explorations of mindful fatherhood


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?


I Married My Dawn Tinsley

The Office - Series 2

Yes, my cable is dead.  After many disputes with the cable company (and some dodged charges), our family’s cable shut off tonight, and we are left with internet-based media.  This evening, after my wife went to bed, I discovered that hulu plus carries the entire series of The Office, and I was in heaven.

I’m not talking the Scranton, Dunder Mifflin, Michael Scott, Dwight, Kevin, Jim and Pam Office.  I’m talking the Slough, Wernham Hogg, David Brent, Gareth, Keith, Tim and Dawn Office…especially Tim and Dawn.

I was/am a huge fan of the original BBC series, and own all the episodes, but seeing it there on hulu tempted me.  That and the fact that I decided to take a rare “sick” (mental health) day tomorrow from work and felt entitled to stay up late and watch whatever the hell I wanted to watch while eating cake.

This is the thing about The Office: it possesses the rare power to make me cry.  It’s very seldom that I shed tears, even during the most catastrophic times in my life.  But somehow, watching other people’s joys and miseries play out on the screen makes it easier for me.  Perhaps it’s because there’s some distance from the characters and situations, and so it feels safe.  When I shed tears for TV or movies, I’m crying for someone else, because their life is shit or overwhelmingly heart-breaking.  If I cried because something in my life was shit or heart-breaking, it would feel too vulnerable, too raw.  It would signify that I couldn’t “fix” that thing in my life.  TV and movies are safe.  I can shed tears and feel badly for that character, but maintain the sense (illusion) that I have my own shit together and can fight another day.

The “Specials”, as they’re called, are where I really lose it.  The Specials are the last two episodes in which the cast returned for their final goodbyes.  For those of you not familiar with the series, Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) is the lovable lost-soul of the office who’s infatuated with Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), the sad aspiring illustrator stuck in a reception job at Wernham Hogg, a paper merchant.  Tim pines over Dawn in a very subtle, tortured way over the course of the season, making two bids for her affection, both thwarted as Dawn inevitably chooses Lee, her doltish, perpetual fiance.  Viewer like me watched in anguish throughout the season as funny-man Tim quipped with Dawn and nudged her toward fulfilling her hopes and dreams, while she was pulled down (and away) by Lee’s subtle insults.

The Specials picked up two years after the series ended, to find Dawn living in Florida with dead-beat Lee, mooching off of his sister, while Tim remained in Slough, brow-beaten by impish Gareth who now manages the branch.  The “documentarians” offer to fly Dawn and Lee back to Slough for the annual Wernham Hogg Christmas party.  Dawn and Tim are painfully reintroduced, but they quickly fall back into their comfortable way with one another.  Their short reunion is emblematic of everything wonderful about their relationship: Tim saves Dawn from suffering through office chit-chat, the two poke fun at Gareth, and Dawn draws a portrait for Tim.

It’s those last 45 minutes when I as a viewer am not able to hold it together.  (I would write SPOILER ALERT, but anyone who would stick through the last 500 words is probably already a fan of the series).  At the party, Lee bad-mouths Dawn’s artistic abilities before ruining one of Tim and Dawn’s private jokes and whisking her away from the party in a cab.  As she rides away, Dawn opens up her Secret Santa from Tim, to find an oil painting set and the portrait she drew of him with the words “Don’t Give Up” written on it.  We find Tim later at the party talking to David and Gareth when Dawn returns, kisses him, and the two leave the party hand-in-hand.

And I lose it.

I’ve seen the episode about eight times, and lose it every time.  Tonight I was left alone in my living room at midnight wondering why this always happens to me.  After all these years, I still can’t help but cry when these two connect.  And then I understood.  I see myself in Tim.  He’s somewhat shy and self-conscious.  He tries to be funny, in spite of how down-trodden he feels about his own life.  And he’s rubbish around women, especially Dawn.  He pines for her throughout, but can’t make it past the jokey, supportive friend phase with the woman he loves.  That’s how I always was with women.  I was the shy, quiet guy who wouldn’t stick his neck out for fear of being shot down.  For fear of being hurt like the times Dawn hurt Tim.  It’s a miracle I’m now married and have a child.

