undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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I Wanna Be a Crotchety Old Man

RoosterCogburn(JeffBridges)_250912101922Sometimes I want to be Rooster Cogburn.  Who the hell is Rooster Cogburn, you ask?  Well, Rooster Cogburn’s response would be, “Who the hell are you?”

Rooster Cogburn is the character from the movie True Grit, originally played by John Wayne in 1969 and re-booted with Jeff Bridges in 2010. For me (sorry purists, and my own father), I’m focused on the Coen brother’s 2010 Rooster. Rooster is a surly old US Marshal who helps a young woman track down her father’s murder in the old West.  The thing I like about the character is that he’s old, and ballsy, and doesn’t give a damn about what other people think of him. He’s going to do what he thinks is right.  He doesn’t care about first impressions, or using the right words, or impressing the right people. He says what he means, even if he comes across as a bitter old coot.

rocky4I find that I really enjoy lots of old male characters who embody this same I-could-give-a-shit mentality in movies. Regardless of whether its Mickey Goldmill from Rocky or Carl Fredricksen from Up, I love these guys. It took some reflection for me to understand why. In my life, I feel I have to be on my best behavior at times.  At work, I have to play a role.  I have to be unflappable, and hold my cards close to my chest.  I have to bite my tongue and devise the best way of approaching a situation that takes into account all perspectives.  I have to sit on my anger when my boss is a douche.  I have to hide who I am to get through the day.

The same goes for being out in the community.  In a relatively small town, you have to hide your feelings at times. If a parent or a kid gets under my skin, I pretty much have to sit on it. The shock waves of disputes in a small town can reverberate, and I always have to think about my son. Not in a don’t-make-waves sort of way, but folks can be petty, and parents’ reputations certainly dictate how adults or other kids treat your child.  So, for all these reasons, I hold back on what I might think, or what I might like to say, in a very un-Rooster-ish fashion.

review_up_1I want to blurt out.  I want to tell people to go to hell sometimes, but I don’t.  It’s sitting on these feelings that can tear a person up.  But it’s this act of blurting out that I see every day on-line.  Virtual life brings out the Rooster in many of us. Behind the veil of technology, many of us feel like we can spurt out whatever vitriol is in our blood, and throw caution to the wind. Many people let it all out and become crotchety old men on line.  I can see the intrigue. With a life of quiet repression, I can see how folks want to let it out on line. When first starting my blog, part of me wanted to adopt a pen-name personality that was crotchety.  A nom de plune that would be brash and rude whenever he felt like it. It was such an attractive option, the thought of having this outlet for telling people off. I ultimately decided not to go in that direction, because the things I wanted to write about were rather sentimental, and didn’t lend themselves to a shit-stirring ass of a narrator.

However, I’ve certainly read a few of blogs by shit-stirring asses, and I then see that the it isn’t so attractive from the other side of the page. These folks can certainly incite furry and debate, which is sometimes productive, but many are provocative for provocativeness’ sake. They just want to rile others up. I’m sure there’s some catharsis for the writer, being able to put out whatever hell-fire is on their mind, but in the end it’s usually just biting and self-indulgent.

And that’s not the allure of these old man characters that I love so much. It’s more so that they’re true to what they think and feel, even if it’s unpopular. They don’t spew out garbage simply because it’s on their minds, but say things they feel need to be said.

Ron-SwansonPerhaps the best example is Ron Swanson, the (not-so-old) city hall worker in Parks and Recreation, who sticks to his anti-government, meat-loving, gold-burying values. Although my leanings are very different from Ron’s, I absolutely love him. Ron is the type of guy who is frequently driven to contribute his thoughts by the ridiculousness or ignorance of those around him. He comes off as crotchety and even mean at times, but behind his words is a heart of gold. He says these things because he truly believes them and, when you get right down to it, because he thinks they’re important lessons for the people he loves.  And yet, he doesn’t punish others or hold them tightly to his values, but he makes a place to say them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he sticks to what he thinks, but not without regard to others. He wants them to know what he thinks because it’s important to him, but also because he thinks it’s important for them and their well-being.

There’s certainly a fine line between being Ron Swanson and a domineering, shit-spewing, raving maniac. I’ve known plenty of people who trounce over others because they think they know what’s best.  That isn’t what I’m supporting or the type of person I want to be. But, at those times when I’m swallowing my own thoughts and feelings just to get through a situation, I do ask myself: What would Ron Swanson say?

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I Am Paul Rudd from I Love You Man

iloveyoumanOkay, I realize I’m about 4 years late on this post, because the movie I Love You Man was released in 2009, but I need to explore this again: I am Paul Rudd’s character from that movie.

I saw the movie when it first came out.  It’s about a man named Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) who proposes to his fiancee and finds himself without a best man.  He realizes that his wife is one of his only real friend.  So, when Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and Peter strike up a conversation at an open house, Peter decides to pursue a friendship.  Sydney is a shoot-from-the-hip, hyper-relaxed guy who does and says what he likes, in stark contrast with Peter’s awkward, somewhat uptight exterior.  The two eventually form a friendship that threatens Peter’s wedding plans.

