A Look Back at Dad 2.0 Summit in NOLA

CoverSaturday night on Bourbon Street – neon green and red and blue and colors of indeterminate hue, a gathering Louisiana mist, free (FREE!) entrance into the Lipstick Club. Old Absinthe House for a round, then off again down a tunnel of light and music and grime and the smell of cigarette smoke.

So good. Regretfully, I could not hang.

Bloggers on Bourbon Street.

Bloggers on Bourbon Street.

This band of Dad 2.0 Summit attendees, these brothers and sisters of the digital world, wandered inexorably through one more night together, inevitably toward the Cat’s Meow karaoke bar.

When that realization dawned, when I knew that the clouded group-think had coalesced around the Cat’s Meow as its destination, I knew I didn’t have the energy. As much as I wanted one more chance to build memories with these beautiful friends, my hotel bed beckoned. I began to fall back. One friend after another drifted by, new faces and familiar, buddies and confidants, fellow writers and parents – I slowed my pace and let them slip past me through the Bourbon Street crowd.

Until at last I was at the end of our line, swallowed on all sides by unfamiliar faces and revelers whose nights were just getting started. Then I stopped, watched the heads of friends old and new bob through the gathering French Quarter fog until the last of them was out of sight. I walked back to the hotel along quiet, glistening Royal Street. A lone street performer sang an unfamiliar blues piece in a darkened doorway.

Another Dad 2.0 Summit was done. All that remained was to write the epitaph.

So … what now?

Rob Candelino of Dove Men+Care.

Rob Candelino of Dove Men+Care.

That was the question we were asked on Friday morning as the third annual Dad 2.0 Summit got underway at the J.W. Marriott New Orleans. The question, significantly, was asked of us by a brand representative. Actually, by THE brand representative as far as the dad blogger community ought to be concerned – Rob Candelino of Dove Men+Care.

The two-time title sponsor of Dad 2.0 Summit champions the concept of accurate depictions of fathers and fatherhood in TV ads. It’s a start, and Dove is a welcome and influential ally, but as Dad 2.0 co-founder Doug French says often about the larger picture: “We still have a lot of work to do.”

But … what now?

An informal study of 2013 commercials depicting fathers conducted by dad blogger Zach Rosenberg of 8BitDad revealed that, for the most part, things are moving in the right direction. Derogatory depictions of bumbling dads are not nearly as prevalent as they were. That’s progress.

Still … what now?

Procter and Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, touched hearts and likely moved product with the latest incarnation of Thank You, Mom ads associated with the upcoming winter Olympics. It seemed … odd … that they ignored the roles of the respective fathers of the athletes depicted, but an argument can be made that emphasizing the contributions of mothers does not necessarily de-emphasize those of the fathers. Of course, an argument also can be made that omitting dads from that advertising conversation was short-sighted on the part of P&G, but listen – at least they tried with the Dad’s Way and Modern Dad campaigns this past summer (disclosure: I was a blogger ambassador for both of those campaigns, which included a Father’s Day excursion at Brooker Creek Preserve).

Pirate's Alley, French Quarter, New Orleans.

Pirate’s Alley, French Quarter, New Orleans.

Perhaps what’s next, then, is for giant brands like P&G to follow the example of consistency demonstrated by Dove Men+Care and truly embrace what’s happening with this community of fathers who also happen to be talented, innovative content creators – and with engaged, enlightened fathers throughout the country. XY Media Group, parent company of Dad 2.0 Summit, is leading the way in that conversation and in the search for the answer to Candelino’s question. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next. What’s most exciting to me about it is that I have the opportunity to help shape that answer, as do all of the bloggers and brand representatives who made New Orleans home for the past four days.

Speaking of which, listed below are a few personal highlights of the third annual Dad 2.0 Summit. I can’t possibly list them all here, because the weekend gave forth far too many memorable experiences and insights. The highlights:

