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Friday
May022014

You Are Already Poets

Right to Read Week Kickoff Presentation
Walnut Creek Elementary

This morning, I spoke to a group of students who had just finished some very rigorous testing at a time when most human beings would rather be climbing a tree, or riding a bike, or eating soup. I started the presentation by asking the school's principle, Mr. Ken Miller, to read the following poem, which nearly caused a riot (Children can very quickly become a mob, if one is not careful):

Good Morning, Dear Students
BY KENN NESBITT
“Good morning, dear students,” the principal said.
“Please put down your pencils and go back to bed.
Today we will spend the day playing outside,
then take the whole school on a carnival ride.
“We’ll learn to eat candy while watching TV,
then listen to records and swing from a tree.
We’ll also be learning to draw on the walls,
to scream in the classrooms and run in the halls.
“So bring in your skateboard, your scooter, your bike.
It’s time to be different and do what you like.
The teachers are going to give you a rest.
You don’t have to study. There won’t be a test.
“And if you’d prefer, for a bit of a change,
feel free to go wild and act really strange.
Go put on a clown suit and dye your hair green,
and copy your face on the Xerox machine.
“Tomorrow it’s back to the regular grind.
Today, just go crazy. We really don’t mind.
So tear up your homework. We’ll give you an A.
Oh wait. I’m just kidding. It’s April Fools’ Day.”
(At this point, I apologized for my cruelty, admitting that it was unfair to present such a poem when April Fool's Day was a month ago. And then I began my talk)
I'd like to start off by saying that, during this presentation, I'll be addressing the students here, not hte adults. But adults can listen in; however, I apologize in advance if I insult your species.
(To the students) How many professional poets do we have among us?
(A few hands)
By "professional," I mean someone who does poetry for a living. Someone who gets paid to be a poet, and pays their electric bill or grocery bill or mortgage with that money. 
(A few more hands)

Good. Not many. 
I mean, eventually, I hope at least half of you will raise your hands when someone asks you that question, but today, I'm relieved.
I'm relieved because, to be honest, I'm quite nervous about this presentation. I dreamed about it a lot last night. Nightmares, actually. I dreamed that you were all gathered in my bedroom, and it was very messy there (because it's very messy there), and I couldn't find my notes, or my books, or my poems, or my phone. There was one girl, a tall, strong blonde, who kept hugging me and picking me up and spinning me in circles. Mind you, I like hugs. I don't, however, like being spun in circles, unless I'm on a tilt-a-whirl or a merry-go-round, but, even then, not so much. 
One other reason I'm nervous is because I know I only have a little bit of time to talk to you today about how fabulous words are. I wish I had hours and hours to spend with you discussing poetry and words and stories and songs! Clocks are terrible, terrible things! I wish we could throw every single one of them into the sky and the wind would sweep them up and take them to some everlasting storage facility so we would never have to set eyes on their hands again! 
I was nervous enough about sharing with you today that I wrote a poem to remind me of everything I needed to do to prepare. 
Whatever You Do
by Denice Hazlett

Don't forget to pack your books, 
your stories and your rhymes 
Don't forget to check the date
At least nine hundred times. 
Don't forget to gas the car. 
Don't forget to eat. 
Don't forget to type your notes
So they'll all be nice and neat. 
Remember to be get lots of rest
the night before you talk, 
And before you go to sleep,  
to set your alarm clock.
And, maybe, most importantly, 
because there always is a chance...
Oh, please, Denice, whatever you do,
please don't forget your pants.  
And here's the big reason why I'm so nervous. Because you, all of you, even if you're not professionals, are already poets. You, and you, and you, and you. You were born that way, poets every one.  
From the time you were born, you have paid close attention to everything. You study things. That's how you learned to walk and talk and sing.  
You remind me of this poem by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins: 
My Hero
by Billy Collins

Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside, 
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time 
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.
Here's another way I know you're already poets. 
You ask a lot of questions, which is fabulous. You are curious about so much stuff. You could spend hours and hours sitting under a tree playing with your dog's ear, or reading a book, or pretending to be a pirate, or playing Minecraft. You study clouds and dirt and bugs, and maybe even make them into pets. Do you know about A.A. Milne? He wrote Winnie the Pooh. He also wrote poetry, like this piece: 
Forgiven
by A.A. Milne

I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,
And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day ...
And Nanny let my beetle out -
Yes, Nanny let my beetle out -
She went and let my beetle out -
And Beetle ran away.
She said she didn't mean it, and I never said she did,
She said she wanted matches and she just took off the lid,
She said that she was sorry, but it's difficult to catch
An excited sort of beetle you've mistaken for a match.
She said that she was sorry, and I really mustn't mind,
As there's lots and lots of beetles which she's certain we could find,
If we looked about the garden for the holes where beetles hid -
And we'd get another match-box and write BEETLE on the lid.
We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
"A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!"
It was Alexander Beetle I'm as certain as can be,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
"I'm very very sorry that I tried to run away."
And Nanny's very sorry too for you-know-what-she-did,
And she's writing ALEXANDER very blackly on the lid,
So Nan and Me are friends, because it's difficult to catch
An excited Alexander you've mistaken for a match.
You're poets because you can tell people how you feel--when you're happy, when you're sad, when you're angry, and what you're angry about. And you can use your words to solve problems the best way possible, and you can forgive. Even if Nanny lets your beetle out. 
And you like to do fun things. Poets love doing fun things! You like riding tilt-a-whirls and merry-go-rounds and large dogs. Most of you can probably really identify with this poem:
The Swing
by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
   Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
   Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
   Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
   Up in the air and down!
Here's another way I know you're already poets. Because you probably have the same problem I do. You get so distracted by beautiful things that you forget to do your chores. Poets do that, too! Not all poets, of course, but some of them. Like this guy: 
I Meant to Do My Work Today
by Richard Le Gallienne

I meant to do my work today—
   But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
   And all the leaves were calling me. 
And the wind went sighing over the land,
   Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
   So what could I do but laugh and go?
Laugh! LAUGH! That's another reason I know you're a poet! Because you know how to laugh! You LIKE to LAUGH! In fact, if I read this poem to you, you'll probably laugh at it:
Willie's Wart  
by Linda Knaus and Kenn Nesbitt 
   
Willie had a stubborn wart
upon his middle toe.
Regardless, though, of what he tried
the wart refused to go.
So Willie went and visited
his family foot physician,
who instantly agreed
it was a stubborn wart condition.
The doctor tried to squeeze the wart.
He tried to twist and turn it.
He tried to scrape and shave the wart.
He tried to boil and burn it.
He poked it with a pair of tongs.
He pulled it with his tweezers.
He held it under heat lamps,
and he crammed it into freezers.
Regrettably these treatments
were of very little use.
He looked at it and sputtered,
"Ach! I cannot get it loose!"
"I’ll have to get some bigger tools
to help me to dissect it.
I’ll need to pound and pummel it,
bombard it and inject it."
He whacked it with a hammer,
and he yanked it with a wrench.
He seared it with a welding torch
despite the nasty stench.
He drilled it with a power drill.
He wrestled it with pliers.
He zapped it with a million volts
from large electric wires.
He blasted it with gamma rays,
besieged it with corrosives,
assaulted it with dynamite
and nuclear explosives.
He hit the wart with everything,
but when the smoke had cleared,
poor Willie’s stubborn wart remained,
and Willie’d disappeared.
And this one!
Fancy Dive
by Shel Silverstein