The most hilarious and uncomfortable scenes of this movie for me are when Peter is first trying to buddy up with Sydney.  Peter longs for a friendship, but has been so involved with his fiancee for years he doesn’t know/remember how to initiate relaxed conversations with another man.  An ongoing joke is that Sydney calls Peter “Pistol Pete” early on in their friendship, and Peter keeps trying to label his new friend with monikers such as “Jobin” or “City Slacker”, each time faltering and sounding awkward.  In this scene, Peter’s trying to be ultra-casual (or he might say “ultz-casz”) with Sidney:

My wife was roaming through channels the other day and stopped on the movie for a while to watch Peter and Sydney hanging out in Sydney’s garage, with Peter tripping over his words in a miserable attempt at appearing cool.  I thought, “Damn, they hit the nail on the head.  That is me.”

Much like Peter’s character, I have always been very invested in the women with whom I was involved.  They were the center of my world, which made break-ups a bitch.  But at least in high school, college, and even grad school, there was usually that group of friends so entwined with my everyday life that I never really lost ties with them.  School always made it easier to find and maintain friends.  But now, I’m in my late 30’s.  I’ve traveled so much for school and work with my wife, that we’ve lived in 3 states and 6 towns in the past 10 years.  With each passing year and each fleeting location, I become more and more inept at finding friends.

Sure, I have some college and grad school friends on facebook or folks who breeze through town every so often, but I don’t have any day-to-day friends.  Many dads are lucky to have lived in the place where they grew up, or at least where they’ve spent a solid chunk of time.  Or, they’re blessed with the social graces to forge new friendships.  Not me.  This may resonate with many dads, but I find that my current friends are family friends or my wife’s friend’s spouses.  This includes a cast of very good guys, but our interactions are always couched in family gatherings and not quite the same.

I don’t have a “grab a beer” sort of friend.  I don’t have a “Hey, let’s go see that shitty sci-fi/action movie that my wife won’t see with me” sort of friend.  I’ve tried.  I’ve hung out with people from work, with my wife’s friend’s husbands, but nothing works.  I inevitably feel like Paul Rudd’s character.  I’m so rusty at male-friendship banter that I think I sound stupid.  I try hard to buddy-up, to get into a rhythm of conversation, but it never flows.  I think that, like Peter in the movie, I’m so rusty that I get nervous, fumble over my words, and then retreat.  I feel stupid.

So now I feel socially-inept and lonely.  Don’t get me wrong, my wife is the most important friend I have on this Earth, and wouldn’t  trade that for anything, but I don’t have any trusted friends outside of my marriage.  And this is the thing that concerns me as I get older: how will my son perceive this?  When I was growing up, my dad had zero friends.  The closest he got was his hunting buddy, my friends’ dad from across the street.  However, their relationship waxed and waned with the hunting season.  They’d ignore each other all spring and summer, and then re-connect in late summer to organize their hunting permits.  We’d all get together a few times in the fall and winter, and then they’d go back to their summer hiatus.  It was a very functional relationship, and I think my dad’s own inabilities to form true friendships really set a poor example for me.

Now, I’m afraid of what my son might see in me.  Luckily, we have family friends who we host for dinner or go over to their houses.  Also, my son sees me out in the community when I volunteer for a local kids’ group that he’s a part of.  So, he sees me engaged and social, for now.  But as time goes by, just like I was able to assess with my own dad, he’s going to notice that dad doesn’t have real friends.  My social limitations are one of my biggest embarrassments, and I’d hate for my son to see them.  I’d hate for him to have a poor model for male friendship, and feel just as inept as I do one day.

I need to keep trying, for both me and my son.  But as a man in his 30’s, it’s hard to know how.  There are very few people I come into contact with outside of work.  Even if I were in contact with new people, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.  Perhaps one day I’ll suffer through those awkward stages of a friendship and, just like Pistol Pete, get a nickname-worthy friend.


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NeverEnding Disappointment

neverending2I’ve become my mother.  I mean, in terms of cultural relevance.  When I was about 10-years-old, my family was in the video store (remember those?), but my sibs and I couldn’t find anything we wanted to watch.  So my mom suggested we watch this “hilarious” comedy A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May.  She told us we’d love it.  We hated it.  It was really cheesy.  As 4- to 10-year-olds we couldn’t appreciate any of the 1971 film’s nuances, and we made fun of my mom for the suggestion.  She didn’t live that one down for another decade.  Every time we were indecisive about a movie, someone would suggest A New Leaf and elbow my mom.

Now in my house, my wife and I both scramble to get to the Netflix queue first and rearrange things to suit our own likes.  I’ll scramble to get Looper to the top, while she’s sneaking on-line to bump up Hope Springs.   So recently I battled to get The Neverending Story on the top of the list for our weekly family movie night with our 6-year-old.  I won, and we sat down one recent Friday to watch.

The synthesizer music, the blue screen, the dog/dragon with the animatronic face.  Awesome.  Every bit of it.  But not to my family.