  • I was honored to be asked to conduct a round table workshop on journalism and storytelling. The participants lifted me mentally and – in one notable case – emotionally throughout the hour-plus session. Jim Higley made me mist up when he reminded me about an image I used in a post about our family’s trip to Tropicana Field to see the Rays and Red Sox in October. So, yes … during a weekend of emotional gut-punches, I even cried during my own workshop!  If you were there – or if you were not – and would like to chat about the topic and techniques of purposeful observation as a means to breathe life into your writing, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Thank you to all of those who attended, and a huge thank you to those of you who have since given me a kind word about the workshop itself and about how it already has affected your approach to storytelling.
  • Blogger Lorne Jaffe of Raising Sienna and the New York City Dads Group earned a standing ovation for the greatest show of courage I’ve witnessed in two years of attending Dad 2.0. His willingness to confront his own depression-anxiety disorder in that very, very public setting – and his brilliant turns of phrase and use of imagery in the post he read “Do I Really Like What I Like?” – gave me strength. It was likely the moment most people who were there will remember years from now when we talk about Dad 2.014.
  • Hanging with my fellow DadCentric bloggers, Kevin McKeever, Michael Moebes and Whit Honea, as well as fellow 2013 Spotlight Bloggers McKeever, Honea and Chris Read was another highlight. As I say, I could not hang Saturday night, but part of the reason for that was I made the rookie (or sophomore) mistake of hitting the Quarter a bit too hard on the first night and never quite regained full equilibrium. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them, though, as well as all of the friends I met in Houston in 2013 – Jim Higley, Mike Adamick, Jay Sokol, Jeff Bogle, Creed Anthony, Charlie Capen, Andy Herald, Jim Lin, Amy Windsor, Sam Black, John Pacini, Lance Somerfeld, Matt Schneider, Chris Lewis, Oren Miller, Adrian Kulp, Jason Greene, Kenny Bodanis, the guys from the National at Home Dads Network, the guys from Life of Dad, the guys from the National Fatherhood Initiative, and on and on. Then there were the first-timers, people I had met online only, who now I can include in my personal, ever-growing web of true, “in-real-life” friends who share an interest in parenthood and the creative impulse – Jess Sanfilippo, Lizz Porter, John Kinnear, John Willey, Brent Almond, Eric of Dad on the Run, Justin Aclin, Buzz Bishop, Vincent Daly, Scott Flax and so many, many more.
  • Listening to Jim Higley and Parenthood creator and show runner Jason Katims talk about parenting, the creative process and other important topics on Friday was a privilege. I was fortunate enough to run into Jason during that night’s cocktail party and he was kind enough to answer two questions: Is the message about authentic portrayals of fathers in media resonating in his industry (short answer: slowly, but surely) and what were his favorite TV shows as a kid (he mentioned All in the Family and Taxi as influencers, along with several other half-hour sitcoms that I didn’t quite catch).
  • I also appreciated hearing Josh Levs share his parenting journey and announce the publication of his new book in front of the Dad 2.0 audience. And it was interesting to see closing keynoter Peter Shankman displaying his pair of Google Glass (Google glasses?) all day Saturday at the J.W. Marriott. The future is here.
  • The folks from Dove Men+Care were amazing, as usual, and I would be remiss if I failed to thank them for the Movie Night on the Couch prize pack that I won and the framed photos from the Real Dad Moments campaign. We appreciate all the other brand representatives who did so much to make the experience great: Cottonelle (for whom I blogged — thanks to XY Media — during the Let’s Talk Bums campaign in the fall); National Geographic Animal Jam (hence, the skunk in the photo above); Jamba Juice; Kraft Cheese; Lee Jeans; LEGO Friends; Microsoft Surface; the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau; Little Remedies; and the savior, Starbucks Via.
  • I’ll never forget Whit Honea’s remarkable reading of Two Busy’s Spotlight post, By Such Swift Currents. It was a fitting swan song for DadCentric, as well as a wonderful way to honor the work of one of the finest writers in our community.
Fog shrouds Royal Street on Sunday morning.

Fog shrouds Royal Street on Sunday morning.

I’ll wrap it up with a special thank you to two of my all-time favorites in this community, my New Orleans roommates David Vienna of The Daddy Complex and Aaron Gouveia of the Daddy Files. The weekend flew by far too quickly, my friends. I appreciate everything you did to make it memorable for me.

So, what now? For the community, for society, it seems clear XY Media Group and other prominent dad groups will continue to consolidate and build on the efforts that seem to have made headway over the past three or four years.

But what about for me, personally? What now for this journal? That’s simple – I’ll just keep telling stories as well as I can, and try to make this online journal/whatever it has become something worth the time of its readers. I will also answer the call, when it comes, to help tell stories that depict fathers and fatherhood in an authentic light. It’s the least I can do for a community that has given so much to me in such a short amount of time.

That Night in New Orleans

New Orleans

A musical trio serenade the tourists on Royal Street in New Orleans, circa 1995. Photo by Carter Gaddis.

This blog was created almost two years ago as a way to share some of my experiences as a sportswriter, a way to chronicle those years of my life that my sons are too young to know about. With the Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans approaching, I’ve been reminiscing about some of the times I had in the Crescent City, including one night when a fellow sportswriter drank deeply from the chalice of French Quarter life. Come to think of it, this could all have been a dream. The names have been changed, but the events are faithfully recorded as they might or might not have happened. See you soon, New Orleans.

◊◊◊◊◊

That night in New Orleans began at Mulate’s. As the Zydeco heated up and the Abita cooled us down, Sam finished his second hurricane of the night and addressed the table in that gravelly, frog-like voice that always made me think of Owen Meany.

“HEY,” said Sam. “WHY DO YOU GUYS WEAR YOUR WEDDING RINGS ON THE ROAD?”

The married men among us looked around at each other and pondered how exactly to answer a question like that. We were sportswriters, all of us, in town to cover an NFL game the next day at the Superdome between the Tampa Bay Bucs and the New Orleans Saints. This particular question from this particular sportswriter demanded a moment of contemplation.

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An Interview with Santa Claus

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They're all as real as you want them to be. (Photos: Various sources.)

