficult. Most kids believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, so the resort to scare tactics was a sure sign that something was a bit dodgy with the doctrine. The Pope reminded me of Yoda, or an eccentric character from The Dark Crystal, a Jim Henson puppet movie. He seemed to embody a number of existing clichés about mysterious, old, oddly-dressed magical wizards with mystical powers of mind-control over large swaths of people. He also dressed in a costume that made him look like a flashy Klansman from Alabama.

My strongest objection to the idea of St Luke’s was pragmatic. The curriculum was academically enriched, and I feared I might have to put in an honest effort to maintain my exceptional grades. I hadn’t had much practice with studying and academic discipline and I wasn’t anxious to pick up the habit. Why would I choose to leave a school where I could party, smoke a lot of weed, engage in the eternal quest for sexual gratification, and get good grades? The argument wasn’t as persuasive as I hoped it would be.

It was 1985. The world was under the cloud of Star Wars, a pissing contest waged by two old, white men – one Soviet, the other American – swinging their thermonuclear, intercontinental ballistic dicks at each other. One of these, US President Reagan, was a slowly dementing, former Hollywood actor who starred in films like Bedtime for Bonzo and The Voice of The Turtle. In my country a big-chinned, chain-smoking, baritoned Irish-Canadian from Baie-Comeau named Brian Mulroney had just delivered Canada to salvation from the Devil’s socialist grasp. He liked nothing better than getting pissed and karaokeing to Irish folk songs with Reagan. It was cringeworthy to see two stodgy conservatives with less soul than a pair of Hush Puppies getting all “folksy” for their peeps. Every time I see these two in their Sonny and Cher love-fest, the surge of projectile vomit is so intense I barely make it to the bathroom in time.

It was at this time I was delivered into the Jesuits at St Luke’s. In public school, the presence of girls to excite erratic hard-ons and engage in heavy petting between periods was like cocaine for my pleasure-seeking brain. The first weeks of St Luke’s I felt discombobulated ; as though I’d been kicked repeatedly in my withering testicles. My world seemed fucking grim. Even the thrill of showboating had lost its lustre – no girls to impress. What was the point of living?

The lack of a perpetually throbbing pecker did have the effect of not robbing my cranium of vital blood supplies needed for higher intellectual functioning. My grades improved, in spite of the far more rigourous curriculum. The extra mental capacity cultivated a well-spring of ideas and plans for serious mischief. It wasn’t as fulfilling as a grope-fest with a female classmate, but it would have to do.

That year I had a computer science teacher named Mr Jones. He had long shoulder length hair parted in the middle, a handlebar moustache, and wore tight-fitting polyester suits in every shade of the pastel colour palette. He was an elfin-like pot bellied man who stood slightly under five feet tall. It should have been next to impossible for a man as short as he to have pantlegs that hovered so far ABOVE his ankles. Jones made it possible. He looked as though he’d been stuffing himself into suits he first bought when he was thirteen. He was being obstinate, like a forty seven year old woman squeezing into her prom dress for the high-school reunion, clinging to the delusion that it looked ‘okay.’ A travesty on the senses.

One of Jones’ most distinguishing characteristics were his ties, which were ridiculously short. On any given day, if his tie hung more than an inch below his breast-bone it would have been considered, for him, a bit long. I imagined he was the victim of a prankster older brother who preyed on his naivete. At Sunday dinner, as Jones cried in his meatloaf over the sorry state of his love life, big brother would transmit odious bits of advice about small ties being an optical illusion that would make him appear taller. Or he’d mention seeing some article in Esquire that suggested tight-fitting pastel dress pants and rumpled shirts were the counter-culture sex appeal craze in the over-sized 80s. A more sensitive brother would have gently suggested the suite in mother’s basement, the game-show-host/porn-star fashion motif, and child molester vibe were off-putting to women.

With his sorry attire he was courting ridicule and scorn. I’d be happy to oblige. Didn’t he realize he was in a private school full of rich, preppy, judgemental kids wearing Polo and Lacoste? I was no fashion maven, but I had the wherewithal to avoid Zellers when choosing my wardrobe. Such incompetence struck me as highly suspect. This boob was going to teach me anything useful? As it would do repeatedly throughout my life, history would, in this case, make a total mockery of such a shallow assessment. Jones’ sorry ensemble was the standard dress code of every dot-com billionaire to later emerge. I should have been trying to bottle that dufus energy, and run with it. I’m convinced the reason I’m about a billion dollars short of being a billionaire is because I wasn’t dweeb enough.

