To My Son: Year 4

Dear Son,

Since I decided to start doing the letter to you, it’s funny how I start thinking about all year as I note things I want to say.  But you go through so many changes that some new always inspires me to say more about it, that by the time I get to writing, I find it hard to focus on any one thing.   Ultimately this year’s letter is getting a partial eclipse from a new brother on the way.  But don’t get upset that your brother is already sharing the spotlight before even arriving, I’ll discuss more about this later.

There is no question that as each year passes I simply love you more.  As your personality evolves, as you start to develop your own identity, you simply are no longer someone I just love because you are my son, but because of the qualities you possess as an individual.  Love is a beautiful duality now.  My love for you both defies reason and is because of reasons.  It’s a wonderful place to be.  You continue to be sweet, silly, kind, and inquisitive.  I love the questions you ask now.  You often use the phrase “in this world”.  I am not sure you really understand how big it is, but I like the fact that you have started to think about that bigger picture.  It is also amazing how happy it makes me to see you be able to do things yourself.  A month ago, you went into a public restroom all by yourself and didn’t want me in there.  The other day you warmed up a waffle in the microwave all by yourself.  Your firsts have always made me happy, but as you grow and these things become more complex it brings not only joy, but even a sense of peace that you are a little closer to surviving on your own.  I suppose there will come a day that I will miss you being more dependent on us, but in the end parenting is to teach you to become more and more self-sufficient. I guess it just makes me feel satisfied as a parent to see these accomplishments even if they are trivial in the big picture.  It’s honestly why I am loving fatherhood so much, because of how much joy you bring to things that I previously thought of as trivial, if I thought of them at all!

You are also developing a strong will.  These last couple of months you’ve been getting a bit more angry when you don’t get your way and being more defiant.  Given how wonderful your disposition is in general, this is sometimes hard to take, but I sense this is just the beginning of a battle of wills.  But I just want you to know that we think, all the time, about the why you need to listen to us, not just that you listen to us, and so even though it breaks our hearts to make you upset at us, we know we are doing the right thing.  I know you have to test your boundaries, and I hope you keep doing that in life, because to go anywhere in life, you need to cross a few boundaries, if not many.

Your love of dinosaurs continues, and you don’t just love dinosaurs but know their names and things about them.  You’ve also show an interest in crystals, and plants.  You seem to have a very steady hand for using scissors and decorating cookies.  I don’t know what it all adds to but you have officially said you want to be a geologist because you want to dig up dinosaur bones and learn more about crystals.  As I look back on this year, all I can say is that I am excited to see you grow more as a person.  I don’t know how much you can project forward from the person somebody is when they are 3 or 4 into adulthood, but I feel like you are always somebody who is going to make me proud.

You’ve also become more fearful to the latter end of this year.  You say, “I’m not scared of anything, I’m just scared”.  You want us to go with you upstairs at night, stand guard of the bathroom door, hold your hand.  It’s natural I suppose.  It’s healthy to have a bit of fear, but it sometimes feels hard to know that you’ve become worried about harm coming to you, even though you’ve not experienced any real harm.    I guess it’s just part of your developing emotions, and also because the love you feel is stronger and deeper than before, loss must weigh on you greater than before.  I wish I could explain to you that fear is healthy, and that conquering your fears is a great feeling, but ultimately something nobody else can do for you.  In time you will sort out which things are worth fearing, but for now, I am happy to hold your hand.

There is an asymmetry of course to our relationship right now, in that I have the advantage of knowing almost everything about you, and having a decent chance of remembering much of it, but you do not.  Of course, I can tell that in this last year you are understanding more about what kind of person I am as well, the fact remains is that there is so much about my life that you do not yet know.  There is much about the world that you are not aware.  This year has been a tough year.  We live in one of the most powerful countries on the planet, and right now it is being run by a terrible human being.  The government at large is generally void of compassion, and everything I and your mother stand for. Times feel quite uncertain, and I’ve been more worried and down about the world than I’ve been in awhile.  I hope that things are much better by the time you are old enough to read this letter, but life may have bigger changes than I or your mother can imagine right now.   You will notice that as you get older and more aware of the world, that there are simply more bad things to know about.  You try to balance this out with the good, but it can be a struggle.  I know intellectually that all the goodness that humans have isn’t being talked about, and you just mostly are going to hear bad news, but sometimes knowledge can’t override your emotions.  Coupled with the fact that history teaches us countries do fall, and life gets significantly worse, there is a shadow on the future that I find hard to shake.  Suffice to say there have been times when I’ve let you watch a bit too much TV just so that I could sit next to you or cuddle with you on the sofa.  If a daddy’s arms make you feel safe, your touch makes me feel peaceful and lets me forget about the world for a while.