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They’re all as real as you want them to be.

One of the most remarkable developments during my many years of travel as a journalist was the time I interviewed Santa Claus.

It was March 2004, and I was in Tokyo for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-New York Yankees opening series. Our first afternoon there, I came across Herr Kringle strolling through the 400-year-old Japanese garden adjacent to our hotel, the New Otani. He was alone, unattended, not a reindeer in sight. I got the distinct impression he wanted to be left alone. But I was a journalist. This was news. I approached the Jolly Old Elf and introduced myself.

I pulled out my digital recorder and notebook and proceeded to conduct the interview of a lifetime.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

Here’s how it went down.

Carter Gaddis: I apologize for interrupting your meditation, Mr. Claus.

Santa Claus: Please, call me Santa. And I understand. You have a job to do. You mind if we keep this short, though? I have a breakfast reservation in Paris.

CG: Paris? But we’re in Tokyo.

SC: Hello? Magic elf.

CG: Sure. Of course. Sorry.

SC: Look, if you don’t have any questions …

CG: No, no. Yes, well … um. I guess the first thing is, how is this even possible? You’re not real.

SC: And “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” right?

CG: Well, yeah. Who’s that, Locke? Hobbes?

SC: Hume. So, what do you deduce from the evidence? Wait, let me make it easy for you. You’ve studied your Pascal, yes? You’re familiar with his “wager” theory about belief in God? No? Well, it’s like this. Are you willing to gamble away potential eternal bliss spent basking in the presence of the almighty creator simply because you can’t bring yourself to believe in Him? I mean, what if you’re wrong? If you’re right, that there’s no God, all you’ve lost is an infinitesimal blip of time in the immeasurable immensity of eternity. Not a bad bet, that. In this case, the odds are heavily in your favor, because here I am. Think about it like this: Your eyes tell you I’m real, correct? With that piece of evidence, and knowing that not believing I’m real means you’re doomed to a lifetime of no presents at Christmas time, it is in your best interest to just go ahead and let yourself believe. Right?

CG: But …

SC: Buddy, I really can’t stay much longer. We can stand here and debate my existence for the next three minutes, if you like. And when I disappear into thin air on my way to the Champs Elysees for œufs brouillés a la truffes noires, you can stand here holding your … notebook. It’s your dime.

CG: OK. Yes. So, let’s say you are you. You’re really Santa Claus. How do you deliver toys to all the good little boys and girls on a single night? The whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing seems a bit unlikely, to be honest.

SC: I have a T.A.R.D.I.S.

CG: A … what?

SC: A T.A.R.D.I.S. You know, blue police call box from England. Bigger on the inside. Travels through time and space? Like Doctor Who.

CG: Doctor Who?

SC: Exactly.

CG: But that’s not …

SC: Real? Ho! Ho-ho-ho! Of course not. I was kidding. No, but yeah. It’s magic. I use magic. Simple, really. The reindeer are just for show. Mrs. Claus runs an arctic animal rescue up north, so I just – do what I do – and voila! Flying reindeer. The actual gift delivery system is far beyond your comprehension. There are too many moving parts to simplify the explanation. Let’s just call it magic and leave it at that.

CG: I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. I need to know how you do it. I need to know how to tell the world you’re real. Explain it to me like I’m a fifth grader.

SC: A fifth grader? Funny you should pull that particular time of life out of the ether.

CG: Funny how?

SC: Because that’s when you stopped believing. Remember? Even after you spotted all those toys in the foyer closet when you were 5, you wanted to keep believing. So, you did. You kept believing in me because that’s what you wanted to do. And that still applies today. To you, and to everyone in the world. Do you understand what I’m saying?

CG: Sure, but I don’t think it applies. I mean, you’re not real. You’re an inherited Western European archetype, based loosely on Germanic paganism and later Western religions, seasoned with a healthy sprinkling of good, old-fashioned capitalism. It’s all about corporate symbolism now. Is that the message we want to teach our kids? That it’s OK to perpetuate a vast, fantastical myth that celebrates commercialism and the all-mighty holiday dollar?

SC: OK. Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. Except this: Sartre was on the right track when he wrote, “In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.” You see?

CG: That doesn’t answer my question.

SC: Your question doesn’t have an answer. I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas!

CG: It’s March.

SC: I know. Ho-ho-ho! Bye.

And like that … he was gone.

As you can see, the interview was a disaster, which is why I sat on the story until now. It was nothing more than an incoherent mishmash of pop philosophy and obscure science fiction allusions. I didn’t have a camera on me (no iPhones back then), so I could produce no photographic evidence. My recorder crapped out after I transcribed the conversation, so I even lost the audio proof. I haven’t seen Santa since.

I believe, though. I decided to believe, and I did. In my portrait, the one I made for and of myself, Santa Claus is real. Just as every religion, every mythology is true in the sense that it is metaphorical of the mysteries of existence, Old Saint Nick is a metaphor. For me, he’s a combination of kindness, generosity and the wonder of imagination. I’m leaning toward zombie Santa at the moment, too.

