explorations of mindful fatherhood

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Pat Saltano Sr: undead dad

For some of my posts, I’ll be reviewing portrayals of fatherhood in film, television and other media, exploring the theme of the undead dad, i.e., mindless fatherhood. My first exploration is of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Pat Saltano, Sr., in Silver Linings Playbook.


Silver Linings Playbook is a film adaptations of the book by Matthew Quick.  In the film, De Niro plays father to Pat Saltano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a young man recently discharged from an 8-month stint in a psychiatric institution. We come to learn that Pat was institutionalized after a spate of delusions surrounding staff at the high school where he taught, culminating in a violent episode in which he nearly beat another teacher to death when he discovered him in a shower with his wife. Pat discloses that he has Bipolar Disorder to his outpatient psychiatrist, whom Pat is mandated to visit while released into the care of his aging parents, Pat Sr. and Delores. At the heart of the film is a moving relationship between Pat and an impulsive, traumatized young woman from the neighborhood, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).

Although the film’s focus is on these two characters, the movie is able to depict just as much complexity in the relationship between Pat Jr. and his bookie father Pat Sr.  Through Pat Sr.’s peculiarities–the readjustment of remote controls, the folding and rubbing of a lucky handkerchief–we learn that he suffers from his own mental health issues. His wife Delores tiptoes around her husband’s OCD and tries keeping the peace between father and son.

The tenuous father-son relationship intensifies after several of Pat Jr.’s manic late night fits awake his parents, finally resulting in him striking his mother.  Pat Sr. subsequently dukes it out with his son until the police arrive. Throughout the strife, Pat Sr.’s concern for his son is evident as he tries setting limits around his son’s obsession with his ex-wife and protecting him from the police and nosey high school neighbor who’s writing a school report on Pat’s illness.

Complicating Pat Sr.’s care of his son are his attempts at enlisting him in his own Philadelphia Eagles betting rituals. Pat Sr. tries to rope his boy into sitting with him to watch games, wear jerseys, or stroke handkerchiefs, believing his son’s presence positively affects the Eagles’ juju. Pat Jr. thwarts his father’s attempts, revealing them for what they are: manifestations of a mental illness that has ruled over the family for a generation.

I found Pat Sr.’s interactions with his son heartbreaking. Pat Sr. was so wrapped in his compulsions and rituals that he prioritized them over a genuine care for his troubled son. Through their interactions, it was apparent that Pat Jr.’s obsessive character–and eventual personal and legal downfall–were an extension of his father’s obsessive tendencies.  At one point, Pat Sr. expresses a unique insight at his son’s bedside as he breaks down in tears. He laments that he wasn’t around for his son when he was growing up. He also acknowledges that his attempts at enlisting Pat Jr. in his Eagles rituals is the only way he knows of involving himself in his son’s life. He wishes he could relive the past, but realizes his limitation and admits that this is the only way he knows to have a more active role in his son’s life.

Many of us as fathers are striving toward the fulfillment of our own agendas or goals, and in doing so, can neglect our children’s needs. Sometimes our goal-focus is so strong that the only way we know of interacting with our sons is through very rigid patterns, activities, or obsessions. My father was a farmer and hunter growing up, so the only way he knew to spend time with me was through hunting. I find that I’m so task-focused in my day-to-day life that I organize “quality time” with my son around errands or projects. I believe it takes a lot of reflection about competing goals to realize where our motivations lie. Many times there is a struggle between satisfying our own needs versus tending to those of our children, and sometimes one is disguised by the other. These competing goals are reflected in Pat Sr.’s struggle when faced with his son’s mental illness.

Things come to a head for father and son when Pat Sr. insists on sending his son to an Eagles game to ensure his team’s win, effectively competing with Pat Jr.’s committment to Tiffany. Things end badly for everyone involved, with near arrests and great financial loss, leading Pat Sr. to blame his son for the family’s downfall.  It’s Tiffany’s brilliant assessment of Pat Jr.’s involvement in the Eagles’ juju that leads Pat Sr. to put a stop to his blame and reconsider his delusional ideas, perhaps simply to replace them with Tiffany’s.  Only by confronting Pat Sr. with his own obsessional/delusional language is the family able to recalibrate the man’s relationship with his son.