The first time I spied Jones I quipped ‘what’s with this guy’s get-up, does he not own a fucking mirror’? Other kids implored me to leave it alone. Apparently Bilbo Baggins had a temper that was inversely proportional to his stature. Hell hath no fury like a nerd with short-man syndrome. But it wasn’t physical torment the kids dreaded. He was one of those jerk teachers who would punish the entire class if one student was out of line. Everybody wanted to avoid a ‘pop’ quiz, which ended up happening every day because of the statistical impossibility of twenty-three teenaged boys being well-behaved.

Early on in the year, I was singled out by Jones for one of many demonstrations of incompetence at programming. ‘What a total moron Saunders is, hey class! Everybody, look at the loser who can’t even do simple programming! Nyuck nyuck nyuck!’ It was my first experience of the way small, goofy men go about mocking the alleged stupidity of brawny mesomorphs. I didn’t like it. It was bad enough I was the only black kid in the school, but now I was a nerd being lampooned by another nerd. I didn’t need Mickey Rooney adding to my feelings of alienation. The nerd-war was on. It was a battle between an emerging breed of nerd – the computer geek – and the traditional aesthete-nerd, made up of band geeks, theatre divas, and artsy-fartsies like me. Bring it, Amiga-man.

The next day, I shortened my tie and pulled up my pants above my ankles. I made mocking jokes when my schoolmates were ignorant as I quizzed them on a litany of arcane facts, which were locked into my photographic memory after trolling through encyclopedias as a kid. I wondered if anyone would catch on to the parody. They did.

I wasn’t the only idiot who couldn’t program a “welcome” message in BASIC and had been publicly shamed by Jones. It was a small act of subversion but it was sufficient to ignite the wrath of a bunch of pissed off pituitary cases. I was the chunk of coal that stoked the fire of the white boy rebellion. By the end of the day, it seemed half the school suddenly had a case of shrunken ties. Even the senior students took a day off from shit-kicking their underlings in the lower grades to take part in the gag. I had set off a broad new trend.

To be continued …

When Nothing Short of ‘F*ck You’ Will Do

I love a good, well-placed profanity. When I’m pissed off, and even when I’m not, I can be a real fuckin’ potty mouth. A good cuss is a superlative-booster, to my way of thinking. If something is more than great but not quite amazing, it’s fucking great. If it’s slightly more than incredible but not quite unbelievable, it’s fucking incredible!

“I don’t believe you” or “bullshit”? Bullshit, hands down. Is there no better way of flatly rejecting a stupid idea, notion, or command than “fuck that”? “Screw off” or it’s Disneyland cousin “buzz off” has got to be the lamest, shittiest stand-in for “go fuck yourself” in existence.

Maybe in the ivory tower being flowery and glib in dancing around how you really feel scores you points on the scale of wit and decorum. Maybe, in your mind. In the real world where people are cutting me off, giving me the finger, stealing my lunch from the office fridge, taking credit for my work, or otherwise not caring about how shitty they are making my day, “what the fuck?!” is way more effective in telling them how sordid their contribution to my existence is in that moment. Even if they didn’t mean it, sometimes they’ve just got to know they are advised not to repeat it.

Even a sale is better when it’s a ‘Fuckin’ Sale!

Conveying your true feelings when someone’s done you wrong is where profanity comes in most handy. Let’s say you are pissed off and music is your medium. Who would you rather use as your voice: Kenny G or Rage Against the Machine? Rage, right? Public Enemy and Ice T were way more effective messengers of the anger and frustration at the disenfranchisement of African Americans than Lionel Richie or Luther Vandross would ever have been.

If someone’s taken a dump in your Cheerios, nothing short of a good ole’, down-home “fuck you” will do to really let ‘em know how you feel about it. It’s language at its motherfucking finest, unassailable perfection.

When my mother was caught in the grip of frustration her mouth could make Caligula blush. Her and legendary cusser US President Lyndon Baines Johnson would have been great fuckin’ cuss-buddies if he hadn’t died in ‘73. It’s where I inherited the taste for profanity when my passions are stirred. Most of the kids I hung out with had mothers who, when they were pissed off at them, said stuff like “Jesus, Mary and Joseph Dylan, you’ve got the devil in you” or “Goodness gracious Sean, you’re trying my patience”.

My mother’s favourite expression: “Jesus-Fucking-Christ!” we’d better do that thing or there was “gonna be hell to pay”. The directive usually came as a pot was sent flying across the kitchen or as cabinet doors were opened and slammed shut. Sometimes cutlery and stemware were sent on a collision course in catastrophic fashion; freshly folded piles of clothing were ransacked – socks and shit-stained underwear jettisoned across our condominium flat, forcing a re-folding later, and more cursing at having so unnecessarily compounding her never-ending list of chores. All of this transpired as my brother and I watched from the sidelines, cognizant of our role as the dirtbags who sent our over-worked, single mother over the edge.