The fanciest dive that ever was dove
Was done by Melissa of Coconut Grove.
She bounced on the board and flew into the air
With a twist of her head and a twirl of her hair.
She did thirty-four jackknives, backflipped and spun,
Quadruple gainered, and reached for the sun,
And then somersaulted nine times and a quarter-
And looked down and saw that the pool had no water.
Here's another reason I refuse to believe you're not already poets.  
You talk in metaphors! You've done it from the time you were very young! 
Can you guess how many children I have? I have five.
My eldest son, who is now 23, once was two, which is how growing up goes. When he was two, he saw something he couldn't quite describe as we were driving down the road, and this is what he said about it:
"LOOK! Mama! LOOK!
It…it…it…has a long tail!
And a lot of pages!"
What do you think he saw? 
No, it wasn't a book. 
No, it wasn't a fairy tale. 
No, it wasn't a squirrel. 
It was a train! Long tail? A lot of pages? He didn't know what to call it, so he used the words he had. For you, that comes naturally. For grown-ups, we have to work at it a little harder. 
Metaphors give us a picture of something without telling us exactly what that something is. For example, if I were to say to you, "I'm so nervous! Look at my hand! It's a little hummingbird!" What would you think that would mean? You can see it in your brain and know how I feel without me shaking my hand like a vibrating little creature. 
There's a lot of metaphor in poetry. Often, poems are long. Willie's Wart was a long poem. Sometimes, poetry is toooooo long. Rarely is poetry too short. Here are two short poems. See if you can spot the metaphor or the simile (a simile is LIKE a metaphor): 
You

You are a cat
who wants a fish
but is afraid
to wet her paws
Or this one: 
I'd Rather 

I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log,
Than to stay in this town, mistreated like a dirty dog.
And you, my friends, are poets--yes, you are--because you can get the idea of poetry, get the feel of poetry, you can understand poetry, even if the words don't make any sense at all! Here's a very famous poem that doesn't make a bit of sense, but makes lots of sense, too. 
JABBERWOCKY
by Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
You know what that poem was about even if those words don't make sense to anyone at all in the whole world. Was that poem about a fuzzy, harmless little bunny? Of course not. But you already knew that.
Because you're a poet.
 
And you like good stories, which can also be poems, which, of course, don't have to rhyme. Did you know that? Good. I'm glad you have good teachers who teach you the truth. 
Sure, it's fun to rhyme. But sometimes, it's fun to write or read a poem that does a good job of paying really close attention to one little (or gigantic) moment in time, or one little (or humungous) place, or one little (or enormous) idea.
Here's a poem by one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Did any of you see the movie Coraline? That's Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman wrote that book. Here are Neil Gaiman's instructions for you in case you ever find yourself inside fairy tale--or in case you'd like to write one:
Instructions
by Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
nothing.
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.
Once through the garden you will be in the
wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.
Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.
There are a lot of metaphors in there, too, but you might have to read it a few times or wait a while before you get them all. 
So, yes, you're all poets right now. You get it. You understand it. You can see it, because it comes to you naturally. You were born a poet. 
What you need to do, though, as you're growing up, is hold onto that part of you that makes you a poet. Sure, you can do other things. You can be a carpenter, or a welder, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a librarian, or a baseball player, or a teacher, or a computer programmer, or a barista, or a world traveler, or a mechanic, or an astronaut, or a nanny, or a beetle. But keep being a poet, too. Keep finding the metaphors, because, as we get older, we forget to describe things they way we see them. Sometimes we forget to do all those things poets do when they're born. 
You don't need to write things down to be a poet. You can make poetry in your head. You can make poetry with your mouth. You can sing a song, or tell a story, or act out a play. Those things can be poetry, too. You can tell poems to make someone laugh.
Last night, I was feeling a little down, because sometimes, even when you're a poet (especially if you're a poet), you feel down after you have a "disagreement" with someone from your family, or you're nervous about talking to a roomful of poets, or you're worried about forgetting to put on your pants. So my friend Ellen shared this funny poem with me, which is called a limerick, and it made me feel better, because poems can do that. So I'll share it with you, too. 
A sleeper from the Amazon
Put a nightie of his gra'mazon.
The reason was that
He was much too fat
To get his own pajamazon.
Writing your poems down is fun, too, because then you can share them with other people. And they can share them with other people. And they can share them with other people. 