I think this sequence speaks to the ways in which parents can get so wrapped up in their own agendas that the only in-roads to their rigidity are made by using their language and interests. This can be in the most simple of examples, like when my son agrees to come on errands with me as a way of spending time with his dad.  At its most extreme this might mean adopting delusional language to break through to a ranting Obsessive-Compulsive.  Pat Sr.’s delusions were the extreme end of this spectrum, but his behaviors may resonate with many of us as parents.  We must be mindful of the extent to which we get wrapped up in our own ideas, hopes, and dreams that we aren’t able to discern the needs of our children.

Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is an excellent exploration of relationships between people with serious mental health struggles and the connections forged through outrageous acts.  The relationship between De Niro and Cooper’s characters highlight an extreme aspect of the struggle between fathers and their children, but one that resonates with me, and reflects many aspects of undead dad parenting.



Let’s Build a Treehouse, Goddammit!

This past spring, we moved from a small East Coast city to the burbs. That move in and of itself could launch a thousand posts, which I’m sure will follow. We moved from a 2-family house with a tiny grub-infested backyard to a little colonial with a sprawling lawn and lots of enormous, beautiful trees.

“We’re gonna build you a treehouse!” I promised my son. In the months building up to the closing and move, we’d talk about it, and I’d buy books on amazon about treehouse construction. My son even drew his abstract, Daliesque picture of his ideal treehouse. Although I couldn’t build him his full dream house, complete with three levels and Jedi training facility, we compromised on a quaint little design.

It wasn’t until after the move that I noticed, tucked away in the trees of the neighbor kid’s house, there stood a colossal treehouse complete with swings, pulleys, and ropes. I suspected his dad had help–like professional help–to get that thing built, but didn’t share the thought with my son. At first, I was deflated. It didn’t make sense to build a treehouse if the kid next door had an awesome one. Maybe my wife was right; maybe we just need to buy one of those damn wooden playsets.

But no, I had planned on a treehouse dammit, and seeing those pre-fabbed cedar structures in a catalog only got my creative juices flowing. I have to admit, there was also a competitive spark that flared up when seeing the neighbors behemoth. So, my son and I went to Lowes and bought lag screws and some supports. I cut the base, and had him help me level it.

“Where’s the bubble, bud?” I asked my son, who was manning the level. No response. He was gone. I found him around the corner of the house swinging a stick. Well, of course. That was the most boring part. When we got to the walls, he would really be excited.

We went out and bought the framing wood. I asked him to help me help measure the pieces.

“Hold this here bud. Buddy? Where’d you go?” Okay, the allure of the retractable measuring tape couldn’t keep him there forever, so I marked and cut myself.

I’ll set him up to hammer nails, I thought. Brilliant! What kid doesn’t love to hammer? I pieced together the frame and even drilled tiny pilot holes in every section that needed a nail. I even started each nail for him.

“Kid, you’re awesome at that! Look at you go!” Tap tap tap…..tap tap…tap….

“I’m tired.”

I told him I’d finish up. In the coming builds, I asked him if he’d like to help, but he’d either opt out or stick around for a while but eventually fizzle out and disappear. After a while, I’d inevitably mutter to myself, “I’m building this for you, you know.”

Then I had to ask myself who I was really building the treehouse for. It seemed to be my treehouse. I mean, my son had some interest in it, but I realized that I was the one who was so excited about the thought of a treehouse. I had always wanted a kick-ass tree house growing up, and it looked like soon I would have one. The problem was that I was now in my mid-30s. It was a really my dream. Maybe the house wasn’t the dream, but it was a dream of carving out a special experience for me and my son. I wanted him to remember that summer when he and dad spent every weekend working on a treehouse together. By, it wasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped.

After many, many weekends, the treehouse got built. I continued giving my son lots of little jobs, some of which were successful and some weren’t. We did have some good times in those moments, but I really had to readjust my expectations of him, my desire for him to sustain interest in something that wasn’t his own making, and my real motivations. I realized I couldn’t force any special moments. I could create the space for them, but couldn’t make them happen.

When the treehouse was nearly complete, we both sat on the mini-deck, looking out over the trees.

“This is kinda boring,” he muttered.

“Go inside.”



Dawn of the Undead Dad

The dogs sense him on the opposite side of the door and come howling, alerting the family to the creature’s presence.  The mother looks up from her soup pot and the boy from his artwork, their senses enlivened by the scamper of paws.  The doorknob wiggles and turns. The door was left unlocked.