My son kept jumping around the room and climbing on the couches.  For a 6-year-old, he’s got a great attention span.  The kid can really sit through a movie when he enjoys something.  So when he’s all wiggly, we can tell he’s not into the movie.  Well he was really wiggly.  Plus, my wife kept shooting me these weird looks as if to say, “Nice one dude…what the hell are we watching?”

Okay.  I’ll admit, Falkor’s jaw movements don’t sync up with his voice, the courtiers at the Empress’s temple (with their many-sided faces or massive heads) are pretty freakish, and the crossover into the real-world when Bastian flies over the city and lands the bullies in a dumpster doesn’t really make sense.  I can recognize all of these flaws and yet I love the movie.

I’m guessing that’s probably how my mom felt.  She really liked that Walter Matthau movie and, in some way, wanted her kids to share in that experience.  But it wasn’t part of our generation.  We didn’t get it, and she was left feeling disappointed.  That’s how I felt with The Never Ending Story.  I wanted everyone to love it and, in a way, get them to connect with the feelings I had when I watched the movie for the first time.

I still love The Neverending Story.  It came out in 1984 when I was just 9-years-old.  It was one of those movies that made me believe in the imagination and feel like I could do anything inside my mind.  But I can’t just inject that feeling into my 6-year-old, 21st century son.  I guess that’s something he’ll have to find on his own, from the hallmarks of his own generation.  I’ll just have to chalk it up to a generation gap, and hope that he finds his own sense of wonder in the movies of today.

But in the meantime, watching the Dark Crystal couldn’t hurt, could it?


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PG-13 Woes

pg-13There comes a time in every geek dad’s life when he needs to ask himself a very important question: “Is my child old enough to watch Star Wars?”

My wife and I have been very careful about the type of media our son consumes.  Especially when he was a toddler, we committed ourselves to avoiding any form of commercial consumption by our son.  We also made sure he wasn’t exposed to violence prematurely.  That made for a very PBS-oriented upbringing.  Blues Clues, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dinosaur Train, Curious George, and an occasional Barney episode filled our screen whenever our son was allowed TV time.  Then we graduated to movies and watched most of the Pixars, a lot of Miyazaki, and some Disneys.

Then came that critical question.

In Kindergarten, several of the boys were obsessed with Star Wars.  Midway through the school year, my son knew the names Yoda, Darth Vader, and Han Solo, without having seen even a snippet of Star Wars.  Soon he started to ask for it.  By March of that year, he was asking for it a lot, and so my wife and I put Episode I on our Netflix queue.  We re-watched, but this time from a 5-year-old’s perspective.  We tried to figure out if it was okay for his little brain, but there was no simple answer.  It’s hard to put aside your love for a movie to truly glean whether it’s actually “good” for your Kindergartener.  Up until then, our 5-year-old hadn’t seen a single movie or television show with a gun in it.  He hadn’t watched people physically fight or die in anything.  On the continuum of media violence, this was certainly many steps up from PBS.

But this is the bind: when you love Star Wars and other childhood favorites as much my wife and I, it’s hard to make an objective decision about taking that next Star Wars step.  “It’s not that bad,” we rationalized.  “It’s not as though they’re shooting guns. It’s only blasters and lightsabers.”  “Plus,” I added, “it’s an epic battle of good versus evil. It’s like a greek tragedy.  We’re actually educating him about myth, archetypes, and human nature!”

Hayden_Christensen_in_Star_Wars-_Episode_III_-_Revenge_of_the_Sith_Wallpaper_1_1280Sounds good, right? We thought so too.  We let him watch it.  We also let him watch Episode II (like the next day).  And then, the big question of Episode III arose.  It’s a terribly slippery slope.  Do you let a 5-year-old watch a PG-13 movie?  I mean, he’d seen the first two.  How could we deprive him of the 3rd?  Plus, as children of the 70s, my wife and I were dying to show him Episodes IV, V, and VI.  I mean, that’s the heart of the story!  I hang my head and admit that we let him watch it.  I’m both proud of it (my son has since seen every Star Wars), and ashamed (my 5-year-old watched a guy get his limbs cut off and then burst into flames).

This whole debate is being conjured up again as The Hobbit hits theaters with its damned PG-13 rating.  While my son hasn’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings, we’ve been waiting on tenterhooks to show him.  However, because of the sheer brutality in many of the scenes (somehow death by sword of steel seems worse than by saber of light), we’ve saved these movies for later.  But as The Hobbit hits theaters, we relive the same debate: “Wouldn’t it be cool to watch it with him?” versus “But it’s just too much.”

hobbit_an_unexpected_journeyAnd so, geeky parents across the country are probably embroiled in the same debate.  When we as parents have no emotional connection to a film, we’re more likely to gain a clear picture of that movie’s violence and, therefore, better able to assess whether we should expose our children to it.  But, if we’re fans of the movie, or if it resonates with the child within us, we’re more prone to jump the gun and sit down with our kids to watch.

So, what’s a good age for The Hobbit’s PG-13 rating?  8-years-old?  Please tell me it is; I couldn’t hold off much longer than that.


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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.

***SPOILER ALERTS***

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.