Now, don't get me wrong. Grownups can be poets, too. As a matter of fact, when I was getting ready to share with you today, I asked a bunch of grownups what poems they loved, and most of the poems I've shared today came from them. From grownups! In fact! The poems I've shared today were even WRITTEN by grown ups! It's true! It's possible! You can become a grownup and still stay a poet!
And you know what else? You can grow up and be a PROFESSIONAL poet! That's someone who makes a living by paying attention, studying things, asking a lot of questions, being curious, telling people how they feel, laughing at life, getting distracted by beautiful things, making metaphors. You can even be hired by the whole United States of America to be the official poet of your country, like Billy Collins, who used to be our country's Poet Laureate, or Natasha Trethewey, who is our country's Poet Laureate today. A Poet Laureate writes poems for special events in our country and sometimes comes up with ways to teach people about poetry.
You can also be the Poet Laureate of your state, although Ohio doesn't have one yet. Sad face. Forty-four other states do. Maybe you'll be the first one in Ohio. Yes, you. 
I know poets who do competitions. They write poetry and show up on stages and win prizes. There are poets who write books. There are poets who write music that people go to concert halls and listen to. There are poets who travel the world and trade poetry with other countries, because poetry is everywhere.  
Sometimes grownups try to make poetry too difficult. They worry too, too much about things like rhyming, and meter, and line breaks. Of course, you can use those things if you want to, but you don't have to, and you certainly shouldn't worry about it. And if you are worried about it, you can deal with that worry by writing a poem.
This last poem isn't for you. It's specifically meant for the grownups in the group (but you can listen, too). 
Introduction to Poetry
BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem   
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room   
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.
Wednesday
Mar052014

Is God Plausible?

Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC” 
~Kurt Vonnegut

Whether or not you believe in a higher power, you've likely had discussions about God's existence. What is one line of thinking--your own or someone else's--that leads you to believe that the existence of God is plausible?

What's the most compelling argument you've heard in favor of the existence of God?

 

Tuesday
Mar042014

Let Go or Be Dragged

Image courtesy of Flickr. If this is your photo, claim it. "If you love someone, set them free. If they come back to you, it's probably because no one else wanted them, either." ~Internet meme

Holding on isn't always the healthiest thing to do, is it? But it's not easy to let go, either. There's an art to knowing when it's time to fish, and when it's time to cut bait. What are five things you really need to let go of in order to become a stronger human being?

1. That grudge against whassername.
2. Perfectionism.
3. The hope that your husband will ever, ever, ever put his dirty clothes in a basket instead of on the floor.
4. Being the "responsible" one.
5. The client who never paid.

List five things you reallllly need to let go of.

Monday
Mar032014

Firing the Bad Cop

Image courtesy of cyril chermin via flickrI pay a bill each month--actually, multiple bills--that give my family access to all kinds of information and the ability to communicate with people around the world. It's a beautiful thing, really. If I want to know what temperature it will be when we arrive at the beach, it's there. If I want to know the name of the guy who invented the whoopee cushion, I can have the answer in seconds--kind of. If I want to know how old Judy Garland was when she played Dorothy, a few keystrokes, and I have my answer. It's almost like magic.

I also have five kids. Great kids. Funny kids. Talented and smart. The combination of the magical worldwide window we call the web and the curious creatures that are children has resulted in a number of interesting and sometimes uncomfortable conversations in our home. As a parent, I feel it's my job to protect my children from unpleasant and potentially damaging media they might encounter when they are young. As a woman, I'm angry that so much of what is broadcast on the Internet is unrealistic and disrespectful toward my gender. My goal, too, as the mother of boys, has been to teach them to see women differently, to treat women differently, to be human beings that reject objectification and embrace intelligence, respect, and the value of a person as a person, complete with thoughts and feelings and a history and a future. 

There's so much stacked against us, though, both guys and gals. Images and stigmas and expectations. 