The colour of her face in these verbal barrages attained a brilliant, sun-like crimson glow. There was no need for corporal punishment – the spectacle, supplemented by the torrent of profanity was effective enough. We had done wrong, and we needed to step-up to make things right. Right. Fucking. Now.

We weren’t idiots, we bucked up and did as we were told. I wanted to have nothing to do with finding out what her vision of payments to hell looked like. I imagined it probably involved sending us on repeated trips to the store to buy her “feminine hygiene” supplies (ie. maxi-pads) which, in those days, came in boxes bigger than most seven year olds and could have been used as a life-raft in a flash flood.

The intensity and volcanic force of my mother’s profane outbursts had a much greater impact than the Irish-accented, biblical invective from Dylan’s mother, which was as exotic to us as it was totally futile. Aside from that, it laid bare his Irish roots, which meant he was subjected to puerile taunts about his Lucky Charms, the magic of four-leafed clovers, and pots of gold at the end of rainbows. If she had said “You little fuckin’ Judas get your Mick ass in this house right now” I can guarantee he’d have dropped his hockey stick, left his blarney stone, and run home like a child about to shit his Sunday-best pants.

It became imprinted in my mind early on that profanity has a home in our speech. At least if it’s used among those who aren’t total strangers. You don’t roll down your window at the mall parking lot and say “that’s my fucking parking spot you cock-sucker!” – that’s what car horns and middle fingers are for right? You  don’t approach a group of obnoxious kids at a fast-food restaurant and say, “hey shut the fuck up you little shits, I’m trying to eat my big mac here.” The utility of profanity requires an existing, defined social relationship between interlocutors so its intention is clearly understood.Otherwise, it could be seen as a veiled threat.

Other than that, it’s open season. Sort of.

The office is a bit of a grey area. Is swearing totally off limits or just sometimes? When? Sometimes, in the office lunch room I’ll read the typical mindless rant of the local knee-jerk “shock” columnist who makes his bread lighting the fuses of his trailer park fan-base by blaming immigrants or disenfranchised minorities for everything that ails the city. Every day he blames government for every social or existential ill that sticks in his craw – crime, bad roads, bad weather, his stunted intellect – and insists they ought to do a better job fixing things, so long as half the “lazy bastards” are fired first. Most days I just can’t bear it – I take the bait every time. I blurt out with exasperation: “Who pays this fucking moron to stink up the place with his bullshit.” The sound of baloney and ketchup sandwiches being gagged on fills the room.

My question is, is that not cool?

The lunch room at my workplace is no European salon where great works of literature and art are discussed in earnest. Solutions for the global economic crisis or consensus on the debate over climate change are not on the offing as we munch on prepared meals laced with enough chemicals and sodium to preserve an elephant’s carcasss into the next millennium. The office lunch room, the photocopier, or water cooler are beacons of trite small-talk, petty gossip and, for the intellectually stunted, pleasure.

For most, anywhere in an office that doubles as a meeting place is a cesspool of unbearable shallowness and insincerity. I don’t think any of these milieus is irreparably sullied if one of us – typically me – decides to spice up conversation with some juicy profanities. It’s the closest thing to a socially acceptable state of arousal I can ever hope to achieve at the office.

Even though most refrain from profanity at the office, I assume nobody could be offended by those of us who do not, given the epidemic of crass, tasteless excrement that litters our cultural landscape. Unless you live in a cave, every day you’re subjected to an overdose of reality television and info-tainment documenting the public breakdown, rehab, imprisonment, philandering, misconduct, and sex-addiction of celebrities, pro-athletes, and public figures.

Every day competing ideological tribes flog the best kool-aid their cult can muster for radio and television audiences. It’s a battle of pagan idols similar to that waged between supporters of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. It’s so pointless and shallow it makes me want to smash my head through a fucking wall. Given this troglodyte wasteland we are immersed in, where is this so-called bar that marks profane language as “offensive”?

There’s an old-fashioned colonial imperative that would label any profanity as discourteous and offensive in a public context. If you want to swear, to show your boobs, your butt-crack, or to be a total asshole you spare others the indignity and do so in the confines of your home. Swear in the garage, punch a pillow, kick your dog, brow-beat your wife and children, slander your colleagues among intimate friends, wear your wife’s panties in your own boudoir. Just keep your shit together in public. My grandmother, the country-club WASP elitist she was, would insist that swearing is a vulgarity which, like abject poverty, is best reserved for people of a lesser social strata. A gentleman is not profane.