But why am I married now?  Because I found my Dawn.  On my first date with my wife-to-be, we went to a party.  I am crap at parties.  We sat separate from everyone, making our own little jokes.  Some harmless, some at others’ expense.  But they were our private jokes.  This became the hallmark of our relationship: we can always make each other laugh.  Not only that, but we can pick each other up when the other one is feeling down.  We can praise one another for the talents we each possess, and inspire the other to always keep trying.  These are the things that are important in a relationship, and we’re lucky enough to embody them.

I realize that nothing in this post is about fatherhood.  But my relationship with my wife is the core of our home.  It’s the example we set for our son about love and fidelity and joy.  Just like my inability to cry about myself or my real life, sometimes I’m perhaps stifled by the “realness” of everything around me, by the nitty-gritty of everyday life.  Sometimes it takes seeing characters on the screen to get some distance and see what is sentimental and good.  But it’s only because I have something good in my own life that the tears flow when I see Tim and Dawn walk out of that party.  I realize that I’ve walked out of the party with my own wife, hand-in-hand, into the real world where we’ve made a life for ourselves.  And I realize that I’m a very lucky man, and a lucky father.


Requiem for Food Network & Travel Channel

PrintIn order to cut costs, my family recently decided to save $60 a month by cancelling cable.  It’s supposed to be shut off in a few days, and I keep turning on the TV just to see if we still get reception.  It’s like trying to spend every waking minute with your high school girlfriend before she flies off to college.  I’ll miss you (*whimper*), cable.

In this age of technology, though, we won’t be missing much.  Between hulu, Netflix, and amazon streamed through the blu-ray, we should be able to watch all of our shows, with a few notable exceptions: AMC, Food Network, and Travel Channel.  Don’t get me started on AMC.  Only three more episodes of The Walking Dead this season, and I’m about to lose my feed?!?!  Rick vs. the Governor?  Woodbury vs. the prison?  I can’t miss that!  Thank god for $2.99 episodes on amazon.

But the real topic of this post is the Food Network and Travel Channel.  Of all the cable networks, these get the most air time on our tube.  Sometimes selected by my wife and me, but mostly requested by our son.  He LOVES the Food Network.  Some of his favorite shows are Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (is that show always on?), Chopped, and Iron Chef America.  Then there’s the Travel Channel, with shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Man v. Food with Adam Richman.  These food-related shows are some of my son’s favorites.  At the beginning of the first grade, the kids filled out a survey (without their names) and hung it up in the halls for open house night.  It was a test to see if parents could identify their children.  We found our son’s right away because under “Favorite TV Show” he put “Food Network”.  Not a show, but the entire cable station.

He loves seeing foods made and eaten.  He loves the creepy stuff on Bizarre Foods, and arguing about what each of us in the family would and wouldn’t eat.  He loves what they can make on Chopped, and making guesses about how he would combine the foods.  He loves rooting for Adam Richman, and seeing what that man can stuff into his mouth, even if we are concerned about his blood pressure and risk for diabetes.

I didn’t have a love or an awe for food growing up.  My parents weren’t the best cooks (if they read this blog, believe me, they’d agree), so dinner was always a mystery.  It was some sort of food with some sort of meat.  Usually something that wasn’t that good, but we had to eat it.  We weren’t very well-off growing up, so we almost never went out to restaurants.  Therefore, I had a very limited palate and a very limited understanding of food.  At one point, when I was in my teens, my mom designated a day of the week to each of the four kids, and we were in charge of making dinner for the family.  It was an utter disaster.  I’ve never seen a family eat so much frozen pizza and mac ‘n cheese.  It was sad because we were put in charge of meal planning, but never taught how to cook.  We weren’t taught the wonders of food and the skills of preparation.

travel-channelSo, I offer up this post in honor of the Food Network and Travel Channel, as they have helped round out my son’s love of food.  Of course, most of the credit for his love of food goes to my wife, the expert chef of the house.  But these channels and their shows have opened up the world of food culture to him.  Through them, he can see the various ways that food is prepared, enjoyed, and revered in other parts of the county or other parts of the world.  He sees that food can be fun.  It can be an experiment.  And that the art of cooking is full of successes and failures.  That chefs constantly try to make something better.

I’m glad that his experiences with food have expanded with the help of these networks, and we’ll certainly miss them when the cable goes out.  Until then, Guy Fieri will grace our screen.