When my older kids were younger, and I discovered someone looking at porn or reading elicit stuff online, I had two strong and immediate reactions--anger and betrayal. I felt their decisions to ogle naked bodies on a computer screen were a direct insult to me personally. I feared I had failed my children. I feared I had failed my female sisters. I feared I had failed in upholding my ideals in general as a parent and as a woman. Anger, as I have since learned, is a smokescreen for fear, so my first reaction to the person who I had perceived as betraying my trust was, of course, anger. 

I'm sorry now that I expressed such anger and foisted shame on the people I love. I can only plead ignorance in knowing how to handle my feelings of betrayal and embarrassment. I guess I could even say I acted out of laziness. I didn't want to try to communicate because I didn't want to face the embarrassment or put my thoughts into constructive words. It's easier to raise voices and place blame.

By now, I've learned a few things. It certainly took some trial and a lot of error. One of the things I've learned is that calm communication, in any form, is better than anger. Recently, when I suspected one of my younger children of seeking unhealthy images on the Internet, I pushed away the feelings of betrayal and fear and called instead upon reason and empathy. I know what it's like to be curious, and I know what it's like to be shamed. One is a natural part of growing up. The other is a form of control bourne out of laziness and fear. I didn't want this person I love to feel ashamed or distanced from me. I wanted them to be informed, to know they're normal, to understand that there are healthy ways of approaching curiosity and potentially damaging ways of attempting to satisfy what our brains and bodies get all fired up about. 

So I sat down with this person I love, and I said, "Here's the thing. What you're feeling and wondering about is completely normal. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what bodies look like, what they do, how they fit together, and how that might feel. Everyone wants to know those things. Every. Single. Person. And if they tell you they don't, they're probably lying."

I went on to tell this person I love about the time when, around their age, I stumbled upon a stash of porn belonging to an adult I loved and trusted. There were images there that haunt me to this day, not only because they were completely out of context, and I was unprepared for them, but because they were demeaning to women and to human beings in general. Recalling those images now also recalls the painful memories of how that same adult I loved and trusted one day found a stash of nude drawings I had made and approached me enraged, screaming about how bad I was for drawing them, making me throw them into a steel barrel and set a match to them. I was horrified and, yes, ashamed. I feared that there was something weird about me for being curious and having sexual feelings. For the rest of my adolescence, sex was taboo, a topic I knew would make the people who loved me very angry, possibly even causing them to reject me. 

After I shared that story with this child I love, we talked about being curious, about asking questions to the people you love and trust and not seeking answers through questionable sources like random searches on the internet. I also did something I've heard you should never do--I handed over a book full of information from a source I trusted, a source that offered all kinds of answers, written for this child's reading level. The next day, I asked how it was going, and the child said they had read the ENTIRE book. And liked it! We had a good talk, and now, whether through face-to-face questions, emails, Facebook messages, or texts (no form of communication is invalid), we can talk about the questions. No anger. No fear. No shame. 

Last week, I listened to a podcast I love called The Moth, which is committed to recording true stories, told live on stages across the country, without notes. It features a variety of people from all walks of life, both everyday folks and celebrities. The podcast I listened to included a story by Adam Savage, cohost of one of my family's favorite shows, Mythbusters. Savage approached the subject of raising kids in the age of the Internet with thought, honesty, and humor. In his talk, he shared how he initially went the route of the "bad cop," but then realized it was better to simply discuss the issues.

I'm including the transcript of the talk below, for those who prefer reading over listening, but listen if you can (it's segment one), because his delivery is great.

Bringing things like Internet porn out into the open with honesty, fact, and humor does a fabulous job of crushing shame and insecurity, not just in those we love, but in ourselves, too. It takes away the power of that shame and replaces it with the knowledge that we can talk openly to those we love, those who will support us and love us unconditionally. When we fire the bad cop, we foster great conversations that make positive, lasting impressions.