The creature stumbles in and pierces the air with a wail as the dogs dig their claws through his tattered work pants.  The family winces. Undead dad drops his bag at the door and removes his coat.  He grunts a hello to the mother and boy, before trudging upstairs.  He brings his ipad with him, and exchanges the deadening mess of work for the glowing screen of webpages and emails.  He gets stuck halfway up the stairs, engrossed in a facebook post by another member of the undead.  He eventually disentangles himself and rips off his clothes to replace them with a pair of ripped pajama pants and a t-shirt with holes in the armpits.  The creature staggers down the steps, in search of food.

The zombie’s head stoops toward his food bowl.  Silence pervades the dinner table as the mother and son eat quietly and exchange looks. After dinner, the mother picks up the son and puts on an old Beastie Boys song.  The two bounce around the kitchen as the song reverberates from the marble tile and stainless refrigerator.  Undead dad grunts out a chuckle, but remains on the chair, unable to muster the gusto to dance with the mom and her pop-locking five-year-old.  At the boy’s bedtime, the creature is in charge of reading to the boy.  He reads the first two pages like a normal human being, as though literature has sparked some memory of his old self, his old passions, and he is able to infuse the text with a multitude of voices and even a few sound effects.  In spite of his best efforts, he cannot sustain his radio play.  The reading drains him.  By the third pages his words slur and he stops abruptly, as though his neural pathways have shriveled mid-connection.  His son delivers an irritated jab and the creature is stirred, but the pattern is repeated across the many pages of bears, bunnies, and woods.

Later the undead man and his wife share the couch, watching some favorite reality show.  The cushions lull the undead dad and the cognitive blurring evidenced during the storybook is relived with the wife.  After several bouts of his snoring, she orders him to bed, and his brain pulls his body upstairs to a cold bed.

This is the undead dad. He is a zombie to the world at home.  He’s there, but not quite there.  His family is conflicted; they’re happy to have him home after a long absence at work, but annoyed by his stumbling, slurring, and sleeping.  Undead dad is me.  I wake up early most mornings so that I can get work done and come home before the early evening rush.  Even though I carve out the time to be home, I’m exhausted by the end of the day.  I feel as though work has culled every ounce of life from my body and brain, leaving nothing for my life at home.  I realize the pattern and fight it as best I can, but I feel like some creature whose brain isn’t under his control.  My mind searches out food and sleep without noticing the people around me or the effect I have on them.  When I wake up to the effect I have on my family, I’m too exhausted to do anything.  I see opportunities to laugh, to play, to dance, to be engaged, but my mind won’t let me go there.  It is clouded with a seemingly impenetrable haze of sleep and exhaustion and hunger.

I am sick of being this person.  My family is sick of me being this person.  This is the impetus for the blog.  Although I find it important to avoid defining oneself by the absence of some attribute or trait, it’s a starting point.  That’s where this blog begins.  I am sure my experience resonates with many dads.  They see what they’ve become, and know they don’t want to be that.  They see the potential for a more engaged life, but too much seems to get in the way.

This is where this blog begins.  It’s a discussion of the fight against the brainless, soul-sucking experience  of the undead dad.  The fight against the devastation taking place in his brain and body, and the fight against the haze he casts on those in his life.  This blog is an opportunity to talk about my particular fight against that person.  It’s a chance to talk about ways of engaging in mindful fatherhood.

I’m certain that many mothers out there might experience their lives in much the same way I do.  In many ways, this blog could be about mindful parenting.  My particular experience happens to be that of a father, and so I speak in particular to the dads out there, although it’s my hope that this blog can translate to parenting by anyone: fathers, mothers, grandparents, and guardians.

I will be writing about my own struggles to avoid becoming an undead dad, and the creation of opportunities to become a more engaged parent.  I will reflect on my own experiences of deadened parents, notice the times that the undead dad is taking over, expand on the times that I can learn to be mindful of my family, my son, my wife, and myself.  I’ll write about my frustration with technology: its benefits for connection and its alluring siren song of distraction and disconnection.  I will also write about mediation and mindfulness and its role in fighting against my undead status.

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this blog resonates with some.  I also hope that others will leave comments and post their own stories so that we can rise up together against the zombie scourge of deadness.