What else does Santa symbolize? Depends on who you ask. Your portrait is yours, and yours alone.

If Only Integrity, Sportsmanship and Character Did Not Count in Hall of Fame Voting

BBWAA

A BBWAA Lifetime Honorary membership card, along with the envelopes for the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.

I care about the Baseball Writers Association of America. I care deeply about the Hall of Fame vote I earned as an active member of that organization from 1999-2009. When my active membership lapsed after I was laid off from the newspaper where I worked for 16 years, I cared enough to pay the fee that ensured I would remain a lifetime honorary member.

The gold card that comes with honorary membership does more than allow me entry into any Major League ballpark in the country. It is my final tangible link to a 24-year sportswriting career that ended in 2010. It wasn’t entirely my choice to end that sportswriting career, but it’s over and I’ve moved on.

Mostly.

Every December I anticipate the arrival of the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in the mail. Not in my e-mail inbox; in the mailbox that sits under a tree in my front yard next to my driveway. It comes in a distinctive manila envelope, stuffed in there along with a stamped return envelope, biographical information on each of the candidates, a letter from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum President Jeff Idelson, and the BBWAA Rules for Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I’ll vote for the sixth time this year. Every December, I fax off my ballot to the BBWAA because I want to keep the actual paper it’s on. I sort of envision my kids’ kids holding it one day and talking about how their grandfather contributed, if only in a small way, to baseball history.

So, it means something to me. I covered the game long enough to earn that vote, and I actually got into sportswriting hoping to one day become a Hall of Fame voter. I consider it an honor and an important responsibility.

Now, I am aware that the system as it exists is flawed. It never was perfect, but the Steroid Era threw everything into disarray. The inherent subjectivity of the process practically guaranteed chaos as the list grew to include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and others whose candidacies have been tainted by suspicion (or hard evidence, in Palmeiro’s case).

I wrote pretty extensively about my feelings on the process last year. I ended up voting for seven players, none of whom were elected (we are allowed to vote for as many as 10). In fact, as you might recall, no one was elected by the writers.

Here are the players I voted for last year:

This year’s ballot includes Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. I’m not saying that’s how I’ll vote, mind you. I’m simply pointing out that those three players are, frankly, Hall of Fame locks.

Where does that leave the likes of Bonds, Clemens, et al? Off my ballot, at least for now. As I’ve written before, it all comes down to Rule 5 of the BBWAA Rules for Election:

“Voting shall be based upon a player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

I boldface the salient words – integrity, sportsmanship, character – because voting for the Hall of Fame would be a much different proposition without them. Those words transform an already subjective process into a guessing game. A game that I and 600 or so of my fellow voters are compelled to play every December.

The game reached a new level of absurdity this year when Deadspin announced that it would “buy” a BBWAA voter’s ballot and allow its readers to make the selections. I don’t blame Deadspin, which is just doing what it does. I honestly don’t even blame the anonymous voter who allegedly has sold his or her ballot to Deadspin. Just because I take the honor and responsibility seriously, it doesn’t mean the other 600 or so voters are obligated to do so. That person has his or her reasons, and I hope he or she spends the money well. (Might I suggest a donation to one of baseball’s most famous charities, the Jimmy Fund? Or the Children’s Cancer Center? Or anywhere else but the sell-out voter’s bank account? Because hey … it’s Christmas.)

That voter – or soon-to-be former voter, once his or her name becomes public – is no more absurd than the voters who decided Joe DiMaggio – Joe DiMaggio! – was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Or that Gaylord Perry, an admitted spit-ball pitcher, was somehow more worthy of election than others despite his transgressions.

Or the voters – like me – who take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers in the face of rampant steroid use in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

There is a simple solution, you know.

Change the rules for election. To be precise, eliminate three words.

Integrity.

Sportsmanship.

Character.

Eliminate those stipulations, and we’re back to the numbers.

Then it would be like the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which explicitly prohibits the much smaller pool of voters from considering the off-field actions of players.

I can acknowledge right now that my ballot would look a lot different if not for the current wording of Rule 5. Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro absolutely would have earned my vote. McGwire and Sosa might have, as well.

Those three words are there, though. And that means another year of hand-wringing, wondering, speculating. It means watching one of my fellow voters help push the whole thing to a new level of absurdity by selling it to a satirical sports website whose editors are in the business of exposing absurdity in sports – something they do quite well.

As for me, I will continue to take it as seriously as I always have. It means something, this signature honor bestowed only upon long-time baseball writers. It means I’m still part of the game in a small but meaningful way.

And it means I still have a voice in a complicated conversation that I care about a great deal, a conversation that I’m pretty sure is just getting started.

How Will Our Sons Remember Me?

Boys, I don’t know if you’ll ever have kids of your own. I imagine you will. I don’t know whether I’ll ever meet these theoretical grandchildren of mine. I hope I do.

If you do have kids, and if I’m gone by then, they’ll probably ask about me.