And so, in this next year, life is going to become very different for you as your brother comes into being.  Once again, the difference between what I know and what I feel clashes.  When we first thought about having another kid, it was our joy of being a parent to you that wanted us to multiply that joy by having another.  And yet as your mother’s due date approaches I find myself feeling a little sad in a way.  You have been my world for 4 years and now there will be another child to pay attention to as well, and I will no longer be able to give you completely undivided attention.  I don’t know how much other parents experience this, but all I can think about right now is what I’ll be losing, and not what will be gained.  It’s hard for me to imagine that there will be more than one child to love.  And while I know my love for you won’t diminish, the fact remains that there will just be less of me available to you.  At the same time, I know that your mom will have less time for you too with a new baby, and that we might possibly grow even closer now because you will not be able to rely on your mom quite as much, especially while your brother is very small.  And then part of me also feels bad that I don’t feel the same excitement for your brother as I felt for you, and that every first your brother does, will be something you’ve already done and wonder if it could feel as special as it is with you.  I’m probably overthinking it all.  There will be lots of love in this house and if my joy is doubled come April, I will truly be a fortunate man.  I also know for certain you will be a wonderful brother even if at times it will be frustrating to have to share attention.  I know your brother will come into the world a luckier baby than you, simply because he will have 3 people to love and care for him as he grows instead of just two.

Thank you for another wonderful year son.  You bring me more laughter and joy than I can describe. Happy Birthday!  I love you so much!

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Men Not Being Believed? Blame the Patriarchy, Not Women.

A friend of mine linked me an article that she said pissed her off, and when I responded she asked me to turn the response into a blog post because she said I articulated her thoughts better than she could.  I have elaborated on my response a bit here for more clarity.  The article in question is here.  Reading at least a portion of it will put my response in context, but I suspect many of you have read posts by the men’s rights and so my response might just make sense on those grounds.  For the record, I think the article has some valuable points that are worthy of further discussion.

My response:
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As is often the case with these types of arguments some valid points are mixed in with just some unnecessary vilification which makes me less apt to take it seriously. I would agree that if we are going to tear down men for their inappropriate sexual behavior then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have those same standards apply to women, and in the article he discusses an incident involving Mariah Carey.  I do think there is a case to be made about men not being believed when they are victims of domestic violence or harassment. However when this argument is framed in devaluing the experience of what women have gone through I think this is where this person and others like him begin to lose my sympathy.

I think one can see part of the reason why the person feels the way they do because they sort of give the game away with rejecting the idea of systemic oppression. The model isn’t flawed it’s just more far reaching than he is able to recognize. First, his analogy about terrorism is a poor one, because he’s the reason why we don’t take Muslim deaths at the hands of Christians seriously is because of systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, not because terrorism isn’t systemic oppression. In a way his analogy actually contradicts his argument about systemic oppression of women. More importantly what all such people like this lose sight of is that the systemic oppression of women does oppress men as well. And a lot of feminists get that. For instance, if we value some hyper-masculine version of man the result of this is that it defines both women AND men in a certain way.  In a binary view of gender, whatever a man is, a woman therefore is not.  Any deviations outside of those category definitions results in criticism and a loss of freedom for both genders.  Both genders suffer.  The man holds the power to be sure in some respects and this is his advantage, but his humanity is diminished. Want to be emotional? You can’t. Want to think football is stupid? You can’t. Hate cars? Too bad. Want to become a florist? You’re being a pussy. So men do suffer in at least some ways (maybe not as many ways) from the systemic oppression against women.

I would also suggest that most of the “disbelieving” of men comes not from unsympathetic women (and sure there are likely some) but more likely from other men who maintain this hyper-masculine view of society.  I mean let’s ask why you might not be believed as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic abuse.  The arguments might go something like this:

“I mean you’re a man, you’re supposed to be tough.  Just hit that woman back, show her whose boss.  And if you did get hit, well you’re a man, you’re just supposed to suck it up.” 

“Did you get sexually harassed?  You’re a man you’re supposed to like women touching you, anywhere and at anytime.  It’s sexy when women want you.  You must be gay if you don’t like women coming on to you.  I mean every man wants to be as irresistible to women as you are.”

Such attitudes are the result of systemic oppression of women in which hyper-masculinity is valued and femininity is not valued.  The quote on the cover photo here is about a male victim from another male, but one could easily see how such a dismissive attitude would even be enhanced if the perpetrator was a woman. Complaining about sexual harassment, being the victim of violence inflicted by a woman, these are all considered feminine qualities and are devalued in a patriarchy.  Thus you are treated just like a woman.  Disbelieved at best, and at worst ridiculed for being essentially a traitor to your gender.  The attitude can even be bore by women, because we are all born into a society that normalizes the patriarchal structure.

As I’ve always argued, being feminist has advantages to both men and women.  The sooner we tear down the patriarchy, we improve the condition for all genders and sexual orientation.
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Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.