A Letter to My Son: Regarding Privilege

I know. It’s a loaded word. But honestly, privilege is something you’re going to need to have a handle on as you head out into the world. And it’s a damned elusive thing to get a grip on, nearly impossible to discuss dispassionately. A lot of people have been holding back for a long time on this topic, and they’re in no mood to be patient with us any longer. So between you and me, among family, as someone who will always have your back, let me pass on what I’ve learned over my years about my privilege. It isn’t much, but what I’ve got I’ve mostly picked up over the past ten years of my life, not the previous forty. I’m hopeful you can get wiser quicker.

I should start by defining the word “privilege” but I’m not ready to do that yet. Maybe by the end of this letter, maybe never. It’s like a black hole; you can’t see it, but you know it’s there by the effect it has on the space around it. The results of privilege are all around us. Privilege itself is invisible to those who hold it. The frustration of the unprivileged, in part, comes from the fact that they know we can’t see what they’re talking about. You can’t fault someone for what they’re doing unawares.

But you can’t let it go, either.

It was a Facebook conversation that finally, briefly, put privilege into focus for me. A friend had posted something about one of the many women’s marches* immediately following Trump’s inauguration, and in the comments that followed, a few Trump apologists began expressing their doubt that women in this country really had anything to complain about. There followed the usual micro-examples (“my supervisor is a woman,” “the girl they hired at the fry station makes minimum wage just like I do,” etc.), but what really started to resound with me were stories a couple men reported about going through divorce. In particular, divorce that involved custody of children. That’s when their feelings began to make sense to me. That’s when the light switched on in my head.

They didn’t know it, but these men were describing the one time in their lives when they had lost their privilege. Of course it hurt. They’d never felt it before. I’d never felt it before. Until I got divorced.

Your mom and I divorced in Virginia, a socially conservative state. As a father, as a parent, certain of my rights were protected. There were formulas made up to try to equitably determine child support. A father’s access to his child could not be removed except through the legal system. There were things in the law you could point to that said a father had some rights. But if you wanted to go beyond what the law limited you to, that’s where you ran into trouble. Once you tried to present yourself as an equal partner in a child’s development, the burden of proof was on you to provide evidence for your astonishing claim. Motherhood (but not womanhood) was protected by the state of Virginia.

Now, that’s no fault of the good women and mothers of the state. Their sole privilege in their lives was an accidental byproduct of a paternalistic court system. Moms didn’t create that system as surely as they didn’t create the one that kept them unprotected in wages, health care, and human rights. But in matters of custody, they caught a break.

We didn’t suffer much as father and son because of the state’s bias, but that wasn’t because of the system. That was because of your mom. Your mother understood that your well-being as a child depended on a healthy relationship with both your parents. I (and you) owe her that. And that made us lucky, because a mom less dedicated to your care could have easily made it difficult for us to spend time together. I always had to keep that in the back of my mind. There were only so many waves I could make. And when your mom decided to move you to her hometown in Pennsylvania, I knew I had two options. Accept it. Or fight it, throwing myself thousands of dollars more into debt (I was living paycheck-to-paycheck at the time), and still lose in court. So I let it go, and followed you north.

I was angry and hurt, because it wasn’t fair. I was made to feel like a lesser parent simply because of my gender. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see it clearly now:

I had lost my privilege.

Because that feeling that I had of being forced to prove my worth, in that one area of my life, is what women and Muslims and immigrants and black and brown citizens and the LGBTQ community have to face all the time in all the other areas of their lives. That outrage, that humiliation, that lessening that I felt in front of the courts of Virginia is the feeling that my privilege protects me from in all other areas of my life.

That’s why I understood the hurt these men were talking about. They weren’t used to it. Neither was I. It does hurt. They just couldn’t make the leap that other people had felt this, too.

So privilege is armor you don’t know you’re wearing. It’s not bad to have that armor; it’s a good thing. But it’s essential to understand that not everyone has it. And it’s essential to understand that arrows hurt, wound, and can even kill people who don’t have the armor. The armor you don’t even know you’re wearing.

My poor understanding of privilege, from the standpoint of one who has unwittingly held it all his life is this: People without privilege aren’t asking me to take the armor off. They just want some, too. Or at the very least, they want me to understand the damage arrows do to the unprotected.

* * *

At this point, I feel like I’m supposed to tell you that you should educate yourself, and that’s truly the best thing to do. But don’t do so with the goal to understand or empathize with what women or Latinos or Jews go through. Realistically, I don’t think that’s possible. It’s too late for you to grow up in poverty. You’ll never be black. If you’re Muslim or gay or trans, you’ve kept it to yourself, so I’ll assume you don’t have intimate experience with those realities, either. You can talk and read and meet, and those are all good and wonderful things that will make you a richer human being, but they are not things that will allow you to experience what others have lived. It’s crucial that you understand the distinction, because it’s all the difference between looking across the table at a fellow human being, and looking down at them.

When I was in nursing school, we were given a definition of pain that I’ve never forgotten, and that I’ve found to be more accurate with every day I work with patients. Ready? Here it is:

Pain is whatever the patient says it is.

If your patient has a broken leg and tells you they have 4 out of 10 pain, then that’s what they have. If they have a hangnail and rate it 9/10, then guess what? Their pain is at a nine. The lesson is you don’t get to judge. You’re not feeling what the patient is feeling. Maybe the guy with the hangnail has fibromyalgia, which affects the way people experience pain. Maybe he has an undiagnosed brain tumor. Maybe he just lost his job and his health insurance. Maybe his child was just killed in an auto accident. Maybe he’s just cursed with a low pain threshold. There are many factors that affect someone’s pain, and pain is always subjective. Even if they’re having trouble putting what they’re feeling into words, something in this person’s life is causing them to tell another human being that they are in pain. Something is going on here, and it’s real.

You don’t have to understand it. You have to take it seriously.

For most of my life, I didn’t believe racism was endemic and institutional, because I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t exposed to it, so I tried to judge it on that basis, and I was wrong. I couldn’t imagine that black men and women really were being executed by police, or denied homes and jobs and respect just for the crime of being black, and that these things happened on a daily basis, so I didn’t believe it. What I should have done was just listened. I should have understood that the proof of that was that so many people were consistently crying out in pain. I withheld belief because it didn’t fit in with my own experience. It never occurred to me that my privilege “protected” me from reality. I should have just heard the pain for what it was.

You don’t have to get it. You just have to listen. Living in someone’s skin isn’t a prerequisite to taking them seriously.

When Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape came out, I started hearing voices I’d never heard before. Some were voices I’d missed. Some were voices speaking out for the first time, emboldened by their resistance. A few of my Facebook friends made allusions to harassment they’d endured at work. Some made reference to assaults they’d try to bury in their past. One courageous friend even shared with me a story of being sexually assaulted by her pediatrician when she was sixteen. When she told her mother about it, her mother urged silence.

Years ago, I thought that if women and girls were smart and followed the rules, they could avoid sexual assault. Later, I believed it was something that loomed as a possibility in every woman’s life. This year I learned that every woman in our lives has a story like this. Our mothers, grandmothers, wives, bosses, nieces, lab partners, dormmates, waitresses, teachers, and sisters, every one of them carry personal experience of sexual assault and/or intimidation. I’m ashamed that it’s taken me a lifetime to hear them. It’s why I write this letter to you now, my beloved son, so that you can get a better head start than I did. I think your generation already has. But it’s too important to leave to chance.

Be aware of your privilege, as much as you are able to sense something you can’t see. Sit and talk with people, and listen. Withhold judgment. Remember that your empathy may not be possible, but it’s not needed, either, not as much as your credulity. Read. Start with Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, if you need a starting point. Turn to your friends for other books, films, and music to get your eyes and ears turned outward. Above all, understand that your experience of life is not everyone’s experience of life.

It’s not your fault you have privilege, and I know you never asked for it. But you cannot deny it, not if you want to make the world a better place, as I know you do. Look for it in the rare moments it’s visible. Privilege doesn’t want to be seen, not by us. Pointing it out might be the best thing you can do.


*As you know, I was proud to join my local one in Olympia, WA.

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A Bit of Housekeeping

I started writing this blog back in the fall of 2013, when The Knucklehead went away to college. I needed a distraction with my only child out of the house, and I thought this would be a good one. I didn’t feel qualified to lecture anybody on anything, but I’d learned a lot from working at being a dad, and I wanted to share my stories. My hope was that something that worked for me might work for someone else out there, too. Or that other parents might find some reinforcement when reading about some of my own doubts and insecurities.

It was hard to find focus in those first months, and it shows in my  early posts. But as I lurched between my passions of baseball, movies, and books, I began to find my voice. I wrote more about ethics than other facets of parenting, because I’ve been a student of ethics since even back when I was a little kid. Gradually, I began to gain confidence. Some of you have been kind enough to let me know when something I wrote was meaningful to you, and that meant the world to me.

Here’s a secret: Whenever I had trouble finding words for something difficult I was trying to express, I imagined I was chatting with My Knucklehead, just he and me. That led to some of my better writing, at least from what trusted friends have told me.

But it’s been harder lately to come up with fresh posts about parenting, as you’ve probably guessed from the infrequency of my writings lately. Maybe I’ve said all I have to say on the subject. Maybe, as my son begins to turn his attention to the larger world, it would be healthier for me to turn my own attention more to my own life, and less to his.

Besides, there seem to be more pressing matters these days. I’m feeling more and more that it’s my civic responsibility to lend my pen to the Resistance against Trump and those who enable him, both within government and without.

My son graduates college in May, and I think that would be an excellent time to finish out The Gentleman Knucklehead. This blog has served its purpose well. For a couple years my blog had great focus, and I’m proud of my writing. But honestly, friends, I think we’re now in the fourth season of Lost. I don’t want to do that to you, to my son, or to myself. So here’s my plan:

Between now and The Knucklehead’s graduation, I’m going to devote this blog to a series of open letters to my son, each on different topics. I think this way we can end strong; I’ll write better when I’m addressing my boy directly, and where most of this blog was seeded in stories of the past, these posts will be looking toward the future, toward a child entering adulthood (adultery? Grown-uppitiness?). If anyone reading this has ideas of topics you’d like me to write about, I’d be happy to hear your suggestions.

I won’t stop writing. I’ll probably begin another blog, and if I do, I’ll let you know where you can find my writing. And it’s possible I’ll return here from time to time when I have something new to say about parenting.

Or even (gulp!) grandparenting.

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House Rules

OK, Knucklehead.

You’re making your first visit to you new home on the Left Coast. This time it’s for eleven days; next time, who knows when or for how long? A couple days? Two weeks? Eight months? To quote Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Happily, in this case.

Nevertheless, it’s still my house, my rules, boy. It’s best to review them before the visit. Some are classics. Some are new, befitting the change of venue (and the fact that you’re over 21). Infractions of any will result in swift, severe consequences. That’s right: epic whining from yours truly. Oh, I’ll do it. You know I will.

  1. I’ve accepted that you like to channel-surf. I understand the concept of “just browsing.” But the whole reason it frustrates me is because you have the remote. And just as I’m beginning to get curious in what’s going to happen next – ZZZIIIIIP! – it’s gone. It’s like having a book ripped out of your hand in mid-sentence. I can’t take that for eleven days. So at a sitting, I’ll allow you twenty minutes of channel-surfing. Then you have to pick something. ANYTHING.
  2. Here’s an oldie, but goodie: if you happen to run across a broadcast movie I have in The Collection, after you’ve been watching for ten minutes, you must quit watching the broadcast version and pop in the disc to watch the entire flick. I didn’t bring up any knucklehead of mine to watch hacked-up Bowdlerized versions of a real film. As my mother used to say about books, “If the author went to all the trouble to write it, the least you could do is read it.”
  3. Of course, if it’s Rocky II-IV, you’re welcome to zap through to the fight scenes. Sorry, Barth.
  4. I buy good beer, which you’re old enough to drink. I don’t want to ever catch you drinking beer out of the bottle, not in my house. Good beer should be decanted into a pint glass, so that you can get your nose into the bouquet as you drink it. That’s the entire point of pint glasses, of which I have plenty. The only exception is if we’re sitting in lawn chairs in the back yard, which have those little pouches in the armrests that will accommodate a bottle, but not a glass so much. Otherwise….
  5.  If I ask you, “What do you want from the supermarket?” and you reply, “Anything is fine,” you deserve whatever you get.
  6. I raised you to be a moral man. Not to follow my ethical values or anyone else’s, but your own, and to work at discovering what they are and to work at being true to them. I trust you, and I trust your choices, even if they might not be mine. So if there is someone you are bedding in your life outside this house, should that person come to visit overnight, that person will share a bed with you here. It just seems hypocritical of me to expect anything else. Your friends have been my friends. Your family is my family.
  7. But for god’s sake, keep it down. I’m right across the hall.
  8. You might have heard that Washington state has legal weed, and for persons 21 or over, that is true. It’s easy and safe to purchase, but there are still limited places to consume it. You can’t smoke it in public, or even at the place where you bought it, or anywhere that prohibits smoking in general. You can smoke it at home, but for aesthetic reasons, I don’t want smoking or vaping of any kind inside the house. That leaves the backyard or garage, and you’re welcome to toke up there if you’re so inclined (no toking and driving, same as drinking – save it for when you’re in for the night). The catch is, if you’re a social smoker, I can’t join you. I still have cravings from when I quit smoking cigarettes before you were born, and I’m afraid that smoking anything at all might wake the beast. So while I can’t join you, I’ll sit with you and have a beer if you like. I only say this so you don’t buy more pot than you can consume during your stay. I don’t want the rest, so unless you want to swallow baggies in the airport before your flight east, it’s just going to go to waste.
  9. For the first few nights you’re here (or knowing you, early mornings), I’m probably going to peek in and look at you while you’re sleeping, just like when you were three, and five, and seventeen. That’s just going to happen.
  10. Rainy days mean nothing in the Pacific Northwest. We’re still going out, still walking the dog, still visiting Rainier, still bopping around downtown Olympia. And put that umbrella away. You’re embarrassing us.
  11. If you put a snack down on the coffee table, the dog is going to eat it. No use getting mad at him. Or me. This is his house, too.
  12. Any human being that walks into this house and makes a snack has to ask every other human being in this house if they want one, too. That goes for me as well as you.
  13. I’m going to randomly hug you and say, “I can’t believe you’re here.” That’s another thing that’s just going to happen.

Glad we got this all straightened out. See you at SeaTac on Thursday.

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Home for the Holiday

Our story thus far:

When The Knucklehead was four years old, his mom moved him from the Washington DC area to a rural Pennsylvania town, the one in which she grew up and her family remained. I moved there as well, because, A) I was the only dad The Knucklehead was ever going to have, B) he was the only Knucklehead I was ever going to have, and, C) whaddayagonnado? Tho’ central PA was not my cuppa (I’d spent much of my life there as well), I resolved to hunker down and get to work being a dad. This I did, and our adventures are chronicled elsewhere in this blog.

Seventeen years passed.

During that seventeen years I never once, not for a day, felt anything but gratitude that I was able to stay at hand in my son’s life. But Pennsylvania didn’t feel at home to me. Even when I fell in love, and felt ensconced in someone’s heart, when I walked out my front door, I felt alien in my son’s town. Living in a place where you feel like an outsider is discouraging, and over time, wearying. Two promises I rolled between my fingers like rosaries kept me going: a promise to my son to stay put while he needed me. And a promise to myself that when my son was old enough, I’d move somewhere I wanted to be, not stay in a place where someone else assigned me.

Last April circumstances cleared the path west. With The Knucklehead winding down his junior year of university, I headed to a new life in Olympia, Washington – you can revisit the first day of Mr. Knucklehead’s Wild Ride here. One promise fulfilled, another undertaken.

And I believe that brings us up to speed.

* * *

In just under two weeks, I’m going to pick up My Knucklehead at SeaTac airport for his first visit to my new home on the West Coast. Correction – our new home on the West Coast, because wherever I am, my son will always have a home. Am I thrilled? You betcha. I’m taking off the first week in January to hang with the kid. It’s been 8 months since I’ve seen my boy – the longest by far the two of us have ever been apart. He’s coming home.

But he’s coming to a home he doesn’t know yet, a home that I’m just beginning to get a feel for myself. And he’s coming home at the cusp of his adult life, straight off the penultimate semester of his undergrad career, not yet knowing what will follow. As I’m settling in, he’s setting his sights on… where? He’s not sure. And after a semester in Grenada and an internship in London, it’s not unreasonable to consider the world, and not just North America, The Knucklehead’s oyster. And in what field will my boy make his adult debut? In which of his three majors – if any? – will my boy set his sights? Film? Math? Spanish? It’s great to have choices, but an abundance of choice can be debilitating. I suspect, contrary to his father’s assurances, he’s scared of making the wrong choice.

And what of my future with my son?

When The Knucklehead was three, and his mom and I first separated, I began a ritual that lasted Knuck’s whole life. Whenever I would turn my boy back over to his mom after spending time with me, I would always ask him, “When do we see each other again?” It was vital to me that my toddler had a concrete date he could hold onto. I wanted to be sure he knew it. I wanted to be sure he could take that promise to the bank. I never left him without him being able to tell me when we’d next see each other. “Two days.” “This Friday.” “After I get back from vacation with Mom.” Over time, as our schedule became part of our bones, the question was asked out of habit, not necessity. But it was still asked.

I last asked my son that question on April 18th, our last dinner together before I drove across country. Knuck’s answer was, “You’re flying me out over winter break, for New Year’s.” His answer after this visit will be, “You’re flying out for my graduation in May.”

I don’t know the answer to that question after his college graduation this spring, not yet, anyway. We are in uncharted waters.

* * *

But the one thing I’ve learned about parenthood is that it is made up of ocean upon ocean of uncharted waters. You go through enough transitions and they start to scare you less and less. You learn to trust the relationship you’ve built with your knucklehead, the history assembled through your kid’s lifetime of firsts. Knucks and I have been through a lifetime of transitions together. I see this as simply the next one.

I’d love it if my son moved to Washington. I let him know often that there’s a room for him in this house for as long as he needs it if he wants to get on his feet in the Pacific Northwest. The thought of being housemates with a young man I not only love, but like immensely, makes me smile. He’s good company, my kid. I like hanging out with him.

But I don’t need him here for our relationship to continue, and continue to grow. I have a rich life in Olympia, and that’s what I want for my son: a rich life of his own. I can’t dictate where that will be, that’s for him alone to uncover. We are cemented into each other’s hearts, and distance can do nothing to change that. Besides, always being a text, Skype, and a post away closes the distance.

So my plan for our week together is to bask in the company of My Knucklehead, and thoroughly enjoy having him around. I’m not going to worry about the future, because the future is simply the next transition in his life, and we’re undefeated so far in weathering transitions. It’s true, I’ve half-joked with him that my plan is to wine and dine him, that if he decides not to settle in Olympia at the end of our visit, it won’t be for my lack of trying. But he also knows I’m cheering him onto the next chapter in his life, even if he’s unsure of it himself.

So we’re going to celebrate. He’ll get to reunite with the dog (who is going to go mental when he sees the boy). We’ll probably spend a day or two in Seattle, maybe take the ferry to Bremerton. We might hit Mt. Rainier – neither of us has seen it up close in winter – and if we do, stop by the Copper Creek Inn for some blackberry pie. Maybe we’ll hit Portland, Oregon, just a couple hours south. But mostly, I want to introduce him to my new hometown, his Left Coast home. We’ll stop by the Farmer’s Market in Olympia. Grab waffles at King Solomon’s Reef (and maybe pop into The Reef’s Lounge, one of the great dive bars in a city of epic dive bars). Visit McMenamin’s Spar Café (from whence I write his weekly letter) for Cajun Tater Tots and billiards. Pull into Vic’s Pizzeria for a gourmet slice (with the Grateful Dead and Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants posters on the walls). See what’s funky at The Compass Rose, or Browser’s Books, or Rainy Day Records. Gobble chowder at Fish Tales. Have a beer at Northwest Beerwerks, or P’s and Q’s, or better yet, a pint or two while we catch a Premier League soccer match at Three Magnets. A place that makes me happy will make him happy. I want my son to experience the friendliness and openness of my new hometown. I want him to leave at the end of his break knowing his dad is in good hands.

* * *

I can’t wait to see my son. I can’t wait to have him home for the holiday. And though the vacation will go all too quickly, when I put him back on a plane east it won’t be with sadness or regret. It’ll be with gratitude that My Knucklehead finally got to see and experience for himself what all the fuss of his dad’s new life is about. And I’ll be filled with excitement for what my son’s future will bring.


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My Heart-to-Heart With Hugo

(The hardest thing about having a dog or a cat or other pet is you can’t explain things to them. You can’t explain things to babies, either, but you figure they’ll grow out of that eventually. Not so with other animals. I always fantasized about periodically – maybe once a year or so – being able to have a conversation with a nonhuman family member. Just to go over the ground rules, just so he  understands that all these seemingly random parameters aren’t just hoops I want him to jump through. Wouldn’t that be great? But the more I think about it, there is much more I’d like to make clear to my dog. Given the opportunity, this is what I’d like my goldendoodle Hugo to understand.)

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Seriously, Hugo, grab some couch. There’s some stuff I want to go over with you, stuff I think it’s really important you understand. As befitting your attention span, we’ll do this in listicle format, shall we? OK.

  1. I love you. I’m pretty sure you know that already, but it never hurts to say it out loud, just to be sure. So, I love you.
  2. I’m sorry about the leash. I’m not a big fan of it, either. The fact is, I love to see you run. You’re so joyous when you run, it’s exhilarating just to watch you. Your joie de vivre is absolutely infectious, as is your spontaneity. But that’s where the problem lies. It’s a man’s world Hugo, and that’s the sad truth. Men want to order this world, and a dog unleashing exuberance upon it is messy. But it’s cars and trucks that I most fear, because you don’t understand that they’re not as nimble as you, so you don’t understand the danger. The leash, ultimately, is your protection from the wildness of Man.
  3. How’s the food here? You seem to like the chow I give you, but I can’t tell if it’s because you honestly like eating the same breakfast and dinner every day or if it’s because you’ve got no choice. I know you have a nose for the food I make for myself, but I know your digestive system better than you seem to, so I’ve got to dole that out judiciously. And you’re right. You would love chocolate. Sorry, pal. It could kill you, and that would ruin both our days.
  4. Speaking of gastrointestinal issues, a word about puking. It happens. Don’t feel guilty about it, I know you’re feeling miserable, and you’re not puking on purpose. But have you ever noticed how the kitchen and bathrooms have shiny floor? And the rest of the house has fluffy floor (I call it carpet)? It’s a lot easier to clean up shiny floor than fluffy floor. Just sayin’.
  5. Sorry I’m gone all day most of the days of the week. I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have to. I have to go out and do stuff for people, and in return for that I get money. You need money for everything in Manworld, including our house, our food… pretty much anything you can think of, and lots you can’t. The good news is that money also means you get to see Maija while I’m gone when she stops by in the middle of a workday to love you up and take you for another walk. I know that’s not as good as me being home all day, but Maija’s pretty cool, right?
  6. Remember that time when I took you to the vet, and then I had to leave you in a strange place? And when you woke up you had a big gash on your belly, and it probably hurt a lot? That was my decision, and I had to do it or you would have died. You’d chewed and eaten a ton of stuff that turned out to be bad for you, and they actually had to cut it out of your belly because there was no other way to get it out. Do you remember the night you spent at the vet? I came over to see you with a pillow you like to rest your head on, and I sat on the floor next to you and sang “You Are My Sunshine” over and over again until the staff told me it was time to leave? I barely slept that night I was so worried about you. What worried me the most? I was worried that you might have thought I abandoned you.
  7. Which brings up the subject, “Things to Chew.” I know it seems arbitrary. But mostly I pick and choose what things are OK to chew on because I don’t want you to have to have your belly cut open again. But also, there are some things we need for uses other than being chewed, and when you chew on those things, we can’t use them anymore. This is why I got angry when you went through your sock and shoe chewing phase. And I’m not saying I love my movie collection more than I love you. But if I come home and find my Criterion Collection 2-disc copy of Les Enfants du Paradis* in pieces on the fluffy floor, well… let’s just say there’s a case to be made for cats.
  8. Thanks for peeing and pooping outdoors. I really appreciate that.
  9. The mornings when the alarm goes off and you wake me up by laying your head and paws on my chest? I love that. You have no idea.
  10. There are sacrifices human parents make for their kids that they’re happy to make because they love them so much. Adult humans give up freedoms, they work harder to make more money to give their kids things they need. Children change a human’s whole life, and that’s a good thing because they can be so enriching and bring so much love that might not be there otherwise. It’s the same with you, Hugo. If not for you, I might be in a condo, cheaper and cozier for just me, and maybe even in the city, where the action is. And though that might have suited me, it didn’t suit us, and us is what I care about. And my life is the richer for it. That’s the kind of pull you have around here, pal. You might think it’s me that does all the “providing” in this relationship. But I get a lot more out of this than I think you know. The affection, the warmth, the thing that mental health professionals call “unconditional positive regard,” that’s what you give me in spades. That’s what makes me grateful you’re in my life.
  11. Squirrels really aren’t mocking you, and they’re not a threat. Let it go. Crows, on the other hand, you’re right to bark at. A crow will fuck you up.
  12. In or out. Decide.


*OK, you caught me being a movie snob. How about the copy of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! it took me 20 years to find? That work better for you?

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The Knucklehead Political

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, my last two posts probably took you by surprise. They took me by surprise as well. As you may know, I usually  write fairly non-controversial posts about being a dad. But the recent election set me to howling, which I think was an appropriate response. Besides, I’ll share a little secret with you:

All my posts are political.

I don’t like hearing the dismissal of talk of current events as “just politics.” As in people shouldn’t let a disagreement in “politics” get in the way of a friendship. Politics is life. Politics is all about how we decide to live together in a community, in the nation, in the world. Calling that “just politics” is like writing off purposeful and intimate conversation with your children, your family, as “just talk.”

You should talk with your knuckleheads about politics. Your political views say a lot about how you think people in your community – local or global – ought to be treated. Your political views say a lot about how you think you should be treated, and what rights and responsibilities you hold. You’re going to teach your kids about that whether you intend to or not. You might as well grab some ownership of that education and talk politics openly and deliberately.

When you discuss your politics, you’re discussing your values. I can’t think of a single more important topic to speak of openly  in your family than your values as a human being. Bottom line, isn’t that what we really want to pass onto our children? Even if our kids end up disagreeing with us – hell, especially if they end up disagreeing with us! – don’t we want them to know where we stand? Don’t we want to think we gave them something valuable?

It’s not just your own politics and values you have the opportunity to pass on. You’re the one that’s going to teach your child how to talk politics. The way you talk about current events informs your child how these conversations go, whether they’re Socratic dialogues, chess matches, or frontal assaults. How you react to political ads or news stories tells your knucklehead whether she should be confrontive, reactive, inquisitive, or didactic when getting into controversial topics. She’ll take cues from you whether she’s going to seek consensus or conformity from others.

You also have an opportunity to teach your child how to pick through the bones of an issue to decide which side to fall on. Sometimes knowing your stance on a hot-button issue is less helpful than knowing how you came to that decision.

The first time I remember talking politics with The Knucklehead was when he was about six or seven years old. This would have been in the early ’00s, well before the marriage equality movement had gained any traction in mainstream America. Out of the blue one night, Knucks said to me, “I don’t think men should get married.”

“Oh?” I answered. I suspected I was hearing an in-law talking, but I let that go. “Why’s that?

“I don’t know. I just think it’s wrong. Boys shouldn’t marry boys.”

This was an issue I felt pretty strongly about, and I admit, I started to feel Lecture Mode taking hold. But I took a breath, and shook my head and said, “Nah. I disagree.”


“I don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t want to marry another guy, I have no interest in doing that myself. But when I hear something that sounds weird or different to me, I think, ‘Who is this hurting?’ And I can’t think of anyone that’s hurt by this. If two guys want to get married, that doesn’t affect me at all. I can’t see that it affects anybody except the two guys who want to get married. And it’s not hurting them. I think there should be more love in the world, not less. And if two guys love each other enough to want to get married, that’s their business. Who’s hurt by that?”

“So you think it’s OK?”


“I guess you’re right.”

Now, you and I both know I didn’t change my son’s stance on marriage equality in any realistic way. He was at an age where he wanted to be just like his dad, so of course he was going to go along with whatever I’d say. But he did begin to learn three important lessons in that conversation.

  1. People can have a respectful conversation about controversial matters. My “I disagree” was a simple statement of fact, not a refutation of what he’d just said.
  2. I gave him some kind of framework for coming to a decision on an ethical question. In this case, something as simple as the yardstick “Who is this hurting?”
  3. He learned about one of my core values. Love. And, that I wanted this core value distributed equitably.

That’s how we learned to talk politics in our wee little family of two. As dinnertable conversations. Does that mean I never flew off the handle and lost it when I was taken by surprise by a political ad or news story? Hell no. I lost it lots of times, and The Knucklehead added the adolescent eyeroll to his nonverbal vocabulary. But I also made sure that when I calmed down, I asked myself aloud, “why did that set me off the way it did?” And I’d sort through that. If I reacted in a way that shut down communication, I would apologize, setting an example of rebounding from a mistake. But I wouldn’t apologize for my passion. It’s right to feel offense at the truly offensive, like marginalizing people different from you. It’s good to feel how you feel. And it’s also good to put those feelings to constructive use.

That’s what talking politics (and doing politics) can teach our children.

So, this blog has always been political. It’s always been about teaching a child how to be a proud and positive adult in her town. In his country. In their world.

I have a friend who took his children to their first political rally today. He shared with me some beautiful pictures of his knuckleheads holding up signs that said, “Love.” He’s as angry as I am after last week’s election, and this is how he’s channeling it. He’s teaching his kids that love and inclusivity are worth fighting for, and that there’s something they can do about it. He’s teaching them they have a voice, and how to use it.

He’s teaching them politics. The best thing we can teach our kids.

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My (Lack of) Faith Will See Me Through

On Election Eve last week, I wrote a post on this blog called “If Trump Wins.” At the time that I wrote it, I didn’t think Donald Trump had any chance at all of winning the presidency, and the defiance and optimism I felt Monday night vanished twenty-four hours later. Like it did for a lot of you.

It wasn’t just that this spectacularly unqualified person was going to run the executive branch, or that he’d likely have congress on his side. It was the slap in the face that we really did live in a country that at the least turned a blind eye to bigotry, if not openly embraced it. Just when we thought maybe we were moving away from that, or at least encouraging a more open society. Nope. Just like that, the door was slammed shut. People of color, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, women, et. al., maybe saw this coming more clearly than I did. But I sure as hell see it now.

So when I went to bed on election night “devastation” isn’t much of an exaggeration of what I was feeling. Hopeless, hollowed out. Anguished. All that liberal Trail of Tears bleeding heart stuff people posted – I actually felt that. I only went to work that day because people needed me, otherwise I would have stayed home in my bathrobe with my dog. What I’d written Monday night seemed like it was from someone else.

But I got over that defeat. It took about a day and a half of “fake it ’til you make it,” which I did ’til I did, and the courage started coursing back through my veins. My own words, when I finally reread them, reminded me of who I really was once I was back on my feet. But there was still a long fight ahead of me. Assuming the Electoral College didn’t step in and do the job it was designed for – the job that none of us ever thought it would need to do – Trump was going to be president. A lot of people were going to need help, including those who voted him in. The question wasn’t what I needed to do.

The question was, “why?”

And that’s what I’d like to write about tonight.

* * *

It’s really a legitimate question to ask yourself as a citizen and especially as a parent trying to guide another human being into a moral life. Why do good when it’s likely that your actions will have no effect? Why do good when you don’t see any fruit coming of it? Why bother when your values are unappreciated?

It’s a question I get a lot as an atheist, or some form of it at least. People who assume that goodness comes from a deity are going to be curious about what compels we godless* to behave well toward others. If there’s no outside source pushing us that way, well, what’s the point? You hear this a lot from conservative Christians: the idea that without God to keep us in line we’d all descend into savagery and lawlessness (speak for yourselves. Actually, maybe you are.).