“Tell me about your dad,” they might say.

What will you tell them?

What am I doing now to create a legacy worth remembering, memories worth sharing with your own children?

I know what I hope you’ll say:

“Your grandfather was smart, kind, patient and funny.

“He loved to read, and he loved to write. He read to us and made up stories with us as the heroes and helped us with our homework. He played video games, too. He was just a big kid at heart.

“He taught us how to throw, catch and hit a baseball, and how to kick a soccer ball. He taught us to care for animals. He took us to nature parks and movies and arcades.

“He loved to visit Disney World every bit as much as we did when we were little. As I said, he was a big kid his whole life.

“He could really sing, and he taught us to appreciate music. He couldn’t dance even a little, but he was funny when he tried.

“He always told us to ‘be good, be nice, be you and have fun’ every morning before school.

“He loved Mom more than anything in the world, except maybe for us.

“He showed me how to live with grace and dignity, and every day I try to be the kind of man he was.”

That’s what I hope you’ll say.

Here’s what I fear you’ll say:

“Your grandfather loved us, but he had no idea how to relate to us – or to anyone – in a mature, meaningful way. He really was just a big, immature kid his whole life.

“He liked to call himself a writer, but he never published a book and he would put us to sleep with boring stories about covering baseball for a newspaper.

“He played video games, for God’s sake. And he dragged us to Disney World so many times I get hives just thinking about Mickey Mouse.

“Oh, and don’t get me started about all the times he tried to live vicariously through us with Little League baseball and youth soccer. He just didn’t understand why we didn’t care about playing or watching sports. If he had the sense God gave a ferret, he’d know we hated sports because he constantly shoved them down our throats.

“Sure, he could sing a little, but not as well as he thought he could – and he made an absolute idiot of himself whenever he tried to dance.

“He was like a parrot with that ‘be good, be nice …’ blah, blah, blah every day before school. What did that even mean, anyway? As if platitudes could replace genuine communication and empathy.

“As I say, your grandfather loved us – probably – and I think he meant well. But every day I live my life trying not to be like him.”

____________________________

Here’s the thing about legacies: They are impossible to forecast. Memories are fickle. Even if I do everything right in your eyes from now until the day I’m gone, I have no way to know how I’ll be remembered by you.

Chances are, boys, if you do have kids one day and they ask about me, the things you tell them and the tone of voice you use will be determined by things that have not yet happened, by moments that have not yet been lived. You are just now beginning to form long-term memories. This is Chapter One in your story of me.

All I can do is to attempt to live up to the ideal, while remaining mindful of the possibility of disappointment. If I’m fortunate, my true legacy to you will not be the memories and stories you share about me, but how your children remember you. Because if you grow up to be worthy of emulation in the eyes of my grandchildren, then I’ll consider this a job well done.

Why Do You Hate Squirrels, America?

This is how most of America sees squirrels: tweaked out, hyper, incompetent, good for a laugh. This must cease, for the good of humanity and squirrelhood.

This is how most of America sees squirrels: tweaked out, hyper, incompetent, good for a laugh. This must cease, for the good of humanity and squirrelhood.

The negative and inaccurate portrayal of squirrels in American mass media and entertainment must cease. Consider this a rallying cry on behalf of our furry-tailed, tree-climbing, acorn-eating friends.

Your eyes are rolling. I can hear them. I know what you’re thinking. They are squirrels. They have been handed all of life’s advantages for eons. Why should you care whether a writer or filmmaker or advertising hack depicts a squirrel in an absurd and utterly unrealistic way to get a laugh or sell a product?

Because even though many squirrels do, in fact, live down to the appalling mass media stereotype, the vast majority of squirrels actually are competent, caring, engaged, hard-working rodents. Rodents who are tired of being made fun of as a group, just for the sake of a cheap laugh.

As Scrat from Ice Age proves, this is not a new problem.

As Scrat from Ice Age proves, this is not a new problem.

Think it’s not a problem? Consider how squirrels have been depicted in children’s movies in recent years. Scrat from Ice Age? A tweaked out, acorn-obsessed addict who would rather chase a nut than avoid certain death in an avalanche. Hammy from Over the Hedge? Also tweaked out, particularly susceptible to the lure of caffeinated beverages, which are like squirrel amphetamines. One dose, and Hammy turns into a seething mass of hyperactivity and pure adrenaline. That’s just not realistic, and it has to stop. In the brilliant animated film Up, what do Dug and the rest of the talking dogs of the South America jungle get distracted by throughout the film? That’s right. Squirrel! They are merely a comic prop, good for nothing but a laugh. Squirrels demand equal screen time from now on. Or any screen time, for that matter. And not of them being tweaked out. Screen time of squirrels being squirrels, as they do. It’s only fair.

Even our preschoolers are not immune from negative stereotypes of squirrels. Witness one of our younger son’s favorite board games: Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel. Sneaky and Snacky? Why not just call the game Felonious, Gluttonous, Stinking Rodent and be done with it? Say what you really think, game makers. Show the true depths of your anti-squirrel bias.