The Moth: Talking to My Kids About Sex in the Internet Age by Adam Savage

'I have twin boys, Thing One and Thing Two. I have worried, I have worried since before they were born about how to properly prepare them for the world, how to give them the best information to be good humans and have good lives. I think of their brains like computer programs, like computers, and they're running all this custom code. It's not all my code, unfortunately. Only about 10% of the code they're running is mine. The problem is, I don't know which 10%. I have no control over what they prioritize. See, at first, it's really easy, and it's like training dogs, right? With babies, you just accept the behavior you're willing to live with, reject the behavior you're not willing to live with, and there's a lot of fluid cleanup.

But something happened to my kids the moment they started to leave the house for daycare, for kindergarten, for first grade. Two things happened, actually. The first thing is they started getting information from sources other than me. They started running outside code. The second is they started behaving like people that I'd never met before. And I would get this call from school. Is there anything worse as a parent than a call from the school? 'Ah, hello, Adam. This is the school calling. Uh, we just want to let you know that at 2 o'clock today, out in the yard, you failed as a parent.' I'm pretty sure that's what they said.

So, you get them home at the end of the day, you figure, all right. Time for some parenting. You sit them down. What do you talk about? Well, if they stole something, you talk about honesty. If they lied about something you talk about honesty. That's a regular refrain. If they hit someone, you talk about anger management issues, and you use other words, like, 'Use your words.' It's all like you're trying to run code to get them to not do the same behavior the next time.

And how are you doing running that code? From the looks on their faces, I wasn't doing very well. My kids, very early on, perfected this blank stare, this, 'I'm not gonna give you anything to get upset about within these parameters, and I'm just gonna wait for you to be done.' This is not an environment that's conducive to running deep code.

And the stakes are high. I remember being five years old. I remember being in kindergarten and I got pushed off the swing by a classmate named George who was black, and he stood over me while I was out of breath, not even having a breath to cry with because I was in so much pain, and he laughed at me. And I went home, and I asked my mom…I was really unhinged by the fact that he was laughing. Not the injury, but his delight in my injury. My mom sat me down and she said, 'Well, black people have a lot to be angry about with white people. There's long history that's difficult…,' which she explained: slavery and racial matters and everything. I understand what she was doing. She was trying to give me some context. My five-year-old brain doesn't know context. What she said was, 'The situation is bigger than you currently understand.' What I heard was, 'You're part of the problem.' And for the rest of my life, even today, I meet a black person, and some part of my brain goes, 'I hope they realize I'm one of the nice ones.'

So the stakes are high. But what can you do? You get the call from school, you bring the kid home, you talk to him. Somewhere in the fourth grade, we hit the real talk. Apparently, according to the daycare teacher, my son, Thing Two, had gathered his friends around him, and said, 'Come here. I've got something to tell you.' Clearly inspired by one of the inappropriate movies I had taken him to. He explained that, 'when you get older, you get a girlfriend, and you have sex with her.' Like it's a bar mitzvah gift.

So I get this call, and I figure, alright. Time for the sex talk. Feels a little early, but alright. I sit them down on the couch in front of me, and I say, 'So, you know, guys, this happened, and I just want to know, what do you know about sex? Do you know what sex really is,' and they're like, 'Yeah, we totally know, Dad. We totally know. We have no idea. None.' I'm like, okay, good. No reason not to be technical, so I go into some fairly great details about their private parts, what they are, how they work, what they do, where they go, and I'm embarrassed,too.

Two things are happening with them. One of them is that they each grab a pillow and hold it in front of them like a giant shield. It's hilarious. Clutching it. This look on their face. I look up, and I see the look on their face, and that look is one of undivided attention. It's full of terror and embarrassment, too, but attention.

And in that second, I become a complete fan of talking to my kids about sex. When else am I going to run code this pure, this deep, on a level that's really getting to them? So we have a bunch more sex talks over the next few years. And they go fine! I say some funny things, I say some real things, I think I'm really getting to them, but the whole time, all I'm really thinking about is how to approach this aspect of their lives that I didn't have to deal with when I was a kid. The Internet. We didn't have 24/7 delivery of porn to every device strapped to our bodies. Don't get me wrong. I wanted that. But I had to find my porn by the side of the highway, and I was grateful.

