How do you want to be remembered?

The other day #1 asked me to tell the story about when Uncle H. ran across the pool without sinking. The core of the story is

Uncle H. was standing near a pool when he lost his balance (why is unclear) and teetered and lurched toward the pool. As he reached the edge of the pool, rather than simply fall in, Uncle H. ran across the pool to the other side. His legs were moving so fast, so the story goes, that he didn’t sink. When he got to the far side of the pool and stepped out, only his feet and ankles were wet.

Uncle H.’s preternatural run happened sometime in the nebulous past but lived on in each retelling at family gatherings throughout my childhood. Whenever it came up, he would chuckle in his chair while we kids would look with renewed admiration at Uncle H.

At first awed by his powers, over time I grew skeptical of the story, a skepticism aided by a couple earnest but wholly unsuccessful attempts to recreate the feat in my neighbor’s pool. My skepticism demanded an explanation, wanted the real story. What really happened that made people say Uncle H. had run across a pool? I have given up trying to imagine the actual scene that metamorphosed into Uncle H. quasi-miraculous dash across the pool. It no longer matters. Uncle H. has become inextricable from that run across the pool all those years ago, and a hundred other stories that defy verification.

So, when #1 asked, I retold the story the best I could. I tried not to embellish—does a story about thwarting basic physical laws need embellishment?—and added the caveat: “I didn’t see it happen but that’s how the story goes.” #1 never knew Uncle H. He has seen only a couple faded pictures—one with a very young me standing next to Uncle H. He has only stories of a kind person. Some of those stories are more amazing than others. For #1, Uncle H. will only ever be the composite of these stories. And so I tell each of them with the same enthusiasm.

The other day I overheard #1 telling one of his friends about something I had done when I was young—a silly, youthful exploit that included gravity, a roof, and a misplaced high jump pit. Although he took some liberties with the story, he got the basic details right. I didn’t bother reining in those liberties. His friend said: “That totally sounds like your dad.” #1 and his friend had and have no interest in verifying the story. For them, the story is real because it “sounds like” me. As I sat there listening to them, I thought: “Is this how Uncle H.’s story began?” I am becoming an alloy of stories and person; one day before long I will be just stories.

As the paragon of story telling Edward Bloom says to Josephine, bad stories get “All the facts and none of the flavor.” We are all fated to become stories. What stories will you become?

Rules for Dating My …

There’s something troubling about the incessant “Rules for Dating My Daughter” memes. The fact that some of them are meant to be jokes doesn’t make them any more palatable to me—and even those intended to be jokes don’t strike me as funny.[1] Likewise, the closely related, earnest and well-intentioned posts, usually by fathers, fretting about when their infant daughters start to date seem problematic. Both cases seem grounded in fear and based on a fundamental double standard. And threats and coercion don’t seem, at least not to me, to be the most productive and mature ways to parent.

Let’s imagine for a moment a different set of rules, a set that a child gives to a father before introducing a Boy- or Girlfriend to him:

Rules a child could give to a parent

Rules a child could give to a parent

  1. I find it hard to see the references to shotguns and violence perpetrated on minors as funny. Just as I find it hard to see denying a daughter (or son) important, formative life experiences.  ↩

Birth, From the Father’s Perspective

What if fathers told birth stories? What does birth look like from a father’s perspective? What words and metaphors would fathers use to describe the experience, or would they say process or ordeal or miracle? Would those stories resemble this imagined story?[1] Or would they sound more like Joel’s “A Dad’s Birth Story” or my own “I Didn’t Expect That?” Or would they be something entirely different?

Because fathers don’t really get to talk about their birth experiences and because I think those experiences are worth sharing, I want to assemble a collection of essays in which fathers get to describe the birth of their child from their perspective.

If you want to know more or are interested in contributing (or know somebody who might be interested), please let me know.

  1. While I find Scary Mommy’s imagined story vaguely off-putting (people who are the object of humor tend to find that humor off-putting), I recognize that caricature combines notes of reality with exaggeration. And I fear those notes of reality are too loud in many parts of the U.S. For a pointed criticism of the the post, see Papa Does Preach. As with the original story, I don’t agree with all of Papa Does Preach’s criticism, but recognize in it important issues.  ↩

Inspire Their Minds

Verizon has a great new commercial, “Inspire Her Mind,” that reminds parents to consider how their commonplaces discourage girls from studying the science.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

We see a girl at various moments exploring the natural world and hear parental voices stifling that exploration. The commercial concludes with Sam looking at a science fair poster, putting on lipgloss, and turning away with her two friends.[1] A voiceover reminds us:

Our words can have a huge impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too? Encourage her love of science and technology, and inspire her to change the world.

Constant diligence is required to root out the many ways we discourage women from pursuing sciences.

But why do we only worry about inspiring girls (and children more broadly) to study science? Why don’t we also try to inspire them to study literature or philosophy or history? There is nothing special about “science” or the “huge impact” our words have in steering girls away from or toward certain subjects. We should expend equal effort to guard against the ways we track girls into or out of all pursuits.

Let’s stop trying to inspire girls to study science and try, instead, to encourage and embolden girls to study anything and everything that inspires them.

  1. A quick nitpick: Why does the commercial end by contrasting lipgloss with science? Is there something that prevents women from applying lipgloss and studying science? What stereotype of science and scientist is reinforced here? Why should people who care about their appearance not also care about science? And, as My Brighter Career points out, there’s lots of science in lipgloss.  ↩

Hyper-Parenting and Warring Anecdotes

Parenting, whether hyper-, helicopter-, or absentee-, is something about which every parent, whether first-time, experienced, grand-, or vicarious, will offer advice, usually unsolicited, trenchant, and censorious. Each parent adopts the authoritative mantel of experience, or expertise, or science, or hard-won wisdom. Motivated by the desire to help other parents improve their parenting, their advice promises a “cure” for some problem. Nothing ensures an argument more than unsolicited, critical guidance about deeply personal issues.