Or, better yet, in all seriousness, why not call it Industrious, Athletic, Cute-as-a-button Yard Pet? Because that would be far more accurate and provide America’s youth a genuinely positive impression of our furry little buddies. Our children deserve to know the truth about squirrels. Their lifelong impressions are being formed now. It’s not too late.

Not every depiction is inaccurate or demeaning. Fortunately, the good people at Mary Baldwin College — home of the Fighting Squirrels — have it right. Here’s an excerpt from the school’s website, explaining why the squirrel was chosen for its school mascot.

“In heraldry the squirrel is a symbol of industriousness, trustworthiness, and preparation for the future. It also has been used to represent those with a love of the woods. In Nordic mythology, the squirrel is a symbol of the soul. These ancient meanings apply to Baldwin athletes who know that diligent work will pay off at game time and that their teammates depend on them — and equally apply to all Baldwin women (and men) who are disciplined in their focus, strive to do good in the world, work toward environmental sustainability, and seek wellness of body as well as soul.”

Now, that's more like it! Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for your squirrel-savvy depiction of our furry friends.

Now, that’s more like it! Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for your squirrel-savvy depiction of our furry friends.

Yes. That’s more like it. Truly inspiring. Thank you, Mary Baldwin College. It is encouraging to see that someone, somewhere, understands the plight of the gentle, humble squirrel. Perhaps there is yet hope for the squirrel community, after all.

We can dream.

Let’s Talk About God

“Every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.” – Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

God

Detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

Our first summer in Florida, I was 13 years old and wheelchair-bound after corrective surgery on both feet. My parents sent my brother and me to vacation Bible school at the Presbyterian church up the road from our Palm Beach Gardens apartment complex. There, in the Sunday school classroom, as I sat in my wheelchair with my feet in their twin casts sticking straight out in front of me, a young man with shaggy brown hair, bad acne and huge glasses asked me if I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.

If so, he added, my soul would be saved and I would be guaranteed a place for all eternity in the Kingdom of the Lord.

That sounded OK to me. So I said, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

And he said, “Praise Jesus. You are saved today.”

So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

__________________________

Sundays at our house have always been reserved for rest. If not rest, Disney World. If not Disney, Busch Gardens. Or laundry. Or yard work. Or the community pool. Or grocery shopping. Or anything except church.

Put simply, we don’t go. We are among the 20 percent of Americans who a Pew Research Center poll identified as having no religious affiliation. That’s not to say we are not religious. Beth certainly is. She prays regularly, and she believes in the traditional, organized-religion definition of the Christian God.

I don’t share her beliefs. I suppose I would have to be lumped in with the 33 million Americans who identify themselves as atheistic or agnostic. I don’t know what that means, though. What I do know is that I don’t know what happens when we die.

I also know this: Neither does anyone else know. But you know what else? That doesn’t matter.

Religion isn’t about that. Or it shouldn’t be.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work influenced George Lucas as he created the Star Wars universe, makes as much sense to me as anyone I’ve read or listened to when it comes to the purpose of religion. He said it exists not to reveal the meaning of life, but to help us find a way to live life with grace, to discover within ourselves an accord between what we experience and the questions and concepts that transcend our experience.

Campbell said God was, in fact, a metaphor for the things that transcend thought. I think what he meant was that because we exist in the field of time — we’re born, we live, we die — it is incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to grasp the concept of eternity.

And that’s about as deep as I want to go with that. As I say, I don’t know. I want to know, but I also am not arrogant enough to believe that I have the answers. That said, nor will I at this point in my life acknowledge that anyone else truly knows, either. That’s what I believe.

Which brings us to our sons.

__________________________

Beth wants them to go to church. We have found one that might serve, at least for now.

I have qualms.

On one hand, I want our sons to learn about organized religion, about spirituality, about humanity’s attempts to make sense of it all.

On the other hand, I believe that much of humanity’s strife — today and throughout history — has been caused by organized religion. As Campbell said, practitioners of the individual religions get stuck in their own interpretations of their chosen metaphors. That is, they fail to read the sacred texts or hear the sacred stories as poetry. Instead, they read it and hear it as prose. It is, Campbell said, a purely literary problem.

I see people in the public eye espouse views in the name of their religion about topics such as homosexuality, and it is clearly a bigoted way of thinking. Here’s the problem, though: They don’t think of themselves as bigoted, because they simply are adhering to the things they learned from their religious leaders. They are wrong to think that. Hiding behind specious lessons does not excuse the ignorant. While I might not know the answers, I do know this: Any religious teaching that is used to objectify and dehumanize other people is deplorable. I hope our sons never think that way.

Some of my favorite people in the world are deeply religious, and so sure in their convictions that it sometimes makes me wish that I could give myself over to the rapture and let the joy wash over me like a baptismal font.

It’s tough, but our sons need a frame of reference. They need to be exposed to these ideas — and at 7, our older son is probably as impressionable as he’ll ever be when it comes to ideas about spirituality.

