This will probably not make me popular with some folks…
This will probably not make me popular with some folks…
There’s a presidential debate tonight, in case you didn’t know (which, if you didn’t, what’s it like to live in a world devoid of phones, TV, computers, electricity, and angst? And what, exactly, does it mean to be Amish?). It will be America’s first time to see the two men vying to lead our great nation go head-to-head on domestic policy issues: the economy, healthcare, the role of government, and governing. In the grand tradition of presidential debates, someone is certain to come off like a doofus.
I’m sure that the estimable Jim Lehrer, he who moderates all serious debates, will have done plenty of prep work concerning the questions the candidates will answer. And I’m also sure that both candidates will do their best to try and get some digs in on their opponent, while saying that sound substantive but lack flavor (think of rice cakes; now imagine them as words coming from a person’s mouth). Given both of those things, it’s sure to be a fairly standard debate.
But I don’t want standard. I think we should spice it up. I think we need to throw in questions that no person in their right mind would ask a potential president, questions that cut to the soul of a man and reveal his true mettle.
If I were Jim Lehrer, here’s some questions I’d like answered during tonight’s debate:
Let’s see Jim Lehrer top that.
It was weird.
Ordinarily, I don’t get to do this. Usually I’m either light on the afternoon free time because of church responsibilities, or if I have the time to watch a game I’m competing with Ella for control of the TV. (Strangely, five year-old girls don’t like football. Who knew?)
So today, with Rachel and Ella off to a baby shower and Jon tucked in for a nap, I settled onto the couch like a red-blooded American male and vegged out. And it was nice.
It was also disconcerting. It tells me something that when the repast was over (Rachel and Ella came home, plus the Falcons game ended) I felt slightly guilty for not having done more with my afternoon. I felt somehow I had missed an opportunity to write the great American novel (not that you can do that in an afternoon, but you get the point), or perhaps frittered away a few hours in which I could’ve learned a valuable skill, like mastering cold fusion or learning Mandarin Chinese.
Essentially, I did nothing and felt wrong for it.
Now what prompts that? Certainly there are better ways to spend a few hours, but is it necessarily wrong to, as a person who seems to always be running, just crash and do nothing? What makes it seem borderline sinful to just watch a game?
I think part of it comes from the notion that we are what we do. We’re defined by our actions, by the things we accomplish in life, and when we’re not accomplishing something we feel useless. We feel as if we’re not living up to our potential.
And it’s not just football games that make us feel this way. Sometimes you spend an hour having coffee with a friend, talking to them about something that’s ripping their life apart, and yet you still leave feeling like you just goofed around for an hour instead of doing something productive.
We’re not sharks – we don’t have to keep moving in order to live. In fact, we’ve been commanded to keep a Sabbath day – a day of rest – as part of an orderly and worshipful life. Rest is part of what makes us human.
Are there better ways to rest? Certainly. I could’ve read, or napped, or prayed. But the essence of what I did – stopping – was not only right, it was needed.
Hopefully, your Sunday afternoon was the same.
So the past few days, Ella has been complaining that she doesn’t want to go to school anymore. She doesn’t like learning. She would just rather stay at home and veg out with Mommy (as if Rachel just sits on the couch all day…). Basically, the child has been dropping hints like a Pinto drops parts: I don’t like school.
Now, she’s only dropped these hints for Rachel. She hasn’t said a word to me about school, good, bad or indifferent. But Rachel’s had it up to her ears.
“I need you to talk to her,” she said last night. “I’m going to kill her.”
So this morning, when Ella woke up at 6:00am complaining of chest tightness, a sore throat and trouble breathing, but then suddenly got better once I turned on the TV, I decided it was time to have a chat with my girl.
The problem was how.
Here’s where Law & Order: SVU comes in. I’ve watched that show for years. This season is having to win me over because NBC made the boneheaded move of low-balling Christopher Meloni on his contract, and Meloni opted to walk and seek other projects. I can’t say I blame him, but dang – the show just isn’t the same without Meloni as its emotional center. I think the new actor hired to replace Meloni (Danny Pino, seen previously in Cold Case) is a decent enough actor, but he just doesn’t have the weightiness that Meloni brings.
What does that have to do with my daughter? This:
On the show, Meloni’s character, Detective Elliot Stabler, had a daughter named Katherine. During the show’s run, we saw Katherine go from a precocious preteen to troubled teen to raging collegiate drunk to reformed, responsible young woman. And we saw this character’s journey through the eyes of her policeman father, Det. Stabler. Now Stabler had his issues (anger management being one), which made it hard for him to talk to his daughter. In fact, the majority of their onscreen conversations usually ended with Katherine yelling and Stabler getting red in the face and trying not to explode.
Contrast that with Stabler’s ability to work with difficult witnesses in his precinct’s interrogation room: here, Stabler is in control. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. He knows exactly how to get the answers he needs from a person who may or may not want to talk.
Long story short – SVU showed me that it was entirely possible to be gifted at communicating with everyone else but your kid. And I want to avoid that.
So, I did the unthinkable: I approached my conversation with Ella this morning as if I were a fictional detective trying to get answers out of a child. I kept my cool. I let Ella direct the conversation, while still plying her with guided questions. I never said anything that made it sound like I didn’t believe her. And when Ella’s answers were vague or non-existent, I gently rephrased the question and prompted her to answer again.