Such advice is often trite, little more than veiled rules of thumb. Yet, in the competitive realm of parenting, even those rules of thumb are ignored.[1] For example, see Pamela Druckerman’s “A Cure for Hyper-Parenting” and the comments on her piece. Druckerman promises a cure for some parenting disease, “hyper-parenting.” She grounds her cure in “research” and “science.” As with any cure, she presents hers as normative, healthful, and good. In the end, her advice distills down to:

  • Respect your children.
  • Don’t sacrifice yourself on the altar of parenting.
  • Plan for an ideal future, but don’t fall apart when those plans do.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Nobody’s perfect; nor is your parenting.
  • Teach you children (especially your daughters) to respect and like themselves.
  • Show your children how to treat others with respect.

Nothing terribly new or controversial there, despite its disguise. The more than 300 comments, however, attack Druckerman, her advice, her praise of French parenting. They defend their own particular parenting styles. They diagnose the problem for which Druckerman was offering a cure, and then offer their own cure (or resign themselves to the martyrdom of parenting). They celebrate their own successful parenting techniques, implicitly holding themselves up as models. They condemn the practices of other parents. Like Druckerman’s advice, theirs is little more than commonsense informed by anecdotes.

Despite our best efforts and vehement rhetoric, that’s all parenting is: a series of one-off experiences, i.e., anecdotes, that rarely apply unproblematically to another experience, since no two are all that similar. Anecdotes are not a good foundation for advice. So let’s stop berating each other for parenting and recognize that we can’t help but scar our children in ways we can’t even imagine. To paraphrase Druckerman’s closing thought:

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong or celebrating what you think you are doing right. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of parenting can change that.

  1. Or so disguised as to be unrecognizable. But in most cases, any discussion between such parents rarely seeks to find areas of parenting consonance. Instead, as the comments on Pamela Druckerman’s recent op-ed indicate, parenting experts (because they are all self-styled experts) speak past each other from their own little soapboxes of righteousness.  ↩

Parenting Block

On one of Reader’s windowsills: framed photographs of his son and daughter, a hand-painted pot, a sun-bleached note.

I am growing older, I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to write certain things down?

“Eppur si muove.” How many children will learn these words, though there’s no evidence Galileo muttered them.

252,000 stadia, as Eratosthenes knew, was the circumference of the earth. Columbus did not prove the earth was round, despite what kids learn.

Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?

Ingenious nonsense, Isaac Newton dismissed poetry as; he spent countless nights pursuing alchemical transmutations.

An assemblage?

Emperor Maximilian I sought advice from his daughter Margaret, in letters written in French, German, and secret code.

Reader and his mind full of clutter?

What you get married for if you don’t want children?

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Misogynists. Matthew Hopkins too.

Reader notes the similarity between discussions about parenting and commonplace books.

All life is sorrowful.

Tycho Brahe wore a silver alloy nose, having lost his in a duel.

Reader’s son or daughter may one day want his books.

Galileo had three illegitimate children.

Cosmas indicopleustes seems to have thought the earth was shaped like the tabernacle.

Reader has read to a child every night for the last twelve years, to two children every night for the last seven. Tonight, Magic Treehouse and Treasure Island.

Parent to child: “Eram quod es, eris quod sum.”

Washington Irving made up the story about Columbus proving the earth was round, for his fictionalized biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

Two of Thomas Mann’s sons committed suicide. As did two of Marx’s daughters.

Reader can’t imagine the pain.

Der Vater ohne Eigenschaften, surely a work waiting to be written.

Parenting books distend rules of thumb and commonsense. A case can be made for burning them.

In the end, one reads only for one’s self.

Nonlinear. Discontinuos. Collage-like. An assemblage.[1]

  1. Prompted by WP Daily Prompt: Reader’s Block and modeled on David Markson’s Reader’s Block.  ↩

Inspired by Literature, or Philosophy, or History

Snippet of a recent conversation between two mothers over coffee:

Mother 1: We’ve got this great new tutor who does projects with Tobias to keep him inspired by science.
Mother 2: Oh, I need to get his name from you.
Mother 1: Ok. Send me an email to remind me to send it to you.

You never hear parents yearning to keep their kids “inspired by” literature. They don’t care if their kids enjoy philosophy. And history? It’s just an ossified, boring list of useless names and dates.[1] Imagine the strange looks parents would get if they said:

We’ve got this great new tutor who thinks through moral problems with Tobias to keep him inspired by ethics.

Child Protective Services would probably investigate these parents.

There are compelling reasons for kids to learn “science.”[2] But they must also learn about science. And about scientists. And about how science is funded. And to whom scientists should be answerable given the nature of that funding. And the uses to which scientific developments are put and should be put. And about the relationship between scientists and the sciences, on the one hand, and the broader society on the other, including government, law, education, business, etc. To understand those issues, to learn about science, you must know something about literature, philosophy, history, economics, language, and all those other “why are you studying that?” subjects.

So let’s inspire our kids to study history and languages and literature and philosophy and science and ….

  1. Unless you’re in Texas, in which case history becomes a battleground for political and cultural ideologies. They still don’t want kids to be inspired by history. But they sure as hell don’t want them learning the wrong history.  ↩

  2. The scare quotes highlight the way we typically banter around the term science without having any real idea what it is or without specifying which of the many scientific activities we mean. There are, to be sure, benefits from learning any one of the sciences, e.g., astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics. The details of those benefits vary. What they share, i.e., our trite claim about why study science — learning to think logically or whatever the reason du jour — is not, however, unique to the sciences.  ↩