It’s tricky. I bought our older son a book the other day called The Kids Book of World Religions, and he sort of freaked out about the drawing of Jesus on the cross. He needs to know what that means, that the resurrection is emblematic of the “death” and “rebirth” we all must experience as we transition from one stage of life to another (I am aware there are those whose interpretation of the crucifixion differs from this one). I Googled [talking to children about religion] and found an entire blog dedicated to the subject, along with this Washington Post story about the author of that blog. This is not a problem unique to us.

It’s necessary. We want our sons to make informed decisions about how they choose to think about spirituality in the future. We’re going to expose them to different ways of thinking, to different paths. We’re going to let them make their own decisions when they’re ready. You’ve got to start somewhere. So … we’ll start by giving up our Sunday rest or recreation to explore the spiritual.

And we’re going to hope that when (if) they choose their paths, they find grace and peace and love. Above all else, we hope that.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Pieta, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

I’m a Dad, a Husband, a Writer … and I Want It All

I want it all.

I want to be there – actually, physically, there – for my sons. I want to be a life partner and best friend for my wife, and I want her to be those things for me, too. I want a career that pays me what my work is worth and provides the kind of personal and professional gratification that comes from making a meaningful contribution, whether from a business perspective or culturally.

I want all of that.

And I want this, too: I want to write fiction that resonates with someone. I want to write short stories like O’Connor or Fitzgerald and novels like Irving, Chabon or Russo. I want readers. I want readers that want to buy my work in order to read it.

I want that, and I want to play FIFA soccer on my PS3 while I drink cheap red wine or expensive English beer. I want to watch Mad Men and enjoy a nice glass of bourbon every now and then.

I want to play softball again, and I want to go on dates with my wife. I want to go to Walt Disney World every other weekend, and I want to fly to Cape Cod every August.

I really, really want to go back to London. Paris, too. And I’d like to see Rome and Florence one day.

I want it all.

I’m a dad. I’m a husband. I’m a writer.

I want all of the things behind those three curtains.

What? I have to choose?

Says who?

Here’s the problem. I do have to choose, just as men and women have had to choose since the rise of the original American middle class. That began about a century or so ago, when technology and progressive ideas about how the working class should be treated combined to thrust this country into an unprecedented era of relative ease and prosperity. It wasn’t always easy. Not everyone prospered. But on the whole, the world has never seen a society like ours, wherein individual aspirations are – in theory – paramount, and we are free to shape our government in order to create an atmosphere conducive to the pursuit of those aspirations.

A fiercely independent spirit – that’s the American ethos. That’s why we want it all. But who am I kidding? The past three generations – the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y – have collectively believed they are owed it all. We aren’t.

We are, however, owed the freedom to pursue happiness. The freedom to conduct that pursuit is an inalienable right, I believe.

So, what would make me – a dad, a husband, a writer – happy?

I want … it all.

Is that too much to ask?

_________________________

There’s been a lot of public discussion lately about this topic, along with another subject that is directly related to our family, women as primary breadwinners. I think those two topics are connected.

Here is an interesting piece that ran Thursday in Bloomberg Businessweek. Alpha Dads: Men Get Serious About Work-Life Balance.

Here is a piece on the Pew research study that concluded that in 40 percent of American households, a woman is the primary breadwinner. That’s how it is now in our house, and I could not be more proud of my wife. Breadwinner Moms.

And here is a link to the blog of an online friend of mine, Scott Behson, an academic from Cornell who researches and writes extensively about family work-life balance issues. There is a lot of good stuff there on this topic, including a guest post by yours truly about why I asked off the baseball beat in 2005. Fathers, Work and Family.

I hardly ever ask for comments, but I would love to know how you do it. How do you make life’s pursuit of happiness work for you? How do you decide what to sacrifice and what will absolutely never fall by the wayside? Our family doesn’t have any big secret. We just do it day by day and work hard to stay on top of all of our responsibilities at home and at work.

Sometimes it’s great. Other times, it feels like our heads are going to explode.

There’s been some backlash lately about the term “work-life balance,” but for us, it really is a balancing act sometimes. For instance, we both took today off in order to attend Jay’s first-grade class play and Chris’ preschool graduation ceremony, which began a half-hour apart and took place a mile apart this morning. There was no way either of us would miss those events, but we had to sacrifice a precious vacation day to do it.

What sort of decisions have you had to make in order to strike that balance? What have you missed? Is it even realistic to think about “having it all,” whether you’re a man or woman? I’d like to think so.

 

 

 

Are Angels Real?

“Dad, are angels real?”

Not what I expected to hear tonight as I tossed supper onto the stove. I waited a beat, turned toward the kitchen table.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I don’t know.”

Fair enough. But I wasn’t quite ready to give him my answer. So …

“Well, what do you think?”

He pointed toward the ceiling.

“Are they up there?”

“On the ceiling?”

“No,” he said. “The place on the clouds. What’s on the clouds?”

“Rain?”

“NO,” he said. “Heaven.”