The Governor: undead dad

In AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, The Governor of Woodbury adopts a much more subtle psychopathy than that of his comic counterpart.  Having organized a group of survivors to clean out, border, and protect the small town of Woodbury, The Governor takes every step necessary to protect his enclave–and his own power–from forces outside the town’s gates, whether they be living or dead.  To this end, The Governor kills the surviving solider of helicopter crash, massacres the soldier’s encamped men, and orders Michonne’s murder in the forests surrounding Woodbury.

20121128-walkingdead7-x306-1354142185David Morrissey’s role diverges from the comic again when we learn that he was married, and discover that he has a daughter, Penny, who is now a walker.  The Governor secretly stows Penny away in his private quarters.  In one scene we find him brushing Penny’s hair when a clump of scalp detaches from her head, sending her into a fit.  The Governor holds her tightly, whispering to ease her struggle, as a father might with a tantrumming child.  The scene injects The Governor’s character with a compassion otherwise hidden behind his ruthless acts as the town’s leader.

The scene and the character exemplify a recurring theme in The Walking Dead, and one that I believe pervades the entire zombie genre: the constant struggle to wake up to the reality of the world.  Zombies are an enduring allegory.  Zombies themselves are often employed as the carnal representations of deadening forces within culture and society.  In Night of the Living Dead they represented the mindless scare over nuclear fallout, in Dawn of the Dead they were stand-ins for ruthless consumerism, and in Shaun of the Dead they might have been personifications of mid-twenties directionlessness.  But on the flip side, survivors of zombie plagues could be interpreted as embodying mindfulness: those who have received a jolting wake-up to the reality of the world and its faults.  Survivors are never allowed to put down their guard.  They must always be vigilant about their surroundings, their escape paths, and bumps in the night.  Survivors are challenged with facing head-on the apathy and soulessness of contemporary culture by bearing witness to, and fending off, their undead friends and neighbors.  In The Walking Dead, it is this constant witness-bearing that slowly drives Rick’s band of survivors mad.  Our beloved characters are constantly smacked face by the ruthless nature of humanity, which turns them into a sentient version of the walking dead.

When characters delude themselves by refusing to accept the reality of the zombie plague, they are actively fighting the mindfulness the current moment demands.  For these characters, it is more comforting to believe in a hope of the return to the old ways, to an old humanity.  This was Hershel’s struggle when he kept walkers in the barn, hoping a cure might revive his wife and neighbors.  The Governor holds a similar delusion, but his act of keeping Penny tied up is even more striking, given his otherwise brutal character.  Hershel is a man whose faith and allegiance to family motivated him to hold onto the notion that his loved ones might one day be cured.  The Governor, on the other hand, is a man who, in all other regards, has fully accepted the ruthless nature of man that the zombie plague has forced humanity to confront.  The Governor has become a merciless leader, cunningly killing any survivor who threatens his position of power.  The Governor’s temporary suspension of reality by keeping and tending to his zombified daughter, shows just how powerful the lure of turning away from reality can be.  Even the most conscious and opportunistic can shy away from reality when it becomes too overwhelming.

This is why zombism is a great metaphor for mindfulness.  When confronted with the deadening forces of society, we’re forced to wake up to reality and mindfully engage with the world around us.  This is a constant struggle for fathers and other parents as we’re bombarded with the demands of everyday life.  For some of us, the consequence of this bombardment is a real disconnect from the ones we love, our family members.  When faced with the disconnect, rather than dealing with it, we have a tendency to sink deeper into the stresses of the world as a welcome distraction from our disconnect.  Especially when our reality involves loss.

I’ve experienced this type of retreat myself.  A big loss that I’ve dealt with is my own father’s withdrawal.  My father is still alive, mind you, but I have not talked to him in the past three years.  He pulled away from me for undisclosed reasons, and in spite of my attempts to open up conversations, he hasn’t responded to any of my invitations.  Yet he and I go through a ritual each year of suspending belief in the reality of our failed relationship when he sends me a Christmas gift.  Typically, his gift is a box of meat (oddly consistent with the zombie theme).   My dad was a big hunter and a true midwestern steak lover, and so each year a refrigerated box of steaks, fillets, and sausages gets sent to my door.  I’ve received his gift even during my vegetarian years.