So I'm about to tell you about the experience of catching my kids surfing porn, and I'm gonna tell you one kid's story, but the thing you should know--both kids' stories are nearly identical, except for a couple of details. In both cases, I got an email late on Sunday night from their mom, who I'm divorced from--we share custody--sending me a linkdom, probably just before her computer was totally crippled by malware, of their search terms. As a side note, I have my children's first porn search terms. It's like almost better than their first steps. Thing Two's first search term? Nudies. Not what he was looking for. Turns out to be some sort of areola-hiding garment for sheer dresses.

The other thing, Thing Two was the first one to be caught, and the other difference between the two of them is I attempted to play 'bad cop' with Thing Two, and I was met with a complete stonewall. And then I thought about it, and I realized, I'm not really that angry about what happened. I'm mean, actually pretty sanguine about it, and we could talk about it.

So when it came around to Thing One, I didn't go through 'bad cop.' He merely got in the back of my car, and as we drove to breakfast early Sunday morning, I said, 'Listen. What you did is totally reasonable. Being curious about what people look like naked is a rational and normal response to the world, and it is a reasonable curiosity for you to have. No one's in trouble, and I'm not mad. Now, is there something you want to tell me.' And there's this pause in the back seat, that pause you know as a parent means, 'Ahhh. I've got them.' And he says, 'I searched for big boobs!' Somewhere in my head is an interrogation room and a two-way mirror behind which two detectives are high fiving that I've just nailed the perp. And I start to talk to him about what he saw, and how he felt about what he saw.

But, again, all I'm thinking about, really, is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Not what he saw, but what he's gonna see.

So I tell him, 'You gotta be careful out there. It's reasonable to be curious, but your curiosity is gonna pay off really, really unpleasant dividends pretty quickly.'

He's like, 'What do you mean?'

'Well, there's some really awful stuff out there. Genuinely, genuinely awful stuff.'

And I see it in his eyes. Actual curiosity. That's bad. I don't want that.

So I tell him, 'You're going to see things you will never be able to unsee. Things that will stick in your brain and ruin moments for you because they'll show up and screw over your brain because it won't be able to think about anything else but that horrible thing you saw once when you were 12.'

And now I see fear in his eyes, and I realize he's 10 or 11, and I'm still reasonably omnipotent. I've maybe scared him away from the Internet for a year, but not much longer than that. So how am I gonna prepare him for what he eventually sees? I thought about myself at his age. I thought about my classmates, Caesar Ortega, bringing a skin mag to middle school, and showing us pictures that I found upsetting, and I thought, what would I have wanted to hear at that moment? What would have helped me with that?

And then I thought about my mom trying to give my five-year-old brain some context about racism in the United States. This conversation between my mom and I occurred only seven years after the Civil Rights Act had passed. This stuff was fresh and is fresh to our generation, and I think about that in direct contrast to the blissful lack of racism in my own children, who have been lucky enough to grow up in such a diverse, liberal city as San Francisco. And then I think, this is where cultural change really occurs, generationally. And if the stakes are this high, I better get this right. I better be concise and succinct.

And then it hits me what I'm supposed to say, and I say:

'The thing you've gotta understand, Bud, is the Internet hates women.'

And I recognize there's probably those out there who are thinking that's an incredibly broad brush to pain the Internet with, but let me put it this way. If you could look into someone's brain the way you search the Internet, and the Internet was a dude? That dude has a problem with women.

I realize this is the code that I wanna run, and he's old enough to run it. I want him to realize that, even by the chance dint of his gender, if he's not part of the solution, he might very well be part of the problem, and I want him thinking, when he talks to women, 'I'm one of the good ones.' 

Thursday
Feb202014

Comfort

Photo courtesy of megapixx via Flickr.

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
"The mood will pass, sir."
-- P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
The softest hoodie ever--the one you borrowed from your college roommate seven years ago.
The concert t-shirt you once wore for three days in a row.
That pair of sweats that are on their last leg but you just can't bear to get rid of them because they're so doggone comfy.