“How do you know that’s heaven?”

He has read it somewhere, or seen it on a TV show or a movie. Or perhaps he heard it at school or at his after-school center. We’ve not had many conversations of a religious nature yet with the boys. We don’t go to church, but the idea is to give our sons a grounding in spirituality and right and wrong, as well as we can. Then we’ll let the boys make their own decisions about religious beliefs when they’re old enough. Not saying that’s the way it ought to be done, necessarily, but it’s right for us, and that’s how we’re going to do it.

Meanwhile, back in the clouds …

He told me he read about heaven in a book on the Civil War. Someone was hungry and scared, and they prayed to the angels for food and protection. I can imagine why a kid — anyone, really — would want to know if that works.

Hence, the question.

“So, what do you think, buddy? Are angels real?”

“Well, I don’t actually know,” he said. “But do you think they’re real?”

“I don’t actually know, either,” I said.

“No one knows,” he said.

“No one knows?”

“No one.”

No one.

Empathy

San Francisco

The Basin – San Francisco.

On a crisp, bright morning in San Francisco, as I stood apart from the semi-circular line of tourists who waited to board the cable car at the Powell/Mason turntable, I saw a young woman exit a black car that had stopped in the Market Street bicycle lane. She got out of the car and walked toward me.

I saw her piercings as she walked – black studs in her nose and lower lip, a small gold hoop in the corner of her left eye. Short, dark hair, black t-shirt, stained denim skirt, black Chuck Taylor high-tops. Pasty white skin, thick black eye shadow.

Staring straight into my eyes, she walked in my direction. She didn’t stop, though. As she passed – close enough to whisper – she looked me in the eyes and told me in a low, clear voice:

“You don’t love us.”

She broke eye contact and walked on. I stood there and watched her melt into the crowd of tourists, past the cable car turntable, up Powell Street, on toward Union Square and back into her Gothic oblivion.

It didn’t even occur to me to try to contradict her.

_______________________

She was right, though. I didn’t love her.

Yet, over the years, a decade and more, I have replayed that scene in my mind so many times that even the memory flickers, like an old film exposed far too often to the projector’s hot light. It’s not my most vivid memory, or anywhere near my most relevant.

Those would be things like, you know, our wedding in Boston, the births of our two sons, waking up healthy after emergency angioplasty … life-altering or live-saving events. My Memories, with a capital M.

Yet, that moment in San Francisco has stayed with me. There was no reason for that particular young woman or her peculiar declaration to stand out in a four-decade-long swirl of memories. You don’t love us, she said. But …

I am her. And so are you. And so is everyone you know, and everyone you ever have known or ever will know. And she is you. She is my wife, my sons, my mother and father, everything I have ever loved or ever will love. She is every word I’ve ever written or will write or will read, every tear I’ve shed and every smile I’ve smiled. She is my everything and she is your everything, too. You don’t have to love someone, or even know their name – or even know they are alive a decade after a fleeting encounter on a bright cool morning – for all of that to be true.

This is empathy.

It is remembering every detail about the girl on the street who looked into your soul and walked right on past and disappeared forever into the crowd. It is four words – you don’t love us – carved into your cortex like a hieroglyph on a temple wall, taunting you with its complex simplicity.

Empathy.

It’s the visceral response we feel toward a grieving father when we see photographs of his smiling little boy, gone now, carefully holding up with just the tips of his fingers a hand-lettered sign that reads, “No more hurting people. Peace.” It’s the overwhelming urge to weep, the unavoidable shudder, the inexorable need to make physical contact with our small children after we read or hear accounts of a deadly day on the first-grade wing of an elementary school in Connecticut.

It’s running toward the bomb blast to see if there’s anything you can do to help those who were in it. It’s the physical inability to sit through a movie because some people you never met were gunned down during the midnight premier in a theater a thousand miles away.

Empathy.

It’s the spark and flutter of what I guess scientists these days are calling mirror neurons, which fire off signals that make us unconsciously reproduce emotions we witness – or imagine we witness – being expressed by someone else.

Evidently, some of us have more active mirror neurons than others.

_______________________

Did you know that the word empathy didn’t enter the English language until the early 1900s? It was introduced by psychologist (and Oxford man) Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term einfühlung (“in” the “feeling”), which itself was a loose translation of the Greek term empatheia (“in” “pathos”), having to do with art appreciation. I didn’t know any of that, either, until I looked it up.

Empathy. It’s the unspoken recognition of the knowledge that we’re all going to die. It’s the shared, and the sharing. It’s the point in space and time where “we” intersect “they.”

It’s the truth behind you don’t love us.

And that truth is this …

Even now, so many years later, I want to run after that Goth girl in San Francisco and catch up to her in the crowd, and tell her that she’s right, that I don’t love her or anyone else in her life. But so what? I don’t have to love you. You still matter to me because the part of you inside that makes you human is inside me, too, and I love that part of both of us and all of us because that’s what life is. It’s what being alive is.

Empathy is life itself, acknowledging its presence and luminosity in the other.