We must’ve talked for 20 minutes. She was hesitant at first, but after a while she opened up and said that there was a boy in her class who talks all the time, is constantly in trouble, and sits right next to her. This boy allegedly gets into Ella’s personal space, making it hard for Ella to concentrate. She also alleged that the boy punched her in the neck last week.
After hearing that, I wouldn’t want to go to school either.
I gave her a hug and thanked her for telling me the truth (even though in the back of my mind I knew I would need to do a little fact-checking) and she seemed better. After talking with Rachel, we agreed that I needed to go by the school this morning and speak with the teacher about Ella’s story, just to make sure Ella was on the up and up. So I showered, got dressed, and put on my badge, uh, cell phone, and headed up to the school.
Ella’s teacher wasn’t there, but I spoke with the paraprofessional who works in the classroom. We’ll call her Ms. Doe. Ms. Doe confirmed that the boy seated next to Ella is quite chatty, and has to be removed from group work frequently, and as such does sometimes prohibit Ella from doing her best. She didn’t know anything about the alleged punch to the neck, but did say that, given the classroom’s close quarters, an accidental encounter was probable. I thanked her for her time and texted Rachel.
I’ll sit down with Ella’s teacher face to face next week during our parent-teacher conference, but for now, I feel like I have the information I need to help Ella better enjoy school. I also feel great because I was able to actually talk with my daughter this morning about a real problem, and it went well.
There are times when I wonder if I’m good at this whole fatherhood thing. Nothing terrifies me more than the idea that I’ll lose the close, loving relationship that Ella and I share; I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that. But I also know that if I don’t talk to her about things like this, if I don’t show her that I’m willing to listen without getting angry and find solutions without punishing her out of the gate, I’ll lose her anyway.
Walking up the hill to the bus stop this morning, I said as much.
“You can talk to me about anything. You know that right?” I said.
“Yeah, daddy. I know.”
“I won’t get angry with you. I promise. You can tell me anything, and we’ll work together to figure out what’s best.”
“Okay, daddy.” She smiled. “I like talking to you.”
“I like talking to you, too, Ella.”
She got on the bus smiling, and even waved back at me as the bus drove off. It felt good to be her dad at that moment, good to be not only a caring father but a shrewd detective.
Now, I need to head to a costume shop and get me a cool looking badge…
I’m sitting here in the silence of the morning, looking at my son, my daughter, and my nephew, all seated quietly on the living room floor, heads cocked, eyes focused on the television set. They’re watching Max and Ruby. Personally, I can’t stand the show, but they’re engrossed and they’re quiet, so for now it’s my favorite.
The ages are close but not exact: Ella is 5, Joey (my nephew) is 4, and Jon is 2. They play well together, and right now are watching TV well together. Their faces are still small and round and soft, none of the hard lines of worry breaking the surface. The sunlight that’s creeping in through the window highlights each one’s hair in a different way: Jon’s still has the ethereal glow of baby fuzz; almost every curl on Joey’s head is visible; and Ella’s natural tones stand out in a way that makes me wonder if Rachel is secretly having the Kids Cuts people highlight the girl’s hair.
The quiet moment has passed – they’re rolling cars and teasing each other now – but for that brief window, there was a beauty present that made me understand why ancient artists depicted angels as chubby toddlers. The innocence with which they look upon the world (even bad kids’ TV shows) is captivating and makes an adult who’s willing to slow down and just watch them homesick for a world to which he’s never been, but remembers all the same.
But it’s not just their looks that are beautiful. Their tiny voices are verbal snowflakes – soft and light, capable of making you tingle when they land on you just right. I hear my song singing a song to his beloved trucks and most of it is just babble, there’s a contentment in the music. Just now, something happened on Max and Ruby that put Max in peril (or so the ominous music tells me) and all three turned to the TV, let out a soft gasp, and Ella whispered “Ooooh, Max.” The boys just uttered various coos and grunts, sounds that, by the time their bodies finish developing, will eventually sound like the deranged cries of howler monkeys. But for now they sound like baby pigeons.
Of course, all of this softness and innocence is predicated on the fact that they’ve only recently awakened. Now they’re getting warmed up and the angelic exteriors are giving way to the sugared-up demons within. In fact, Jonathan just sent an entire bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios skittering across the floor. Now, he’s eating them off the floor. I should be doing something about this, I’m sure.
Now someone just passed gas. I won’t name the culprit, but the giggles over the fart have prompted even more flatulence. My wife has joined the party too, so the mood has changed. Before Rachel joined us, I was like Jane Goodall, blending in without drawing attention to myself, getting to see the private dynamics of the species. With Rachel, I’m now another adult to fetch their cereal and juice when they demand it. Jonathan is now showing off for Rachel (jumping up and down, spinning in circles to classical music) which does not bode well for when he’s older and tries showing off in front of girls his age.
He will find they are not as receptive as his mother.
Now that the mood is broken and the sun has flooded the room, the day can officially begin. We can decide what we want to do today, get ourselves ready, and enjoy the laughter that will come from time together.
But I might just sneak out early tomorrow morning to watch these kiddies in the midst, and savor the fleeting beauty we humans have when we’re young, a beauty we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture. Life needs more moments like this.