Excuse this rather gross sentence, but: my accepting the meat box is akin to The Governor brushing a dead girl’s hair.  My father and I delude ourselves about just how bad our relationship has gotten.  It’s easier for him to send a gift and for me to receive it (and in some ways, expect it), than it is for either of us to be confronted with the reality of our situation.  For the holidays it’s easier to forget about my family strife and sit down to an Omaha steak.

At times, we as fathers can retreat to a fantasy, or to the doldrums of a busy life, because it’s easier than facing the disconnections in our lives.  This is our undead dad nature.  We retreat to a busy lifestyle because, in some ways, it’s easier than facing and investing in the challenges of making our relationships work.  It is incredibly difficult to extract ourselves from the mindless cycle of work.  Sometimes, just like the survivors of a zombie plague, we need a slap in the face to wake up to the reality of a clump of dead girl’s hair or a box of meat.

Leave a comment

Go Ninjago!


I was at a Halloween party last month sitting among vampires and ninjas, when another father and I began discussing the TV habits of our kids.

“I watch, but I don’t watch, if you know what I mean,” he explained.  “I mean it’s on, my eyes are watching it, but I’m not really watching it.  My mind is somewhere else.”

I knew what he meant.  I found my son’s first TV interests kind of unbearable.  Let me be the first to admit that I was a TV junkie growing up, so TV was and is a big part of my life, for better or worse.  With the birth of my son, however, my wife and I are (or were) very careful about the type and duration of TV our son watches.  At first, we only allowed PBS and/or videos, but not a lot of commercial TV.  Because of this, his first real media loves were Blues Clues, Curious George, and Thomas the Tank Engine.  As a person who works with kids, I can appreciate the repetitive and sing-song nature of TV shows for younger kids, but it’s a bit mind-numbing for a man in his 30s.  He and I would watch them repetitively (and read the books time and again) to the point at which I’d become completely deadened to the whole experience.  For me, these shows became a sort of narcotic.  I would pop one in for my son, we’d set up on the couch, and I’d fall asleep before the theme song was over.

In spite of this, I knew every word to every Thomas song, and could recite just about every tank engine name (even the names of those pesky diesel engines).  When we’d play, I loved the trains and the tracks, and all that went with them, but the stories and show were a tough pill to swallow.  Those were some of the times that I’ve felt the most like an undead dad around my son, and I hated it.  Although I wanted to share in his full enthusiasm about the shows, I couldn’t get there.

In some ways, his later interests really saved me from becoming a drooling mess of a TV partner.  It was probably Star Wars that first really sparked my interest.  As a dad, there’s nothing quite like seeing your son reliving the same passion you once held as a young kid, but that’s the subject of another post.

His current love is Ninjago.  On the face of it, it seems like a terrible thing to love: it’s basically a TV show developed to sell ninja Lego sets to kids.  In most ways, I thought I’d hate it.  He started talking about it because the next door neighbor loved it.  I broke down and watched an episode with him, and that was all it took.  I was instantly enamored.

The show is set in the land of Ninjago where four ninja and their master are reclaiming the four golden weapons needed to overthrown the maniacal Lord Garmadon, who threatens the land with his dark forces of skeletons (season 1) and snakes (season 2).  The bulk of the shows are about a Vader-Luke type of conflict between Lord Garmadon and his son Lloyd Garmadon, who turns out to be ***SPOILER ALERT*** the Green Ninja, prophesied to restore peace to the land.

The storylines of the shows are actually incredible, with lots of action, twists, and funny dialogue.  My son loves it, and recites lines throughout the day, and I find myself doing the same.  For the first time, we actually like the same TV show!  It’s even come to the point of us DVRing all the new episodes and counting down episodes to the “final battle”, which was hottly anticipated in my house.

That’s what I love about TV, it’s the anticipation of new episodes, storylines, and character development.  Although my TV obsession comes with its own problems, I do love TV’s ever-evolving nature, which builds up a lot of anticipation.  That’s the element missing from all the mind-numbing shows for young kids.  They’re so formulaic, you know exactly what’s going to happen each time, and then end up watching the same things over and over.  So, now that my son’s into a good show, I find that I’ve found a new experience to share: TV anticipation!  It’s really woken me up, and I can be more alive with him and actually enjoy myself.  So, for all those fathers suffering through endless Barney or Wiggles episodes, there may be hope for you yet.

Go Ninja Go!