I have them, too. Those go-to pieces of clothing I slip into after a not-so-comfy day.

I also have go-to choices that make me feel comfy. Things I say. Things I don't. Personality traits I hide around certain people. I used to be more intentional about this than I am now. I used to make conscious chameleon-like choices based on who I was around--their beliefs or personalty types. Not so much now. I've realized that I'm much happier being who I am, genuinely, around most everyone, and I have more real friends, not just people who are part of my life because they think I belong to a certain demographic group.

It's not always easy to be transparent, to attempt daily authenticity. The key for me, I think, is to remember to be kind--not to get wrapped up in the opinion, issue, or argument and forget about the real, human, person. That's especially difficult when communicating with the type of person whose value and security seems to come from being "right." I should know. I've struggled with being that person (big surprise, huh?). Being right is not more important than being respectful. It took me a long time to get that through my granite head. I'm still working on it. 

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. Matthew 5:5

Yet, there's also a delicate balance between being respectful and being honest. I have strong opinions about Jesus and money and sanctity of life. I don't stand on a platform (often) or shout them at people's faces, but I'll enter into an honest, respectful dialogue when the conversation veers naturally in that direction. It's hard, because those are hot buttons. Not many people want to hear that Jesus was more of a communist than a capitalist*, or that God doesn't bless America any more or less than God blesses any other hunk of dirt on the planet, or that the money Christians give as a tithe is supposed to care for the widowed, orphaned, and poor among us, not to building basketball courts and empty steeples and unnecessary vacationary trips. The Bible has a ton more to say about casual, incestuous sex, caring for the poor, and rejecting war and violence than it has to say about homosexuality or abortion. In fact, female homosexuality isn't even mentioned in the Old Testament. These are all complicated conversations with no easy answers, so it's sometimes easier to slip into that comfy college sweatshirt or tattered jeans and say nothing.  

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Romans 12: 9-10
 

One of my favorite songwriters, David Wilcox, says his job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He has a great song called To Love which is a fine example of how he practices his comfort/affliction craft. The crux of it is this--Jesus gave us one commandment--to love.** It might not be a comfortable commandment, or a convenient commandment, but, still, there it is. Our task. What we Christians have been told to do. Jesus had some pretty solid ways of following through with that commandment, too. Those ways guide and inspire and confuse and challenge me every single day of my life, whether I'm dealing with people related to me, or people I don't know at all, with people living next to me, or on the other side of the world, those who think the way I do, and those who don't.***

It's difficult to live with the constant reminder that every single person on this earth has value and purpose, that each one is loved by God, because that means I have to live and act with purpose and with love, too, no matter what. 
*Matthew 19:16:
Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”
The man asked, “What in particular?”
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.”
The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”
“If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.”
That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.

Deuteronomy 15:4-11
There must be no poor people among you because God is going to bless you lavishly in this land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, your very own land. But only if you listen obediently to the Voice of God, your God, diligently observing every commandment that I command you today. Oh yes—God, your God, will bless you just as he promised. You will lend to many nations but won’t borrow from any; you’ll rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
When you happen on someone who’s in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that God, your God, is giving you, don’t look the other way pretending you don’t see him. Don’t keep a tight grip on your purse. No. Look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs. Don’t count the cost. Don’t listen to that selfish voice saying, “It’s almost the seventh year, the year of All-Debts-Are-Canceled,” and turn aside and leave your needy neighbor in the lurch, refusing to help him. He’ll call God’s attention to you and your blatant sin.
Give freely and spontaneously. Don’t have a stingy heart. The way you handle matters like this triggers God, your God’s, blessing in everything you do, all your work and ventures. There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.

Romans 12:20-21
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Luke 11:41
Turn both your pockets and your hearts inside out and give generously to the poor; then your lives will be clean, not just your dishes and your hands.

**Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?”
Jesus said, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Matthew 5: 38–48
"Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Luke 6:27-38
"To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.
“I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.
“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”

***Romans 14: 1
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

Romans 14:10-12
So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit.