Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Close to the bone

Our daughter: Mercurial, second on the scene,
instantaneously disenchanted with the status quo;
wanted at least an equal share in everything,
but wouldn't turn down getting more …
Peter Hartlaub socked me in the gut last week — quite a trick considering he was more than two hours away.

Dropped me to the floor, just the same.

As pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hartlaub blogged about what he might have done differently as a parent (read it here if you must pull yourself away, but just for a wee moment …)

Peter's children are quite young; so is Peter, for that matter, but he often writes about events that cross my life path, and tells me things this outsider has always wondered about the Bay Area, where he grew up.
Our son: First born, adopting a
wait-and-see approach to life;
he'd grow out of it …

In his blog "The Poop," about all things parenting, Hartlaub mused about his few regrets as a dad, and invited readers to lay bare their own shortcomings, in a cheery, casual, public manner.

Finding the usual difficulty trying to add comments to Hartlaub's blog via the Chronicle's website, I'll respond here instead.

(Distracting digression: Critiquing pop culture must be exhausting. One would have to live it, first of all, and I'd find that tiring enough. I couldn't do it. I was sports editor for my college newspaper once and could barely get through that, suffering the ironic affliction of not being a sports fan; even my sports column was called "I Don't Wanna.")

Hartlaub's topic touched off a tsunami of emotions in me, and I returned hard to the moments, intense in themselves, when we first sent each of our kids off to college.

All in a rush at those moments, I wondered if I had done what I/we could to have prepared them. I wandered frantically about in my head, searching for the wrong turns and hinky paths I took as a dad, searching where I might have gone better instead.

Our kids are all right, in many senses, more despite me than because of me; they're blessed beyond me with ideas and ambitions and their own voices and minds; I'd been more like a bumper car rink in their lives.

Like Hartlaub, I've had parenting regrets; here are his, and I'll add a bit to the list.

Hartlaub wrote, "If I could do it again I would …"

• Teach my sons more of the fundamentals … Gifted at couch forts and kite flying, Hartlaub said he wishes he had been better at teaching bike riding, baseball catching, shoe tying and the like.

I was the opposite, more apt to coach and teach than to model childlike behavior. I was born a middle-aged man.

• Build a treehouse … Hartlaub recalls his dad having built him a loft when he was a small child. This is the splurgiest of splurges for kids, but I'm sorry I didn't do this. Not that I lacked plans. They're in a manila folder in my file cabinet, and if not they're still tattooed on my brain.

It would have been a treeless house, though, built on the ground with a deck/quarter deck/mountain cliff about five feet off the ground, accessible by stairs and/or rope. The house would change as the kids grew, becoming a homework nook as its childhood charms began to elude them. Finally, it would become my office, where I would have moved all my drawing tools and books from the back of the dining room and front of the laundry room of our first house.

A treehouse is the best bad idea (or the worst good idea): It's a monument to the flush of love parents feel, that they would invest in a structure that would probably not get much use even at the peak of treehouse-loving childhood, and would molder (which is why I planned the house I never built to change use over time).

As years pass, parents look at the treehouses and remember building them, remember the moments that may or may not have happened there; children see the old places and apply the same shining faulty memory. I have two cousins who had a tree fort — no more than a well-built but simple redwood floor with thick redwood planks that tilted out slightly to create low walls — in an oak tree on their property. I'll always remember it as a refuge for scarfing junk food, far from the intrusion of health-conscious parents.

• Yell less: "Not a lot less," wrote Hartlaub. "My kids needed to know who was in charge." But he said he could have cut it down by a third, and attributed much of his yelling to being too lazy to find a better solution.

This was the brunt of Hartlaub's stomach punch. Boy, how I overdid the yelling! Working from home, I had the school pickup duties and more of the day-to-day school volunteer work and general errands. For many, many reasons, our kids' school stressed me out, and I yearned for our kids to do their best and toe the line, when I really should have chilled out. Too many times I took my stress out on them. I'm sure other parents could see me driving away from school, red faced and shouting at the windshield as if in some shadow-play road rage, when instead I was mowing down one of our children with a spoken assault for a missed assignment or misbehavior. They'd get upset (surprise!) and feel horrible, and I would only turn up my volume and invective. What a rotten guy I was!

Were I to take back time, I'd erase those horrible moments. All of them.

No excuses, but parents need parenting class. Such a class carries the stigma of being for unfit or unprepared parents, but we are all unfit and unable. Some parents have innate notions about being good at it, but most of us, despite generations upon generations of precedent, rely on narrow advice or, worse, on our own advice. The worst of the worst advice: "I'm not going to do what my parents did!" Fine, but what are you going to do instead?

Did my parents yell at me? Sure. Did I reject that for myself? I'm certain. But there I was, filling a tiny car with hot air and hot words, withering my children, consenting them to yell at their children.

Better ways exist. Parents need to know and practice — before they become parents.

• Enter the Super-Crafty Halloween Costume Contest … Hartlaub laments not being more crafty with his kids. Ehh. Hard to side with him on this, since it's a floating target. I was far too crafty when the kids were younger, designing Halloween costumes that my wife had to create, creating birthday cake monstrosities that people had to eat. When our kids were old enough to have a say-so, homespun could not compete with Power Rangers, and I think we were all happy to accede to childlike wishes.

• Buy the Merritt Bakery hamburger cake … Hartlaub refers specifically to a signature Bay Area dessert, but means those grand luxuries parents sometimes shell out for on children, sparking lifelong memories.

I'm parting ways with Hartlaub here, too; I'm not knocking, just questioning its worth. My parents took my sister and me to Disneyland a couple of times (I remember being very sick both times, not their fault), and to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and camping. Though I remember moments from each, my default memories are of my mom volunteering in the snack bar at the Little League field (I just thought it was cool she would do that, and sell kids baseball cards) and my dad walking with me out to a space in the woods on the edge of a road my sister and I dubbed Turner's Corner, a three-foot shelf of compacted yellow sand that seemed like Ali Baba's Cave to us. My dad had recently stopped working the 3 p.m.-to-midnight shift out at the Air Force base, and was able after a long absence to spend afternoons with us.

I gave dad the grand tour of Turner's Corner (I doubt it resembled much to him) and then we followed a black wasp back home, watching it fly perfect right angles, wondering why it did so, its wings flashing electric blue over the low sage.

It cost nothing and meant everything.

To Hartlaub's list, I'd add one big, bold item:

• Less structure, more time … As with many families, ours was filled with school, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League Baseball, girls' softball, swim team, water polo team, rec soccer teams, drama, dance class — even at a glance, a dizzying and daunting array of commitments designed, I suppose, to enrich their lives. Too often they stunted our family life instead; I've written before about coaching and leading Scouting, and how instead of enjoying time together, I just rained another level of anxiety on all concerned.

Given another chance, I'd like to have cut out most of that, maybe even all of it (maybe our children would disagree). We didn't give our kids enough time to play and imagine and create and Not Do Anything, so fearful of what would happen if we left them to their own devices or let them out into the neighborhood (the terrible bane of a lot of parents nowdays; my generation has barely managed to keep the state parks open, and lost the neighborhoods completely).

I never showed our kids Glacier National Park, a place they must see, a place we all must see before we lose the glaciers too. I would have gone to more museums, or more random trips just to see what was around the corner; our son's third grade teacher marveled once at all the museums we had taken him too, but the truth is he held the few trips in vivid recall.

I can hope our kids find something instructive in this as they set out in life. 

The irony: Now my wife and I have a lot of time.

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