If you’re the kind of person who believes that your faith gives you all the reason you need to sustain you in the fight for marginalized people, then read no further. If you honestly draw all the resolve you need from your religious beliefs, good for you. No, really. If you believe that all people have basic human rights that deserve defending, then we’re on the same team, and I really don’t care what got you there. But if you’re struggling with why you shouldn’t just pack it in after this brutal defeat, then maybe I can help. Here’s what gets me through. Maybe you can find something useful here.

* * *

We atheists don’t tend to do optimism very well. If you don’t believe in a god, you’re pretty much flying through life with no safety net, and that’s not a little bit intimidating. Most deists believe in some form of a benign plan, something good that we’re all being more or less encouraged toward, whether it’s by God, gods, the Cosmos, Gaia, or what have you. If you believe that, or at least hope for that, it relieves a lot of pressure. Even if you believe that people are the instruments of that plan, there’s a vague idea there that if you fail in your task, there’s something else that will pick up the slack. Or give you strength to try again. If you’re an atheist, you’ve got none of that. You’re on your own.

Many people are telling us “It’ll be OK.” Maybe it will. But just because this country has always recovered (at least to the satisfaction of the ruling class) is no guarantee it always will. All empires fall in this world. When America falls, how will it happen? I think it’ll look a lot like this. Remember, with no net, there’s no guarantee there’s a master plan in place.

Sounds grim? Wait, there’s more.

Most deists believe in some form of afterlife. Even if it’s reincarnation, there’s something else to look forward to. Usually it’s something better, or at least part of a divine plan. There’s something more than this life here on Earth. Atheists cannot count on anything like that. As an atheist, I must accept the possibility that this go-around is all I get.

So let’s recap: I’m alone. This life is all I have.

Disheartening? Well, I get that, but wishing for something else doesn’t make it so. I’m not going to get more just because I want it really really badly. And if you think about it this way, and really accept the transient nature of life (like Buddhists do, by the way), something beautiful happens. You stop thinking about all you’ve “lost” (which was never really there to begin with anyway – at least that’s how we atheists see it) and you start realizing how startlingly beautiful and rare and unique this life we’re living really is. You see it as something worth fighting for, not just a stepping stone to the next phase of existence. This life – it becomes the one love in your life. Existence becomes so much more precious because it’s finite.

Would you rather have someone like that fighting for your rights? Or someone who believes we’re meant to suffer here and it’ll all be worked out later?

* * *

So we atheists place a lot of value on the present because we’re not certain of anything but the present. But if that’s the case, why spend it doing good? Why not spend it wallowing in the fleshpots, debauchery, and violence conservative Christians seem alarmingly obsessed with?

The simple answer is, I don’t want to. I feel better when I do good than when I don’t. When I do something to help someone, I like myself. I give myself a little smile, and an “attaboy!” I sleep better at night, and it makes me want to help out more. When I pass up a chance to help someone, or when I fail miserably out of fear or laziness, I don’t like myself. I lose sleep. I get down on myself. I’d rather feel good than feel bad. So I try to live morally.

It really is that simple.

Years ago, I mentioned to someone – a volunteer firefighter and sometime Sunday School teacher – that I was looking for some volunteer opportunities in my life. His immediate response was, “Well, don’t expect any thanks for anything you do!” I figured that he’d recently been embittered by some bad experience, but still, his answer surprised me. I wasn’t looking to do volunteer work because I wanted someone to thank me. I was looking to do it because I felt it was important.

I do good (or feel bad when I fail to) entirely for internal reasons. I have little control over what people do with my actions or how they are received. So it doesn’t make sense for me to look for validation outside myself. I can only answer to my own morality.

So I don’t do good because I’ll be thanked.

I don’t do good because it’s effective (though I hope it is).

I don’t do good because it’ll bring me in line with what others believe (though I hope not to feel alone).

I don’t do good because I think someone is “worthy” of it (though we are all worthy, being human beings).

I don’t do good because others may emulate me (though that’s a bonus if they do).

I do good (or hurt when I fail) to stay true to myself.


This is why I’ll fight on. Because this world and her people are worth fighting for. Because I have no guarantee anyone else will pick up my slack. Because this world is all I know I have. And because it’s who I am and how I want to live.

My reasons for carrying on don’t require a god. But they don’t necessarily negate one either, so if there’s anything here you can use, help yourself. I hope My Knucklehead can find some help here; that’s ultimately why I’m writing this. But we all have some work to do in the days and years ahead, and maybe that’s true regardless of who was elected. So I’m getting up and soldiering on.

Who’s with me?


*Actually we’re all godless, but I’ll let that go for now.

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