If Prince Philip’s mind were a picture, this would be it.

Prince Philip of England loves to squeeze out the silver spoon by repeatedly shoving his royal foot in his mouth. He doesn’t hide behind a simulacra of gold-plated shitters, dandy ceremonial garb, and Eton-accented English. He speaks his mind which, in spite of its immersion in a refined environment since childhood, still happens to resemble that of Archie Bunker.

I respect that, even if what comes out makes us all cringe. You know where he stands: in His Majesty’s trailer park getting fucked up on the sauce with his royal homeboys. I like to think that if I wasn’t black, Canadian, middle-class, socially democratic, non-inbred, and under 90 years of age me and the Prince would hang out, maybe play some polo or dance around boiling cauldrons with spear-chucking Zulus or something.

A Canadian Member of Parliament became so frustrated with the political tactics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper he tweeted that it was “a fucking disgrace”. Some condemnation followed about the MP’s lack of fealty to parliamentary decorum. Fair enough, but the PM is a savvy politician. He plays to win and in so doing, he is what my grandfather would call a real country-style cocksucker. The PM and the foul-mouthed MP are just playing the game of modern politics and being honest in calling each other out as the fuck-tards they really are.

In this case, it’s revealing that most Canadians were like, ‘Meh, I gotta get back to my American Idol over here.’ I take that as a sign that most are in favour of profanity. Fuckin’ eh! If it’s good enough for my MP it’s good enough for me. The real offense is the PM using his political clout to get gigs where he assails his captive subjects with tone deaf covers of Beatles hits. Say what you want about proroguing parliament, muzzling science, or consolidating power in his strident hands, the Harper version of “A Little Help From my Friends” is the real fucking disgrace.

Profanity isn’t inherently wrong just because it can be offensive. There is context. On some women, tight mid-riff revealing tops and form-fitting yoga pants are appropriate (and gratefully enjoyed). On some men speedos are considered reasonable beach attire. If you’re tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, have extreme gout, or have more bodily hair than a Yak, moderation is probably the best course if you’re contemplating either of these fashion options.

The same logic is true for profanity. Like civil disobedience, a flurry of expletives holds up a mirror to your adversary, it distills the abject immorality in their conduct as the driver of your profane outrage. It shines the light on the reality of the situation between dialoguing parties like nothing else can. But if you’re justifiably pissed off at a six year old, your grandmother or the Dalai Lama, maybe you stick with the Disney edit of your reaction.

In a civil society where taking a club and knocking the shit out of a social bully will get you a felony charge, all we have left at our disposal is a verbal assault. It’s necessary for the preservation of social order to encourage greater acceptance of this tack given the spread of the douchebag pandemic throughout our culture. The douchebag is like a human bedbug, their self-centred, pea-brained, knee-jerk insensitivity to the circumstances of anyone but themselves is ubiquitous and irritates you the moment you come into contact with it. They infest our homes, workplaces, churches, sporting events, and our politics with their douchebag axioms and douchebag behaviour.

My favourite douchebag (on the right) and his douchebaggy friend. Bros before ho’s YEAH!

How do you deal with someone who walks past a homeless person screaming “get a job!” and loves the saying “bros before ho’s”; for whom women are either “beeyaches” or people he wants to “tap”? These are the social Darwinist assholes who’ve made virtues of corporate kleptocracy and crony capitalism and vices of social conscience and compassion. They did beer bongs with Bush back at the frat and these days they spend half the week at the golf course “networking” as their yearly income exceeds that of Guatemala. They think it’s hilarious to go to the Halloween party dressed as a Mexican, an “Arab”, as Fu Man Chu, as a “Chief”, or in blackface, steadfast in the belief these aren’t racist costumes just because “political correctness” says it is. If you have any of these symptoms, chances are you’ve got douchebags.

They won’t understand righteous indignation or heed appeals to an ethical compass they don’t have. That kind of brooding is for bleeding heart pansy intellectuals, so hold your nose and go deal with your little infestation. We all have the unavoidable douchebag in our lives: the co-worker, an in-law, a neighbor, or a childhood friend who doesn’t take the hint that you despise him. You’ve been too equivocal in your exasperation with their behaviour. Next time they engage in their misanthropy, say these words: hey dipshit, get the fuck outta my life. Now go on give the douchebag a piece of your mind for poisoning humanity’s existence!

You feelin’ douchey, punk?